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1962 was a year that had it all: thirteen days of the world teetering on nuclear holocaust, and the birth of a franchise that would subsequently pave the way for tons and tons of rip-offs; proving that espionage is a very viable genre. Bond may have started it all, but even when he has hung up his PPK’s holster for the last time, there will be many other films out there – following the same formula – all vying for a similar taste of success and acclaim.

In recent months we were tortured by the abysmal xXx, enlightened somewhat by Doug Liman’s perfectly watchable Damon vehicle, The Bourne Identity. Oh, and of course there was Mr Bond’s 20th instalment – Die Another Day.

And at the beginning of the year, 41 years after 007’s cinematic conception, another spy film was unleashed: I Spy. After reading some fairly dire reviews (although I did come across one good one), hopes were not high when I loaded this disc up.

I Spy
The Film
When the ‘Switchblade’, the most sophisticated stealth fighter plane ever created, is stolen, the US government brings in their top spy, Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) to track it down. Scott, having recently been promoted to the role of ‘special’ agent, now finally has the chance to successfully complete a high-profile mission, get one over cocky fellow agent Carlos, and perhaps even try and bed sexy agent Rachel (Famke Janssen).

What he however doesn’t expect is to be teamed up with Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy) – an arrogant, albeit excellent, boxing champion. The duo’s mission is to retrieve the plane from the hands of one of the world’s most notorious illegal arms dealers, Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell), without getting themselves killed…

From the off this film, whilst being original in some ways (cocky and loud boxer working ‘undercover’ with inept ‘secret agent’), is also very formulaic. Perhaps that is because it is based on an old TV show, or perhaps it is just that every thing that could be done for this genre has been done. So yes, expect some clichés, and yes, there are some very predictable parts. But, that doesn’t mean it is boring or inane. In fact, right from the start I Spy is an amusing and enjoyable action comedy. Light, digestible yet still fairly memorable (mainly the comic moments/lines), this has actually been executed much better than some other critics have argued.

Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy do make a good pair, and although Murphy is no replacement for Stiller (Wilson + Stiller = cinematic dynamite…watch out for them returning to theatres in 2004 with Starsky and Hutch), they share some amusing lines and their banter is one of the highlights of the film. Backing them up is the very delectable Famke Janssen, who gets to deploy those trusty thighs that she first unleashed in GoldenEye for this role. As Wilson’s love interest she fits the role well, offering the right amount of balls for the job as well as enough charm and beauty to suggest something more than simply work-related interests.

I Spy
The villain in this film, however, isn’t as villainous or treacherous enough to be convincing or menacing. Malcolm McDowell may be a passable actor, but he is either underused or miscast in this film, as his evil devices aren’t truly deployed.

Betty Thomas, a director for whom I have never heard of before, makes a satisfactory stab at the action/comedy genre, offering enough camera trickery and SFX to make the set-pieces work, as well as more sedated techniques in other places. Another thing to note is the fairly impressive boxing sequences, two in total, in which Eddie Murphy does battle in a fairly realistic and bone-crunching fashion – whilst of course still offering the odd quip and joke as he progresses.

Script-wise it may be a bit lacklustre – cliché and twists aplenty that don’t add up to much – but the writers (and indeed the filmmakers) started off this project with one intention: to make I Spy fun. It is not a celluloid examination of the human condition, nor an intelligent thriller…instead it’s a fun way to spend 93 minutes.

Video
Being a recent film from a big studio – Columbia Tristar – the 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is very impressive. Colours are defined well, with a wide and diverse palette, and no compression signs or artefacts are visible – apart from one instance when the print suffers from a minor case of the latter. Aside from that singular hiccup, the transfer is almost reference quality: something that can only be expected from a recent film onto DVD.


I Spy
Audio
A few soundtracks to choose from here: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Hungarian & Russian) & Dolby Digital 2.0 (Czech) are the ones on offer this time around, with of course the 5.1 mixes being the superior of the two. Being fluent in English and not Hungarian or Russian (or Czech for that matter), I opted for my national soundtrack, which is bombastic to say the least at times. When the action heats up, the subwoofer packs a fairly impressive punch, and the soundstage is aggressive and imposing. Although there isn’t enough speaker definition – namely from the rear channels – to make this reference quality, like the video the audio is trademark DVD standard.

Extras
It’s good to see Columbia Tristar producing a non-Superbit title once in a while, which of course means extras for us consumers who have just shelled out in the region of £20 for this disc. They begin with a filmmakers’ commentary from an assortment of people: director Betty Thomas, the editor, the two writers and a producer. It contains some interesting insight into the production – various titbits of how certain things were achieved and general banter for the duration. Worth tuning into on a repeat viewing.

There are four featurettes included, which are broken down as follows:

[*]Cloak and Camouflage
[*]Gadgets and Gizmos
[*]Schematics and Blueprints
[*]The Slugfest

Their total running time is just under 20 minutes – not too paltry, but not that great either. They focus on specific things to do with the film, such as props and effects, but a ‘play all’ function is lacking. I suppose they are worth watching, but certainly only once.

Five trailers round off the package, yet only one of them is for the film itself…the other four are what could be deemed shameless marketing ploys from CTHE!

The menus are animated well with clips from the film (although these clips do tend to focus a little too much on the resolution of the film and therefore should carry some form of spoiler warning!), and are easy to navigate.

I Spy
Overall
Critics described I Spy as lacklustre popcorn fodder, something forgettable and tiresome to watch. I agree with only half that statement: in this reviewer’s opinion, whilst the film may be fairly forgettable and clichéd, it certainly isn’t tiresome. The charm of seeing Wilson and Murphy interacting on screen is the aforementioned highlight, but the other factors that makes a good film do come into play here. There is humour, there is action, and there are some espionage set-pieces…all in all a fun night’s viewing – for more or less the whole family.

However, when I have to sum up the overall package, I deem I Spy to be an excellent rental choice, but the sparse extras and lack of replay value of the film tend to make me think that a purchase may not be warranted. Yes, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, but I think only once more would really suffice: because, continuing the theme of the review, the film is clichéd and predictable. The sparse extras are redeemed somewhat by the very good presentation – trademark video and audio – but really more work could have been put into them, especially a longer ‘making-of’ and perhaps some deleted scenes or other assorted goodies. In summary: rent, watch, and then forget. In that order…


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