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Betty Thomas
Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole
Writing Credits:
Marianne Wibberley & Cormac Wibberley and David Ronn & Jay Scherick

Attitude meets espionage
Box Office:
Budget $70 million.
Opening weekend $12.752 million on 3182 screens.
Domestic gross $33.105 million.
Rated PG-13 for action violence, some sexual content and language.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
English, French

Runtime: 97 min.
Price: $27.94
Release Date: 3/11/2003

• Audio Commentary With Director Betty Thomas, Editor Peter Teschner, Producer Jenno Topping, and Screenwriters Jay Scherick and David Ronn
• “Cloak and Camouflage” Featurette
• “Gadgets and Gizmos” Featurette
• “Schematics and Blueprints”
• “The Slugafest” Featurette
• Trailers


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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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I-Spy (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 28, 2003)

While I can’t call myself an active opponent of movies based on old TV series, I must admit the trend has grown somewhat tiresome. The occasional successful adaptation like 1993’s The Fugitive can’t make up for all the tripe out there.

A veteran of TV acting herself, director Betty Thomas led one of the genre’s minor hits, 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie. Many folks enjoyed the fact that Thomas turned the original on its ear for the film’s irreverent spoof.

Thomas seems to have gone to the well again for her latest TV series adaptation, 2002’s I-Spy. Taken from the Sixties series that starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, the new I-Spy plays the original’s espionage strictly for laughs. At the start of the film, we meet Bureau of National Security Special Agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson). He goes to retrieve a captured American pilot (Taylor) who stole an experimental plane. Unfortunately, the pilot doesn’t survive his “rescue”, so Alex comes away with only limited information.

We then get to know Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy), an extremely successful boxer. When he wins his 57th straight bout, he plans to head to Budapest for another title defense in a few days; he’s so cocky that he uses the subsequent fight as a gimmick. Since the feds suspect that the stolen plane resides in Hungary, the president asks Kelly to help the authorities with the mission. Thus we see Kelly and Alex become reluctant partners, as the pair quickly develop a dislike for each other. Alex goes with Kelly as his cover for the mission.

When they get to Budapest, they go on the tail of Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell), the man who possesses the Switchblade plane. He plans to sell it to the highest bidder. They also meet up with another agent, Rachel Wright (Famke Janssen). Alex has the hots for her but finds it difficult to express his feelings.

Boy, that synopsis makes I-Spy sound pretty dull, doesn’t it? Thomas attempts to spice up the action/thriller genre with a loose and irreverent tone. This film doesn’t ever take itself seriously at all, as it attempts to broadly spoof other flicks of its ilk.

It fails. Why in the world someone thought Thomas would be a good choice for a loud action film remains a mystery to me, as she seems better suited for light comedy. Unfortunately, that means that Thomas tries to tailor I-Spy to her style, and the movie ends up with generic and poorly executed action scenes interspersed with some very broad comedy. Neither element works, as the concepts actively compete against each other.

It doesn’t help that the Murphy offers one of his all-time worst performances. I like Murphy, but I can’t defend his obnoxious work here. In perhaps his broadest portrayal to date, he just comes across like an idiot and a buffoon. He makes Robinson into a hyperactive and charmless version of Axel Foley with nothing clever or creative to allow the character to prosper.

Perhaps Murphy felt he needed to amp up his performance to balance the laconic energy of Wilson. The latter actor doesn’t seem bad here, but he also doesn’t seem very good either. The movie saddles him with a fairly inane character; it tries so hard to spoof smooth agents like James Bond that it simply makes Alex look incompetent.

The original I-Spy series was before my time, so unlike The Brady Bunch - which aired during my childhood – I can’t compare the TV show to the movie. I get the impression that the film possesses almost nothing in common with the Cosby/Culp affair, though. Frankly, I’m not sure why they bothered to make an I-Spy flick at all, but if they wanted to do so, shouldn’t they at least use it for more inspiration than just the concept of a black guy paired with a white dude?

Any movie that features a scene in which the president – played by some Bush impersonator – talks “street” doesn’t offer much potential. While a spy spoof doesn’t seem like a bad idea, I-Spy fails to provide a compelling comedy or an exciting action flick. Neither element works effectively, and the movie falls flat across the board.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B / Bonus B-

I-Spy appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Though the image boasted many positives, some nagging concerns made it look less than stellar.

Sharpness came across strongly. The movie appeared nicely distinct and accurate. I noticed no signs of softness during this crisp and detailed picture. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no issues, but I did detect some light edge enhancement at times. Source defects offered only a few problems. I saw a few speckles but nothing else. However, the picture displayed some moderate digital artifacting that seemed heavier than I’d expect in this day and age. Much of the movie passed without incident, but a few sequences appeared fairly flawed in this regard.

