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I Spy

Seen: 2002.11.11   ¶   Reviewed: 2002.11.24

Regular readers may be wondering why it takes me so very long to write these reviews after seeing the picture. Well, first of all, I forget. Second, I procrastinate. Third, it seems thankless, though just now having checked my Web logs (it’s two words in that sense), I see that I receive many hundreds of hits for a typical review. I suppose I am letting you all down. For ventures such as these, I need a partner in crime. I recall reading that Roger Ebert was, and is to this day, devastated when Gene Siskel died. I think a venture like this requires something vaguely resembling a muse.

All right. I Spy. It didn’t look good going in. Eddie Murphy ought to try a dramatic role sometime. He’s so animated, and so very well-preserved, that it might work. As it stands, he has never actually been funny; he has merely been a screen presence, of which he has a lot. Perhaps he has made the signal error of believing his own press, whatever such press might be. He’s an ’80s holdover, really.

Now, Owen Wilson. An actor? Sure. An actor in the same league as Eddie Murphy? Probably, though not in the way he might expect. Instead of labouring in oddball indie pictures, all of a sudden Wilson gets a co-star gig in a “major” studio production. Yes, but the production is nominally a remake of an ancient television series and he’s teamed with an unfunny ’80s holdover. In essence, Owen Wilson may have made it into the restaurant, but he has been seated at the table by the kitchen door.

He does seem to evoke wide-ranging competence with surprisingly wide-ranging competence. O. Wilson portrays an actual spy – a bit young to be believed, really, except in the Soviet system, where they shanghai you from your parents at age nine, but we willingly suspend disbelief on that count. When the script plays him straight, he’s strong: Young blonds are not supposed to be competent at anything, let alone several things, one of them being a jet pilot. The juxtaposition works well here – much better than the parallel Hollywood juxtaposition, in which beautiful, thin women are, for some reason, engineers (The Abyss) or have some other technical job.

Naturally, E. Murphy’s role is to provide comic relief. I suppose this borders on a racial stereotype. I think Seven forever undercut whatever credibility the cutely-named BUDDY MOVIE ever had – or at least the buddy movie where one buddy is black, because that actor’s function now seems indistinguishable from minstrelsy. They’ve all been unmanned by Seven: Morgan Freeman embodied maturity and patience, balancing Brad Pitt’s green impetuousness. It worked because B. Pitt would go off on instant anger jags exactly the way young straight guys do (even the handsome ones, and here I speak from experience). They were both types; what they weren’t were stereotypes.

E. Murphy serves up rat-a-tat-tat monologues whose comedic currency rests on a single unsteady and indeed Jewish point: Chutzpah. Can you believe what he’s saying, and in what quantity, and how frequently? But E. Murphy appears not to realize the next step up the evolutionary ladder is Sanford and Son. It is mere schtick, and schtick is by definition trite.

He would have been tolerable if the script had trusted at least one of its stars with his natural logic. Of course there has to be a romantic subplot, and of course O. Wilson has to turn into a jittery teenager whenever in the presence of whatever the chick’s name is. (I hardly pay attention to those things.) The oft-repeated joke that she might fall for him if only they could go on a stakeout imparted a certain juvenility that a young man who can fly a jet would never actually have.

In truth, and contrary to the J. Bond mythology, someone with an array of skills and a commitment to defending his country’s interests would quite probably be either an absolute king shit cock of the walk casanova or an almost autistic nerd incapable of communicating with non-geek carbon-based life forms.

As a thought experiment, I envisage a reremake of I Spy in which the entire movie is handled seriously. The playboy boxer E. Murphy portrays would in fact be recruited for a mission (unlikely, but let’s go with that for the moment); isn’t it well known that having to think your way out of sticky predicaments makes for good drama?

Like poor computer animation, the film wears its wireframe on its sleeve. It isn’t set in Hungary because a boxing champeenship would naturally be held there but, of course, because the Second Worlders in the eastern-bloc film industry will work for cheap. (So will Second Worlders in Vancouver, where “U.S.” scenes were shot.) Why else was The Bourne Identity, another ideologically-outdated spy thriller, shot in Prague? Those who fail to learn from Richard E. Grant’s diaries of shooting Hudson Hawk in Budapest are doomed to repeat them.

