I Spy (2002)

2002, Columbia. Directed by Betty Thomas. Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: Much action violence and sometimes deadly gunplay (nothing graphic); repeated groin injury humor; minimal profanity, much crass language and some sex-related dialogue; scantily clad women; a brief, abortive seduction scene (no nudity).

By Steven D. Greydanus

I Spy follows the all-too-trodden path to the depleted well of odd-couple buddy action-comedies. Funny and fresh in Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, and Rush Hour, the formula has lately been run into the ground with such comic misfires as Bad Company, The Tuxedo, and Men in Black II.

Fortunately, I Spy has something none of those movies had: Eddie Murphy. Also Owen Wilson, but mostly Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s heirs — Chris Rock, Chris Tucker, Will Smith — can all be funny, given the right material. Murphy’s gift is that he can be funny even without material — a good thing, since the movie doesn’t give him much to work with.

Wilson, a capable comic force in his own right, gets laughs too, but for the most part he’s content to play the laid-back straight man setting up Murphy’s punchlines. There’s an early scene in which, discussing their working relationship, Wilson uses a Harlem Globetrotters analogy to argue that he, the professional spy, should be team leader Meadowlark Lemon, and Murphy, a boxing champ, should be Fred "Curly" Neal, Meadowlark’s sidekick. Murphy, of course, ridicules this suggestion; and, whatever the ultimate relationship of their characters, which of the actors is Meadowlark and which is Curly is never in dispute.

I’ve never seen the hip sixties TV series starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp on which the movie is nominally based, but I gather that the connection is so tenuous that it doesn’t really matter.

It’s been said that the movie "switches names" from the series, but it seems that roles, not just names, have been switched: Alexander Scott is still the professional spy, and Kelly Robinson is still the sports star new to the world of espionage.

The difference is that in the TV series it was the black actor who played the professional spy Alex Scott and the white actor who played the novice Kelly Robinson. That was probably a daring choice in the 1960s; today that same choice might have come off as tiresomely PC or even condescending, and the movie dares to go the other way.

Why exactly Alex (Wilson) has to team up with Kelly (Murphy) in order to stop a black-market arms dealer named Gundars (irrelevant Malcolm McDowell) from selling off a stolen U.S. spyplane with virtual invisibility technology isn’t worth going into. The humor derives not from the situation but from the interplay between Kelly’s blistering self-aggrandizing banter and Scott’s slightly off-kilter professionalism.

Alex’s schtick is that he lives in the shadow of superspy Carlos (macho Gary Cole), who comes off like Antonio Banderas in Spy Kids with a Steven Segal ponytail. Not only does Carlos get the coolest spy gadgets (a device that was pointless in Spy Kids 2 but funny here), he seems to exude a Bond-like power over women — including spy-babe Rachel (enigmatic Famke Janssen, X-Men), in whose presence Alex can only stare and stammer.

Kelly’s schtick is that he lives in the shadow of his own celebrity, constantly discussing himself in the third person like a publicity agent projecting the desired image for his client. His disregard for Alex is mitigated only by his weakness for cool spy gadgets, and when he gets to try out a contact-lens/earring based communications kit that allows him to see and hear himself as Alex sees and hears him, he’s so tickled by the opportunity to watch himself putting Alex down that Alex drops out of the interaction and Kelly becomes both sides of the exchange.

The movie’s centerpiece is an extended sequence in which Alex and Kelly infiltrate a party at which Gundars plans to auction off the spyplane, then spend a great deal of time trying to get away. The first part calls for Kelly to stage a diversion while Alex sneaks into Gundars’s quarters; the second part involves a cable car, an escape balloon, a car transporter, and finally a retreat into the sewer, where Murphy and Wilson ad-lib the night away.

This whole sequence is rife with continuity errors (for example, it’s a mystery how Alex gets way up into that domed ceiling or how he and Kelly get out of it, and how a laser alarm system detects Kelly’s presence in a room that has people walking in and out of it every few minutes), and the action is pedestrian (though better than anything in, say, Bad Company). Thanks to Murphy’s and Wilson’s mugging, though, it’s funny rather than painful to watch.

Another comic highlight is a Cyrano de Bergerac riff in which Kelly uses the contact-lens/earring kit to coach shy Alex through the attempted seduction of Rachel. The result could be merely cringe-inducing, but is saved from that partly by Murphy’s and Wilson’s comic energy — and partly by Rachel’s reaction.

I Spy never rises to real comic greatness, but it doesn’t go seriously off the rails until the climactic scene, which requires both Alex and Kelly to suddenly become much stupider than they’ve previously been.

Neither director Betty Thomas (responsible for the unpleasant Brady Bunch Movie) nor any of the four credited screenwriters apparently had any idea how to resolve the threadbare storyline, and in the end the whole thing literally crashes and sinks without any ultimate comic payoff, leaving the stars haplessly treading water, unable to rise above the material. (You think I’m being metaphorical. The fact is, not only are they literally treading water, they’re clinging to a bomb as they do so — a fact that would surely have been referenced in the sentence above had the whole movie been as bad as this one scene.)

Director Howard Hawkes once famously defined a good movie this way: "Three good scenes. No bad scenes." There are bad scenes in I Spy, so by Hawks’s definition it is not a good movie. However, it does meet the first half of the definition. At least, I laughed repeatedly at more than three scenes. Perhaps Hawks would have defined that as an okay movie.

Tags: Everything Picture, Spy vs. Spy, Action, Comedy

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