Nine times out of 10, there’s nothing more pointless than fuming over how a feature regurgitation of a long-dead TV series is “unfaithful.” Come on, folks, we’re not talking about making Anna Karenina a lesbian, or an all-nude Peer Gynt. We’re talking about characters from Mission: Impossible or Lost in Space. Someone had the rights to a recognizable name, and someone else decided to attach it to a movie to make it easy to market—end of story.
But sometimes the name counts for more. I Spy was a frisky little espionage adventure show that ran from 1965-’68, but it also made television history by casting Bill Cosby as the first-ever African-American star of a dramatic series. America was on notice that a black man didn’t have to play the clown to be on TV. That should mean something, especially to black actors like Eddie Murphy who benefited from Cosby’s trailblazing. Not only does this generic buddy picture have nothing whatsoever to do with its namesake, it’s a slap in the face to the show’s legacy.
Meet Alex Scott (Owen Wilson). He’s a freshly minted American secret agent with a bit of a confidence problem after muffing an operation to recover a prototype stealth jet stolen by a turncoat pilot. Meet Kelly Robinson (Murphy). He’s an undefeated super-middleweight boxing champ with fast hands and an even faster mouth. Alex needs cover to infiltrate a shindig being thrown in Budapest by international arms dealer Gundars (Malcolm McDowell, beginning to look like a Spitting Image puppet of himself), at which the jet will be auctioned off. Guess who’s got a title fight set up for Budapest that very week? And guess who’s going to become Alex’s partner in heroism to save the world?
Yes, it’s a setup as standard as the romantic comedy “meet-cute”—mismatched law enforcement agents fighting with each other as much as they fight with the bad guys—but I Spy actually provides a small but welcome twist. Instead of pairing Murphy with a crusty veteran à la Nolte in 48 HRS. or DeNiro in Showtime, this film gives him the self-effacing Wilson as a foil. Wilson ends up with most of the film’s best gags—many of them involving his frustration with less-than-state-of-the-art spy paraphernalia—and his surfer-dude delivery is still worth chuckles. Throw in a mega-chase, a couple of explosions and director Betty Thomas’ previous success with TV-to-film adaptations (The Brady Bunch Movie, Doctor Dolittle), and you should have 90 minutes of reasonably tolerable brain candy. Right?
Just one small problem. Scratch that—one glaring, impossible-to-ignore problem, like a massive nose pimple in a high-school prom photo. It’s Murphy, who plays Robinson as a caricature of a contemporary puffed-up sports star who refers to himself in the third person and surrounds himself with a yes-man “posse.” This is one of those roles Murphy could have played in his sleep 20 years ago, but here the performance reeks of desperation to recapture his glory days. It’s Eddie Murphy playing “Eddie Murphy” in quotation marks, where we’re expected to laugh at such an annoying character because we feel some nostalgic connection to similar hustlers he played in the past with much more charm.
But what’s most inexcusable about Murphy’s performance is the way it pummels the memory of Cosby’s educated sophistication. On the little screen, Cosby and Robert Culp played equal partners in their globe-hopping escapades, and race never entered into the equation. Here, everything is about Robinson’s badass, anti-authoritarian blackness, and every word out of his mouth panders to an audience that doesn’t care if he’s shoveling dirt on 35 years of progress for African-American actors. If Jesse Jackson wants to scream at a film for lack of respect to black pioneers, here’s a much more deserving target than Barbershop.
In one of I Spy’s few insider references based on the series, the character names are racial flip-flops of those played by Culp (he was Kelly Robinson) and Cosby (he was Alex “Scotty” Scott). And somehow, that twist manages to become yet another insult, when Murphy dismissively refers to “Alex” as “one of those white-guy names.” With a different title, I Spy might be merely mediocre. But bastardizing a show that was not just fun but important warrants an additional spanking. Murphy’s not keeping it real. He’s playing the clown.