I Spy

Could it be a top-drawer mainstream Hollywood comedy that actually delivers more than it promises? Gasp!

Released in 2002, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 25 Jan 2003 by Craig Eastman
I Spy image

At some point during I Spy (I believe it was in the middle during the only thirty seconds where nothing funny occurs or is said), I remembered there was supposed to be a plot. It was something to do with a stealth plane and a boxer, I think. Or was it about a holiday to Budapest? S***, I can't remember. Anyhow, it occurred to me immediately that it was a hugely irrelevant point since the film was so genuinely enjoyable and regularly laugh-out-loud funny that I really didn't give two hoots. Bonus.

For those who think it might actually increase their enjoyment of the movie, the plot of I Spy (okay, I was paying attention really...) goes something like this; Owen Wilson is Alex Scott, an agent for the Bureau of National Security who is sent on a mission to Budapest to recover a top secret stealth fighter belonging to the American military. The man responsible for nabbing the thing is millionaire 'evil-doer' Arnold Gundars, who intends to sell it on to the highest-bidding party (in this case all the interested parties seem to be of pacific-asian origin, hinting at a smidgeon of racism perhaps?). As a front for his meeting with these bidders he uses the impending world middleweight championship fight between Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy) and his opponent, and so naturally the opportunity presents itself for George Bush to ask a personal favour of Kelly by getting Alex inside Gundars' mansion at the pre-fight party. If it all sounds rather silly it's because it is.

Yes, I Spy is neither a beast of depth nor integrity. Apparently it's based on the 60's TV show of the same name starring Bill Cosby (now that could have been a cameo to die for) and Robert Culp, although I hear from numerous sources it bears no relation to this show whatsoever other than the title and the spy motif. Where it scores extremely highly is in the amusement stakes, much of which is provided by a superb dynamic between it's two stars.

In a pairing that rivals the Rush Hour might of Chan and Tucker, Wilson and Murphy are excellent. The chemistry between the two is immediate from the onset, and within five minutes of their meeting I was immediately thinking 'sequel', as no doubt the studio will have too. There's some truly inspiring banter on display here as the brash and unpredictable Murphy plays beautifully off Wilson's laid-back ineffable charm. It's hard to quantify the results through a review like this without the reader having seen the movie, but trust me when I say it works a treat.

As paper-thin as the plot is, there are a couple of subs thrown in for good measure. Wilson is paired with sex-bomb agent Famke Janssen (grrrrrr!) for whom he has fallen big time, providing one of the film's best scenes as Murphy instructs him through an earpiece Cyrano de Bergerac style on how to express his emotion via Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing'. He also has to battle a lack of self esteem driven by rival super-agent Carlos (Gary Cole) who seems to get all the best gadgets and has the women falling at his feet. As disposable as they are, these threads contribute well to the overall fabric of the film because they are played for maximum laughs at all times.

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Both leads are clearly having the time of their lives, and while Owen pulls off another turn that re-affirms his leading man status it's Murphy who gains the most. His performance is the best he's given in years, and he's clearly aware of how important the opportunity is, milking every scene and every line. Speaking of lines it's worth noting, again in the leading men's favour, that much of this banter is quite obviously unscripted. One scene in particular where this works (and could quite easily have failed) involves the pair being stuck down a sewer going gradually loopy through methane inhalation. As they deteriorate we are witness to an outpouring of insecurity from the quiet Scott and the brash, self-assured Robinson that proves quite hilarious and aptly displays the ability of both parties to riff off each other with ease.

Director Betty Thomas pretty much has just to sit back and shout at where she wants the camera pointed, but to her credit she realises the strength of her pairing and wisely focuses more on the comedy dynamic than on the weaker action elements which are suitably light and relatively infrequent. Ditto most of the rest of the crew, because quite frankly this is Wilson and Murphy's show and everybody knows it.

For a movie of this type, I Spy has relatively few weaknesses and holds up to interrogation well. It certainly isn't going to win any Oscars, but then it never set out to do so anyway. For your five quid you get ninety minutes of riotously enjoyable comic nonsense which you'll probably want to enjoy again when it hits the home formats. Wilson is fast becoming a hero of mine, and Murphy could well be back on an upward career path if he can just maintain some of this momentum. You could do a hell of a lot worse this week than check out this movie, and for once you'll be looking forward to the (inevitable) sequel in two year's time. Top drawer stuff.

Craig Disko returned home in his stealth fighter this evening with the thorough intention of awarding I Spy 4 out of a possible 5 Disko Hip Gyrations. Let it be thus.

Betty Thomas
Cast list:
Owen Wilson (Alex Scott)
Eddie Murphy (Kelly Robinson)
Famke Janssen (Rachel)