I Spy

Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson go down together

Directed by Betty Thomas
Written by Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick, David Ronn
Starring Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson

What’s drearier than two gifted, savvy performers marking time in a leaden buddy flick? Two gifted, savvy performers marking time as cheery apologists for Mr. Bush’s War.

Nominally based on a 1960s U.S. TV show, I Spy offers up a few laughs, because even sleepwalking Eddie Murphy can loot that much from his store of aging tricks. But they’re drowned, like Murphy and co-star Owen Wilson, in a backwash of sour cynicism.

The original I Spy was notable for featuring a black co-protagonist (played by Bill Cosby) whose blackness was incidental. Here it’s integral – it’s straight-up salt and pepper as Murphy’s swaggering boxer Kelly Robinson is improbably enlisted (by GWB himself) to team up with Wilson’s Alex Scott, an agent with the, uh, “Bureau of National Security.” The mission: Lay hands on an invisible bomber (yep) before a Budapest-based villain (human skeleton Malcolm McDowell) can auction if off to whichever brown or yellow person wants baddest to blow the shit out of America. High-tech spook Scott brings the toys while Robinson brings the bling, whether taunting neanderthal whiteys in the ring or – get this – coaching his feckless paleface partner on getting it on with a leggy colleague.

That’s a good sign of the laziness on display here (although Murphy prompting Wilson through an earpiece to recite “Sexual Healing” to his crush is kinda funny), and the buddy-bonding and action sequences are staged with slack indifference. Murphy barely breaks a sweat, but Wilson strains visibly to invest the movie with a modicum of the smart/dumb cool he brought to Zoolander and The Royal Tenenbaums, as if trying to convince us (or himself) that something other than sheer opportunism lured the crafty writer/actor of Tenenbaums and Rushmore into this tower of crap.

Similarly, the movie itself grasps for a playful, self-mocking tone – the super agents bicker! The super gizmos break! – but there isn’t any genuine satire here, or even farce, just George Bush’s picture in the paper at the end. Dopey as they can get, the Austin Powers movies recognize spy-flick tropes as inherently ridiculous and treat them accordingly. I Spy wants credit for snarkiness while enlisting without a trace of irony to fight the Axis of Evil. Hollywood toeing the Washington line is nothing new, but this flippant, faux-hip reactionary-lite is somehow scarier than a half-dozen Schwarzenegger blitzkriegs. And not nearly as entertaining.

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