Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy) is the champ. More precisely, he’s the current middleweight champion of the world. Clever and cocky, he’s attended by a bevy of bald-headed yes-men and booty-babes. During one Vegas bout, he wags his head like Stevie Wonder (“I’m blind! I’m blind!”), encouraging his hapless opponent to step in so he can lay him out with one punch. Afterwards, he marks the triumph by having a stroke tattooed on his mighty bicep: now he has 57 strokes.
Given his self-absorption and affection for luxury, you might think that being recruited for some super-international secret agent business might change Kelly’s life. It doesn’t. Instead, when he’s paired with sweet-natured spy Alexander Scott (Owen Wilson), Kelly remains as smug and plucky as ever, with maybe a little time out to learn how to use a nifty spy gadget.
In I Spy, director Betty Thomas’ insipid film version of the groundbreaking 1965-68 tv series, Kelly serves a couple of functions. For one, he (along with Wilson) inverts the racial dynamic in the tv series, wherein Robert Culp played Kelly the tennis player and Bill Cosby played Alex the Rhodes scholar/spy. And for another, he more or less reinvents Kit Ramsey, the Bowfinger character whose excessive self-love is often funny, because he inhabits it so completely and articulates it confidently.
Credited to four writers, working as pairs who, it seems, didn’t talk with each other (Marianne Sellek Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley, David Ronn & Jay Scherick), the plot is as rudimentary as such tv-to-movie plots tend to be. Alex (nicknamed Surfer Boy by his new partner) is assigned to recover the Switchblade, an incredible new-fangled jet that turns invisible, thus allowing devious delivery of all types of bombs, including nuclear devices. Stolen by Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell, who has precious little screen time), the jet is now in Budapest, available for bidding from the most nefarious and, of course, the wealthiest of evil-doers.
Alex has a couple of uninteresting reasons for wanting to complete the mission: he seeks the career boost that success will bring, and he also seeks to beat out his primary rival at the agency, Carlos (Gary Cole, in dark-skin makeup and ponytail, affecting a corny Latin lover-style accent: it’s possible that this performance was hilarious on set; on screen, it’s pretty tired). It’s hard to read Alex’s skill level: he’s hindered by the fact that all his Bondian doohickeys are out of date and huge instead of micro (“Size matters!” he whines to the designated gizmo-geek), but he also appears to be more or less adept on the ground (even if he does, in the film’s first sequence, fails to keep a suspect he’s supposed to keep alive, alive). What is clear is that he’s a lonely buddy looking for another buddy: this movie is nothing if not formulaic.
The buddy-ness grinds into gear by way of Kelly’s access to Gundars, a boxing fan who has invited the champ to a mucky-mucks’ ball in Budapest. Alex tags along, posing as a member of Kelly’s entourage. When Kelly’s crew is understandably skeptical of the white boy, he assures them that he’s been assigned to a big-dealio secret mission, namely, taking care of the President’s retarded nephew — upon which he compliments Alex on achieving an appropriately “mentally challenged look” and the crew starts calling him “Rainman” (as in: when Alex speaks Hungarian to insure their hotel accommodations, one guy observes, “Rainman got skills!”) And he proceeds to demonstrate his lack of savvy repeatedly, as when he insists that he and Kelly arrive at the party at the time on the invite, 8pm. No, no, no, the infinitely more fashionable Kelly announces. “Kelly Robinson be there at 11.”
The basic opposition between sheepish Alex and suave Kelly sets up a series of trivial conflicts, some less tedious than others. Worse, the ensuing action is uninspired: unspeedy car chasing, unthrilling plane flying, some minor fisticuffs, not especially well choreographed. The buddies argue, misbehave, and engage in a little homoerotic, joint lusting after beautiful fellow spy Rachel (Famke Janssen), by way of a camera-contact lens that allows Kelly to see what Alex sees, namely, her body in mid-strip, as Alex attempts a seduction. Off in another room, Kelly plays a raunchy Cyrano, ventriloquizing “Sexual Healing” for terminally awkward Surfer Boy.
But this is not just another case where the black sidekick enables white folks to couple. Rather, as the shared perspective/split screen effect suggests, girlfriend is only a diversion: the real romance involves Alex and Kelly, or perhaps more accurately, Wilson and Murphy, the former seeking yet another franchise partnership, following his work with Jackie Chan and Ben Stiller; the latter more likely resisting any partnership that isn’t with himself, as in the Klumps movies. While Wilson might still be feeling his way around superstardom (so recently thrust upon him with Behind Enemy Lines), Murphy plainly knows a little something about taking up all the air in a room and the space on a screen.
As predictable as I Spy is, one brief moment spills over into insight into the necessary self-pride and willful blindness of celebrity culture. The most telling demonstration of the spy cam/split screen device comes when Kelly first puts on the lens, then suddenly sees himself from Alex’s point of view, while simultaneously seeing Alex from his own point view. Kelly starts throwing punches excitedly, proud to see both himself and Alex ducking away: “That’s what they be seeing! That’s scary as hell!” Here he’s exactly where he wants to be, schizzily perfected — both subject and object, dazzling superstar and ultimate fan, black and white. No wonder he talks about himself in the third person.