“Sometimes they’re agents, double agents and pseudo-double agents,” as American secret agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) explains the ways of the spy world to a civilian spy-recruit, ego-bloated boxer Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy). They’re on a super-secret mission to reclaim a stolen plane prototype (the Switchblade) equipped with a high-tech, “only we have it” cloaking device, and they’re determined to recapture it, no matter how many cars they have to smash in chase scenes.
Directed by Betty Thomas (Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie), it’s amazing that it took four writers to piece together this script, half of whom are responsible for such celluloid enemies of entertainment as Serving Sara. I Spy is no threat to — and has very little in common with — the original 1965 “I Spy” TV series, a well-crafted show that broke through racial boundaries while charming its audience.
The show starred Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, and Bill “I refuse to crack a smile” Cosby as Alex Scott, two American spies posing as tennis players who humble the world of espionage with quick-witted snap and style. I Spy the movie resorts to stock Cold War enemies (Russians and Chinese) in an afterthought plot littered with secret-agent shtick you’ve seen so many times before, you’ll feel like you wrote the thing with the fumes of Bond movies and leftovers from your movie-memory trash can.
Murphy pulls dinosaurs out of his overused bag of tricks, like when Robinson uses a Stevie Wonder imitation to distract and pummel his pugilist opponent. I don’t know who suffers more, the knocked-out guy or those of us who are still conscious. The film is overloaded with self-destruct modes, override codes and cocky Murphyisms discharged with machine-gun relentlessness. Maybe Murphy should take a hint from Robin Williams and Adam Sandler and lend his talents to more challenging and constructive characters. He’s capable if he wanted to. It’s too bad Owen Wilson’s refreshing, soft-spoken charm, which worked fine in Shanghai Noon and Zoolander, finds itself smothered by lame dialogue and Murphy’s in-your-face whining.
Sometimes you’ll laugh, sometimes you’ll sigh, often you’ll cringe — but while watching I Spy you’ll always be suspicious of which side the writers are on.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.