The buddy action/comedy is back… yet again… with the same old hats who always seem to pop up in these things. This time it’s I Spy, in which Eddie Murphy, having recently failed at everything but voice-over work returns to his buddy flick roots to team up with someone whose career is actually on the rise: Owen Wilson. Wilson’s not exactly a stranger to the buddy flick either, having hit it big not so long ago opposite genre favorite Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon and is set to star with him again in the eagerly anticipated sequel Shanghai Knights. The point I’m trying to make here is that you’d expect this film and the people involved in it to have very little new to offer. By now we’ve seen what Owen has to bring to the buddy genre and Eddie has churned out so many of these films (this is his second just this year) that by now they’re all beginning to run together. Yet somehow, I Spy actually manages to distinguish itself as a wildly funny little romp into the overdone world of comedic spy flicks.
Based loosely upon the 1960’s television series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, I Spy is the story of a professional athlete (Eddie Murphy) who has to help a government agent (Owen Wilson) recover a missing super-jet. I say loosely based, because aside from the name and its racially profiled casting, the film has little in common with the original series. The original succeeded because it’s color blended casting was groundbreaking in a time of dwindling segregation. It delivered a fairly gadget free, honestly funny and well crafted spy-a-thon, which with the race of it’s two leads set it apart from the other gadget heavy spy shows of it’s time.
This version, directed by Betty Thomas jumps right on the gadget band wagon and is more interested in simply having fun with itself than really bothering with the trappings of a serious spy plot. The story itself is mostly an afterthought and far from being airtight. But that matters little, since comedy is at the forefront. Owen’s unique style of slightly out of sync humor plays well off Murphy’s natural ability to portray a pompous overbearing ass. Chemistry is the key and the sparks between this pair easily override glaring flaws which might otherwise sink I Spy.
After a fairly shaky beginning in which the film fumbles a bit between being a parody or a real action flick, I Spy gains its footing and jumps right to the gags. The rapport between Wilson and Murphy is uproarious, even if the action bits are a little lame and the explosions nothing you haven’t seen before. Director Betty Thomas may not evidence the greatest in visual flair, but she does a spectacular job of letting Wilson and Murphy go at it, casting aside the complications of the film’s hackneyed plot to play her only two strengths.
Sewer scenes provide moments to bond, stakeouts become a running gag, and a small cast of well use secondary roles fill the gaps when Owen and Eddie start to run out of tread. In that secondary role is former Bond girl Famke Janssen, returning to her spy roots… sort of. But most of note is Gary Cole, formerly of the now defunct TV series “Crusade”, here playing a tongue-in-cheek Latin super-agent who competes with Wilson’s character for secret spy supremacy.
Generally, a quality movie needs a good story and a script. Barring that, it at least requires a generous helping of snazzy action bits or sparkly special effects to keep audiences from noticing its lack. I Spy has none of that, but is instead carried effortlessly on that talented backs of Wilson and Murphy to a rousingly funny success.
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