(Movie review written 11/02)
Betty Thomas has proven herself to be a gifted director of comedy. "The Brady Bunch Movie" had the right material and she provided the right tone and timing. Howard Stern's movie, "Private Parts", had heart and fine storytelling. Thomas and star Eddie Murphy even made "Dr. Dolittle" into something more than the material would suggest. Unfortunately, "I Spy", where Thomas has to handle both action and laughs, hardly delivers any memorable action and only occasionally gets laughs out of what seem more like improvised situations.
The film, based on a TV series which few of this generation probably know of, stars Owen Wilson as Alex Scott, a spy rising in the ranks of the organization. He's paired up with civilian Kelly Robinson (Murphy), an ego-driven 58-0 boxer. Robinson's next fight is in Budapest, which is where the film's villian (Malcolm McDowell, who's in all of about two scenes) is about to sell off a stolen jet plane that can turn invisible. McDowell's character is a boxing fan, so Murphy's character will provide Wilson's a perfect opening to take the plane back.
Of course, things don't go as planned, leading the two to have their cover blown and run in a few rather mediocre chase scenes. Although Thomas is working with a remarkably skilled cinematographer (Oliver Wood, "Bourne Identity" - in fact, if it's still playing around, definitely go see that film instead of this one), she can't seem to get the action to not seem primitive (I mean, it's a spy movie) and second-rate. An action-driven finale is handled in especially awkward fashion, with so many flip-flops and bad twists that the characters voice their confusion on who's on which side. I would have voiced my confusion, too, but by this point I'd essentially stopped caring.
Thankfully, the comedy works a little better. Murphy and Wilson occasionally seem to be fighting for the jokes, but when they work together well (a scene where they're waiting out bad guys in a sewer and talking about their pasts), they're amusing. Famke Janssen, playing Wilson's co-spy and love interest, has little to do, as does Gary Cole ("Office Space") as a spy who gets better gadgets than Wilson's. McDowell is hardly a villian, although to give him credit, there's hardly much of the character, either.
Still, there's an overwhelming sense of been here, seen this (and seen it done a whole lot better) about "I Spy". There's nothing particularly fresh about its story or presentation; it's just another buddy-action picture, done with even less inspiration than many that have come before it.
VIDEO: "I Spy" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame on this dual-layer DVD. Both options are available from the main menu. While it's too bad that the anamorphic widescreen presentation couldn't have the space to itself on the dual-layer disc, it still looks very nice. Sharpness and detail were very pleasing throughout the program, as Oliver Wood's cinematography was presented with fine clarity and detail.
The picture only displayed one real concern: a few noticable compression artifacts. Aside from those issues, the picture looked nearly free of issues. The print seemed nearly free of any sort of wear or dirt, while edge enhancement was kept to a bare minimum.
The film's bright, vivid color palette was presented accurately here, with no smearing or other issues. Black level remained deep and solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. A handful of small, unfortunate flaws do show up here, but there's nothing too bothersome. A very nice transfer.
SOUND: "I Spy" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. An effects-heavy soundtrack, the film's audio provided quite a bit of fun at times. Surrounds kicked in throughout the entire program, providing a wealth of nicely placed and punchy sound effects. A couple of the surround effects do kind of draw too much attention to themselves, but most certainly add to the experience.
The rap soundtrack also added to the experience, strongly offered by the front speakers and backed well by some solid low bass. The not particularly memorable score by Richard Gibbs (John Debney has done this kind of score better several times recently) gets decent presence, but often gets overshadowed by the effects and everything else. Dialogue remained a little flat and low in the mix, but I really never had any problems hearing dialogue. As expected from this kind of sound mix, deep low bass is always present underneath the action scenes.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Betty Thomas, producer Jenno Topping, editor Peter Teschner, writer Jay Scherick and writer David Ronn. Similar to the commentary for "Can't Hardly Wait" (in which producers Thomas and Topping joined the filmmakers), this commentary offers a fun, light party atmosphere that often generates both laughs and some fun stories and tidbits. There's a bit too much time spent towards throwing compliments at the film's two leads, but when the five aren't offering praise, they do have a sense of humor about some of the film's flaws and bring some interesting facts about the production - such as sets, locations and other details. Not one of the best commentaries I've heard lately, but it's still an energetic and fun one, though.
Cloak and Camouflage: This is a four-minute featurette with comments from director Betty Thomas and costume designer Ruth Carter. The pair, interviewed separately, discuss their concepts for the film's costumes and how some of the looks were put together.
Gadgets and Gizmos: Another four-minute featurette, this piece visits with the effects supervisor, producers and other crew members, who all discuss how the film used effects and paired characters with gadgets.
Schematics and Blueprints: This five-minute featurette offers interviews with producer Andrew Vajna, director Thomas, the film's production designer and others. We learn more about the film's location shooting in Hungary here and some of the stories about locations.
The Slugafest: The last featurette, this focuses on Murphy's preparation to play a boxer and his history with the sport.
Trailers: Trailers for "Adaptation", "Punch-Drunk Love", "Blue Streak", "National Security" and "Formula 51" are offered. The trailer for "Adaptation" is an excellent trailer for a great picture; the trailer here for "National Security" is an earlier one that played with "I Spy" theatrically. I'm not sure why it never seemed to play again, as it made the film look more promising than the other ads for the picture did. All of the trailers are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1.
Final Thoughts: Fast-moving but mostly empty and only occasionally entertaining, "I Spy" is especially dissapointing, considering the pairing of Wilson and Murphy deserves a screenplay far better than this one. Columbia/Tristar has provided a fine DVD edition, with some decent supplements and good audio/video.S till, I'd only recommend this one as a rental for those interested.