My favorite sequence in the dopey action comedy “My Spy” begins when the villain flees Wicker Park and a CIA surveillance techie tells our hero, “Looks like he’s going to Naperville. There’s an airfield there!” and I don’t know how even the CIA can figure that because the villain’s been driving for all of about 90 seconds, but sure enough, next thing you know, we’re at the airfield in Naperville, and get this: There’s a giant, gaping, rocky canyon right at the end of the runway. Who knew?
As you might have guessed, while this occasionally charming but deeply cynical and borderline creepy adventure is set largely in Chicago, it was filmed elsewhere – in this case, Toronto, which has often stood in for Chicago, most notably and ridiculously in the movie … “Chicago.” From time to time, veteran comedy director Peter Segal (“Tommy Boy,” “Get Smart,” “Grudge Match”) gives us transitional skyline shots of the real Chicago, but then we cut to an unfamiliar skating rink or a generic city street or the aforementioned “Naperville,” and the fakery is quite obvious.
The same could be said of the smirking, self-referential screenplay, which puts on airs of being a meta piece with its reference to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and indulging in clichéd scenes such as everyone in the office at CIA headquarters standing and applauding when a hero returns from a mission, or the increasingly grating walk-away-from-the-explosion-in-slow-motion sequence. But just because you’re acknowledging a lack of creativity doesn’t mean you’re being creative.
Following in the footprints of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop,” Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier,” The Rock in “The Game Plan,” John Cena in “Playing With Fire,” et al., the oversized, chiseled-from-granite and quite likable Dave Bautista joins the Big Brute Looks After Adorable Kid genre as the obligatory former military hero turned CIA operative JJ, who is forever on thin ice with his uptight boss, David Kim (an underused Ken Jeong), because JJ has a tendency to shoot and maim first and ask questions, well, never.
To keep JJ out of trouble (ha-ha), Kim assigns him to a boring surveillance job in Chicago — and even worse, gives him a new partner, the geeky tech expert Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), who idolizes JJ and is thrilled to be joining him in the field. (This is similar to the setup of last year’s animated adventure “Spies in Disguise,” except nobody gets turned into a pigeon here.)
Off we go to Phony Chicago, where JJ and Bobbi are to keep watch over the widowed Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who have recently moved from France to Chicago to hide from Kate’s brother-in-law, Marquez (Greg Bryk), whose line of work is international terrorism. After installing cameras in every room of Kate’s Wicker Park apartment, JJ and Bobbi set up surveillance camp – in an apartment just a few doors down from Kate’s. Kind of increases the chances their cover will be blown, right? Which is exactly what happens when the precocious Sophie discovers one of the poorly hidden cameras and uses her tech-savvy skills to walk right in on the operation.
Sophie strikes a deal with JJ: She won’t stream her cellphone video exposing the operation if JJ will agree to accompany her to various school events and social activities because Mom is always working. Now, you’d think a former Special Forces guy the size of an outside linebacker who is now working for the CIA could figure out a way to take a phone from a 9-year-old girl, but JJ goes along with the plan, which cues up the film’s most likable moments, as Bautista and Coleman are quite good together, and some of their scenes together are sweet and funny and touching.
Less endearing is the budding romance between JJ and Kate – not because of any failings on the part of the actors, but because JJ is literally peeping on Kate (there’s even a camera in the bathroom), which means there’s going to be a moment in this relationship when Kate learns the truth about why JJ is really in her life. She’s probably going to feel more than a little creeped out about falling for this guy, not to mention letting her daughter go ice skating with him.
When “My Spy” remembers it’s also an action film, we get generic shootouts and generic snarling villains and generic action sequences, including the aforementioned car chase that winds up in Naperville, with an airplane dangling over that massive cliff and our heroes hanging on for dear life, lest they fall and ruin the green screen. This forgettable film is too rough for younger kids and too stupid for the grown-ups.