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My Spy: Bautista shines in messy family comedy

My Spy is a nice little comedic showpiece for Dave Bautista, who manages to elevate the sloppy film surrounding him.

There has been a long history of pro wrestlers crossing over into film.  It makes sense when you think about it – the charisma necessary to captivate 20,000 fans in a live arena should transfer naturally to the silver screen. The Rock, of course, is the gold standard: one of the biggest wrestling stars ever has grown into one of the biggest movie stars of his generation. And yet the abundance of pro wrestlers in movies is far greater than you might initially realize. When a casting director needs a huge physical presence for an action role, the squared circle makes for a sensible recruiting ground.

Steve Soderbergh turned to Kevin Nash when he needed a burly stripper in the Magic Mike movies. Andre the Giant made a memorable appearance in The Princess Bride.  Jesse “The Body” Ventura played a “goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus” in PredatorTim Burton cast George “The Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson in Ed Wood, and the real Tor Johnson was also a pro wrestler for decades beginning in the 1920s.  Even the actor who played hitman Luca Brasi in The Godfather, Lenny Montana, came from a pro wrestling background.

This is all a long-winded wind-up to get to Dave Bautista.  Baustista, who wrestled under the stage name “Batista,” is in the upper echelon of these converted performers.  Guardians of the Galaxy put Bautista on the map – his Drax the Destroyer served as a memorable burst of comedic relief despite his tough guy exterior.  He has gone on to play memorable heavies in Spectre and Blade Runner 2049, while ably carrying middling comedies like Stuber and staid action films like Bushwick in between appearances in various entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

loud and clear reviews my spy
Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman in My Spy (STX Entertainment)

It makes sense that the filmmakers behind My Spy would look to Bautista to follow in the footsteps of so many other imposing stars who have made movies inspired by the Kindergarten Cop formula.  From Arnold Schwarzengger and Vin Diesil to The Rock and Jackie Chan, countless action stars from the last four decades have subverted their tough guy image by sharing the screen with precocious children.  Each tough guy is forced to protect a child, but, of course, ends up learning more from the relationship – and expanding his fanbase at the box office.

Baustista’s bone dry line readings stand as a wonderful counterpart to his imposing physique.  His eyes are surprisingly expressive and allow him to imbue his toughs with more humanity than one might expect.  He is also savvy enough to be in on the joke.  The best moments in My Spy take advantage of his gifts for comedy: deadpan line reading describing in exacting detail how he might murder the mother and child he is tasked with watching are a highlight. The film humorously pokes fun at his physique as well, from quips about steroids to a gag about class moms drawn in by his array of tattoos.  Bautista is given an extended dance scene that shows his impressive chops for physical comedy.

The plot here is particularly nonsensical, even by the standards of the genre.  While we can suspend disbelief to accept that a little girl might get the drop on her new CIA neighbors’ surveillance efforts, it buggers belief that she would use that discovery to – I wish I was making this up – force an agent to take her ice skating. She later forces the man she has only just met to come to Parents Day at her school in her mother’s stead, and tricks him into attending her art show.  It is to Bautista’s credit that the scenes never topple over the edge into creepy.

That little girl, Chloe Coleman of Big Little Lies fame, is an able comedian when the film allows her.  Her core motivation is, you may have guessed from the title, to learn spycraft from her new mentor.  The scenes that actually focus on her spy training, such as one that sees her beat a polygraph, are strong comedic beats.  Alas, too much of the role is focused on Coleman setting up tired romantic gestures between her mother and the new man in her life.

I am left with no idea who the audience is for this movie.  The film is far too violent for little kids, but the overall story is too kiddie to work for teens.  It is certainly too juvenile for adult action fans.  Despite the presence of able comedic supporting players like Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Kristen Schaal (The Last Man on Earth), the movie never comes together as a cohesive story.  The writers have at least included a number of relatively sly mature jokes for the parents in the audience. And yet, despite my many complaints, I could not help but enjoy spending much of the film’s blessedly brief runtime with Bautista’s game performance.

My Spy is now available to watch on Prime Video.

My Spy: The Eternal City review: The fun continues – Loud and Clear
While My Spy: The Eternal City may not have the most refined story, the chemistry between Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman is in top form.
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