Posted: Sunday, November 03, 2002

How I long for the days when Eddie Murphy was cool. Anybody remember Beverly Hills Cop? 48 Hours? Those were great action/comedies. Even their respective sequels weren't too bad. And then came Eddie Murphy Raw, in which the star proved he was the undisputed heir to Richard Pryor's throne in the realm of controversial and dangerous comedy. Without Eddie Murphy there would be no Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Eddie Griffin, or Orlando Jones. Unfortunately, right at the height of his career, someone told Eddie that it was time to get respectable. Too bad.

After a few minor hits, i.e. Coming To America, and a few major bombs, i.e. Vampire in Brooklyn, Murphy hit his stride with kid-friendly, super lightweights like The Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle. They're not great, by any means, but at least he was making a few bucks. Now, I think he wants to come back to where he started, to the cool Eddie we once knew, but he doesn't know how. He's tainted with family-fun, and so we, his rapidly diminishing fan base, are stuck with losers like the DOA Pluto Nash, and now I Spy.

I Spy is loosely based on the old Cosby series of the same name, but don't be concerned if you weren't an avid watcher. As far as I can tell, the name is pretty much the only connection. Murphy stars as heavyweight champion of the world, Kelly Robinson, a name that's easy to remember, as Murphy refers to himself mostly in the third person. Owen Wilson is Alex Scott, a recently promoted special agent in some obviously fictional government super secret spy agency. Together they'll have to hunt down and recover the deadliest espionage weapon ever invented - a spy plane that can actually make itself invisible. And yes, that plays out on screen just as dumb as it sounds.

This movie is little more than a waste of time. And don't get me wrong, it's not the silly premise that's the problem. Look at Spies Like Us, a great movie with a really dumb premise. In fact, though I Spy was obviously going for the tenor of that film, I doubt they actually watched it all the way through. The jokes have to actually be funny; fresh. Very little about I Spy is funny, and none of it is fresh. Malcolm McDowell plays the bad guy, but I don't think he's actually in the movie. I think they just took clips of him playing the exact same character in the last fifteen films he's done and digitally spliced them together. All the action scenes were so dull, I felt as though I were watching an old eighties TV show; maybe The A-Team. Though an occasional joke hits the mark, most of the humor falls flat, as there is almost no chemistry between Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.

Owen Wilson, playing basically the same role he did in Shanghai Noon, is supposed to give this film some highbrow credit, but all he does is slow it down. Wilson really needs to take a hard look at where his career is taking him. His forte is sophisticated, well written comedy like The Royal Tenenbaums, not dreck like I Spy. He is turning a hard corner to come back around. Look at what happened to Nicholas Cage. He hasn't turned in a real performance since Leaving Las Vegas, and that was just a fluke. The minute he suited up for Jerry Bruckheimer in The Rock, a good movie, by the way, it was all over. Owen, please, don't let it happen to you.

There are a few positive moments in I Spy, though not enough to justify your entire two hours. Gary Cole is pretty amusing as a super-suave super-spy named Carlos, who stirs up feelings of jealousy and inadequacy in Alex. Carlos gets all the cool, sleek spy equipment, while our hero has to settle for the micro-locating transmitter the size of a brick. Mostly, however, I Spy is played; tired. Kelly Robinson's banter is nothing more than a pale imitation of Chris Tucker, who was only became famous in the first place by imitating Murphy. How sad. Famke Janssen, apparently on a break from the set of X-Men 2, turns in a lukewarm performance as a fellow agent with a secret, but is anyone really going to be surprised by the time it's revealed? No. Partly because it's obvious, and partly because no one cares. It is impossible to get invested in the characters or their mission, and as a result, I Spy self-destructs faster than Tom Cruise's answering machine. If I want to see spies, I'll wait for the real thing - Die Another Day is only weeks away. That's the main course, while this is nothing more than an appetizer, and a stale one at that. Grade: D+

I Spy is rated PG-13 for cartoon violence and language.

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