“I Spy” is a quintessential Hollywood product, an action comedy that serves up the expected gags and set pieces in service of a thoroughly been-there, done-that plotline. But what it lacks in originality it compensates for in personality–rather, personalities: those of stars Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.
Murphy and Wilson are not exactly stepping into the shoes of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, stars of the 1960’s television series from which Betty Thomas’s movie takes its name; in fact, the only connection to the show is that title and the idea of mismatched mentor-student buddy spies. Here, the not-so-seasoned pro is Wilson’s Alex Scott, who is given a chance to prove his true worth as a spy when he’s assigned to recover a stolen Stealth bomber in Hungary. It’s a task easier said than done, even moreso considering his civilian cover partner: cocky, loudmouthed boxing champ Kelly Robinson (Murphy), who is days away from a title defense.
Wilson as a bumbler, Murphy as a self-absorbed smartass–needless to say, neither star is stretching themselves. (The same can be said for co-stars Famke Janssen, again using her Amazonian frame to play a tough girl; and a criminally underused Malcolm McDowell, dutifully playing another bad guy role.) But both do their respective jobs as well as can be expected, and their previous experience in the action arena help give credibility to the spy shenanigans, which are competently, though not spectacularly, staged by Thomas. What people really want from a Murphy-Wilson pairing are laughs, and the duo certainly does not disappoint in that regard. Not surprisingly, the film’s best moments come when Thomas steps back and just lets the two go at it with their wisecracking and verbal sparring.
Those laughs are what will keep viewers interested and entertained, for there’s not much to the story. No less than four screenwriters are credited, yet the script is filled with the usual clichés (hello, red digital readout!) and supposed twists that can be seen a mile away. Through it all, though, Murphy and Wilson have a ball playing opposite one another, and that sense of fun and goodwill extends to the audience.