Vin Diesel had “The Pacifier.” The Rock had “The Game Plan” and “The Tooth Fairy.” John Cena had “Playing With Fire.” On the checklist for former professional wrestlers pivoting to acting careers, the “family-centric comedy co-starring one or more cute kids” has become a requisite entry in many tough guy careers, a smart bit of counter-programming alongside scores of action roles, all the better to show range and bankability. “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Dave Bautista has already proven his straight-faced comedy chops in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the amusing but forgettable “Stuber,” which paired him alongside fellow funny guy Kumail Nanjiani. Something like Peter Segal’s “My Spy” feels inevitable as the performer expands his cinematic repertoire, but even Bautista and a genuinely cute kid co-star can’t enliven this predictable and humorless entry into a micro-genre long due for a refresher.
Kicking off during a clandestine meeting in a decommissioned nuclear reactor in — of all places — Chernobyl (the first dumb choice in a series of them), “My Spy” finds Bautista’s former Army Ranger JJ struggling to acclimate to life as an undercover CIA agent. As his own boss (played by a muted Ken Jeong) will later tell him, he doesn’t have the “finesse” or the “emotional intelligence” for the spy game, but whatever he lacks in that department, he more than makes up for with raw muscle. That’s not enough to keep him on the job, however, and JJ and starry-eyed tech wonk Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) are soon shunted off to a boring surveillance gig to keep them busy while the real spies do the dirty work.
The spine of the story is cute enough: JJ and Bobbi are tasked with watching single mom Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her whip-smart 9-year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) with tenuous links to an evil arms dealer intent on building a new nuke, but Sophie sniffs out the agents in the minimum of time, forcing them to do her bidding or be exposed. And yet, screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber come up short on the premise almost immediately. The inciting joke — that Sophie is smarter than a pair of bumbling CIA agents — is a good one, and Coleman is charming enough to sell the over-done trope of a hyper-aware, ruthlessly plugged-in kiddo with ease. Plus, she and Bautista are wonderful together — appealing, warm, and well-matched — but “My Spy” just can’t capitalize on that chemistry. (Give these two another shot at the beefy-guy-cute-kid dynamic, they deserve it.)
Sophie’s plan to blackmail JJ and Bobbi is so dull that even the kid abandons it, turning to other ends — she wants JJ to date her mom, she wants JJ to teach her how to be a spy, she wants JJ to make her look cool in front of her mean classmates — that let fly at odd moments. Nothing about Sophie indicates she’s this scattershot, and random pieces of information about her life before JJ entered it make it clear she’s the last person who would go for dangerous, dumb “spy lessons” to pass the time. The film flails at these various subplots that all attempt to capitalize on the bond between JJ and Sophie, running down the clock before the inevitable end, the kind of conclusion that was obvious within the film’s first 10 minutes.
JJ’s motivations are more obvious than Sophie’s, but used to even less inspiring ends. His disinterest in other people (his best friend is a beta fish named Blueberry) makes JJ a natural adversary for both Sophie and Bobbi, the kind of cutesy set-up that should engender lots of wacky hi-jinks and silly laughs, but is played for thin emotion (you’ll never guess what happened to JJ’s last group of best friends during his Army days) and even worse action.
Before being pushed from a spring release date to a summer streaming premiere, the film was originally scheduled for an August 2019 release date, and a handful of awkwardly green-screened scenes hint at possible reshoots, while choppy edits indicate that there’s likely plenty of material left on the cutting room floor. Mostly, it just reads as insipid and unintelligible, with the only clear plot points being the ones already done to death by other films of its ilk.
“My Spy” does subvert a few expectations to mild amusement, though a few of the narrative kinks — including one that hinges on some ugly gay stereotypes — take far too long to pay off. Broader comedic sequences are also snipped short, leaving no room for the film’s jokes or characters to breathe. At least it’s rife with product placement, and for audiences bored with the action and humor lacking on-screen, a quick game of “spot the Doritos bag” will kill some time before “My Spy” limps along to its next shoddy sequence. For a film that managed to snag big talent like Bautista, a comedic mainstay like Schaal, and a budding superstar like Coleman, the only thing that ever surprises is its ability to cut short good gags and smart character development.
Perhaps the failures of “My Spy” can be blamed on the unholy marriage of director (Segal hasn’t had a hit in a while, but he’s still got a slew of comedic winners under his belt, including “Tommy Boy” and the third “Naked Gun” installment) and screenplay (the Hoeber brothers are best known for adult action films like “Battleship” and “RED”), as both sensibilities are tamped down at every turn. Saddled with a baffling PG-13 rating — the film’s violence is muted, but a decision was made to throw in frequent profanity, plus the repetitive use of an un-edited version of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (at least in early press screenings) — “My Spy” seems destined to both alienate kids and turn off adults. JJ might not have the “finesse” or the “emotional intelligence” for spycraft, but “My Spy” does its star one worse: It doesn’t have the appeal for anyone.
“My Spy” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, June 26.