About the only things that “I Spy” shares with the fondly remembered mid-sixties television series are the title, the fact that it pairs a white guy with an African-American, and the names of the leads (though they’re switched between the two characters). The original show was more light-hearted than most post-James Bond espionage efforts, but it was still essentially serious, and the humor was of a subtle, character-based sort. This remake is a typically broad twenty-first century Hollywood comic-action buddy movie, crammed with chases, explosions, double-crosses, gross moments and ripe dialogue. But while it adds absolutely nothing new to the genre, it’s relatively tolerable, thanks to the likableness and chemistry of the stars and brisk, efficient direction from Betty Thomas.
In the new incarnation, Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) is a klutzy US agent who muffs the retrieval of a spy plane which has been stolen by a renegade pilot and acquired by a loathsome arms dealer named Arnold Gunders (Malcolm McDowell). In order to gain access to Gunders’ Budapest headquarters, the feds enlist the help of arrogant, fast-talking boxing champ Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy), whose next bout–against the European champ–is (rather implausibly) being hosted by Gunders as a means of camouflaging his auction of the aircraft With Scott posing as part of Robinson’s entourage, the duo make their way to Hungary and bicker and bond their way to recovering the super-stealth plane. In the process they have to deal not only with Gunders and his henchmen, but also with two of Scott’s colleagues: the beautiful Rachel (Famke Janssen), with whom the agent is obviously smitten, and his rival Carlos (Gary Cole), a stud who gets the niftiest weapons and the best-looking girls.
In truth this is all flimsy stuff, and it seems virtually prefabricated when one analyzes the screenwriting quartet–actually a composite of two separate teams, one of which specializes in comedy and the other in action. The farcical elements (presumably contributed by Jay Scherick and David Ronn, TV scribes whose first feature script was the lamentable “Serving Sara”) are of no better than conventional sitcom caliber: cocky Robinson disses the goofy Scott but, in a Cyrano-like riff, uses his supposed savoir-faire to instruct him on how to romance the distant Rachel (thus Wilson can demonstrate his skill at flustered, tongue-tied shtick), while Scott leads Robinson into dangerous situations (so that Murphy can show off his dexterity at shrill complaint and wide-eyed fear). Of course the guys overcome their initial antagonism to become chums (in a scene set, of all places, in a sewer, where they retreat to escape some bad guys and talk the night away). Meanwhile the action components (the responsibility, one supposes, of Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, whose only previously filmed script was the Arnold Schwarzenegger clone adventure, “The 6th Day”) are no less ordinary–a collection of standard-issue pursuits, fights and close shaves–though leavened with jokey dialogue and bits of business to keep the mood from becoming at all realistic or threatening. (One particularly unfortunate running gag, for example, has Scott repeatedly kicked in his most vulnerable area.)
But in spite of the mediocrity of the material, the stars give it a lift. Wilson’s laid-back, oblique charm remains pleasantly disarming, and Murphy, while not remotely convincing as a middleweight champion, puts his trademark smirk and motor-mouthed delivery to good use; the duo play off one another decently enough, and each man gets his share of chuckles. It’s a pity that they get so little support, from either the writers or their fellow actors. McDowell makes a pallid villain, but it’s really not his fault; he has literally no material to work with, and his patented scowl is hardly enough to create a credible threat. Janssen is simply eye candy, and Cole puts an excess of effort into mimicking the Antonio Banderas of “Spy Kids”–thus caricaturing what was already a caricature.
Still, when one considers how bad “I Spy” might have been, a viewer must acknowledge his relative good fortune. After all, the last buddy action-comedy that Hollywood developed from an old TV show was the dismal “Wild Wild West” (1999), and this might have been an equally torturous misfire. That it escapes such a fate to emerge as a harmless, though instantly forgettable and utterly brainless, diversion is due primarily to Wilson and Murphy, but also to Thomas, who here happily moves away from the melodramatic doldrums of her most recent effort “28 Days” and back to the lighthearted comedy of her earlier days. Thanks to their professionalism, a thoroughly pedestrian script has become a popcorn movie that isn’t terribly good, but is better than it might have been.