Guilty Pleasures: I-Spy (2002)

There’s something oddly enjoyable about I-Spy that’s hard to put a finger on. The plot is almost nonsensical and pretty much everything about it screams “bland”, but it’s a film that never fails to elicit a smile, even after multiple viewings.

I-Spy takes both its title and premise from the 1960s TV show starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. The premise being a secret agent teams up with a professional athlete for an undercover mission. That’s where the similarities end, so I-Spy will definitely pander more to fans of its lead actors than to fans of the TV show.

A spy plane has been stolen by arms dealer Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell). When the Bureau of National Security discover that Gundars, a keen boxing enthusiast, is planning to auction the plane off at a boxing event in Budapest, they assign agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) the task of thwarting the sale and recovering the plane. In order for Scott to gain access to the event, the BNS enlist superstar pugilist Kelly “K.O.” Robinson (Eddie Murphy) to act as their civilian cover.

I-Spy 1

“Commiserations on your career post Caligula, mate.”

It’s an unfortunately forgettable story which takes a backseat to the obvious camaraderie between Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. Both Alex Scott and Kelly Robinson are characters that accentuate Wilson and Murphy’s best attributes; Murphy is right at home as a fast-talking, egotistical superstar, and likewise for Wilson’s bumbling, amiable goof.

Malcolm McDowell is more than capable of portraying an excellent villain. Unfortunately, Arnold Gundars offers precious little for McDowell to sink his teeth into. He feels more like a rejected idea for a Bond villain here, and is notably absent for large parts of the film. With that said, however, McDowell has proved his acting abilities time and again, and he just about manages to bring Gundars to life.

There’s an enigmatic quality to Famke Janssen that is put to good use here. She plays agent Rachel Wright, colleague of Alex Scott and the object of his affections. You never quite know which side she’s working for, which is an excellent trait for a fictional spy.

I SPY, Owen Wilson, Eddie Murphy, Famke Janssen, 2002, (c) Columbia

“I know, let’s discuss national secrets with a guy that literally can’t stop talking.”

Another colleague of Scott’s is Carlos, a suspiciously successful Hispanic spy played by the hilariously non-Hispanic Gary Cole. Carlos is clearly supposed to be a deeply suspicious character, and nothing could have made a South American spy more so than the obviously American Cole.

The scripted gags often feel forced and unnatural, but I-Spy is at its hilarious best when the two leads are playing off of each other. The second act in particular is a perfect example of this; with the mission starting to unravel around them, Murphy and Wilson constantly bicker while stumbling clumsily from one objective to the next.

I-Spy 3

“If in doubt, blow shit up.”

Director Betty Thomas does a commendable job with such a weak script. She keeps it at a consistent pace which helps gloss over the more dull dialogue exchanges. The film feels evenly balanced with each character given adequate screen time, although Malcolm McDowell feels a little under-utilised.

The score is an often overlooked aspect of many comedies, usually tacked on as an afterthought. For I-Spy, Richard Gibbs has composed a score that blends in nicely. Just the right balance between suitably tense spy riffs and kooky phrases really adds to the overall experience.

It’s always important for comedies to not take themselves too seriously, and this is something that I-Spy definitely gets right. It’s light, it’s unashamedly daft and there’s a very real sense that all involved are having a tremendous time. This palpable pleasantness is incredibly infectious.

I-Spy 4

“Even a trip to a health spa proves problematic.”

The trick to enjoying I-Spy is to lower your expectations. It might lure you in with false promises of being a serious spy flick with a generous portion of comedy, but in reality there’s very little seriousness to it. But that’s what makes it so fun. I-Spy is a film that knows exactly what its strengths are; the cheeky charms and charisma of its lead actors. Each exchange between the two is highly amusing and infinitely quotable.

Overall, I-Spy is an inoffensive, fun comedy that’s worth watching just to see Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson do what they do best; entertain.

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