When James Gunn introduced a blue-skinned Dave Bautista to the moviegoing masses with “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014, it was clear from the eminently quizzical Drax’s first quip that the director had found a diamond in the rough—a mass of muscle with a mouth, a penchant for nailing deadpan comedic timing and the occasional pulse of deep-seeded vulnerability.
Bautista maybe didn’t possess the raw charisma of fellow WWE-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, but there was a novelty to his versatility. It made too much sense that Hollywood would stumble over itself trying to attach the foundling movie actor to big-name projects, whether it be the implied threat of his size or the inherent potential for physical comedy that directors toy around with. “Guardians of the Galaxy” had Bautista making triumphs of that juxtaposition through Drax.
Six years later, that movie (and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) is the only one to get the Bautista Balance™ right. The 51-year-old actor has been cast as goons and he’s been cast as slapstick machines; more often than not, he’s been a go-to choice when a movie needs some one-dimensional brawn. The greatest irony is how, among a certain section of cinephiles (this critic included), Bautista’s most well-regarded performance is a (very) brief dramatic turn as Sapper Morton, the loner replicant attuned to the philosophical who is dispatched by Ryan Gosling in the opening minutes of “Blade Runner 2049.” For how little Bautista is on screen in “2049,” his sensitivity (pre-wrecking-ball mode) is vital in foregrounding the emotional scope of Denis Villeneuve’s epic.
Bautista’s latest movie, “My Spy” – an unoriginal action-dramedy that’s much more tolerable when it focuses on the dramedy and less so the action – couldn’t be more different in tone or intention than the violent, psychological odyssey that is “Blade Runner 2049.” And yet, when Bautista’s CIA agent, JJ, insists that he’s “got plenty of emotional intelligence” to a bureaucratic boss (Ken Jeong) looking to sideline him after an undercover mission goes off the rails, I was reminded about how Sapper Morton gushed emotional intelligence in about five minutes of screen time—and couldn’t help thinking Good God, what will it take for Hollywood to hear the plea in Bautista’s words here?
“My Spy” is the newest entry into the modern tough-guy-teams-up-with-a-tween canon, and proof that Hollywood still thinks there’s lucrative potential in smashing together two of the medium’s most asynchronous genres – hardcore actioneer and sweet-natured family flick – like some twisted particle collider. And Bautista is the latest to undergo one of the industry’s most bizarre rites of passage (or of brief damnation) for its burliest stars, following the A-list likes of Vin Diesel (“The Pacifier”), John Cena (“Playing With Fire”) and The Rock (“The Game Plan”). Directed by Peter Segal, “My Spy” makes little effort to distinguish itself, and presents an even less convincing case that this was once a movie audiences would have paid $10 a ticket to see in theaters.
Plot specifics take after about 56,360 movies you’ve seen before (or would have sworn you had) and its most reductive elements – the undercover surveillance, the terrorist subplot, everything with the CIA – aren’t worth the time explaining in this review. All the better, because a) all that material lingers in the mind for about as long as a new “Tenet” release date is on the calendar and b) “My Spy” fully recognizes that none of that fodder is as important as when JJ strips off the John McClane cosplay from the movie’s high-octane first 10 minutes for some Big Dad Energy.
And so “My Spy” only really begins when young, squeak-voiced Sophie (Chloe Coleman, of “Big Little Lies” fame) stumbles into the DIY surveillance headquarters being manned by JJ in a neighboring apartment unit with her iPhone camera rolling and an ultimatum: Make some time to hang out with the pipsqueak, or the cover is blown on Tik Tok. In a movie where the gags can be spotted from a mile away, you can imagine where the rest of the plot will go as it skips through familiar low-stakes beats of bonding and self-improvement.
To “My Spy’s” credit, its unrefined sentimentality reverberates a bit better than I expected going in. Sure, it’s a cheap laugh when we find out the bulletproof JJ can’t ice skate and he falls all over the rink like a drunken elephant, but the film – written by Erick and Jon Hoeber – gets a better grasp of its tone the more it goes on. The success for a movie like this resides in how long we can be seduced by the utter ridiculousness of its conceit before realizing we have better things to do with our time.
Thankfully, the Hoebers’ screenplay prioritizes having Bautista and Coleman ping-pong off each other, and their chemistry grows more believable – if by inches and not miles – the more JJ takes on the role of unsuspecting surrogate father and mentee, while learning to make room for his own soft-guy core. A few specific scenes, such as when JJ visits Sophia’s art show at school and when he begins to get close to her single mom (incidentally, the sister-in-law of the main baddie), show glimmers of real soul before a bad joke or tired reference gets in the way. It’s all rote, of course, but maybe scenes of connection – no matter how boilerplate they feel – sink their claws a few millimeters deeper into my skin when in-person connection feels utopian in the age of social distancing.
The thing that holds “My Spy” back from transcending being merely serviceable background noise (or a nice gateway into rowdier PG-13 flicks for the 9-year-old in your family) is that while it clearly understands the different skillsets Bautista brings to the table, it’s at a loss for how to synergize them. Action Hero JJ, Tender JJ and Slapstick JJ feel like a trio of completely different characters fighting for screentime in the homestretch; in the same vein, the film has a frustrating tendency of having no clue who its target audience is (its only legitimate moment of surprise comes when JJ remarks “B*tches!” to a group of kids in an otherwise very G-rated scene).
As easily digestible and occasionally charming as “My Spy” is, Segal could have applied a touch of self-awareness to make it all feel a touch more self-respecting. With about 20 minutes to go, you arrive at a point of dreading when proceedings will inevitably switch genres and MPAA ratings to wrap up a tiresome terrorism storyline—cue the imperiled child, Fiat car chase, airport runway showdown, etc. I found myself wishing “My Spy” would revert to the simpler pleasures of JJ crashing over himself on ice, when at least the movie isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. Like its teddy-bear Terminator – and like the actor who plays him – “My Spy” is left waiting for something greater to aspire to.
"My Spy" is rated PG-13 for action/violence and language. It's available on Amazon Prime Video beginning Friday.
Starring: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal
Directed by Peter Segal
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