Starring: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers and Noah Danby
Rating: PG-13, for action violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
A curious cinema sub-genre finds macho action stars slotted into comedies with children.
Vin Diesel turned babysitter in 2005’s “The Pacifier.” Dwayne Johnson discovered a surprise daughter in 2007’s “The Game Plan,” and donned a tutu in 2010’s “Tooth Fairy.” That latter year, Jackie Chan looked after his girlfriend’s three kids, in “The Spy Next Door.”
It therefore was inevitable Dave Bautista would follow in their footsteps.
These films rise or fall on the personality of the child(ren) involved; if they’re insufferable, ill-behaved little brats who exist solely to make their adult chaperones look like idiots, the results can be dire. And knowing that director Peter Segal was responsible for “Tommy Boy,” “Nutty Professor II” and a gaggle of overly broad Adam Sandler comedies, did not exactly inspire confidence.
But the Erich Hoeber/Jon Hoeber script is smarter than usual for such projects, and Segal (mostly) eschews wretched excess. More crucially, young Chloe Coleman is genuinely endearing as Bautista’s pint-sized foil, and she can actually act … as opposed to many of the youngsters who turn up in films like this.
The result is far more entertaining than I expected. Heck, at times even mildly poignant.
Bautista has made the most of his post-“Guardians of the Galaxy” notoriety, and the WWE veteran has the same gruff, brooding charm that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve fame, back in the day. He also has an imposing physical presence that contrasts amusingly with a storyline that demands his character “get in touch with his inner feelings.”
Hardened CIA operative Jason “JJ” Jones (Bautista), ex-Special Forces, is introduced while “handling” a weapons-grade plutonium trade between the Russian Mafia and a Middle Eastern terrorist. The resulting mayhem appears to conclude successfully, but appearances are deceiving; JJ’s cowboy heroics allow one of the key villains to escape.
Back at Langley, JJ’s boss (Ken Jeong, suitably condescending) is extremely displeased; the terrorist in the wind has half the means to threaten the world with a miniaturized nuclear bomb. While a rival agent gets the plum assignment of tracking the most likely action in Paris, JJ is banished to a nondescript Chicago apartment. His job: to surveil a single mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Coleman).
Kate’s deceased husband was connected to the terrorists, so there’s an unlikely chance that she knows something. In other words, it’s a tedious, likely useless monitoring gig.
To make matters worse, JJ gets stuck with tech specialist Roberta “Bobbi” Ulf (Kristen Schaal), an aspiring field agent who worships him, and whose overeagerness is a constant embarrassment. (Schaal’s nasal, cartoon character voice — certainly not her fault, but still — wears thin very quickly.)
Alas, JJ and Bobbi have barely begun, when the precocious Sophie and her adorable dog find one of the hidden cameras and — with astute Wi-Fi skills — track the spies to a neighboring apartment.
Sophie’s subsequent action proves unexpected. Lonely and friendless after the abrupt move from Paris, she blackmails JJ into becoming her new constant companion. Desperate not to have his cover blown to Langley, he reluctantly agrees — and discovers, as with all blackmail victims, that the little girl’s demands are ongoing.
The formula is familiar and predictable, but Bautista and Coleman make it feel fresh. Her wide-eyed candor and mildly saucy cunning are balanced by the woebegone despair of a little girl desperate to join the cliques on the school playground. Bautista, in turn, credibly plays a guy utterly divorced from his feelings, who leads an isolated life with nothing but a pet fish (Blueberry) for company.
Watching the two of them warily bond is a treat, because they make it feel authentic.
Fitz-Henley’s Kate is intelligent, sensitive to her daughter’s distress … and overwhelmed by everything. The script grants her a reasonable excuse for trusting this hulking guy with her little girl, and we can anticipate where that is going, as well.
Bobbi is horrified by all of this, given how protocol has been abandoned; Schaal nonetheless becomes less whiny as the story progresses, which is a good thing. Her sparring with Bautista develops into the mildly brittle sniping of a married couple.
Devere Rogers and Noah Danby are a hoot as Carlos and Todd, a gay neighbor couple who take an interest in JJ’s developing relationship with Kate and Sophie. Rogers is cheerfully bubbly and talkative; Danby’s Todd “speaks” only in monosyllabic grunts.
Greg Bryk is appropriately nasty as French illegal arms dealer Victor Marquez — Kate’s brother-in-law, and Sophie’s uncle — who is seeking the plans that’ll allow terrorists to build the aforementioned nuclear bomb.
Although most of the mayhem and action sequences are bloodless, a few details — such as a baddie’s severed head floating across the screen, in slow motion — are needlessly tasteless, and stretch the film’s PG-13 rating. Fortunately, the various character dynamics more than compensate for the occasional lapses, and there’s no denying the fun in watching Bautista’s JJ attempt to dance. And ice skate.
“My Spy” certainly won’t set the world on fire, but it’s a delightful way to spend a couple of hours.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.hkxms.cn.ShareTweet