Dave Bautista has made quite the dramatic evolution in his thus far all-too-short stint as a charismatic character actor. To go from notable WWE superstar to one of the key faces of a larger comic book universe, that alone’s a worthy challenge befitting a mighty mammoth performer. To pull a Schwarzenegger while settling into a steady diet of leading action roles, that is a bit trickier. And yet he makes it appear far from complicated in a hybrid retelling of Kindergarten Cop, Stakeout and The Game Plan tacked with the mindset of a lesser-known Bond entity. My Spy captures the cleverness of a stable action movie formula, eager to deconstruct every single cliché in the book and doing it so well, that it becomes quite the double-take realizing just how much it restrains itself to adhere to a light PG-13 and stay somewhat family-friendly. Pitiful self-destruction at its most headshaking.
Bautista is a professional throughout, donning a good-looking suit, sunglasses, and a very expensive foreign car. Comes with the job of CIA agent traipsing around the globe on multiple covert activities. He plays JJ, an operative with enough background experience to carry through major adventures. His methods are increasingly unorthodox, however, and his superiors are not at all pleased. Botching his last op, JJ is reassigned to the Chicago suburbs, on a stakeout for Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a single mother apprehensively embroiled on the fringes of a smuggling ring her brother has set up. For him, and tech mole assistant Bobbi (an ever-lively Kristen Schaal), the job is far too easy, boring, a trifle apathetic. Until the daughter, 9-year-old social outcast Sophie (Chloe Coleman) starts snooping about their remote HQ, breaking down their minimal secrecy, and forcing them to bend at her will or risk their cover being blown. And Sophie is determined to gain the upper hand from the outset.
Had this summer timewaster not been tailored for families, and thus bogged down by its need to drench its lead in endless clichés; a disapproving, discouraged boss (Ken Jeong) baring down, and a forced romantic subplot with the mom among the offenders, My Spy could’ve been a true winner as a purely meta espionage comedy. Newcomer Coleman pulls off that spark, breaking down every bit of formulaic spy feature leitmotif in her blazon path. The main issue I had was that it couldn’t stay on that path the whole time. The further it walked away, the more annoying it grew. The need to circle back so abruptly in the third act made the pill even more bitter. Director Peter Segal and co-writers Erich and Jon Hoeber are more determined to keep Bautista busy, pushing him further out of his comfort zone. Hilarious as he is in spots, solid as he is in comic chemistry with Miss Coleman, despite driving the action value home, he’s almost undeserving of this film. Even the actual action sequences fall very short here; they fit the aesthetic but can’t quite amp the excitement much.
Bautista’s the wrong puzzle piece occupying this young-skewing flick, when it’s confirmed just how little has been written for JJ. He’s not much of a people person (save for a pet fish whom he cherishes). And his ability to warm up a room, or a restaurant, or an ice rink, is all very forced; none of it a natural touch for a former Army Ranger. Bautista’s still alright to watch, but he deserves better. Coleman, Schaal, and even the underused Jeong also. And not forgetting the other sitcom-y standbys thrown in to flesh out the script, like the stereotypical gay couple next door, and the desire to overuse a Cardi B song almost on loop to illustrate lack of dancing ability. How often do we so those hallmarks on screen, and how often do they work?
Delayed twice from an intended theatrical release last summer, and now finally arriving on Amazon Prime in the US after being caught up in the pandemic that’s still keeping most multiplexes shuttered, My Spy could’ve benefitted from another appraisal in the writing stage. If the Hoeber Brothers could give us a snarky shark tale with The MEG, and a hyper-violent shoot-em-up in RED, then they could have given us a spy comedy that breaks the mold with every step, setting a wickedly solid future template. Something Segal came so close to accomplishing with his reimagining of Get Smart. Instead, the audience dictates the mood, keeping it more cuddly than acerbic in its approach to being funny. Playing it a bit too safe, though also pushing the envelope in all the wrong ways to achieve that sweet PG-13 rating to keep youngsters in the fold, and making teens think it looks somewhat cool. At least we can say Bautista still has that effect outside of Guardians, audience expectations aside.
Seeing My Spy once in a theater pre-pandemic, and a second viewing from home last week, it’s clear where it belongs. It starts out promising something it cannot deliver by the end, a nearly delightful genre subversion tacked down by its own misguided focus. One moment a fun break from the norm of an identity 007 made famous, the next a generic all-ages film aiming for the bargain bin that is all too reliant on the charm of its star. At least Bautista’s far funnier than John Cena would’ve been. Let’s accept it, anything could be better than Playing with Fire. Perhaps that’s the only thing, the one element not to leave me with a frustrating headache at the end, that the beefcake and his sidekick on the poster know what they’re doing, even as the story around them has no solvable clue. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
My Spy is available to stream on Prime Video starting Friday, June 26; rated PG-13 for action violence, and language; 102 minutes.