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Movie review: Dave Bautista shows off his comic chops in family-friendly ‘My Spy’

Ed Symkus
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The Daily Herald

This is being billed as a family-action film, but throughout its introductory scene, it’s hard to imagine mom and dad and the kids settling in for a fun time together. It’s just solid action. Some sort of deal involving plutonium is being made between two groups of unsavory men in Chernobyl. Or maybe just one group is unsavory. They would be the Russians. The others must be the good guys ... the CIA. Everything goes wrong. A fight breaks out. There are guns and explosions, and someone switches the cameras over to the slow-motion setting.

Looks like this is going to be a movie we’ve seen before.

Later on, at CIA headquarters, we learn that some of the plutonium has gone missing, and is in the hands of one of the Russian bad guys. And former Special Forces man JJ (Dave Bautista) is being reprimanded by his CIA boss (Ken Jeong) for not having the right temperament when he was leading the Chernobyl situation. But, heck, he’ll give him one more chance to prove himself, as long as it doesn’t involve any real action.

It’s at this point that the filmmakers bring out the family film scenario. They introduce lonely 9-year-old Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who has moved with her mom Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) from Paris to settle down in Chicago. Dad was recently killed in Paris, so mom and daughter left to start a new life.

Dad was killed in Paris? Is that family film material? Wait! That’s nothing! Dad was killed by his brother, who is the bad guy who was running the plutonium deal. And now, Uncle Bad Guy might be looking for Kate and Sophie, who have fled from Paris, although they’re kind of hiding from everyone in plain sight.

The CIA knows where they are, and they become JJ’s second chance. He’s put on surveillance detail in Chicago. He and an over-talkative CIA analyst named Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) move into the same apartment building as Kate and Sophie with plans to keep an eye on them, just in case the evil uncle shows up.

This is also where the film’s approach to comedy starts. The two spies are worried about blowing their cover. Oops! Lonely Sophie walks in on their surveillance operation, immediately blowing their cover and, being a crafty kid, threatens to blackmail them if JJ doesn’t become her friend, or more likely a father figure in her life.

The remainder of the film is a balancing act that’s made up of worn-out clichés - JJ being forced to appear at Parents and Special Friends Day at school, JJ being needled into a pratfall-filled ice skating sequence - as well some violent (but not very violent) threats coming from the bad guy, and a side plot of Sophie trying to romantically match up JJ with her mom.

At about the three-quarter mark, the film suddenly and jarringly and not very convincingly turns into an action film, with all of the requisite action film clichés. But there’s something different about the way the writers and director handle this part. It’s as if they realize that they’re painting themselves into a corner, so they do it all with a wink and a nod. One of the film’s finest moments is when there’s a subtle but very direct reference to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Though the film on the whole is a little too pat and predictable, it’s held together by really good performances from Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), who has a natural way with comedy, and by Coleman, who plays Sophie as smart and sharp, but not overly precocious. With the violence remaining a minor part of it all, the film is quite charming, and works fine as family entertainment. Without realizing it, it slowly grew on me, and I both appreciated it and liked it more when I was thinking about it afterward than while I was watching it.

“My Spy” premiers on most streaming platforms on June 26.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“My Spy”

Written by Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber; directed by Peter Segal

Rated PG-13