I Spy Review
Spy movies often reflect the way the world sees the intelligence community. In the swinging sixties, spies were groovy chick-magnets protecting the free world from megalomaniacs. In the paranoid seventies, the intelligence agencies were seen as sinister organisations ordering assassinations and plotting against innocent people. God knows what this says about the state of the world today but the two spy comedies I've seen this month - The Tuxedo and I Spy - depict the American secret service as a bunch of overgrown, hormonal high school kids with guns: James Bond meets American Pie.
As the filmmakers see it, spies exist to protect the world from generic movie villains and their armies of disposable henchmen. Missions consist of sneaking into the bad guy's lair and stealing his secret plans and are usually screwed up, resulting in much property damage and capture by the villain (followed of course by rescue, more property damage and the villain's death). The main problems facing a secret agent are having unrequited crushes on girls and feeling inadequate around cooler spies who have better gadgets.
I Spy, which is the umpteenth big budget film to be based on an old TV series, is better than The Tuxedo but not by much. In this one, the generic movie villain, played for once by a British actor (Malcolm McDowell), is Arnold Gundars, a Hungarian arms dealer who has stolen an American spy plane which can turn invisible, just like James Bond's car in Die Another Day. Shame on the Americans for stealing our imaginary technology. Secret agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) wants to break into Gundars' Budapest lair to retrieve the plane but security is so tight that his only chance is joining the entourage of champion boxer Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy), as Gundars is a fight fan.
The incredibly vain Robinson agrees to help after a personal phone-call from President Bush, who he hangs up on in mid-sentence, but he and Scott take an instant dislike to each other and Robinson refuses to play ball and follow the agent's orders. As they bicker, Gundars is auctioning the plane to the world's more dubious regimes, advertising it as a delivery device for weapons of mass destruction.
Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson are two of the funniest actors in movies today and they work well together when they're given a chance in between the over-familiar action scenes and plot exposition. After a terrible first half, I'd given up on the film when suddenly the story was put on hold for two terrific comic scenes - the stars bonding in a sewer and Murphy coaching Wilson through seducing a fellow spy. These scenes had a relaxed, improvised feel that was missing from the rest of the film and it felt as if someone had changed channels to a much better movie and then unfortunately changed back.
There are hints at a kind of goofy subversiveness here and there. Wilson and Murphy are portrayed as completely useless throughout, surviving and thwarting the bad guys more by luck than anything else and, after a big dramatic build-up, the climax is played completely for laughs. It's possible director Betty Thomas, who made The Brady Bunch Movie, thought she was making a similarly clever satire here. Instead, she's made a bad action comedy which occasionally taunts you with hints of what it could have been.