The Austin Chronicle

I Spy

Rated PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Betty Thomas. Starring Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Malcolm McDowell, Famke Janssen, Gary Cole, Phill Lewis.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 1, 2002

Fans of the mid-sixties CBS series starring Bill Cosby as the Rhodes Scholar-cum-secret agent Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as co-spy-cum-tennis bum Kelly Robinson are apt to leave the theatre scratching their heads (if they're able to rouse themselves from slumber). I Spy the movie has about as much in common with the series as Eddie Murphy has to Bill Cosby. They both dash around the globe with gadgetry galore, but this update is just plain dismal, an inexplicable mining of old, mid-level programming that has all the raging excitement of continental drift. It's a buddy movie with zero chemistry between its leads, and even the action set-pieces seem dated and deadly dull. (As far as cinematic retreads of mediocre television programming go, why jump to I Spy when comedy goldmines C.P.O. Sharkey and My Mother the Car remain unproduced? It boggles the mind.) Murphy plays egomaniacal prizefighter Kelly Robinson, the kind of tough, who speaks of himself in the third person and sports an entourage of witless cronies who cater to his every random whim. When an upcoming bout in Budapest coincides with the recent theft of a U.S. spy plane prototype by Hungarian bad guy Arnold Gundars (McDowell, in a generic role so underwritten that he has all of five lines in the entire film), Robinson is paired with competent-but-second-string spy Alex Scott (Wilson). Along with a femme-fatale agent played by the usually excellent former Bond girl Janssen, the pair bicker their way along the Danube and through the sewers of the Hungarian capital. The Third Man this isn't, despite some nice location work from director of photography Oliver Wood, and the whole affair, from script to acting to overall tone -- simply doesn't gel in any meaningful way. Add to that the fact that the film just isn't all that funny, and begs the question, "Why Spy?" Director Thomas has fared much better in the past (her semi-subversive take on The Brady Bunch in 1995 was infinitely more interesting, and even her direction on a previous Murphy film -- Dr. Dolittle -- had some decent zing), but this limp and unengaging dud just flops around onscreen seeking a direction it never finds. Perhaps most bothersome of all is Owen Wilson's lackluster performance; a poorly written character is most likely the culprit, since Wilson's winsome surfer-dude delivery proved particularly wonderful in another buddy film, Shanghai Noon (with Jackie Chan). What he's doing here -- apart from killing time between Wes Anderson masterpieces -- is anyone's guess. I suspect he was tempted by the chance to get physical with Janssen or possibly something involving a fat paycheck and the chance to check out Budapest's notorious nightlife, but either way the film is unsalvageable.

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