Dave Bautista doesn’t need “My Spy,” and neither do we.
That’s all you really need to know about “My Spy,” but I’ll continue. Bautista, the wrestler-turned-in-demand character actor is building a name for himself in some worthy projects but should avoid (rather than embrace) the career speedbumps of other muscled men of action turned movie stars.
Bautista stars as JJ, a CIA operative who is quick to use his gun and blow stuff up on the job. His fed-up boss, played by Ken Jeong, can’t control JJ, so he assigns him a stakeout job.
JJ is paired with Bobbi (Kristen Schall of “Bob’s Burgers” fame), an untested paper pusher. JJ and Bobbi do a surveillance job on a single mother (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her precocious and lonely daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman).
Early on, Sophie discovers JJ’s operation and blackmails him to take her ice skating. Later, she encourages JJ to date her mom, makes him her “show and tell” exhibit in school, etc. Chances are, dear reader, you can guess the rest of the movie with total accuracy and not just because this is a collection of tired clichés.
“My Spy” steals the plot of “Kindergarten Cop” outright, starting with its tough-guy-having-to-tolerate-little-kids concept. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Richard Kimble, Bautista’s JJ has a quip-ready female partner, dates the mother of the suspect he’s tailing, becomes a father figure to the son of the suspect and learns to be a better person in the end.
It also opens and closes with violent (though bloodless) action sequences that are intense enough to make one wonder just who this was made for.
Both movies are PG-13 and are questionable choices for small children. While it’s a stretch to call it a classic, “Kindergarten Cop” is easily the best comedy Schwarzenegger made for director Ivan Reitman and remains a quotable, endearing time killer.
Making this breed of high concept comedy work is rare and inadvisable, as many have tried and failed. Schwarzenegger’s vehicle is at the top of the hill, while the bottom is littered with junk like Dwayne Johnson’s “The Game Plan,” Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier” and Burt Reynolds’ “Cop and a Half.”
For this sort of thing to work, you need a leading man who is in on the joke and has chemistry with a child actor who can hold their own. “My Spy” starts poorly, gets worse and is so long it fooled me into thinking it was getting better, before it finally crash lands.
In “Blade Runner 2049,” Bautista gave a soulful turn that promised great things. His turns as Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies display a deft comic timing. Unlike The Rock, who has been playing his movie roles in exactly the same way for a decade now, Bautista appears willing to take risks and work with great filmmakers (for example, he plays the Beast Rabban in Denis Villeneueve’s “Dune” adaptation, due in fall).
Here, he’s stiff and off his game, slumming in the kind of script Johnson would turn down. Coleman is giving a sitcom-ready performance, tossing out one-liners but not building much of a character. Jeong continues to waste his talent in cringe-inducing movies and, either due to the script or her lack of enthusiasm, Schaal’s timing is off.
The irredeemable moment comes early -- Trying to prove herself to her unimpressed partner, Schaal has a bit where she throws a dagger at Bautista and it lands firmly in his leg. She then graphically vomits right in front of the camera.
Having fun so far, kids?
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An angle the movie misses is that Sophie not only shares JJ’s social awkwardness but actually displays behavior that, while comic, could be taken as sociopathic. It might have been funnier if JJ had to take on a new variation on Damien Thorne, instead of the gooey father/daughter shtick.
Director Peter Segal previously made “50 First Dates,” “Get Smart,” “Tommy Boy” and the third “Naked Gun,” all crowd-pleasing comedies I enjoy. There’s an air of desperation to this one, as well as a throwback to the kind of movies that were ubiquitous in the ’80s and ’90s, for appealing to neither children nor adults but thinking both audiences would enjoy it.
This one would barely entertain a captive audience at a sleepover party, though it has enough violence, profanity and gay jokes to make it questionable enough for all ages.
To give the movie a break, Fitz-Henley is really good as the mom and there’s one funny sight gag, involving a wounded bird. Otherwise, this is every bit as agonizing to sit through as the trailer indicated; since the released date was postponed multiple times, I had to sit through that trailer for nearly a year in theaters, before the studio settled on a post- Covid-19 streaming premiere.
“My Spy” is by-the-numbers and dumb. I’m hopeful that movies like this will be an anomaly, and not the norm, for Bautista’s film career.
One and a half stars