Tough, super-fit JJ (Dave Bautista) is ex-special forces. Even though he is now a CIA operative, he tends to solve problems in the field using force rather than finesse. He ends up killing all the bad guys in a mission that was supposed to lead the CIA to a criminal gang who have a nuclear device. Now they have no leads. That mission is taken away from him as the CIA team heads to Europe. JJ must stay in the United States and surveil a single-mother and her nine-year-old daughter. He is annoyed by this demotion and further irritated that he is stuck with a geeky, computer-nerd offsider, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). The over-worked woman they are watching, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), was once married to a member of the gang who has the high-tech bomb. Kate’s daughter Sophie is a smart kid who is finding it difficult to make friends in her new school. She spends a lot of time on her own and she notices JJ and Bobbi moving into her building. She immediately starts her own covert operation to surveil these two strangers.
And thus, the premise is set for MY SPY. Through observation and a lucky accident or two, Sophie becomes aware that it’s the CIA who are watching her apartment and decides to act. It isn’t giving too much away to report that the flinty, unemotional JJ must learn to care for the kid and she sees him as a potential dating candidate for her mother. Surely, all this falls outside the boundaries of a legitimate surveillance, but it is exactly where you want a PG-13 action-comedy to sit.
The film is a family version of a secret service comedy like SPY (2015), KEEPING UP WITH JONESES (2016) or THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME (2018). These work on the idea of normal characters (Sophie) suddenly being exposed to the challenge of international espionage. I had to remind myself several times the demographic the film was aimed at. It’s not too violent or filled with mature concepts, but the adult characters were in the centre of the story for several scenes and then JJ would turn up at Sophie’s school for some laughs and awwws with the kids. Which isn’t a knock, it’s an acknowledgment this movie is effectively catering for its entire audience (i.e. grown-ups will not be bored).
Director Peter Segal has a long career directing movie comedies such as NAKED GUN: THE FINAL INSULT (1994) 50 FIRST DATES (2004), GET SMART (2008) and SECOND ACT (2018). He keeps the gags and the action moving along at a good pace as he brings to life the script written by Jon and Eric Hoeber, who also wrote RED (2010), BATTLESHIP (2012) and RED 2 (2013). Bautista is mostly good as JJ. He is great in BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) and as DRAX in the MCU films, but JJ requires some nuanced emotional stuff that he is not completely at ease with yet. Chloe Coleman is excellent as Sophie. She is a talented child actor. Kristen Schaal is funny in the tech-nerd role and Ken Jeong playing their CIA boss, gets very few of the punchlines.
MY SPY has been conceived as the first of a franchise. There’s a fair amount of pop culture comedy on offer, but it stays in touch with the emotional line of the story. KINDERGARTEN COP (1990) is buried in its DNA. You can draw a line from Bautista, through John Cena, Dwayne Johnson and right back to Arnold Schwarzenegger in charting the development of this kind of movie. All these stars gained fans first for their physical abilities and then made the transition to acting. On the way, they made movies that did variations on the tough guy having his heart melted by cute little kids. It’s a formula that is difficult to mess up. Audiences enjoy seeing the vulnerable side of the hard case.
MY SPY delivers on the formula with 1 hour and 40 minutes of easy-going fun and entertainment. (7/10)