I-Spy boasted a broad and engaging palette that the DVD replicated nicely. The colors looked vivid and dynamic throughout the film. I noticed no concerns such as bleeding or noise as the DVD demonstrated tight and bold hues from start to finish. Black levels came across as deep and solid, while shadow detail looked appropriately dense but not too thick. Ultimately, I-Spy presented a good image, but the noticeable artifacting caused me to lower my grade to a “B”.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of I-Spy also offered a mix of highs and lows. On the positive side, the soundfield seemed very lively and engaging. I-Spy presented one of the most active mixes I’ve heard in a while, as it used all five channels almost constantly throughout the movie. Elements seemed well placed, and they moved cleanly across the speakers. The film showed a good sense of ambience during the quieter scenes, and even those came to life more vividly than normal. For example, an otherwise low-key segment at an airport used the surrounds to feature the sounds of departing planes. Of course, the many action pieces featured even more dynamic audio, and the rear speakers played a significant role in those shots. The whole thing meshed together very nicely and created a vibrant sense of place.

Unfortunately, some concerns forced me to knock some points off my score. For one, the balance seemed problematic at times. Effects sounded too prominent in the mix, and they tended to drown out other elements. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted this, but it became a distraction since I often found it tough to hear speech above the din.

Even when I could make out the dialogue, the quality seemed surprisingly weak. Speech came across as rather muffled and flat during much of the film. I usually could understand the lines, but they rarely appeared natural or distinct. Music fared better, as the score appeared reasonably clean and distinct. It never sounded spectacular, but it was acceptably solid. Effects generally seemed clear and accurate, and they lacked any issues related to distortion. However, they demonstrated elevated bass levels that threatened to overwhelm the mix. While low-end remained deep and tight, it simply seemed too strong. In the end, when I balanced the good with the bad, the audio of I-Spy merited a “B”, but given the mix’s strengths, this one should have made “A”-level easily.

I-Spy tosses in a smattering of extras, and we start with an audio commentary with director Betty Thomas, editor Peter Teschner, producer Jenno Topping, and screenwriters Jay Scherick and David Ronn. All five participants sat together for this running, screen-specific piece that mixed positives and negatives. On one hand, I liked the light and bubbly tone of the track, as the speakers kept things lively and fun from start to finish. They went over a reasonable amount of information as well. Thomas dominated the commentary; the others chimed in occasionally, but she provided the lion’s share of the information. We learned of changes to the script, sets, locations, effects considerations, casting, stunts, improvs, and a mix of other topics.

Although the group definitely covered a lot of issues, however, the commentary seemed oddly limited. That was because we mostly heard about how great everything and everyone was. Much of the praise went to Murphy, and the participants generally appeared to feel very impressed with the film. All the happy talk didn’t bother me because I disliked the movie; it simply became tedious and dull after a while. Ultimately, the I-Spy commentary offered enough useful material to merit a listen for fans of the flick, but otherwise it seemed too erratic to recommend.

Next we get a collection of four featurettes. Cloak and Camouflage runs four minutes and 24 seconds as it features on the film’s clothes. We hear from Thomas and costume designer Ruth Carter. Mostly Carter takes on a tour of her wardrobe choices during this short but tight examination of the topic.

Gadgets and Gizmos lasts four minutes, 33 seconds and involves producers Topping and Warren Carr, VFX supervisor Carey Villegas, cinematographer Oliver Wood, and production designer Marcia Hinds-Johnson. They cover the subject of effects and other visuals in another decent featurette. Actually, it seems less rich and informative than “Camouflage”, but it does include some nice behind the scenes snippets.

Another similar program comes next. Schematics and Blueprints takes five minutes and presents Hinds-Johnson, Carr, Thomas, producer Andrew Vajna, Wood, art director Bo Johnson, and assistant director Richard Graves. They discuss location selection, the film’s castle, the omnipresence of the name “Kelly Robinson” and a few other topics. Like “Gadgets”, it works decently well but seems most interesting when we take a look at the shoot itself.

Titled The Slugafest, the final featurette fills four minutes and nine seconds, and it provides comments from Thomas, actor Eddie Murphy, Topping, fight choreographer Darryl Taylor, and ex-boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. They trace the evolution of the Robinson character from basketball player to boxer and also go over other boxing issues. After “Camouflage”, this seems like the best of the featurettes, especially when we hear about Murphy’s training and some overanxious sparring partners.

Lastly, I-Spy includes a collection of trailers. Oddly, the ad for I-Spy itself doesn’t appear, as we find promos for Adaptation, Blue Streak, Formula 51, National Security and Punch-Drunk Love.

A big-budget bomb, I-Spy sounds like fun on paper but goes absolutely nowhere on the screen. The movie suffers from a loud and obnoxious tone that prevents it from becoming anything charming or amusing. It confuses aggressiveness for energy and never remotely threatens to turn into a likable or entertaining piece. The DVD offers erratic but generally positive picture and sound along with a glossy but decent roster of extras. An unexceptional DVD for a bad movie, I can’t recommend I-Spy.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.6315 Stars Number of Votes: 19
5 3:
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