Now here’s an innovative narrative: Two shticky goofs of different races get stuck with a ridiculous mission and must overcome their mutual antagonism to save the day. Been there? Done that? You bet! Yet somehow, amazingly, the new I Spy dishes out fresh and funny antics while simultaneously spewing forth the routine conventions of the action romp, the buddy movie and the “edgy” revisionist TV-show adaptation. Much like The Addams Family or Charlie’s Angels, the project takes a comfy ride — in this case, the 1960s series starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp — and sufficiently rowdies it up for today’s discerning consumers.
Credit goes to Betty Thomas (director of The Brady Bunch Movie and Dr. Dolittle) for letting her stars smartly play silly. As special agent Alex Scott, Owen Wilson employs his gnarly nose and Mr. Rogers intonation to charming effect. (The role recalls his subtly hilarious line from Shanghai Noon: “These guns are weird!”) The sad-sack, second-rate spy finds himself partnered with undisputed middleweight boxing champ Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy), and the duo’s sass fully eclipses the contrived plot, which was cobbled together by a screenwriting committee.
A post-Stealth prototype reconnaissance plane called the Switchblade has been snatched by a Budapest-based baddie named Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell, stuck on villain autopilot without a single funny line) who intends to auction it off on a sort of terrorist Ebay. A passionate boxing fan, Gundars also happens to have arranged a big bout between Robinson and the current European champ at his enormous mansion. Scott is dispatched to Hungary with the punchy pugilist and his posse to locate the plane, triggering a crowd-pleasing barrage of nifty explosions and amusing insults.
Murphy’s crackling presence has lit up Bowfinger, Shrek and Dr. Dolittle 2 in recent years, and in I Spy, his trick bag stuffed with absurd bravado and freakish tics, the master tickler shows us the funny. Love him or not, he’s on. Wilson admirably holds his own with Murphy, as does Famke Janssen, who appears as the requisite sexpot spy. The trio is responsible for one of the year’s funniest and sweetest scenes, as Murphy — channeling Marvin Gaye — plays high-tech Cyrano to Wilson in the remarkably unsoulful spy’s fumbling attempt to seduce the leggy bad girl. If big-screen cash-ins can offer this much fun, bring on Knight Rider, The Greatest American Hero and Welcome Back, Kotter.
Considering that I Spy was packaged by producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna (the men who brought us the Rambo movies and Jacob’s Ladder), its playfulness is all the more impressive. What it lacks in originality — almost 100 percent — it covers with great energy and free-flowing titters. It’s certainly not vital cinema, but it’s the best chunk of disposable entertainment I’ve seen in days.