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MY SPY (2020) review

June 30, 2020

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written by: Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber
produced by: Dave Bautista, Chris Bender, Jonathan Meisner, Gigi Pritzker, Peter Segal, Robert Simonds, Jake Weiner
directed by: Peter Segal
rated: Rated PG-13 (for action/violence and language)
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: June 26, 2020 (Amazon Prime)

 

“You want me to talk my way into some stranger’s apartment? Do you know how dangerous that is?”

 

Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger tussled with tots in “Kindergarten Cop” back in 1990, the family friendly film has become a rite of passage for any tough guy actors looking to broaden their appeal. The burgeoning subgenre is notoriously hit-or-miss and certainly doesn’t lack its fair share of terrible entries – 2010’s “The Tooth Fairy” anyone? – and the never-ending litany of wrestlers turned actors is responsible for the bulk of its content. Since his breakthrough role as Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy” back in 2014, Dave Bautista has proven himself a genuinely likable talent and a prime candidate for a softer side family comedy.

Thankfully, his new film “My Spy” hedges closer to “Kindergarten Cop” than many of the worst films that make up the vast space between them. This is due, at least in small part, to its PG-13 rating which allows for some legitimate threats against not only his life, but the life of his pre-teen co-star. Yes, it’s all relatively tame when compared with the average film Bautista may be headlining, but it’s far from putting him in a tutu or having him run the endlessly embarrassing gauntlet of tea parties many of his contemporaries have endured.

 

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“My Spy” could have scored easy laughs by dressing Bautista up in pink or having him debase himself in any number of ways, but the film has a modicum of respect for its star and allows him to mine the humor in his natural awkwardness. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s paired up with two terrifically funny co-stars in Kristen Schaal and Chloe Coleman, who help to ground Bautista’s otherworldliness. In fact, the film’s cast helps it to glide over some of its messier areas in general, keeping things moving when the rote plot or pedestrian direction either can’t or won’t.

Bautista stars as JJ, a loose cannon CIA agent whose brash tactics result in the loss of a nuclear weapon. Feeling he needs to be reigned in, his superior (Ken Jeong) gives him a cushy assignment keeping an eye on the widow of a former arms dealer whose brother-in-law is still at large. He’s partnered with socially awkward hacker Bobbi (Schaal) to stake out the widowed Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who has just moved to Chicago with her daughter Sophie (Coleman) in hopes of a fresh start.

When Sophie almost instantly blows JJ and Bobbi’s cover by discovering one of their spy cameras, she threatens to rat them out unless JJ takes her under his wing and teaches her how to be a spy. This involves everything from speaking at her school on career day to training her how to walk away from an explosion without looking back. The more hardened and cynical adults in the audience are sure to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the set-ups and the solidly well-trod ground the film decides to once again cover. However, the film’s target pre-teen to young teen audience is sure to get much more out of the endeavor as this isn’t your standard family friendly territory.

 

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As romance begins to blossom between JJ and Kate, the film’s many storylines begin converging and threaten to bury the whole thing in an avalanche of predictability. Thankfully the cast is more than capable at keeping things interesting even when things, frankly, aren’t terribly interesting. Bautista has proven himself adept at both comedy and stoicism in his previous work and puts both weapons in his arsenal to good use here. His willingness to make himself look foolish without ever truly debasing himself is one of the film’s biggest strengths and allows him to walk away relatively unscathed.

Like Marsai Martin in last year’s similarly slightly edgy pre-teen comedy “Little,” Coleman proves herself destined for stardom in both her timing and her poise. This is by no means her acting debut, but it’s the kind of showcase that actors her age don’t often get, and she doesn’t squander it by holding her own with some seriously intimidating co-stars. Schaal is also always a welcome presence in just about anything and her chemistry with Bautista is the definition of give-and-take. She’s not having to do all of the heavy lifting, which allows her more freedom to play around and have fun.

At the helm is veteran comedy director Peter Segal (“Naked Gun 33 1/3” and  “Get Smart”) who offers a steady hand and not much else. There’s nothing innovative or ground-breaking on display here and there doesn’t really need to be, but it could’ve used something beyond a director who knows how to competently frame shots. That extra bit of juice might have helped it transcend things and it’s disappointing that the film never really does move beyond its modest aims.

“My Spy” was rather notoriously bounced around the release calendar for the last year, which may account for why you remember seeing the trailer last summer. Unfortunately it feels like a cast-off with very little in the way of love and attention lavished on it by the creative team or studio. Thankfully, Amazon Prime proves itself the perfect home for such a film, modestly seeking to entertain the kiddos for 90 minutes without overstaying its welcome or insulting their intelligence. It’s a film that deserved better, particularly considering the effort put in by its ensemble. However, its brazen modesty makes it seem as though it got the release it deserved. Take that how you will.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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