The '60s television series I Spy starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby and its 2002 theatrical remake share similarities in only the broadest elements: the title and names, the theme of espionage, and the fact that one guy is white and one guy is black. Beyond that, I Spy the movie is a standardized "buddy cop" story cut from the same mold as celluloid trash like Bad Company. What makes it work, though, is that both Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson are genuinely funny. And while their circumstances and the story are as manufactured and generic as you can get, the two comedians bring enough laughs to make audiences ignore the film's shortcomings.
Owen Wilson is Alex Scott, a U.S. secret agent who is anything but James Bond. At his worst, he's a bumbling doofus known for screwing up assignments. He also suffers from a severe inferiority complex and finds himself in the shadow of his single-name colleague "Carlos," a suave caricature of a super-agent who hails from the exotic locale of Idaho. In the game of love, he's equally overlooked, especially by the girl he pines for, fellow agent Rachel Wright (foxy Famke Janssen).
But things begin to look up for Alex when he's handed an important mission (by default, of course). When an underground arms dealer (Malcolm McDowell) gains control of the world's most advanced stealth jet, Alex must go undercover to recover it at all costs. As wacky circumstances would have it, though, Alex's only chance to get close to the plane is to team up with a civilian: boxing superstar Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy). This mismatched partnership, naturally, leads to a string of zany adventures in the world of espionage.
The way in which Alex and Kelly interact is as textbook Hollywood as character development comes: the two start off on the proverbial wrong foot, hate each other, force themselves to work together, learn to get along, have a major fight, split up, reunite, discover that they really make a great team, and finally become perfect partners. Their growth as individuals is just as predictable: Alex is awkward and insecure until Kelly teaches him to open up and show a little self-confidence; meanwhile, Kelly is an arrogant, spoiled celebrity who learns about responsibility and loyalty after helping Alex complete his assignment.
All of this would have been mindnumbingly insipid if it weren't for the comedic talents of the two main stars. When it comes to being the streetwise trash-talker partnered with the straightlaced stiff, Eddie Murphy lays waste to Chris Tucker, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and Chris Rock. He plays Kelly Robinson as a quick-on-his-mouth tough guy with enough eccentricities to keep him from being just another dumb jock: Kelly has a child-like fascination with spy gadgets, enjoys calling Rachel a bitch, and has the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person. Owen Wilson's Alex Scott is also full of amusing quirks, such as his obsession with stakeouts and Carlos, his constant dissatisfaction with his second-rate spy equipment, and his seemingly slow-witted demeanor.
Together, Alex and Kelly stumble through one funny predicament after another, including a botched break-in, a crass but soulful re-enactment of Cyrano de Bergerac, and a showdown that finds them kicking each other in the stones. Most of these disparate situations run together quickly with little regard to reason, but they still provide a lot of laughs. The rare moments in which the film spoofs the genre's conventions are also humorous, such as Alex lamenting surprise doublecrosses: "Everybody keeps flip-flopping around, I can't keep it straight!"
With her role as a Bond babe in 1995's GoldenEye, the sexy Famke Janssen is no stranger to spy movies. While she's not crushing men to death with her killer legs this time, she still contributes a healthy dose of saucy eye candy.
I Spy can't be accused of originality or innovation. But despite being totally pre-packaged fodder from the movie machine, this action comedy is still enjoyable entertainment. Murphy and Wilson are a dynamic comedic duo, and the pace is brisk and energetic.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)