One of the big set pieces in Peter Segal’s My Spy is a grade-school art competition, in which our hero, a CIA agent posing as a friendly neighbor, attempts to blend in with the rest of the yuppie parents and relatives. Put on the spot, he starts babbling about how art appeals to his duality; he may have a torso the size of a Dodge Dart, but he also appreciates the finer things. He has a masculine side, he explains, but also a sensitive side.
Rarely does a motion picture lay out its M.O. quite so succinctly; they may as well put flashing text on the bottom of the screen. For as we all know, one of the essential steps of becoming an action hero leading man is the wacky babysitting-the-kid comedy, in which our brutish star is paired with a precocious tyke, at whom he can glower and curse inappropriately, because tough guys are not meant for childcare, you see. But said child will eventually defrost our cold protagonist, whose gooey center will endear him not only to the kid (and, often, a nearby hot mom), but moviegoers.
Arnold Schwarzenegger led the way with the 1990 smash Kindergarten Cop; Hulk Hogan and Burt Reynolds followed suit three years later with, respectively, Mr. Nanny and Cop and Half. Vin Diesel was The Pacifier, The Rock led The Game Plan, and John Cena fronted Playing with Fire. And now it’s Dave Bautista’s turn, as the Guardians of the Galaxy scene-stealer plays JJ, a former soldier and novice spy assigned to surveil single mom Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her outcast nine-year-old daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman).
We’ve already seen that JJ, while undeniably good at pummeling people, is not much of a spy, and he further proves it by blowing their cover to little Sophie almost immediately. “That kid is tricky,” he insists. “It’s like dealing with terrorists.” She blackmails him into the father figure she so desperately needs, and then into falling for her mom, which is kind of creepy when you factor in all of the surveillance they’re doing. But there’s a strange sense of timelessness to Erich and Jon Hoeber’s screenplay, and I don’t mean that as a compliment – it really feels like a screenplay that was written sometime in the late ‘90s, with all the expected characters, devices, and needle drops (“…Baby One More Time”? Really?), and then given a quick tech rewrite in roughly an afternoon.
The performers do their best. Kristen Schaal is very funny (because Kristen Schaal is always very funny) as JJ’s stakeout partner and biggest fan – again, it’s a done-to-death character, but she gives it some juice. Fitz-Henley is charming as the mom, and Coleman finds both the spunk and sympathy of this little girl; she’s trying so hard to fit in, you can’t help but feel for her. And they both have real chemistry with Bautista, whose flashes of slapstick and deadpan line readings prove him a capable comedy star, though we kind of already knew that about him.
“This isn’t gonna end like some movie,” JJ assures Sophie, “with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party.” But it may as well, because watching My Spy is like watching someone ticking items off a checklist; it hits so many familiar beats, it feels like it was written by AI software. There are cool explosion walk-aways, wacky gay neighbors, and so much product placement for Doritos that I was half-expecting a Wayne’s World-style joke about it. But that would be too much to ask, of any of these shopworn devices; occasionally the picture will nod at their ubiquity, but folks, acknowledging clichés is not the same thing as subverting them. The whole thing is kind of depressing, less an entertainment than an obligation. I dunno. My kid liked it.
“My Spy” streams tomorrow on Amazon Prime.