Murphy, Wilson Flop in Failed Spy Comedy

Nate Levinson, Columnist

Back for one final installment, this week’s column takes a look at the 2002 box-office disaster I Spy, an espionagethemed comedy film starring Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. Just 20 of the 132 critics who viewed it on Rotten Tomatoes gave I Spy a positive review — good enough for a mere 15 percent rating on the “Tomatometer.”

Inspired by the eponymous television series that featured Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, I Spy stars Wilson as Alex Scott, a special agent with the Bureau of National Security, and Murphy as Kelly Robinson, a narcissistic, undefeated boxer. The unlikely pair look to thwart an international arms dealer’s evil plans, traveling to Budapest in order to prevent the sale of a plane tailor-made for transporting weapons of mass destruction. There, Scott works to navigate around his failures as a secret agent, his partner’s ego and an utterly pointless plotline.

For me, the most striking part of the movie is just how unfunny it is. “Bumbling spy teams up with egocentric boxer” has plenty of potential, but an awful screenplay robs this movie of any chance of being funny. A number of misplaced potty jokes miss their target, and the chemistry between the two stars is almost nonexistent.

I wanted I Spy to be funny, but it just wasn’t. It’s honestly pretty difficult to find any good parts of the movie, and believe me, I tried. There are a few funny moments involving Robinson’s henchmen, and the scene in which Wilson sings Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is definitely worth a chuckle, but that’s about it. Maybe Murphy’s pontificating style and the more juvenile jokes would hit home for a younger audience, but I still can’t stop wondering how on Earth 10-year-old me enjoyed this movie.

After a ton of success early in his career, Murphy has made a number of movies like this. The one-time star has lent his name to other under-20 percenters, like The Haunted Mansion (13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Norbit (9 percent) and A Thousand Words (0 percent). Wilson, too, has made a few other clunkers, including The Big Bounce (16 percent) and You, Me and Dupree (21 percent), but he’s also worked well in Wes Anderson films and as a co-star to Jackie Chan and Vince Vaughn.

Unfortunately for Murphy, I Spy wasn’t even his low point of 2002. Just two and a half months before that travesty was released, Murphy appeared in the instantly forgettable The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Despite a gaudy $100 million budget, it appealed to just 5 percent of critics and made just over $7.1 million worldwide. So, if you’re measuring by that, I Spy was actually quite successful, since it only lost $19.3 million. Unfortunately, however, I’m not measuring it by that, and neither were the other 87 critics who denounced it as “rotten.”

The final verdict: I Spy is truly terrible and almost certainly not worth watching. What’s amazing is that 20 critics actually liked the movie enough to give it a “fresh” rating. I’m as big of an Eddie Murphy fan as anyone, and Owen Wilson’s career has definitely had some solid moments, but that talent is bafflingly and unabashedly wasted in I Spy.