All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

MY SPY

Producers: Chris Bender, Peter Segal, Jake Weiner, Robert Simonds, Gigi Pritzker, Dave Bautista and Jonathan Meisner   Director: Peter Segal   Screenplay: Jon Hoeber and Eric Hoebner   Cast:  Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Greg Bryk, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Danby, Vieslav Krystyan, Basel Daoud and Ali Hassan   Distributor: Amazon Prime/STX Entertainment

Grade:  C-

An innocuous cookie-cutter action comedy that traces its lineage back to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), Peter Segal’s tough-C.I.A.-agent-mellowed-by-sweet-kid opus is the latest example of what’s apparently a required paired-with-children rite of passage for pro wrestlers turned movie stars.  Dwayne Johnson started the ball rolling with “Race to Witch Mountain,” and John Cena recently followed suit with “Playing With Fire.”   (Vin Diesel, who wasn’t a wrestler but probably should have been, went the same route with “The Pacifier.”)

Now it’s Dave Bautista’s turn.  Like his grappler predecessors, he shows an aptitude for pratfalls, no doubt the legacy of his many WWE bouts.  Also like them, he makes a very stiff leading man, not that it seems to matter nowadays.   

The movie is bookended by action sequences that are pretty nasty.  In the first, beefy J.J. (Bautista), a former Special Ops soldier turned rather bovine spy, eliminates a small army of bad-guys when his cover is blown during a meeting to acquire a nuclear device from a renegade Russian army officer (at Chernobyl, no less).  His mishandling of the mission—which had as its object discovering the whereabouts of master arms-dealer Viktor Marquez (Greg Bryk), not killing off everyone who might have revealed his location—infuriates J.J.’s agency boss David Kim (a badly miscast, unfunny Ken Jeong). 

Kim punishes J.J. by giving him a dull assignment: keeping tabs on Viktor’s sister-in-law Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who fled to Chicago with her daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) after Viktor killed her husband.  To make J.J. even more uncomfortable, Kim teams him with goofy Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), who’s been tied to a desk until now but desperately wants to get into the field and learn from him. 

Naturally things go awry.  Sophie, who of course is being bullied by her mean-girl classmates, quickly discovers a camera J.J. had ineptly hidden in her apartment and tracks it back to the mismatched agents’ pad, threatening to reveal their identities publicly unless J.J. becomes her virtual slave.  She’ll make him take her ice-skating and be her guest at school for visitors’ day—as well as instruct her in the ways of spycraft. In the process, of course, J.J. also becomes romantically involved with Kate.

Adding to the supposed mirth of this doubled-up domestic material are a couple of gay neighbors, garrulous Carlos (Devere Rogers) and laconic Todd (Noah Danby), who have a rather proprietary concern for Kate and step in when J.J.’s style sense, or lack thereof, needs adjustment in their view.  (Even they, however, can do nothing about his elephantine dance moves.)

All seems to be progressing decently despite Bobbi’s misgivings until news of Viktor’s death has J.J. and Bobbi called back to Langley, where Kim fires them for their involvement with those they were supposed merely to watch.  Sent back to Chicago to close down shop, they arrive in time to face Kate’s wrath at learning of J.J.’s lies and malevolent Viktor’s return from the dead. 

That gives rise to the big finale, which returns the movie to the action mode with which it began.  It includes heroics by both Sophie and Bobbi (though, unless I’m mistaken, the latter’s involve blowing up the apartment building—the results of which, curiously, go unremarked on).  More important, though, is the sequence in which J.J. literally faces down a plane coming at him down a runway to save Sophie. It’s even more ridiculous than the opening massacre, though cartoonish absurdity is part and parcel of such movies nowadays.

Otherwise “My Spy” is no better or worse than most movies of this ilk; it’s about on a par with “Stuber,” the mediocre mismatched-buddy action comedy that Bautista appeared in with Kumail Nanjiani last year.  (This movie was originally set to open in the summer of 2019 too, but the theatrical release was postponed and then cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)  Bautista is big and physically impressive, but wooden, though he occasionally shows a flair for deadpan comic delivery (of course, “Guardians of the Galaxy” already demonstrated his ability in that respect). Coleman manages to make Sophie ingratiating, mostly by keeping her from becoming obnoxious.  But Fitz-Henley, though attractive, is bland, and both Schaal and Rogers try too hard to extract laughs from basically drab material.  (She, by the way, gets the obligatory vomiting scene.) 

