My Spy and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios & STXfilms
Directed by Peter Segal
The New Mutants is STILL the reigning champ of movies repeatedly missing their release dates (perhaps only being outdone by Amityville: The Awakening), but this film just kept getting pushed further and further back, so much so that I remember seeing posters for this in probably APRIL of last year; back when movie theaters were still open and the world only had a hundred things bringing us to the brink of destruction instead of a hundred and one. As much as I love Dave Bautista as a character actor (GO SEE HOTEL ARTEMIS ALREADY), he hasn’t quite found his groove as far as starring roles with him threatening to make the same KID-FRIENDLY mistakes The Rock did early on in his career and that John Cena is already kicking butt at right now. Is this a surprisingly fun take on a tired formula fueled by another great performance from Dave Bautista, or will this be yet another movie to put on WORST MOVIES STARRING A WRESTLER lists that I’m sure are all over YouTube already? Let’s find out!!
JJ (Dave Bautista) is a hotshot young (I guess?) CIA agent who has the kind of special forces background they’re looking for but doesn’t have the finesse or spycraft to make the most out of his role there. When a mission in Russia goes bad where JJ has to kill everyone in a very clichéd action scene, his boss (Ken Jeong) sends him and one of the techies Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) on a do-nothing assignment as his last chance to prove that he’s cut out for this. All they need to do is keep an eye on A young girl named Sophie (Chloe Coleman) and her mother Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who recently moved to the States after Sophie’s father was murdered under suspicious circumstances that could be connected to an arms dealer in the region, but no sooner have they set up shop do they get found out by the girl and so to keep his job JJ has to do whatever the girl wants him to do so she’ll keep quiet about all this; including teaching her how to be a spy which seems like a dubious prospect considering how bad JJ clearly is at it. Can JJ keep this house of cards from falling over by keeping Sophie entertained and keeping an eye on the family? Will JJ be the kind of spy his government needs him to be, or will he get to close to the targets and endanger their lives in the process? If you got made by a nine-year-old, shouldn’t that be a sign that you should be looking for a new career path?
This is a tough one because I WANT to like it more than I ultimately do, and I’m not sure how much credit I can give the movie for its brief highlights when weighed against how bored I was throughout most of it. It’s a movie stuck between two worlds as it has the look and feel of something much smarter and mature than its script will allow, and its inability to marry the two primary ideas at play (a high concept but down to earth romantic comedy with a wacky kids film) is what makes it such a frustrating mess. Granted, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie at all if it was COMPLETELY on the kid’s movie end (essentially being a Pacifier sequel that no one wants), but this badly done mishmash isn’t doing anyone any favors; least of all Dave Bautista who seems lost and unsure of exactly what his character is supposed to be. I can see why the actors thought this was a script worth taking because there’s something definitely THERE when the film is firing on all cylinders, but there’s a reason that THIS is going up for free on Amazon Prime, and not half a dozen other movies that have come out in the last two weeks (also why I’m reviewing this film instead of any of those).
The obvious progenitor to this, and every other fish out of water secret agent film, is Kindergarten Cop which sadly this film is not and for one very important reason. Well okay, there are a LOT of reasons this film is not Kindergarten Cop, but the big one that illustrates the point best for me is the Schwarzenegger film is PG-13 while this one is not. Now I’m not saying that EVERY movie with a slightly older sense of humor or with an actor that I like shouldn’t be aimed at kids, but in this specific case, I’d definitely argue that a stronger sense of maturity and a focus on boring stuff like character development could have easily saved the film. The best parts of the movie are whenever the adult actors get to interact and whenever the genuine drama kicks in; neither of which are antithetical to movies that kids like (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who liked Kindergarten Cop or even School of Rock when I was a kid) but are left to languish in an otherwise bog-standard low budget kiddie movie. Bautista looks confused in every scene he’s in and I don’t think it’s due to his acting skills; rather the film flips randomly between scenes that require him to be a big foolish hunk of meat and an emotionally distant shell of a person. The end result is that he can’t quite marry the two together (not to mention the narrative structure which pretty much REQUIRES him to be a fool in order to get from point A to B) and so he comes off like a brat; someone with the body of an adult but the attitude of a child who clearly hasn’t interacted with another human in YEARS if he’s this bad at simply TALKING to someone. When he’s at his most vulnerable is when he’s allowed to show his range and it works, particularly in the second half, but for most of this movie it’s like he’s there by sufferance; like being in this movie is due to a bet that he lost.
