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I Spy with very little mind 

The new action comedy I Spy provides some important services and teaches some valuable lessons to the student of contemporary cinema, especially the well-known Hollywood variety. To begin with, the movie's marketers copied Winston Churchill's World War II strategy of carpet bombing, opening the picture in what seems like every multiplex in the country, with show times scheduled practically around the clock. That kind of saturation would probably guarantee box office success for almost any film, from some arty basement flick to a musical featuring Phil Spitalny and His All-Girl Orchestra playing songs from the plays of Henry James. For a flick that stars a popular comic actor grinning and mugging against an exotic landscape illuminated by explosions, the results should prove most satisfying for its makers.

            The movie also attains a certain special place --- which, unfortunately, it does not occupy alone --- as a good example of Hollywood at its most blatantly commercial, its most wasteful, and its most appallingly unimaginative.

            I Spy owes its existence to an ancient television series of the same name from the dark, backward abysm of time known as the 1960s. The popular show originally starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. It helped turn Cosby, then a stand-up comic, into a major star, and employed its light, flimsy espionage plots in one of the great traditions of American literature: as a means to explore the friendship between a black man and a white man. In a time of significant racial tension, when many American cities were erupting into arson, riot, and anarchy, the show possessed a special relevance, which the current movie tends to exaggerate and parody.

            The motion picture departs drastically from the format of the series, but maintains that interracial relationship --- this time, in the persons of Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson --- as the major subject embedded in the context of its otherwise entirely ridiculous situation. Wilson plays a bumbling secret agent named Alex Scott, who helps persuade the middleweight boxing champion of the world, Kelly Robinson (Murphy), to work with him on a dangerous mission to recover a stolen American stealth airplane (so stealthy it can be rendered invisible) from an international arms dealer named Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell). The pair travel to Budapest, where Robinson will defend his championship and distract Gundars, the promoter of the match, while Scott recaptures the plane.

            The absurd plot serves as the excuse for the usual panoply of what contemporary movie audiences often mistake for filmmaking --- all the wild chases, dangerous stunts, shootouts, pyrotechnics, and special optical effects that a large group of highly skilled technicians and a slick, expensive Hollywood machine can create. The many writers --- always a bad sign --- and the director, the consistently stolid and completely uninteresting Betty Thomas, add what they apparently believe are elements of character to the mix with a beautiful female agent (Famke Janssen), who's the object of Scott's affections; and, of course, the developing relationship between Scott and Robinson, which at least accounts for a few laughs.

            The entire cast manages the difficult task of transforming a film that probably began life as a lavish but lighthearted spoof, intended as yet another vehicle for Eddie Murphy, into a heavy-handed and grossly overplayed farce. Murphy plays the boxer as the usual egomaniacal athlete who tools around in a stretch limo accompanied by a gaggle of girlfriends and an entourage of sycophants, speaking of himself in the third person, grinning, cracking wise, giggling at his own jokes, and ultimately dominating the whole picture. He's always fun to watch, but the performance is so loud, repetitive, and laboriously monotone that he ultimately siphons all the meaning out of the action and his character.

            For not entirely clear reasons, Owen Wilson appears to be receiving a big push from the folks who control the film industry, appearing in no less than three films within the last year or so, including the allegedly relevant and earnest war flick Behind Enemy Lines. His pleasantly goofy looks, jumpy nervousness, and high-pitched voice suggest that he should stick to comedy, but he's already repeating gestures and expressions from his previous movies, with no discernible difference between his comic and his serious roles. Malcolm McDowell, who specializes in playing bad guys in bad movies, appears almost every night on one of the many cable movie channels in some straight-to-video release (he shares that constant exposure with such personages as Rutger Hauer, Eric Roberts, Stephen Baldwin, and my personal favorite, the ex-wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper). In I Spy, McDowellcontinues his usual glowering, smirking, and sneering, adding yet another link to a chain of rotten performances.

            Perhaps the best explanation for the trivial nonsense of I Spy lies in its origin back in that old television series. The picture's slightness and emptiness demonstrate the problems frequently involved in turning an episodic TV show into a movie: the limited cast, the single plot, the simple conflicts. Like all the Star Trek flicks and the film translation of The X Files, the work tends to look merely like a more lavish version of a one-hour show, with better sets, a few extraneous scenes tacked on, and everybody talking slower. This movie belongs with all those Malcolm McDowell masterpieces on cable, but alas, it will probably earn a tidy profit for all involved --- another sad lesson from Hollywood.

I Spy, starring Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole, Phil Lewis, Viv Leacock, Keith Dallas, Tate Taylor, Lynde Boyd, Darren Shahlavi; story by Marianne Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley; screenplay by Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick, and David Ronn; directed by Betty Thomas. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 p.m.; rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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