As the latest bid in the TV-to-movie franchise game, "I Spy" makes its bigscreen entry with little of the nervy originality of its groundbreaking small-screen progenitor.

As the latest bid in the TV-to-movie franchise game, “I Spy” makes its bigscreen entry with little of the nervy originality of its groundbreaking small-screen progenitor. The mind could go dizzy relating this new espionage caper to a vast array of past projects involving stars Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson– for starters, there are Murphy’s “48 HRS,” the first of many black-white buddy pics, and Wilson’s own line of action comedies. It’s precisely the lineup of familiar past work that makes “I Spy” pretty dull goods, invigorated mainly by the sharp interplay between Murphy and Wilson, both of whom shine best when they have a sidekick to work with. Snoops should sneak out of the B.O. with a nifty opening sum, but expect steep dropoffs in the ensuing weeks as strong fall season titles come rolling out.

The Bill Cosby-Robert Culp series was a watershed in ’60s television, for its unprecedented coupling of black and white co-stars; the sheer, angular cool of its approach, and a fluid blending of acerbic yet casual comedy and strong espionage action. A filmic reconstruction was bound to bring with it some inevitable trappings of the new century, from a slight hip-hoppish vein to a faster pace, but the movie’s best moments are where the script (by two writing teams — Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, and Jay Scherick and David Ronn) remembers to stop and allow the caustic combo of Kelly Robinson (Murphy) and Alex Scott (Wilson) to mix it up with each other.

Advancing pic’s generally stale impression is how it fails to turn the retro possibilities of redoing the TV show to its own advantage, and how it comes after a long string of recent spy fare. Moreover, some creative decisions are odd or misjudged. One is that Kelly — Culp’s tennis player-turned-spy — is now black, and a boxer, while Alex — Cosby’s Princeton-schooled spy-trainer — is now white; another is the absence of the show’s unforgettable, ultra-modern theme song, which ranks with the greats of the period, like “Hawaii Five-O” and “Mission: Impossible.”

Mix of danger and laughs is respected at the start, when Alex botches an effort in the Uzbekistan mountains to snatch back a traitor who has sold a spy plane to arms dealer Gundars (Malcolm McDowell). Too much of helmer Betty Thomas’ action staging in this section looks like it was shot on a soundstage, made clumsier by unsure cutting. Pre-title intro is capped by a middleweight bout won by title defender Kelly, who, at this point, has no ties to spying.

Subsequent scenes hint at the promise of some actual political satire, such as a moment when Kelly takes a call from George W. himself (care of an uncredited voice) and another slightly comic encounter when Alex is briefed on the actions of “the evildoers” aiming to secure “weapons of mass destruction.” These caustic moments come and go in favor of formulaic comedy, as Kelly is recruited by the spy agency to serve as Alex’s civilian cover when the pair go to Budapest, site of Kelly’s latest title bout and of Gundars’ confab for nuke arms buyers.

Kelly is a kind of stereotype of African American ego (he invariably refers to himself in the third person), self-styled stardom and smack-talk that Murphy has virtually patented as a personal form but has muted in many of his recent films. As such, his Kelly is an interesting, verbally aggressive turn by the actor away from the softer, more likably harmless roles that have dominated the middle of his career; he’s a superstar pugilist who’s much more likely to have been listening in his spare time to Tupac than to Seal.

Wilson uses Murphy’s blowhard bursts for headwind, playing off the heat for a contrasting cool. As Murphy talks hard and loud, Wilson listens, and at times he plays with the kind of bemused, slightly puzzled look Warren Beatty employs in his comedy arsenal. The two complementary manners are different than the Cosby-Culp duet, but the combo has its own music and works well enough to be the movie’s saving grace.

What works less well is the business involving Alex’s fellow spies Rachael (Famke Janssen) and pseudo-Latino Carlos (an inexplicably ridiculous Gary Cole), both of whom utterly intimidate the poor Alex in different ways, but whose actions also lead to a series of predictable plot points. Sadly, the film also lacks a strong bad guy; McDowell, whose ferocious instincts as an actor would well-fit a man who’s a weapons supplier to dictators, is given nothing to do here, reducing his Gundars to little more than a wine-sniffing snob.

Action sequences are fair but never as spectacular as contempo auds demand, and the central action piece feels overextended by at least five minutes. The Stealth aircraft business allows for some nifty special fx, and extensive locales in present-day Budapest give pic a fresh look in the same way Prague served “XXX.” Lensing and score are strictly by-the-book, which is the m.o. for the entire enterprise.

I Spy

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Tall Trees/C-2 Pictures production in association with Sheldon Leonard Prods. Produced by Jenno Topping, Betty Thomas, Mario Kassar, Andy Vajna. Executive producers, Warren Carr, Marc Toberoff, David R. Ginsburg. Directed by Betty Thomas. Screenplay, Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick, David Ronn, based on characters created by Morton Fine and David Friedkin; story, Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley.

Crew

Camera (Alpha Cine color, Deluxe prints), Oliver Wood; editor, Peter Teschner; music, Richard Gibbs; music supervisor, Elliot Lurie; production designer, Marcia Hinds-Johnson; art directors, Bo Johnson, Doug Byggdin; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Ruth Carter; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Rob Young; supervising sound editor, Michael J. Benavente; special visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc.; visual effects supervisor, Carey Villegas; special effects coordinator, Tony Lazarowich; stunt coordinators, Brent Woolsey, Gabor Piroch; fight coordinator, Darrell Foster; assistant director, Richard Graves; second unit camera, Billy Burton; casting, Francine Maisler, Kathleen Driscoll-Mohler. Reviewed at the Grove, L.A., Oct. 8, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Kelly Robinson - Eddie Murphy Alex Scott - Owen Wilson Rachael - Famke Janssen Gundars - Malcolm McDowell Carlos - Gary Cole Jerry - Phill Lewis T.J - Viv Leacock
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