As inevitably and irresistibly as the sun rising and the tide coming in, any actor who has enormous muscles and an even marginally acceptable sense of comic timing will eventually make a children's comedy that has him pratfall in the face of a preternaturally self-assured tween. And doom has now come to wrestler-turned-character actor Dave Bautista, whose dance with the hangman is a certain My Spy, which feels like an exact, specific concept that has received this treatment before:* JJ, a disgraced CIA agent has been given a shit assignment spying on a French terrorist's brother's widow and her friendless daughter in their apartment in Wicker Park, Chicago (which looks even more like Toronto than Toronto usually does). The daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman) immediately outwits the spy, records him on her phone, and uses the footage to blackmail him into being her friend. Eventually, JJ snaps from the pressure, cracks Sophie's head open with the butt of a pistol, and dies in a bloody shootout with the Chicago PD.

Haha, no, he learns to be friendlier and funner and she learns to be more socially confident. My Spy is extremely uninterested in surprising you, though it might be able to surprise the 7- and 8-year-olds who probably make up the ideal  target audience for its monumentally cloying, shticky jokes. Though in truth, Bautista covered in his own viscera and the spattered brain matter of the 9-year-old he's just murdered wouldn't be too terribly far out of place for a movie that has put a rather odd amount of energy into making sure that it has enough violence and salty language to win itself a PG-13 rating. Which does raise the question of who in God's name the movie is for: surely not the adult fans of spy movies? No, it must be a family movie, though the last time nominal "family movies" were this hard-edged as a matter of course was in the 1980s, right around the time this subgenre was birthed. And, I mean, it's not like My Spy features waves of gore or anything, though it does have a scene where Kristen Schall (playing JJ's punching bag of a tech specialist) tastes a pool of stained blood in the optimistic hope that it's sriracha, which may or may not be too violent for children, though it was certainly rather disturbing for me.

In general, managing tone is one of My Spy's biggest problems. Director Peter Segal, a comedy specialist whose films err on the side of being slightly dreadful, has an exceptionally hard time combining comedy and action, but rather than just commit to the path of least resistance, and alternate clumsily from one to the other, he's still trying to make action scenes that are funny. This typically involves cutaways from the action to a side character making some kind of observation that is at least moderately in the vicinity of a witticism or quip, though these are laid out so flatly in the editing as little modules of humor that they almost inevitably fall flat. It's a little bit better when the film can simply focus on comedy beats, though even here there's a tension between the goofy children's comedy that makes up most of the jokes in Erich and Jon Hoeber's screenplay and Bautista and Schaal's performances, which are both trying to be more sarcastic and abrasive than the film is equipped to make room for (in Schaal's case, this feels compounded by the meanspirited gags that are hung on her character). Bautista's comic timing is, by all means, very strong; he's not being fed all that much in the way of good lines (for the most part, he's playing a straight man to the absurdity of the scenario, and someone for Coleman and Schaal to bounce zingers off of; most of his actual humor is left to physical gags that, often as not, Segal buries in too-close shot scales), but he's still giving them a pleasant "what is this shit?" spin by hanging onto them a little, and his reaction beats are pretty uniformly good. But it's not exactly the comic timing that the rest of the film needs: it's a little too brusque, a little too concerned with nailing the put-upon ridiculousness of the scenario, rather than the bouncy cutesiness of it.

The cutesiness, for its own part, is just about the only part of My Spy that genuinely works and is genuinely satisfying. Bautista and Coleman have excellent rapport with each other, never a given for any project that needs to pair and adult and a child off and have this fuel very nearly the entirety of the story. It helps that Coleman is, herself, giving a genuinely strong performance (also not a given), capturing a certain degree of situational awareness and street smarts that doesn't read as precociousness in the manner of so many Hollywood children, but as something that a reasonably alert child might have actually been able to pick up from too much exposure to adults. There's just a little bit of bite to her acting, and coupled with Bautista's little bit of peevishness, it gives the pairing just enough salt to offset all of the sugar inherent to the story. Because of course this goes right where you expect to, in pretty much every respect, even when it shouldn't (the usual "forcing my single parent and this goofy stranger to flirt with each other" subplot feels unusually out of place in a story about a woman hiding from the man who killed her husband). It's never very good, but at least Bautista and Coleman are approaching each other with a level of sardonic nuance that makes it feel a little snotty, not just treacly.

That's clearly not enough to make My Spy worth watching, but it does mean that, as movies on this brutally well-worn model go, it's not as painful as some. There's still the lingering question of whether the tiny children who might enjoy the comedy are really up for the quantity of spy movie that goes on here, particularly the rather complete shift out of comedy territory and into suspense for almost all of the climax; I cannot imagine anybody coming for a spy movie feeling that there's enough of it, but I also cannot imagine that they might make that mistake. So what we're left with is just a random little mediocre movie for nobody in particular but bored kids, that somehow got tangled up having one of the most visibly screwed-up releases of any movie during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. Not a worthy fate for something so harmlessly banal, but at least it gets an asterisk in the history books.




*I'm pretty sure I'm thinking of 2010's Jackie Chan vehicle The Spy Next Door, even though that's hardly Chan's only children's movie.