It is a time-honored tradition that every big, tough action star must show their softer side in a family friendly movie with a pint-sized co-star. Schwarzenegger had “Kindergarten Cop.” Vin Diesel was “The Pacifier.” For John Cena, it was “Playing With Fire.” And now, Dave Bautista takes his turn in Amazon’s latest, “My Spy.”
Bautista plays JJ, a former Army Ranger now working for the CIA. JJ’s career is on thin ice after he made an error that left the Russian mafia halfway to building their own nuclear weapon. At the center of that plot is Victor Marquez, a French arms dealer whose now-deceased brother David hid the plans Victor planned to sell. JJ is exiled to Chicago to surveil David’s wife, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman).
The setup is one cliche after another. Stoic tough guy JJ is secretly lonely and only has a betta fish named Blueberry to keep him company. He is paired up with quirky computer expert Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), who worships him. There are mafia men and terrorists, murdered spies and secret plans. There’s also the shunned new kid at school as Sophie struggles to fit in after she and her mother recently relocated from France.
“My Spy” is not a good movie, but Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman have so much charisma and odd couple chemistry that they turn a goofy script into an entertaining romp. When Sophie discovers her new neighbors JJ and Bobbi are spies, she blackmails JJ into teaching her the ways of espionage in a montage of amusing moments. Before long, JJ is escorting Sophie to Special Friends Day at school, helping her get invited to an ice skating party, and taking Kate out on a date. As the lines get blurred, the situation gets more complicated and the stakes go up, but the humor doesn’t follow.
Out of all the films in this silly sub-genre, “My Spy” shares the closest DNA with “Kindergarten Cop,” including the law enforcement angle, getting too involved with the family, making costly mistakes along the way. But where “Kindergarten Cop” broke some new ground and found a good balance between fish-out-of-water comedy and cop thriller, “My Spy” struggles with tone and identity.
After a surprisingly violent opening sequence paired with an unlikely soundtrack of Britney Spears and Nena, the movie becomes something of a tween drama, then a kind of rom com, and then a quasi spy thriller again. It is unclear who this movie is supposed to be for. The PG-13 rating, violence and language make this unsuitable for young children, while the elementary school storyline and budding romance are unlikely to be particularly interesting for older kids. Though probably not the intended audience, the group most likely to enjoy this movie are middle-aged moms who like watching precocious kids melt the hearts of men like Dave Bautista.
This is one of those films that isn’t as bad as it could have been, but was also capable of being so much more. The script by Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber spends the first half being almost a parody of other movies. But in later scenes, the characters practically shout out the titles they are referencing. It’s as though they decided somewhere along the way that no one would understand the jokes if they didn’t explain them. One of the frustrating things is the way there are glimpses of something truly smart and subversive brewing beneath the surface. For every cliche, there’s a chance to go the opposite and less expected way. Sometimes they do make that unexpected choice, but usually they opt for the trope instead. While it is unhelpful to bemoan the things a movie isn’t, it’s hard to ignore all the times they could easily and delightfully have gone a different direction.
But what we have is this finished project that stubbornly refuses to take risks, relying almost entirely on Bautista’s ability to make a humorless character funny. Pairing him with Coleman in her first leading role was the one risk they took, and it paid off. Together, Bautista and Coleman turn a stale, overworked plot into something charming and occasionally very funny.