For better or worse, Betty Thomas has become the queen of screen adaptation. She’s made old movies (Dr. Dolittle) into new movies. She’s made old TV shows into movies (“The Brady Bunch Movie”). She’s even brought Howard Stern’s radio show to the big screen (Private Parts). Those were some of the director’s better efforts. Where Thomas’ update of “I Spy” is concerned, it’s hard to imagine things having turned out much worse.
In the first place, this splashy, vapid update hasn’t a single thing more to do with the 60s television series than, say, Lethal Weapon did. White guy. Black guy. Bad guys. Guns, cars and wisecracks. You could have called this anything in the world and the only difference it would’ve made is to deny its producers the box office benefits of name recognition.
On top of that, Thomas demonstrates zero feel for either the material or milieu. Is this supposed to be a spoof of espionage films or a straight ahead action comedy? The director never settles on a tone. As a result, her movie jumps and jerks between genres like the work of an unsure first-timer.
Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson report for duty as the picture’s mandatory mismatched buddies. Wilson is an agent with the Bureau of National Security. Murphy’s a motormouth megalomaniac, a heavyweight boxing champ obsessed with the notion of being thrown a huge parade in his honor. The U.S. government recruits the pugilist for a secret mission when an Eastern European arms dealer (Are you sitting down? He’s played by Malcolm McDowell!) makes off with the prototype for the Air Force’s latest breakthrough- a stealth bomber so stealthy it’s literally invisible.
McDowell’s about to sell the jet to the highest bidder during the course of a party he’s throwing at his castle. As fate-and cretinous screenwriting-would have it, Murphy’s about to defend his title at a Budapest venue just down the street. The arms dealer is a massive boxing fan. BNS brass figure Wilson can recover the aircraft if he can get near enough to it and Murphy is his ticket into the baddies-only bash. Are we nodding off yet?
Buddy film formula dictates that the two guys get off on the wrong foot with one another. If there’s an area in which this picture succeeds, it’s in maintaining a complete absence of surprise. In predictable, paint by number fashion, Murphy thumps his chest and refuses to take orders. Wilson gradually earns his respect with the aid of an array of spy gadgets and gizmos the fighter finds cool. One minute, the two are hopelessly incompatible. The next, they’re the best of buds and watching each other’s back. An activity one can only imagine to be at least twice as entertaining as watching their film.
Spoof or tongue in cheek update, the movie squanders the lion’s share of its time on tired, cartoon-quality sequences choreographed around ho-hum chases and explosions. None possess the satiric zip of Austin Powers-style parody. It seems fair to conclude the picture is intended to play as a standard action laugher. If so, even as routine a mission as that proves impossible for creators, crew and cast.
To be fair, Murphy and Wilson are accomplished wits (Wilson co-wrote both “Bottle Rocket” and Rushmore). The throwaway banter and improvised dialogue between the actors are easily the best things about “I Spy.” The script readings and rehearsals were likely a far better time than the finished movie. Which means there’s a chance the DVD B-roll may be worth a look down the line. In the meantime, I wouldn’t think Thomas’ latest merits much attention. There may have been a point to throwing together a motion picture this instantly forgettable. If there was, it’s at least as hard to see as any invisible plane.