Technically the picture is okay but nothing special.  Production designer Chris L. Spellman and cinematographer Larry Blanford  can’t entirely conceal the fact that though set mostly in Chicago, some establishing shots apart, it was actually filmed elsewhere (in Toronto), but the effect isn’t too distracting.  Jason Gourson’s editing isn’t ideally crisp and Dominic Lewis’ score is fairly generic, but they’re generally adequate to the purpose.

This is a movie that follows the formula all too perfectly.  But while totally uninspired, it might satisfy undemanding viewers wanting a comfortably familiar action movie with sappy overtones.      

BEATS

Producer: Camilla Bray   Director: Brian Welsh   Screenplay: Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh   Stars: Cristian Ortega, Lorn MacDonald, Laura Fraser, Brian Ferguson, Amy Manson, Gemma McElhinney, Kevin Mains, Rachel Jackson, Ross Mann, Neil Leiper, Kevin Mains, Stephan McCole, Josh Whitelaw, Ryan Fletcher, Patrick McAlindon and Martin Donaghy   Distributor: Music Box Films

Grade: B

Two mismatched best friends attend a big bash before one of them is scheduled to move away.  That sounds like the scenario for one of those glossy, nostalgia-drenched Hollywood dramadies aimed at a mainstream audience; but “Beats” is a very different thing entirely—a gritty Scottish working-class tale told in accents so thick that English subtitles are supplied.  Ultimately it’s also a crowd-pleaser of sorts, but not one that goes for easy, formulaic effect.

The narrative is set in 1994 against the backdrop of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act passed by John Major’s Tory government in the waning days of the Thatcher era,  Though the bill sparked serious demonstrations, its passage was not opposed by the Labour Party, which was beginning its transformation into “New Labour” under the direction of then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair.  One of the particular objects of the act was to halt the unsanctioned raves that had become popular among rebellious youth in the early nineties; it allowed the use of police force to shut them down.

It’s in that context that the screenplay by Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh, opened up from a one-man play by Hurley, introduces two fifteenth-year old pals in some council flats in the West Lothian region adjacent to Edinburgh.  Johnno (Christian Ortega) lives there with his mother Alison (Laura Fraser), his younger brother, and his mother’s current partner Robert (Brian Ferguson), a policeman.  Johnno is a withdrawn, studious, sad-faced kid, but he opens up with his childhood friend Spanner (Lorn MacDonald), a gangly, volatile fellow habitually humiliated by Fido (Neil Leiper), the older brother—and gang leader—who’s his supposed guardian. 

The two boys are devoted to the liberation from their depressing circumstances provided by the wild, throbbing music played at raves by DJs like D-Man (Ross Mann)—which is made up of the “repetitive beats” that the Act of 1994 explicitly cites as sources of social dysfunction.  When Spanner learns that Alison and Robert will shortly be moving the family to a newer, nicer apartment—partially to rescue Johnno from what they see as his malign influence—Spanner decides he and his buddy should find a way to go to a rave that D-Man is rumored to be planning. 

Getting there involves connecting with a bunch of older rebels, mostly female (Amy Manson, Emma McElhinney, Rachel Jackson) but including one nasty guy, Les (Kevin Mains), who’s actually part of Fido’s crew.  There are bumps along the way, but eventually, at just after the sixty-minute point, Spanner and Johnno are swallowed up in D-Man’s happening—an Ecstasy-fueled ten-minute explosion that Welsh and cinematographer Ben Kračun shoot in woozy, surrealistic style, bringing swaths of color into a film that until now has been almost entirely in black-and-white (apart from a few red lights on radio sets), along with some kaleidoscopic animation.

Of course, in accordance with the 1994 Act, the rave is invaded not only by Fido and his crew, who are after Spanner, but by a horde of heavily-armed cops, including Robert.  In the ensuing melee Johnno is injured and taken into custody, and the meeting between him, Robert and Alison at the station house is a painful one that, in a series of captions preceding the final credits, has serious ramifications for the latter two’s relationship. But needless to say, the picture cannot close without a reunion between Johnno and Spanner—a lovely scene that has a bittersweet addendum in another of those closing captions.

Under Welsh’s exuberant direction, Ortega and MacDonald give vivid performances, the former’s soulfulness contrasting nicely with the latter’s abandon.  The supporting cast offer equally committed performances, and the crafts crew—production designer Victor Molero and costumer Carole K. Fraser, along with Kračun—have done a fine job with period detail.  Special credit has to be given to editor Robin Hill for the propulsion in the pacing, and of course to Keith McIvor (aka JD Twitch of the DJ duo Optimo), for the music mix. (The original music is by Stephen Hindman and Penelope Trappes.)     

“Beats” could easily have succumbed to sappy formula, but by adding a touch of Ken Loach to the mix, Welsh has made it distinctive.