And indeed, it seems that Baby Boomer film executives are remaking spy thrillers of their youth. I Spy takes the risk of making the villains Korean (except inasmuch as they are Hungarian), which I suppose is a kind of half-arsed way of acknowledging that Russians aren’t a threat anymore. (It’s like setting a TV series in a city that’s mostly black and acknowledging its racial diversity by showing a Chinese actor. The idea isn’t even quite right, and the execution stinks.)

I return to the concept of E. Murphy in a dramatic role. I entertain such ideas about a handful of typecast actors, actually, like Jean-Claude Van Damme, who could be quite strong in a role that plays him for what he is, a suave European. I think the time has come to consider casting against stereotype like this. It worked shockingly well in Punch-Drunk Love.

Now, what happened at the showing? Mr. X and Mr.Y were both present. Today’s sign-in rule involved handing over a piece of ID (I let Mr. X handle that) and giving one’s phone number. You got the ID back, and your name and number went onto a line in a loose-leaf binder. (Same as the last couple of occasions, actually.) The staff now seem to know they have to give us reflectors that are not beaten to shit.

There was a reasonable crowd for the show (in the smaller Cinema 11) and we had no trouble getting the coveted seats dead centre in front of the display.

One’s movie tickets now read such malapropisms as I SPY (RWC CAPTIONED & DVS) and HARRY POTTER (RWC CAPTIONED). I don’t see why the undislodgeable malapropist acronym duo RWC/DVS cannot simply be used.

Caption quality

Errant spaces again: ( toilet flushing ). This isn’t TV.

I’m not sure what I think about introducing sound effects with a dash, which, as we know, is handled wrong two ways (must be followed by space and must not be centred):

-(guns cocking)
-They are on the dome.

Periods go inside quotation marks: It’s like "Alex, Alex, Alex".

(Zhu Tan speaking Korean): Really? Zhu Tan isn’t a Korean name. I suppose the screenwriters don’t realize that either.

Description quality

“He stands at a computer and faces an Asian man”: We’re finally noting race here? Anyone observe that Eddie Murphy is black?

“He turns the open laptop computer to face him”: No, it’s a desktop with an LCD screen.

Vast reiteration of Audi, plus mention of BMW, Ferrari. This could have been part of a concerted attempt to represent the rampant product placement.

Shockingly dysfluent, slow-arse reading of credits. And on that topic....

Fire this narrator

We were hereby introduced to the worst description narrator I’ve ever heard: Andre Ware. (Or Weir or Wehr. Or André.) He’s worse than Valerie Hunter of AudioVision, worse than the two quislings G&H uses, worse than whoever Helen Harris guilt-trips into doing the work, worse than everyone. Worse even than the weakest voice I’ve ever heard DVS use, the TV-commercial-style narrator for Chaplin (name thankfully lost to memory).

Every word seems to be individually articulated. There’s no flow. He sounds like he’s following the script, which he had not heretofore seen, with his finger. The article “a” is typically pronounced like the first letter of the alphabet rather than a schwa, itself a serious problem. He can’t modulate. He seems surprised by all the words he has to say. He sounds black, and that is possibly one reason why he was hired, but it isn’t a good reason.

Miles Neff he ain’t. JT Turner he ain’t. Competent he ain’t.

You can just imagine how this guy handled the line “bottom of the Tien Shan Mountains.” Imagine an American black guy who can barely articulate American black English trying to pronounce Tien Shan.

“Escaped” was pronounced “eescaped.” “Suave” appeared to last three syllables.

And it’s only getting worse! I heard him last week on JAG. It becomes imaginable that WGBH will desecrate The Lord of the Rings by subjecting viewers to this narrator. (Pat Lentz is the obvious choice there.)

Fire this narrator. L.A. is full of voice talent that can actually speak uncreaky English and sight-read properly.


No problems, really.

Exit interview

None, except one of the playaz considerately turned the house lights back down after seeing the three of us (all alone in the house) watching the end credits.

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