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‘My Spy’ offers kid-friendly espionage

June 26, 2020
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Stop me if you heard this one: a professional wrestler who transitioned to acting makes an action comedy in which he shares the screen with a precocious child costar.

Ever since the double leg drop of Hulk Hogan’s “Suburban Commando” and “Mr. Nanny,” it seems that part of the formula for getting over a wrestler as a movie star involves that sort of kid-oriented flick. Hogan did it, the Rock did it (wildly successfully, it should be added) and now we’re seeing offerings from the likes of John Cena and Dave Bautista.

Bautista stars in “My Spy,” currently available on Amazon Prime Video and for rental, precisely the sort of odd couple kiddie comedy we’re talking about. Now, Bautista is an interesting case, in that he initially skipped a few steps in the wrestler-to-movie star plan thanks to his delightful turn as Drax in the MCU, but apparently he still has to follow the rules, even if he does it out of order.

As you might expect, there’s not much here that you haven’t seen before. The standard beats are all present, landing with a steady deliberateness. This is not a movie that surprises in terms of structure or story; you’re pretty sure how it’s all going to go from the top.

And yet … it’s actually not bad. Not great, mind you, but charming enough, thanks to Bautista and (particularly) his young costar. It’s all perfectly pleasant, with some dumb jokes and a couple of fun supporting turns and some fun kid-friendly(ish) action sequences. Not memorable, but in a vaguely pleasant way.

Honestly, it could have been worse.

Bautista plays JJ, a former Special Forces operative who has become a CIA agent. He’s struggling with some of the more nuanced aspects of the job – a struggle that inadvertently leads to major danger when part of a dangerous weapon is taken during an op gone bad. JJ’s boss David Kim (Ken Jeong, “Scoob!”) removes him from the lead investigation, instead opting to send him – along with starry-eyed analyst Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, TV’s “Bob’s Burgers”) – out on surveillance duty.

The target of observation is Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henly, “Fantasy Island”), an ER nurse living in Chicago with her nine-year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman, TV’s “Big Little Lies”). Kate’s deceased husband was engaged in some nefarious business – including some high-end arms dealing with his brother Marquez (Greg Bryk, “Ad Astra”), the guy looking to assemble the aforementioned weapon. That potential connection leads to a frustrated JJ moving into a sparsely-furnished apartment (along with Bobbi) to stake Kate out.

Of course, little Sophie catches on very quickly to what’s happening and makes the pair as CIA agents. Threatening to inform their higher-ups that their plan was uncovered by a kid, she blackmails them. She makes JJ take her on outings and, after her mom discovers them together, he’s forced to continue and expand upon the charade, all while teaching the little girl spycraft.

It’s all very cute and everyone makes friends and JJ’s emotional walls begin to crumble and all that, but – as always happens in these stories – it can’t last. When things start to get really dangerous, it’s up to JJ to figure out a way to protect his new friends and save the day.

Like I said – nothing you haven’t seen before. And yet … it works. “My Spy” is not a great movie. You could argue that it isn’t even a good movie and I wouldn’t fight you on it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. I have real affection for the whole big-dude-little-kid comedic dynamic, and there’s something fascinating about the oddly specific niche this type of movie exists to fill.

As far as the execution – it’s fine. Workmanlike, but more than solid enough for this kind of movie. Director Peter Segal is a comedy journeyman, having done this sort of for-hire work since the 1990s. He’s got an Eddie Murphy, a Steve Carell and three Sandlers on his resume (although his masterpiece is “Tommy Boy,” obviously); he’s the perfect guy to helm this sort of project. Again, it’s nothing spectacular, but basic competence is all you need.

What makes “My Spy” work – what makes any of these movies work – is the chemistry between the big dude and the little kid. And that is an area in which this particular movie excels. Bautista might not be a great actor (though I’d argue that he has a little more range than we tend to give him credit for), but when he stays in his lane, he’s an effective performer. He’s at his best when he’s embracing his general lack of affect, mining it to great comedic effect; it works especially well alongside the bright-eyed charm of Coleman, who is an utter delight. Too often, kid actors play precocious as hammy, but Coleman really makes it work. She’s sweet and sassy in all the right ways. It’s a great pairing.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s solid as well. Schaal is great as the dorky tech, leaning into her awkward energy in a fun fashion. Fitz-Henly does good work as Kate, while Jeong is fine in what amounts to an extended cameo. Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby have some fun as the couple across the hall. A nice group.

Look – like it or not, if you’re a pro wrestler who wants to become a movie star, you have to have at least one of these movies on your resume. I don’t make the rules. And if I’m Dave Bautista, I’m happy that mine is “My Spy.” It has some fun; the kid is cute and the action is OK. Not great, but far from terrible – any way you look at it, that’s a win.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 26 June 2020 10:56

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