I Spy reteams Eddie Murphy with director Betty Thomas who put him through the paces on Dr Dolittle. Betty Thomas was previously an actress, best known for her recurring role as Lucy Bates on tvs Hill Street Blues (1981-7), before directing tv movies and winning an Emmy. As a cinematic director, Betty Thomas is rapidly emerging as someone whose work should be placed somewhere down there with the likes of Joel Schumacher, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay for its persistently annoying witlessness. Thomas made her distinction with the occasionally amusing The Brady Bunch (1995), which sarcastically deconstructed the 1970s tv series, and then followed it with Private Parts (1997), which told the life story of Howard Stern, Dr Dolittle, 28 Days (2000), which somehow managed to turn the AA process into a Sandra Bullock comedy, and subsequently John Tucker Must Die (2006) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009). Much of Betty Thomass work puts other (superior) works tv series, Hugh Loftings original Dr Dolittle stories through a wringer of vulgar, lowbrow jokes. There is a clear line in all of her work that invariably heads towards slapstick and PG-rated lavatory humour.
In this case, the film is based on the tv series I Spy that ran for 82 episodes between 1965 and 1968, featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in a series of light-hearted spy exploits. Culp was CIA agent Kelly Robinson, who maintained the cover of an international tennis player, while Cosby was the bookish language and code expert Alexander Scott who maintained cover as Kellys trainer. I Spy was one of several dozen imitators of the James Bond films its major note in history is that it was the first tv series to feature a Black leading man in Cosby. While it was a loose concept as a tv series, about all that remains in I Spy the movie is the notion of a spy caper with a Black and a White star. In perhaps a nod towards racial equality, the race roles have been reversed Eddie Murphy plays the tennis pro role (here changed to a boxer), while Owen Wilson takes the role of the tech support originally played by Bill Cosby.
The I Spy tv series was light-hearted but I Spy the movie hits a low in its constant pandering to audience humour. Indeed, what it resembles is the comparison between Barry Sonnenfelds grotesquely overinflated Wild Wild West (1999) movie and the original The Wild, Wild West tv series (1965-9). There is almost no plot to I Spy. In fact, there is almost nothing to it other than Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson bickering. Eddie Murphy is a very funny guy and his motormouth monologues are frequently sidesplitting, even in his bad films. Here Murphy is positively manic his monologues come as though he is on something or at the very least has drunken about 25 espressos. Owen Wilson is a talented performer who seems, in ones opinion, to have been miscast in comedy roles in the last few years. The bickering between the two of them just goes on and on and on and is frequently unintelligible. All that the film offers up is a not-very-funny series of gags Murphy and Wilson bickering while on a winch; a car chase sequence with them bickering as they dump cars from a vehicle transporter (and where for no apparent reason they suddenly abandon the car for a motorised scooter in mid-chase); and a sequence that should have been a whole lot funnier with Murphy feeding Wilson pickup lines via a contact lens camera and earpiece.
There is nothing in I Spy that convinces that the film has not been construed as a converging series of exploitable market niches the fad for remaking 1960s/1970s tv series on the big screen; the spy spoof fad that began with Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997); and Eddie Murphys popularity. None of it works. Betty Thomas should either go back to acting or sign up direct Adam Sandler movies where her talents would be more appropriately suited.
(Winner in this sites Worst Films of 2002 list).