One of the best gags in I Spy involves the simple gesture of secret agent Alex (Owen Wilson) trying to place a techno-gadget onto the back of a car. He tries to do so swiftly and nonchalantly, turning away to speak of some urgent espionage matter. But the device just keeps falling off, interrupting his smooth patter.
This slight but entertaining movie bears a much closer relation to the recent Mission: Impossible (1996 and 2000) films than the original television series of I Spy. Director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, 1997) enjoys not only the incessant parody of James Bond-style technology, but also the convoluted plot machinations centring on (as Alex explains it) "agents, double agents and pseudo double agents" who "keep flip-flopping around".
But the plot is only a pretext for the jokes. On a high-level mission into Eastern Europe, Alex is teamed with boxer and show biz celebrity, Kelly (Eddie Murphy). In the wings there is a rich, snarling villain, Gundars (Malcolm McDowell), to move the story along, but the film's attention is mainly on the relationship of Alex and Kelly to each other and to their glamorous colleagues, Rachel (Famke Janssen) and Carlos (Gary Cole).
Wilson and Murphy make a beguiling screen couple. Beyond the Rush Hour-type laughs about the abyss between their respective cultural styles, the film finds an ideal way to create a chemistry between them – by turning both characters into perfectly childlike types.
Alex is the nervous, inexperienced child, full of self-doubt and taunted by the grown-up ego-ideal of Carlos. Kelly, on the other hand, is the narcissistic child who believes that he is all-powerful and that the world exists merely to gratify his every, impulsive wish.
The technology gags and this child-behaviour theme merge in the amusing sequence devoted to the special eye lens which enables Kelly to see with Alex's point-of-view as the latter fumbles through a romantic clinch with femme fatale Rachel.
Murphy's garrulous on-screen shtick is becoming a little tiresome and repetitive these days, but the encounter with Wilson gives him a new shot of energy. Wilson is currently the most unusual and appealing star in American cinema. He turns his passive, effeminate aura into a brilliant comic tool, especially when it comes to delivering dialogue.
It can be seen as a typical piece of reductive Hollywood typecasting that Wilson's difference has so far led to him being placed alongside the black Murphy and the Asian superstar Jackie Chan (in Shanghai Noon, 2000) – as if to slightly displace him from the ultra-white, Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan norm of American, comic entertainment. But Wilson, who is also a talented scriptwriter, has skilfully managed to play upon and extend his own stereotype in films such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
I Spy has its flat, uninspired and mechanical passages, but is worth seeing for the clever way it negotiates the meeting of an established star with an up-and-coming comet.
© Adrian Martin January 2003