My Spy, 2020.
Directed by Peter Segal.
Starring Dave Bautista, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Chloe Coleman, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby, Vieslav Krystyan, and Greg Bryk.
A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.
Contrary to the title, there’s not much spying or dangerous fieldwork to be found within My Spy (directed by Peter Segal, who has a fairly decent reputation for comedy known for Tommy Boy and The Longest Yard remake, among others). It’s a decision that ends up playing to the strengths of the script (written by Erich and Jon Hoeber), which is also somewhat of a leap of faith considering the star is former pro wrestler turned excellent jack-of-all-trades actor Dave Bautista mainly sticking to comedy. There’s a sense that the filmmakers knew how laid-back Bautista is when it comes to self-deprecation and caught on early that he and his 11-year-old co-star (Chloe Coleman as the mischievously clever Sophie seeking both spy training and a new father figure) had endearing chemistry together.
The film opens with a botched operation over in Ukraine where CIA agent JJ (Dave Bautista) winds up killing everyone at the site of a black-market exchange involving plutonium. Although part of his mission was indeed to retrieve the plutonium, JJ failed to get the necessary information and in the process allowed one terrorist to escape, an individual that conveniently ran off with another piece of plutonium. This results in JJ getting reassigned away from the action (his superior is strangely played by Ken Jeong in a role that’s not intended to be funny nor is it entertaining) with tech lady Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) who looks up to the agent as her hero and is bursting with joy at the opportunity to hopefully learn from him, which I suppose in this case is how to destroy everything in sight like a bull in a china shop.
Disappointing to JJ, the mission is located in a Chicago neighborhood where she and Bobbi must set up shop in an apartment complex spying on single mother Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her elementary school attending daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman), as the former is suspected of having ties to the plutonium terrorist. Naturally, it’s not a fun gig to JJ and his lone-wolf style means he is not thrilled or interested in teaching Bobbi a thing or two about spying. Meanwhile, his hands become forced into teaching Sophie things such as how to lie or infiltrate buildings (all of which she figures out with relative ease while JJ struggles to do so, remaining the muscle of any operation), as the intelligent girl finds out about the cameras installed and essentially blackmails him into doing whatever she wants. The time that JJ spends with Sophie makes Bobbi somewhat jealous, giving Kristen Schaal room to thrive as an obsessed fan who wishes she was the one learning; she’s the film’s secret weapon, which is ironic considering her character is so bad and inexperienced with firearms JJ forbids her from touching the weapons cache.
This also branches out into taking Sophie ice skating (her mom works as an ER nurse and doesn’t have much free time), helping her make friends (she’s new at the school having last lived in France, unable to connect with her classmates), and setting up JJ and her mother on a date once she senses that he’s a good human being repressing emotional trauma and shutting himself off from loved ones. Throughout all of this, My Spy rarely returns to see what the other agents are up to trying to catch the villain (his motives are entirely generic anyway), leaning all the way into broad humor and the charm from the central dynamic between Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman.
That’s not to say every stab at humor here is a winner (there are some segments that consist of JJ failing miserably at dancing, and while I appreciate Dave Bautista’s outlook on embarrassing himself for the sake of getting a laugh, it’s plain cringe-inducing and not funny), but the film almost always has its heart in the right place. The joke where JJ comes up with a ridiculous way to kill Sophie after she outs and records the spies probably didn’t need to be repeated (once his fine, twice starts to come across as mean-spirited writing), so lucky for the filmmakers they have Dave Bautista to fall back on, who is able to take some occasionally weak material and make it amusing by utilizing nothing more than his consistently impeccable line readings. Even when the middle act begins to drag (it’s pretty much nothing but Sophie holding power over JJ’s head to do whatever she wants), there’s just a strong likability whenever these two are on-screen together to prevent one from outright disliking what is a fairly cliché experience.
It’s wise that My Spy eventually does return to action for its climax, as by then the film is in dire need of switching gears but it’s also the right time to start poking fun at and embracing some of those action clichés (there is a great gag involving walking away from explosions). When My Spy is letting JJ and Sophie bond and train spliced with humor, it’s effective, but let’s just say other characters don’t fare too well (there’s a gay couple who are written borderline offensively like an outdated comedy from the 90s). At least the filmmakers are aware of what is working for the movie, injecting that pairing with heart and charm while comically brushing every other aspect of the plot so far off to the side it’s easy to forget they exist.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com