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"I SPY"
(2002) (Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy/Action: A government spy reluctantly takes on an egotistical champion boxer as his partner while trying to stop an arms dealer from selling the most advanced piece of weaponry on the planet to the highest-bidding terrorist.
PLOT:
Alex Scott (OWEN WILSON) is a government spy who works for the Bureau of National Security. Jealous of the success and latest gadgets that rival spy Carlos (GARY COLE) receives, and deeply smitten with another spy, Rachel (FAMKE JANSSEN), Alex finds himself assigned to an important mission.

It seems that a powerful arms dealer, Arnold Gundars (MALCOLM McDOWELL), has stolen the military's latest invention, the Switchblade jet. Not only is it the most advanced piece of weaponry on the planet, but it's also invisible to radar, infrared and the human eye, thus making it rather hard to locate.

Fortunately, the super-middleweight boxing championship of the world is going to take place near Gundars' Budapest headquarters and he's planning a party the night before the match. Accordingly, the BNS recruits boxer Kelly Robinson (EDDIE MURPHY) to get Alex into the party so that he can find the plane and prevent Gundars from selling it to the highest bidding terrorist.

Accompanied by handlers/assistants such as Jerry (PHILL LEWIS) and T.J. (VIV LEACOCK), the undefeated and quite egotistical boxer agrees to help, but he and Alex initially don't like each other. Nevertheless, they set out for Budapest where Kelly's planning to box Cedric Mills (DARREN SHAHLAVI), while Alex is anxious to see Rachel who's already there in place.

From that point on, the agent and boxer become an unlikely spy duo as they attempt to infiltrate Gundars' lair, find the plane and complete their mission without getting themselves killed.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
With the upcoming midterm election only days away, I'd like to vote that a moratorium be put on action comedies that feature the unlikely, mismatched buddy pair. You know, the ones where one character is white and the other black, or the contrast is conservative and liberal or young and old, etc. and they team up to take down some sort of villainous figure.

Along the way, of course, they initially don't like each other, trade insults and a few punches, somehow manage to avoid thousands of bullets fired at them but never miss their targets, and break the laws of time, physics or logic. Despite all of that, they persevere and make such an appealing odd couple team that they reappear in numerous sequels.

The latest candidate opposing my idea is director Betty Thomas who, along with her screenwriting quartet, hasn't met a mismatched, buddy-based action comedy cliché or overused convention that she didn't like or use in her latest film, "I Spy."

Unlike a host of other movies based on old TV shows that hope to succeed thanks to nostalgic baby-boomers, this one is only loosely associated with the 1960s TV show of the same name. Beyond the title, the differing races of the leads and the spy theme, this has little to do with that Bill Cosby/Robert Culp series.

Instead, it's more of a remake of umpteen other buddy flicks - both good and bad - that have permeated the cinema over the past several decades. Yet, instead of wholeheartedly (but lovingly) spoofing and/or making fun of the genre as she did in her big screen version of "The Brady Bunch" TV show, Thomas' effort is pretty much by the books. All of which means it's a predictable, stupid and monotonous mixture of action and comedy.

Granted, many such previous films didn't exactly operate under complete realism, but this one goes so far out there that it exceeds goofiness and lands in the world of inanity. Let's see, an arms dealer has stolen the most advanced piece of weaponry the world has ever known and so the President calls an egotistical boxer and asks him to be one-third of a spy operation to find and stop the villain.

They don't send the best spy to accompany him, either, but rather one with all sorts of issues regarding jealously, puppy love and gadget envy. Yes, I realize that Thomas ("28 Days," "Dr. Dolittle") and screenwriters Marianne Wibberley & Cormac Wibberley ("The 6th Day," "Motel Blue") and Jay Scherick & David Ronn ("Serving Sara") have purposefully designed everything in a goofy fashion to elicit laughs.

The problem is, very little of what's offered is amusing, let alone laugh out loud funny. That's particularly true from a plot standpoint (and its overwhelming need for suspension of disbelief), but it also applies to the characters and the performers who embody them.

In most such films, one character plays the straight-man as a balance and/or contrast to the other's joking or more flamboyant nature. Here, we have two gifted comedic actors, but the combination and chemistry between them don't always work, although a great deal of that's due to the lame script.

Eddie Murphy, who's no stranger to the mismatched buddy flick - he's appeared in this year's "Showtime" as well as "48 Hours" and even "Shrek" to name a few - is in full hyper mode and rattles off his lines as if he's being paid by the word. Sometimes that approach works for his characters in other efforts, but here it's more annoying than hilarious (although I'll admit that he does have some funny moments).

Owen Wilson ("Beyond Enemy Lines," "The Royal Tenenbaums") has also appeared as half of an unlikely duo before (with Jackie Chan) and he somewhat assumes the straight-man role although he's also competing with Murphy for the biggest laughs. As is often the case, his performance is of the slow comedy variety where his dialogue seems to be deployed at about seven or eight-tenths of the normal speed.

The best scene the two get is with yet another version of the old Cyrano de Bergerac bit (think of "Roxanne" if you don't get that reference) where Murphy feeds line for Wilson to seduce the object of his affection -- Famke Janssen ("X-Men," "Goldeneye") - via lines from Marvin Gay's "Sexual Healing" song. Despite its lack of novelty and the fact that one can see where the scene is headed, it's still rather amusing.

That predictable nature, however, pretty runs rampant through the production and is only overshadowed by the inanity of it all. Had Thomas and company gone the full spoof route that would have been okay, but as it stands, the effort is rather flat, with various running gags and some late in the game double and triple crossing doing little if anything for the effort.

The same can be said about Malcolm McDowell ("Time After Time," "A Clockwork Orange") as the head villain. Once a terrific actor, he's now been reduced to playing this same sort of intense villain role time and again. Janssen is similarly wasted, as is Gary Cole ("One Hour Photo," the "Brady Bunch" movies) in what's the closest spoof element where he plays an Antonio Banderas sort of super spy.

Retreading a tired and worn genre, the film isn't the worst thing you'll see all year and it does offer a handful of laughs. Yet, it certainly could have been much better. "I Spy" rates as just a 3.5 out 10.




Reviewed October 28, 2002 / Posted November 1, 2002


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