The long line of Hollywood tough guys appearing alongside cute kids continues with “My Spy,” a passable PG-13 action-comedy in which big ’n’ brawny Dave Bautista plays a CIA man whose nose-diving career and damaged emotions are rehabilitated by a clever nine-year-old girl with an aptitude for espionage and a matchmaking plan for her widowed mom. There’s hardly a surprise along the way but Bautista’s gruff charm and winning chemistry with talented young co-star Chloe Coleman (“Big Little Lies”) do just enough to carry a script by “RED” writers Jon and Erich Hoeber that pokes some good fun at action movie tropes but is hampered by too many groan-worthy gags.
Filmed in 2018 and originally scheduled for U.S. release in August 2019 before being moved back several times to March 13, 2020, only to then be pulled amid coronavirus concerns, “My Spy” will now go direct to Amazon Prime U.S. on a date to be announced. The film played theatrically in markets including the U.K., Australia and Canada before the pandemic forced cinemas to close.
Signing up for the same kind of acting assignment as Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop”, Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier” and fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena in “Playing With Fire,” Bautista is introduced in familiar surroundings before the kid enters the picture. He’s J.J., a Special Forces soldier-turned undercover agent who botches a mission in Ukraine involving shady Russian military types and goons working for ruthless arms dealer Victor Marquez (Greg Bryk).
Given the requisite “shape up or you’re fired” talk by exasperated boss David Kim (David Jeong), J.J. is sent to Chicago with tech officer Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a goofy nerd who idolizes J.J. and is saddled with much of the film’s least funny dialogue. The mismatched duo’s task is to spy on Marquez’s widowed sister-in-law Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley, “Midnight, Texas”), an ER nurse who recently relocated from Paris and may innocently possess information Marquez needs to acquire that nuclear device he’s always wanted.
No sooner has J.J. begun installing surveillance cameras in Kate’s apartment than her brainy daughter Sophie (Coleman) traces the signal upstairs and busts the spooks. One of the best running gags is J.J.’s extreme response to problematic situations. In this case, he calmly suggests to Bobbi they kill the kid. After Bobbi talks him down, Sophie responds with “let’s cut a deal.” In exchange for her silence, J.J. will teach Sophie tricks of the spy trade and accompany her to school activities when overworked Kate is not available.
Things tick along pleasantly once Marquez and his gang are sent to the sidelines for long stretches, and viewers are left to enjoy the sight of Sophie running rings around the hapless J.J. Coleman is terrific in snappy scenes that find Sophie talking like a seasoned Psy Ops officer whose weaponry includes encyclopedic knowledge of action movie conventions. After being interrogated about a traumatic incident from his days in uniform we can sympathize with J.J. when he says, “I miss dealing with terrorists.”
Naturally, the blackmail arrangement is mutually beneficial. As well as learning how to tap phones and beat polygraph tests, Sophie stops being the lonely and bullied newcomer and becomes the most popular girl at school when J.J. attends a parents and guardians day and talks about his colorful past. “I took out the garbage of the world,” he tells the assembly, winning hearts and minds in the process. It just as naturally follows that the precocious girl slowly melts the big lug’s heart and uses her wily ways to bring J.J. and her mother together.
J.J’s romance with Kate is pretty corny even by PG-13 standards, but Fitz-Henley and Bautista have the chemistry and sincerity to make it believable, even when J.J. busts some godawful, cringingly unfunny dance moves that would spell doom for most courtships. The film’s tack into romcom waters comes complete with gay neighbors Carlos (Devere Rogers) and Todd (Noah Danby), who predictably give J.J. a Queer Eye-style makeover. The gimmick of Carlos being a nonstop chatterbox and Todd never uttering a word is amusing at first but the joke has worn thin by the time Marquez re-appears on the scene and Sophie’s newly acquired espionage skills duly save the day.
Director Peter Segal, who’s been down the spy and cop comedy road before with “Get Smart” and “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult,” generates an amiable atmosphere in domestic scenes and gets solid performances from a cast that’s given some good and some not-so-good material to work with. A strong case in point is comedienne Schaal, who can play a goofball as well as anyone but only gets a few lines worthy of her talent late in proceedings. Segal’s handling of action sequences which bookend the tale and appear briefly elsewhere is decent if uninspired. Much the same can be said for the visuals and other technical components. They’re perfectly adequate but hardly memorable.