What makes this sense of unease between two conflicting movies all the more pronounced is the cinematography which COULD be due to budgetary constraints I suppose, but feels like a deliberate attempt to emulate indie style romantic dramedies like The Big Sick or Up in The Air. Its aesthetic is washed out, its camerawork is grounded, and the music isn’t overbearing for the most part with only one notable montage set to a pop song. For the dramatic moments or the interactions between adults, it looks perfectly fine, but when the movie tries to get silly or does something specifically aimed at younger audiences, it looks completely out of place. Imagine a segment of… I don’t know, Yo Gabba Gabba but it was shot with a handheld camera; found footage style. The disconnect just keeps on rearing its ugly head throughout and makes it that much harder to invest in whatever is going on. On top of that, the action isn’t good which is probably due to budgetary reasons which I’m guessing is ALSO responsible for there only being two action scenes in the entire movie; one at the beginning and one at the end. You honestly kind of forget that there IS an espionage narrative going on which is KIND of the whole premise of the movie, though now that I think about it, it would be kind of interesting if it WAS just a boring assignment because the CIA has nothing better to do than spy on someone who literally has nothing to do with anything.
Like I said, the film has elements throughout that DO work and would have made this a great movie if they had been given more room to be fleshed out. Dave Bautista’s taciturn style matches quite well with Kristen Schaal’s kind of humor and had it been just a LITTLE bit less goofy and was instead more subtle or antagonistic than it could have carried the movie on its own. Similarly when Sophie’s mother played by Parisa Fitz-Henley has scenes with Dave Bautista he becomes the closest thing to a fleshed out and interesting character in this, and the dramatic tipping point at the end of the second act is easily the best part of the entire movie mostly due to her performance in it. I don’t think that Chloe Coleman’s performance as Sophie is bad either, though she’s given the brunt of the bad material to work with and Bautista is at his least engaging whenever he’s arguing with her. Perhaps if the focus had been on the adults and their relationship with the kid being a foil for Bautista (or even some approximation of a Greek Chorus), I could have seen this movie working out a lot better than it did in its current incarnation. Then again, if they DID take it more seriously and focused more on the mom than the daughter, then the creepy implications of the narrative are thrust to the forefront where Bautista comes off less like a well-meaning fool than a straight-up creeper abusing his position to get into a woman’s head. Okay, perhaps a kid’s movie WAS the way to go with this, but it still could have been done a lot better!
The word of the day is cohesion. None of the elements feel like they ultimately fit or complement each other which is bad enough, but tossing these actors into the middle of it with seemingly no direction only makes the situation worse and saps whatever little goodwill the film can muster. A more serious movie would have certainly appealed to me a lot more than making this goofier, but I think that both options would have been preferable to the end result which has its moments to be sure (mostly whenever the actors figure out what they should be doing) but otherwise isn’t all that fun to sit thru. Granted it’s less than two hours which is getting a point from me considering how many movies we’ve been getting lately that have been well over that, but there’s not much about this film worth watching even if you’re not going to spend as long doing so. For kids, I’d easily recommend Playing With Fire if you want a kids movie starring a wrestler, and if you’re an alleged adult like me I’d check out Bautista’s other movies before seeing this one. Heck, Stuber wasn’t the best thing in the world (and now that I think about it had a similarly wonky narrative), but I’d take that over this film any day. Now that I think about it, a sequel would be even better since Kumail Nanjiani got buff! They could ACTUALLY have a match at Wrestlemania to promote it instead of just having Kumail off to the side while Bautista jobs out to HHH! Yes, this movie is so banal that I ended up ranting about wrestling instead of wrapping up the review, so perhaps I should cut my losses and end this. Don’t watch this movie, watch another movie instead, I’m gonna watch more wrestling!