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Sometimes it seems like there is a secret set of rules in Hollywood, made known only to those that they directly effect. One, for example, seems to be that any big muscle-bound action star has to at some point take a break from action blockbusters and make a cute, more family-centric title that teams them up with a kid. Arnold Schwarzenegger did it. Sylvester Stallone did it. Bruce Willis did it. Dwayne Johnson did it. And now with Peter Segal’s My Spy, Dave Bautista has joined the strange tradition.
I use the word “strange” because it’s not exactly a tradition that is thought of as featuring high-quality cinema. In fact, it’s common that these kinds of titles represent the nadir of project choices in career retrospectives, so it’s odd that they keep getting made. The good news for Dave Bautista in this case is that his new movie isn’t anywhere near as cringe-worthy as features like Jingle All The Way or The Tooth Fairy, but what still remains disappointing is that it doesn’t manage to flip the script on the sub-genre and coalesce as a film that can legitimately be called entertainment that the entire family can wholly enjoy.
Convention dictates that the hero of these stories be members of the armed forces, law enforcement, or federal agency, and My Spy ticks two of those boxes centering on JJ (Dave Bautista) a surprisingly incompetent former Special Forces soldier who has been recruited as an agent by the CIA. Admonished by his superior (Ken Jeong) when he eschews the intelligence side of the game in favor of brute strength during an undercover mission, he is given a punishment assignment as part of the larger effort to clean up the mess he caused.
A dangerous international criminal named Marquez (Greg Bryk) is on the hunt for nuclear weapon plans after acquiring plutonium from the deal that JJ botched, and in the effort to find him the CIA decides to put eyes on his sister-in-law, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and niece, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), thinking that he may be in touch with them following his brother’s recent death. JJ, paired with idolizing analyst Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), is sent to Chicago for the surveillance job, but things take a strange turn when Sophie discovers what the protagonist is doing and blackmails/befriends him.
My Spy has a surprising edge that stops it from being a cutesy mess.
One of the more common things that plague films akin to My Spy is a tendency to put too much emphasis on the kid-friendly material, leaving older viewers (such as parents) with nothing to enjoy, but Peter Segal’s movie plays things a little differently. Sporting a PG-13 rating, the comedy doesn’t sanitize action sequences to the point of pointlessness, allowing real stakes to exist as well as some fun style, and the dialogue gets spiced up with a greater allowance of “naughty” words (though it draws the line at a single use of the word “shit”). It doesn’t play down to its audience, and it deserves credit for that.
Of course, it should also be stressed that there is still plenty of dumb comedy that will make you roll your eyes – the most immediate coming to mind being a repeated gag that JJ is a bad dancer. Kristen Schaal has some cute moments that are perfectly on-brand for her, but she also doesn’t quite gel with Dave Bautista, and the way in which she idolizes her partner is not only a joke that has been done to death, but also doesn’t feel earned given JJ’s aforementioned incompetence as a spy.
While My Spy doesn’t fall into all the typical traps of this kind of comedy, it still feels tired and conventional.
The comedy and style is a major boon to the film, particularly because My Spy really doesn’t have much going for it in in the creative storytelling department. If you were to take my plot synopsis above, write out how you expect everything to play out on a piece of paper, and then keep that piece of paper in an envelope until you’ve watched the movie, I’d wager a fair amount of money that the majority of your predictions will be right on target. It’s all been done before – this feature simply gives it some different dressing.
Dave Bautista certainly has charm, and Chloe Coleman is an exciting up-and-comer.
Sometimes these kinds of films can be used to showcase a new side to the talents of the central action star, exposing a soft interior disguised by a hard, muscle-bound exterior, but My Spy doesn’t so much do that for Dave Bautista as much as it confirms what we already know. Drax The Destroyer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is tough, but he’s also wonderfully emotional; and one would be hard-pressed to challenge his dramatic skills after watching his (albeit short) performance in Blade Runner 2049. As such, Bautista’s work in My Spy doesn’t offer anything revelatory. It’s a case where he does a good job, but you also wonder if perhaps he could have invested his time in a more ambitious project.
Chloe Coleman is a different story. Still and up-and-comer, My Spy is a spotlight opportunity for the young actress, and she uses it well. Sophie may not be a unique character by any means, but Coleman infuses her with sweetness that is never overly saccharine, and a sharpness that never feels excessively precocious. It’s a fun performance that’s accented by surprising chemistry in the back-and-forth between her and Dave Bautista.
Given the subgenre history, it’s impossible to not go into My Spy with certain negative expectations. The positive side of things is that it clears a number of hurdles, but the negative is that it has a tendency to also then catch the hurdles with its foot and trip up as a result. Major action stars have fared far worse than Dave Bautista does with this kind of material, but hopefully this proves to be simply a one-time experiment as he pursues better and more interesting things.