In I Spy, Eddie Murphy plays Kelly Robinson, a highly compensated boxer who must collaborate with Owen Wilson as Alex Scott, an under-appreciated special agent, on a government mission to recover a reconnaissance plane that has fallen into the hands of evildoers. The bad guys, led by Malcolm McDowell as a villainous arms dealer (with a passing resemblance to Mike Myers’ flaky Goldmember), are actually called evildoers, in a timely play on the Bush-ian language of current events. But the mindset of this unexceptional espionage comedy is actually the opposite of current: It’s standard and squarely built on the familiar chemistry of odd couples whose stylistic (and, specifically, comedic) differences are casually inextricable from their racial differences.
As such, the duo follows in a unique American tradition of cross-cultural jokiness, a genre previously advanced by memorable buddies including Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, and Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. And as such, all these odd fellows owe their existence to the original ”I Spy,” the popular mid-1960s television show from which the movie draws (and underutilizes) its inspiration. The old ”I Spy” was the first mass-appeal entertainment to dare try what we now so coolly take for granted. When Bill Cosby teamed with Robert Culp as hip, bantering secret agents Robinson and Scott (passing as tennis pro and coach), Cosby — then a stand-up comedian — was the first black man to star as a hero on primetime. This was potentially incendiary stuff — with nary a riff on brothers and ‘hoods and how white men can’t jump. It was also revolutionary.
Pop culture may have come a long way, but here’s the thing: This ”I Spy,” the Hollywood-factory movie directed by Betty Thomas (who did so well by Murphy in ”Dr. Dolittle”), doesn’t move one inch forward, in any direction: Not in furthering the performance range of Murphy and Wilson. Not in sharpening the comic edge that separates performers of such exaggeratedly different black guy-white guy sensibilities. And certainly not in redefining and updating, for a new generation, what was always the TV series’ greatest accomplishment: the creation of a hip, bantering, flirtatious, brotherly affection between two cool guys who were jazzed by one another. And who just happened to be dressed in skins of different color.
TV’s ”I Spy” knew how to swing. The movie ”I Spy” knows only how to scramble and string together moments of Murphy braggadocio and Wilson stoner-ocity, and the sweat shows. A gab-session scene in a Budapest sewer while the partners hide from pursuers momentarily approaches tenderness, then doesn’t know what to do with the tone. (Scott confesses he’s pining for a pretty fellow agent, played according to the pretty-agent playbook by Famke Janssen.) With brotherly be-bop unattainable, this leaves plenty of room for mediocre chases. There’s nothing undercover in this obvious comedy; there’s not even anything skin-deep.