I Spy (2002) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for action violence, some sexual content and language
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole
Director: Betty Thomas
Screenplay: Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick, David Ronn
Review published November 3, 2002
I Spy is very loosely based on the television show from the mid-Sixties starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. About the only things the movie has in common with its small-screen counterpart are the two men, one white and one Black, of different backgrounds who do espionage for a top secret government agency. The names are the same as that of the original series, only the races are reversed, with Eddie Murphy (Pluto Nash, Showtime) playing Kelly Robinson and Owen Wilson (Behind Enemy Lines, Zoolander) playing Alexander Scott. This swapping of names and races should tell you enough about the intent to stick with the integrity of the original series, i.e. none. Like Charlie's Angels and Mission Impossible, I Spy is the title purely for the sake of marketing, going with an established name in hopes of drawing in the older viewers who remember and loved the television series while stripping it all down to the bare essentials so as not to lose appeal to today's youth.
The core plot of I Spy, in case you are one of the few who would want to see this for the plot, involves the theft of a prototype for the ultimate stealth fighter, the Switchblade. With the touch of a button, the plane can become invisible to the human eye, and radar as well. The top-secret US agency known as the BNS, sends one of its top spies, Alex Scott, to retrieve the missing plane before it is sold on the black market to the hands of one of our sworn enemies. However, to do this he must go to Budapest undercover, pretending to be the assistant of Kelly Robinson, the world's undisputed heavyweight boxing champion, who happens to be going there to fight in for his 58th consecutive win. It is there that they must infiltrate the notorious Arnold Gundars (McDowell, Star Trek Generations), an elite arms dealer, and take him down before the plane leaves the area.
I'm still not altogether sure why it is that buddy movies today absolutely HAVE to stick the two likable comic leads in a ridiculous and uninteresting plot. Just like the Rush Hour films, I Spy is only of interest when the two performers play off of each other in scenes for laughs and is mostly dreadfully dull the rest of the time. While Wilson and Murphy show great chemistry together and deliver the laughs you'd expect, I Spy's main plot is incredibly weak and much of the action and motivations are out-and-out stupid. This is a film created by people who have no idea about weapons, black market arms deals, espionage, or even boxing. You can't even credit them for making the film funny, because almost all of the funny moments are either ad-libbed by the two stars or come from the way they deliver the lines, and not from the writing itself.
Director Betty Thomas, who made some interesting if flawed comedies in the past like Howard Stern's Private Parts, Sandra Bullock's 28 Days, and Eddie Murphy himself in Dr. Dolittle, handles the comedic aspects well, letting the two funny fellows cut loose and deliver some funny moments in about three or four memorable scenes. Coincidentally, these scenes have almost nothing to do with the plot, leading me to think the film might have actually been decent if it didn't even have one. The retread of a screenplay is credited to the husband and wife writing team of Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, whose only previous major work was the 6th Day for Arnold Schwarzenegger. I suppose it's just as well that their next two slated features includes the aforementioned in-name-only tv-to-movie sequel to Charlie's Angels and another buddy comedy sequel, Bad Boys 2. It seems one can easily make a career writing personality driven action flicks provided they don't let good writing get in the way of natural screen chemistry.
I Spy is really only recommended for fans of the two stars, who perform well despite the lack of crisp writing, and the crowd who thinks films like Bad Company and Rush Hour are great fun. It is not recommended for fans of the original television series, who will probably be especially disappointed that the film doesn't even have inside jokes or cameo appearances to even give a nod to its predecessor. While it isn't the worst film of the year, I Spy only serves to frustrate because with just a little bit of effort it could have been so much better.
©2002 Vince Leo