Dave Bautista teams up with a tot to protect and serve in this half-hearted action comedy released too little, too late.
Starting with 1990’s Kindergarten Cop, movies pairing a small child with a large bodybuilder/strongman type have managed to weather the often fickle media storms of passing trends. Perhaps because they’ve never managed to become oversaturated, studios have been churning out action comedies starring mismatched (at least in size) pairings, from Mr. Nanny to The Pacifier. Peter Segal, along with producer and star Dave Bautista, capitalize on this (ostensibly) profitable formula with My Spy, which (after a decidedly troubled release schedule) is finally coming to Amazon now that the coronavirus has left movie theaters closed. Is it finally worth the wait? Well, not exactly.
After botching infiltrating an arms deal to gain intelligence, combat veteran-turned-spy JJ (Bautista) is assigned to spy on the sister-in-law of notorious arms dealer Marquez (Greg Bryk), who’s looking for plans for a nuclear bomb. He’s paired with fawning and sycophantic Bobbie (Kristen Schaal), an IT specialist with dreams of getting out in the field.
Despite her deceased husband selling black market weapons, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) appears to be a regular nurse, adjusting to life back in Chicago as a single mother. Her daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) is a precocious grade-schooler who’s having trouble fitting in at her new school, after spending her life up to now in Paris.
Using her tech smarts, Sophie discovers JJ and Bobbie are spying on her family, and, in exchange for Sophie’s silence, JJ agrees to teach her the trade of spycraft. As the pair grows closer, JJ eventually turns into a father figure for Sophie, as well as a love interest for Kate. But when Marquez comes looking for the bomb plans his brother hid, JJ has to come to the rescue.
At the heart of it, My Spy tries to wedge a family rom-com in the middle of a spy comedy. But mashing up these two genres does a disservice to the filmmakers’ skills and the story as a whole.
The production team is much more adept at crafting the spy thriller/action milieu than the kid stuff, making My Spy more effective as an action thriller than the family-friendly comedy it purports to be. Larry Blanford’s cinematography is more kinetic and exciting during action sequences, which makes sense given his history working as director of photography on Iron Man 3 and the X-Men series. When My Spy transitions from the action-packed opening scenes to the love story, the cinematography becomes bland and uninspired. When the tone shifts back to action/thriller in the climax, so does the editing, and it becomes instantly more engaging.
The production team is much more adept at crafting the spy thriller/action milieu than the kid stuff.
The humor also lands harder in the action sequences than they do in the romance plot. The romance scenes feature the standard “young person thinks adults are so cringe” jokes (e.g., JJ dancing to a Cardi B song, how embarrassing), and verge on the downright mean. Early in his agreement with Sophie, JJ escorts her to an ice-skating rink. When Sophie is teased by some of her classmates, JJ trips them as they skate around the rink. Our hero: a grown man who purposely hurts small children.
In the action sequences, the physical humor feels more in place, especially when Bobbie gets her wish to get in on the action. She heroically comes to the rescue, and manages to succeed despite her ineptitude and series of flubs. It also finally gives Schaal something to do, after spending most of the movie moping around.
The second disservice is the complete disconnect between the two plots until the final act, and even then the main characters are stripped of their agency. Bobbie and JJ don’t use the intelligence they gain to further the plot; rather, in one scene, Marquez determines that the plans would be with Kate, albeit unbeknownst to her, and flies to Chicago to steal them.
Despite the paint-by-numbers script, the cast does a good job with what they’re given. Thankfully, Coleman (one of the kids from John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch) is a great child actor for a film that features a child character so frequently. She’s got sass and energy to spare and a tremendous physical presence, which matches Bautista’s stoic bulk.
Bautista is good enough; he’s got a lot of presence on screen, but feels a bit underwhelming when he’s not kicking ass. Schaal is by far the most wasted in terms of talent, with only a few good one-liners. Schaal is at her best when she’s playing characters who are a bit out there — think Louise from Bob’s Burgers or Amanda from Hulu’s Real Hotwives. Bobbie as a character is just too down to earth to need the kind of delivery Schaal excels at.
In the end, Segal spends too much time trying to pull at the heartstrings with My Spy, rather than ticking the funny bone. The movie isn’t particularly bad, but it isn’t particularly good either. Even with such an unoriginal premise, it’s disappointing they didn’t try to do something more.
My Spy teams up with Amazon to fight fun-sized crime April 17th.