- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

"I Spy" always would have made more sense as "We Spy." The slapdash espionage farce that now pairs Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson as improbable secret agents is derived faintly from the easygoing TV suspense series that co-starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby for three seasons beginning in 1965.

The modest popularity of the prototype was attributed to the rapport of the co-stars while portraying well-educated and clever fellows who also were fast friends, adept at reconciling government assignments with their covers as an international tennis pro and his trainer.

This belated movie spinoff is harder to like.

The fish-out-of-water gimmick has become such gospel in Hollywood, partly as a result of Eddie Murphy's initial success with "Beverly Hills Cop," that the new Kelly Robinson (Mr. Murphy) and the new Alex Scott (Mr. Wilson) are envisioned as complete strangers. They are paired just days before a desperate mission: the retrieval of a new stealth aircraft that has been purloined by international criminal Malcolm McDowell, who intends to sell it to the highest bidder in Budapest, where he is also bankrolling a middleweight championship bout.

Mr. Murphy's Kelly isn't even an espionage pro; he's an undefeated middleweight showboat matched against a European underdog in the Budapest prizefight. Recruited on short notice, he is supposed to provide access to the villain's parties and residences for Mr. Wilson's Alex, a trained agent who suffers from an inferiority complex, always keenly aware that he rates below the agency's slickest spy. Played by Gary Cole, this so-called virtuoso has taken to calling himself Carlos and can never resist patronizing Alex when they meet.

Thus, teamwork and mutual trust are never second nature to the new Kelly and Alex. They must learn to play together as impromptu and presumably short-term partners, improvising cliffhanging escapes and getting acquainted on the run. Like the movie itself, their mission unfolds with little indication of adequate foresight or clockwork precision. The filmmakers introduce Kelly with a huge entourage that has to be ignored when the setting shifts from the United States to Hungary. Alex is assigned superfluous romantic baggage: Famke Janssen as a fellow agent, Rachel, who may or may not be receptive to his lovelorn crush.

The foreign intrigue has a same-old same-old look, in part because the Prague-Budapest corridor has been well-traveled this year by "Bad Company," "The Bourne Identity," "The Sum of All Fears" and "XXX." It's especially embarrassing to find "I Spy" echoing situations that were ground to a nub in the chase sequences of "XXX."

The film offers a couple of amusing throwaway ideas: Kelly is recruited directly by the president, permitting Mr. Murphy to fake a just-homeboys phone conversation between himself and President Bush. A tedious getaway sequence from rooftop to bridge to sewer system is salvaged when the heroes must hide out in the sewer for the rest of the night. Something about the atmosphere encourages them to start sharing deep-down feelings and insecurities.

Unfortunately, this nice little brainstorm hasn't prevented the filmmakers from forgetting about it a sequence or two later to set up a stupid punch-out that seems to cancel out the good influence of the sewer. It's not as if the people responsible for this movie had a plan worthy of the name. I think we're supposed to be amused by the way they pretend to wing it.

If they're lucky, customers will enjoy listening to the co-stars pretend to think out loud more or less spontaneously and harmoniously. These genuinely funny guys don't make irresistible babble together, but there are times when you suspect that they could get the job done under smarter management.


*1/2

TITLE: "I Spy"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions; occasional graphic violence, with dubious sadistic touches in what is meant to be a comic framework)

CREDITS: Directed by Betty Thomas. Screenplay by Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick and David Ronn.

RUNNING TIME: About 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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