There have been a lot of law enforcement buddy movies in recent years, and most of them have made me want to puke. You can keep your Rush Hours, your Bad Boys, your Blue Streaks, even your Lethal Weapons. They all suck!
So it’s with marginal pleasure that I inform you of the relatively positive entertainment provided by the latest entry to the genre, I Spy. The film has nothing to do with its namesake TV show, but it does feature spies, keeping the action described in the film’s title from being a dirty lie.
The film stars Owen Wilson as a special agent and Eddie Murphy as a world-renowned boxer. The two join forces, at the request of George W. Bush, on a mission in Budapest to retrieve a top-secret invisible airplane. While the script might be hackneyed, their comedic riffing is a precious, wonderful thing.
I place Wilson in the upper quadrant of current comedic actors, alongside Sam Rockwell and Ben Stiller. Wilson has a self-deprecating, confessional type of humor that makes the moments after the big jokes the best, when he’s grumbling about his inadequacies and how unfair the world is. To see one of the all-time great character performances, check his work as criminal wannabe Dignant in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket.
Murphy, who tends to do junk films from time to time, remains a master of quick- tongued comedy. There are many moments in I Spy where he is, quite simply, at the top of his game. Playing a professional boxer, he’s actually convincing in the ring, with an attitude that owes more than a little to Sugar Ray Leonard.
While the PG-13 rating requires a less-profane Murphy, we do get to hear a dick joke from the dick joke master, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
The structure of the film is pretty loose, the plot meaningless. This is just an excuse to get two funny men together and see if they set off any fireworks. For the most part, the experiment works, with Wilson and Murphy playing off one another like the experts they are, providing each other with substantial comic counterparts. The plot simply moves them from one silly set piece to another.
When Wilson and Murphy hide in the Budapest sewers, it provides the film its best comedic moment as their characters get “loopy” from the methane gas. The resulting crying confessional by Murphy might not be new humor territory, but it’s still hilarious.
The film has a lot of laughs and a director who knows good comedy at the helm. Betty Thomas, who made Howard Stern look like a decent enough actor with Private Parts, and who worked with Murphy previously on Dr. Dolittle, gets about as much mileage out of her lame script as humanly possible. She keeps the laughter coming at a quick pace (the movie never rests) and shows that she knows her way around the occasional action scene.
In a small supporting role, Famke Jansen plays a fellow spy who kicks Wilson in the nuts a few too many times. Malcolm McDowell does nothing as a money-hungry terrorist, essentially the Dennis Hopper role. Of the remaining cast, Gary Cole fares best as Carlos the Latin lover spy, a pony-tailed Casanova who actually hails from Iowa but digs the accent.
If you are looking for some decent disposable entertainment for your Saturday night, I Spy should do the trick. It’s sort of like Spies Like Us, except it is actually funny at times, and its two stars aren’t tubby dumbasses past their comedic primes.