My Spy starts out like every spy movie: A bunch of good guys and bad guys are in an abandoned warehouse. Fighting in slow motion, CIA agent JJ (Dave Bautista) is offing Russian baddies in spectacular fashion, and when he’s done we expect him to spend the next 20 minutes drinking martinis on an island.
But My Spy isn’t another version of James Bond. Despite an opening sequence that would suggest otherwise, this is a comedy. Directed by Peter Segal, who did the under-appreciated Get Smart 13 years ago, the film’s mission is to spoof the genre’s conventions while still adhering to them. Don’t let the humor fool you: Segal is working undercover as an action director as well.
Also working undercover is JJ. After he toasted the aforementioned Russians, instead of taking them into headquarters alive, he’s in big trouble. With his boss (Ken Jeong) giving him one last chance, he has to make this mission work, even if it means working in intelligence.
Intelligence isn’t JJ’s strong suit; muscles are his strong suit. And Bautista makes this bemuscled buffoon easy to root for from the start. When spying on a single mother, whose ex is a Russian terrorist, he notices that the nine-year-old daughter has found their hidden cameras. “What do we do?” his partner (Kristen Schaal) asks. He pauses. Then, looking up from the floor as if a light bulb popped in his head, replies, “We kill her.”
The seriousness of Bautista’s delivery is what makes JJ so funny. Fans of Guardians of the Galaxy will notice a similarity between JJ and Dax, another big and dumb character played by Bautista, and the deadpan routine works here as well. Even when the joke gets platitudinous, in the occasional exposition sequence, he carries the weight of each scene with movie star finesse.
It helps that his partner in crime is played by Chloe Coleman. Another rising star with comedic timing, Coleman is as precocious as her character, Sophie. The nine year old daughter is a natural at espionage. After she and JJ become besties, he teaches her the CIA basics: How to disarm TNT, how to disarm Russians and how to walk away from explosions.
Most of these scenarios have been done before in Kindergarten Cop and Leon: The Professional. A hilariously awkward class presentation, which sees JJ hinting at his actual profession (“I take out trash… around the world”), was done by Schwarzenegger in Cop. The two’s father-daughter relationship recalls Professional. But it’s the actor’s chemistry, as well as Segal’s knowing tone, that helps this feel fresh. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Bautista destroy kids in dodgeball?
The joke does get old. After an hour of these two hanging out I started to wonder if the bad guys would ever show up again. Thankfully, they do. In a climax that gives Segal a chance to flex his chops as an action filmmaker, the terrorists return. And to the surprise of JJ, Chloe and her mom, Kate (Pariza Fitz-Henley), they return with lots of guns. This serves as ammunition for some impressive shootouts.
Starting in the apartment, which turns into a car chase, which results in a plane hanging over a cliff, Segal takes an assortment of otherwise mundane images (a car skirting around a corner, a plane on a runway) and turns them into a cohesive, thrilling finale. It’s also touching. When Sophie puts her spy training to use, as JJ stands by her side, their friendship puts the “feel good” in feel good movie.
There are a lot of reasons to feel good while watching My Spy. Because it comes out a time when former Oscar contenders and big budget blockbusters duel at the box office, there’s a laid-backness here that seems novel. There’s also a romance that’s kinda cute. Between JJ and Kate, Sophie has finally found a mom and dad. She sets the whole thing up like a villain with a master plan. By having JJ walk her home, or come over for dinner, the two, along with Sophie, bond.
And it’s their bond that makes us care about these characters. In the finale, you might find yourself getting choked up when Kate is held at gunpoint. Can JJ and Sophie save the day? Let’s just say the result leaves one shaken and stirred.
A feel good movie should make you feel...well, good. And My Spy's arsenal of laughs, smiles and carefree action connects with a sniper's precision.