It’s a fine line between friendly and desperate.
Like Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne Johnson before him, former wrestler and MMA fighter Dave Bautista has found himself starring alongside a child in a family-friendly vehicle using the juxtaposition between adolescent innocence and muscle-clad heroics as a comedic right of passage towards potential (Hollywood Hogan left his short-lived cinematic career in the 90s) superstardom. Whereas Mr. Nanny, Last Action Hero, The Pacifier, and Tooth Fairy hit the big screen to varying box office success, however, Bautista’s bid to leverage his Avengers clout as actor and producer is begrudgingly going the streaming route. Many will dismiss that result as a byproduct of its quality sight unseen, but a financially troubled distributor and COVID-19 reveals how some movies are simply hit by extremely bad luck.
That’s not to say Peter Segal‘s My Spy is beyond reproach. Written by Erich and Jon Hoeber, the final result is similarly flawed to Battleship and The Meg before it with a premise that demands full-blown cheesy farce yet never quite gets there thanks to a desire to play things for dramatic realism instead. Unlike those two titles, however, this one has the advantage of being a kid’s film so as to earn a bit more leeway. Part of the point is to teach moralizing lessons about family, friendship, bullying, and not judging books by their covers. So if Segal and company pulls back on the reins a bit, there’s a reason. The result is far from perfect, but its heart is in the right place.
This truth goes a long way for a project like this since it will mostly be seen through the lens of children aged around its precocious young lead Sophie (Chloe Coleman). The film may start with retired Army Ranger and current CIA operative JJ (Bautista) in the midst of a nuclear arms deal, but the adventure that follows is less about living vicariously through his experiences than it is through hers. The reason is simple: she’s more self-aware than him. JJ has the mind and fearlessness to take on a warehouse full of armed assailants alone, but his unfeeling ability to do so makes him a liability when it comes to infiltrating organizations with the nuance necessary to maintain cover. Once demoted, he continues to ignore that shortcoming.
JJ therefore overestimates his importance on a babysitting detail—he and Kristen Schaal‘s tech Bobbi are looking after the widow (Parisa Fitz-Henley‘s Kate) of the recently murdered brother of a man (Greg Bryk‘s Marquez) searching for plans for a weapon of mass destruction—just as he underestimates that assignment’s daughter Sophie. She’s the new kid in class who’s yet to break through and make friends (transferring from Paris and obviously being more cultured than her Chicago counterparts doesn’t help), so she has plenty of time to look into a surveillance camera found in her apartment and subsequently blow his cover … again. Unless JJ wants his superiors to know, he must agree to let a nine-year old hold him hostage as best friend, mentor, and prospective father figure.
Those first two roles are where My Spy shines thanks to Bautista and Coleman’s characters having the exact opposite personalities. JJ has the gruff exterior of a soldier and soft center of a man who knows loss too well to risk letting anyone get close again. Sophie has the innocent exterior of a young girl able to endear herself to any stranger and hardened interior to analytically accept her father’s death and discern the weak points of anyone within her proximity. He’s perfectly positioned to teach her how to use those skills in the field and she’s conversely primed to break down his defenses so his feelings can escape their grief-fueled prison. Their respective trauma is superficially drawn and only mentioned in passing, but its presence is noted.
As a result, the plotline that has Sophie playing matchmaker between JJ and her mom always feels underdeveloped. While the antics she and her new friend get into on the “spy” side are genuinely funny, the moments when he and Kate are forced together by the plot rather than natural chemistry aren’t. These scenes appear to be tacked on from a different movie with a weird “he can’t dance” thread that proves cringe-worthy less because of Bautista’s moves and more because the people cheering him on and “grooving” to the hip hop music are all very white. Add the fact that JJ and Kate getting together is blatant wish fulfillment on behalf of Sophie as opposed to being earned through the script and it does diminish the rest.
The only way to make it necessary to the whole is to confront the issue of Kate’s husband being dead beyond one exchange where she admits she had no idea he was a “bad guy.” To simply erase his existence and allow for the meet-cute that ensues is to cement the reality that everyone on-screen is unforgivably two-dimensional. And while that’s okay with supporting cast members like Ken Jeong (who’s successfully playing against type a bit), Schaal (who’s relegated to sidekick banter and shallow jealousy from JJ teaching Sophie spy craft instead of her), and the duo of Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby (pure comic relief), it’s a glaring misstep for the three people you’re trying to build an authentic bond between.
It’s the Hoebers’ modus operandi, though. They try and shoehorn in real world drama without going through the trouble to make it resonate above the punch lines written as a result. We wouldn’t care if they simply leaned into the absurdity and stopped trying to make us care (I think they did a great job of this with the first RED). But like I said above, you can forgive it here because of the target audience. It still feels half-baked and wildly inconsistent, but you can appreciate what’s being taught through JJ, Sophie, and Kate’s relationship. This girl is trying to replace the villain that her father became with a hero in need of love. It’s a cute scenario where all involved win regardless of its emotional simplicity.
courtesy of Amazon Studios