The most interesting thing about the new-ish action-comedy My Spy is its long and hapless history of missed release dates. Originally scheduled for an August 2019 debut, the movie was bumped into January 2020 and then March, where it held the distinction of getting pushed from the onset of the COVID-related shutdown to an even-worse April date, deeper in the heart of the pandemic, before Amazon finally stepped in to buy the rights and dash any dreams of a theatrical run. (The film did come out in Australia in January, and is also being made available to drive-ins.) It’s probably disappointing for the filmmakers, if not altogether inappropriate for the movie itself; beyond the presence of its specific stars, My Spy feels like it could have bounced around the calendar for years, even decades. And if Amazon hadn’t intervened, it might well have continued its unreleased journey for decades to come, a perpetually unfulfilled promise of another movie where an action-ready bruiser matches wits with a cute, precocious kid.
Truth be told, that meager promise is barely fulfilled by the film itself, even in belated release. Like so many other action-comedies, My Spy feels more like action versus comedy—an endless tug-of-war between goofing off and shit getting real. The goof-off side initially appears to have the numbers. Director Peter Segal made Tommy Boy and Anger Management, and has never gotten more slam-bang than his Get Smart redo. Here Kristen Schaal and Ken Jeong play CIA operatives. And designated lug Dave Bautista is probably best known for scoring some of the MCU’s biggest laughs as Drax from Guardians Of The Galaxy. What’s more, the premise seems to include kids as one of its targeted quadrants.
Sophie (Chloe Coleman) isn’t a troublemaking brat but a sensitive, lonely kid desperate to make friends at a new school. She and her single mom, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), also have a connection to a nefarious arms dealer, which is why JJ (Bautista) and his new partner, Bobbi (Schaal), are dispatched to spy on them. After quickly blowing their cover, JJ strikes an unlikely deal with the kid: She’ll keep quiet about the CIA lurking if he teaches her some of his badass tradecraft. (Agency-approved steeliness being necessary to fit in with judgmental tweens is a funny idea, only covered in passing.)
The inevitable softening of JJ, self-esteem-boosting of Sophie, and chaste romance blossoming between JJ and Kate make for a sweet, harmless variation on the chosen formula—or they would, if not for the occasional ultraviolence insisting that this is an action picture, too. Despite its general kid-friendliness, My Spy seems determined to push the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, at one point literally tossing a bad guy’s severed head across some surveillance footage. Maybe the filmmakers figured that the decapitation reads as cartoonish because the special effects are so bad and the violence is separated from Sophie’s side of the story. Even so, it’s a human head separated from its body, flying around in a movie that seems designed to appeal to children. (It’s also not especially funny, as far as comic decapitations go.)
The action material in My Spy undermines its would-be cuteness, while remaining questionable on a level of cheap thrills. All the movie can hope to supply is laughs, which dwindle almost immediately without completely running out. Schaal has fun playing Bautista’s goofy foil, who seems ill-suited to the field for reasons predictably opposite to JJ’s fists-first bluster. Bautista has been funnier and/or cooler in plenty of other movies (and on Twitter, too). But he’s game to both scowl at children and bend his physicality into some stuttering dance moves, which Schaal memorably compares to a particular DreamWorks dance-party ending.
That’s a big laugh line in the trailer, which played in theaters for months on its own covert mission to convince audiences that this is an actual movie, rather than a vaporous hint of content that wafts onto a streaming service with little ceremony and low expectations. The actual qualitative specifics of My Spy—something far less memorable than Kindergarten Cop but a little less dumb than Playing With Fire—are beside the point. Bautista commits to the dad jokes, and young Chloe Coleman holds her own, but both actors are ultimately wandering through the mists of a movie that isn’t fully there.