Never work with kids or animals? Dave Bautista apparently never heard that famous saying. After forming part of the Guardians of the Galaxy alongside Rocket Raccoon (who is more “CGI alien” than outright “animal star”, but still), the former professional wrestler now finds himself going toe-to-toe with a nine-year-old schoolgirl in My Spy.
That girl is Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who has moved from Paris to Chicago with her mother after the death of her father, a man with friends in very wrong places. As her psychotic uncle dabbles in the nuclear arms black market, JJ (Bautista)’s ineffectiveness as a spy results in his demotion to surveilling the two alongside starstruck tech expert Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). After she blows their cover, Sophie blackmails JJ into training her in the world of espionage, and helping her through life in a strange new hometown.
Aside from the threat of weapons of mass destruction, My Spy is largely typical opposites-attract family fun, complete with the slapstick comedy that such films require (see: Kindergarten Cop, The Pacifier). However, from the opening scene the farce is blended with moments of impact action; whilst JJ is lacking in the subtleties of espionage, his past as a deadly soldier means he has no trouble killing off bad guys. There’s a body count throughout the film and although the violence is often more implied than explicit, there is an obvious effort here to appeal to a wider age range than in traditional family comedies (as evidenced by the film’s PG-13/12 rating, rather than the genre’s typical PG). Perhaps older kids watching may be turned off in moments where the film focuses on its younger audience – and vice versa – but it’s still a sharp move to try and entertain as broad a range as possible.
JJ’s journey seems to lead exclusively toward redemption. Perhaps that’s inevitable for a character introduced as botching his job, but the plot so doubles down on his shortcomings that, surely, the only way is up. Again, he’s more than able to dispatch villains, but he’s so terrifically bad at maintaining his cover that you wonder whether he even established one in the first place; for fear of losing his job, he is easily talked into involvement with Sophie’s “friends”, school and family. JJ is flawed enough that the idea of a schoolgirl proving his match isn’t exactly far-fetched, but having him so routinely out-done by this (admittedly resourceful) youngster makes one question why she would even bother asking him to train her.
Like her alter-ego, Chloe Coleman often eclipses Bautista as the film’s star. Of course, this isn’t her first major outing on a streaming service this year, having also appeared in Timmy Failure on Disney+ and another recent Amazon Prime release, the sci-fi comedy series Upload. Coupled with her roles in HBO’s Big Little Lies and the impending Avatar 2 it’s no surprise that she dominates this film. In itself, this is no problem as Coleman is adept at portraying her character’s surprising grasp of the spy world and skills at deception, but her character regularly comes off as over-written. Clearly, this film stands to further the rising star of one of Variety’s “Top 30 Actors Under-18”.
Perhaps for these reasons, the starring duo unfortunately doesn’t have quite as much spark as may be hoped. In fact, it’s when the two feature in separate pairings that they flourish; their scenes together are only brief, but Sophie and the awkward Bobbi seem to really understand each other, their complementary chemistry perhaps the result of Schaal’s background in wacky comedy. JJ’s most genuine scenes are with Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and whilst there wasn’t enough charm to pull off his absurd relationship with the daughter his prospective coupling with her mother has it in abundance. Through Kate it becomes clear that it’s not his skillset that marks JJ as unsuitable for spy-work but his heart, and their scenes give a tender affection that the movie otherwise lacks.
There’s a constant hope that the rushed development of the plot and its characters is all leading to an entertaining final act – which it is. JJ and Bobbi are eventually brought to task by CIA chief David Kim (Ken Jeong) in a scene that manages to sneak in a little satire just before Uncle Victor enters for the final action scene, which offers the film’s highest concentration of stakes, entertainment and laughs. It’s no surprise that there is a happy ending, and for all the plot’s imperfections the simple knowledge that all involved have bonded together is just about enough to bring about a feeling of warmth.
Whilst the closing moments are only enough to pull the film out of the realm of mediocrity, they’re still its saving grace. My Spy offers an insight into a different kind of family film, but unfortunately misses a few marks that stop it from being truly memorable. There’s enough to pass the time for sure, and it’s by no means a bad film, but like JJ’s spy career there may not be enough reason to return.
My Spy is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video now. If you’ve seen it, then as always let us know what you though in the comments below – or on Twitter and Instagram – and make sure you download the Kernel App to track all your favourite upcoming films!