My Spy. Directed by Peter Segal. Starring Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
There’s a long history in Hollywood of tough guys hitching a ride with cute kids in order to cross over from the wrestling ring and cookie-cutter villain roles to more nuanced fare.
Arnold Schwarzenegger did it way back in 1990 with Kindergarten Cop. Hulk Hogan followed suit with Mr. Nanny. Dwayne Johnson donned a tutu for The Tooth Fairy. And John Cena voiced Ferdinand, and starred in last year’s Playing With Fire.
But these bridge films between thug roles and thespian are usually cut from the same flame-retardant cloth: a precocious kid buddies up with an emotionally closed-off lunk of a guy who – spoiler alert – gradually learns how to love again just in time to marry the kid’s single mom. Go in knowing this and you’re all good
It’s Dave Bautista’s turn to play a softie in My Spy. Hot on the heels of his Stuber release, Bautista plays JJ, a former special ops soldier now working for the CIA. When we first meet him, JJ is busting out of a slick suit jacket in the Ukraine, dispatching Russians like a whirling dervish.
The best moments occur in this first scene, as JJ quotes Notting Hill to a cold-blooded killer while another assassin criticizes his questionable Russian accent: “You sound like Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2.” As the opening credits roll JJ is lamenting the fluffy Eurovision pop all over the radio, and settles for Britney.
Too bad JJ killed everyone off before he could bring vital intel home to his boss (an underused Ken Jeong), who tells him that he’s not cut out for the Intelligence agency: “you have no finesse.” As punishment, JJ is sent on a last-chance mission with Bobbi from tech support (Kristen Schaal), who also happens to be JJ’s number-one fan. Their assignment is to head to Chicago to keep tabs on a young girl and her widowed mom, whose dead husband may have had terrorist ties in France.
They move in to the same apartment building as their targets and set up hidden cameras and the requisite half-dozen video monitors, which always make things look very spy-ish. But before they have even plugged everything in, nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Coleman) is on to them and has traced the signal right back to them.
JJ suggests killing her, but Bobbi intercedes. Sophie has a better idea in the form of good old-fashioned blackmail: if JJ will take her to an ice-skating party while mom is at work, she’ll forget the whole thing. “I miss dealing with terrorists,” JJ complains. However, the arrangement is mutually beneficial for them both, since Sophie desperately needs friends at her new school and JJ needs to communicate with someone other than his pet fish.
Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is the most trusting mom ever, abdicating most of her parenting duties to the gruff, mammoth, tattooed stranger a few doors down the hall. Yet somehow the twosome spend enough time together that the movie meanders into rom-com territory, with JJ getting a “Queer Eye” makeover from the gay couple next door and showing off some bull-in-a-china-shop dance moves.
Writers Jon and Erich Hoeber throw in the other required elements here – a car chase, an appearance by the baddie, a kidnapping – and director Peter Segal (50 First Dates) makes sure things hum along smoothly, if predictably. He’s aided in no small part by young Coleman, previously seen in Big Little Lies, who portrays just the right mix of adorable and annoying. Bautista may be the former wrestler, but it’s Coleman who is left to do most of the heavy lifting.