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Movie review: ‘My Spy’ gets by on charm

Dana Barbuto
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Victorville Daily Press

The practice of pairing beefy blokes with precocious kids continues with the congenial family action-comedy “My Spy.” With muscles on top of muscles, Dave Bautista (Drax from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) plays a burly ex-Special Forces-turned-CIA agent who has a knack for kicking butt and firing bullets but is far less adept at spycraft techniques. He lacks “emotional intelligence,” says his boss (Ken Jeong) back at Langley.

After botching a mission in the Ukraine involving a plutonium core and failing to capture a dangerous Russian arms dealer, Bautista’s JJ is relegated to surveillance duty in Chicago. His Windy City assignment is to observe the bad guy’s sister (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman, “Big Little Lies”).

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop,” Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier,” or fellow wrestlers Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, twice - in “Tooth Fairy” and “The Game Plan” - or John Cena in the recent “Playing With Fire,” a pint-sized imp brings a big lug down to size. Not terribly original on the part of “RED” writers Jon and Erich Hoeber, who place Sophie into JJ’s orbit after he and his overeager surveillance partner, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), have their cover blown. But Sophie won’t blab if JJ honors a “pinky promise” to teach her the art of espionage. What ensues follows the buddy formula to the letter (i.e., they become BFFs).

In lieu of originality, director Peter Segal (“50 First Dates”) amps up the heart and humor, most of the latter via pratfalls built on Bautista’s size (big man on little ice skates, big man chased by little dog, etc.) or his doltishness in awkward situations, like the Parents and Special Friends Day at Sophie’s school where JJ is so fish-out-of-water nervous that he tells her fourth-grade class, “I miss terrorists.”

It’s light on plot and what’s here is largely innocuous and derivative, yet surprisingly watchable due to the sweet charm generated by Coleman and Bautista. The latter excels at portraying the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold while showing surprising finesse in dramatic moments. Coleman is a doll and seems to enjoy every moment. Plus, as the new girl in school, Sophie is in a relatable situation of trying to make new in the face of bullying and teasing. She desperately wants to fit in. What child doesn’t? This, and JJ’s emotional issues might seem too heavy for a kids flick, but Segal wisely doesn’t dwell on anything too heavy. Plenty of fun abounds. For instance, Segal poking fun at the action genre, with JJ teaching Sophie how to strut away from an explosion without looking back. There’s just the right amount of silliness and cool dances like the Floss and the Whip, and just enough of Cardi B on the soundtrack to keep youngsters engaged.

Most situations are played for laughs until the inevitable pathos sets in when the nebulous villain (Greg Bryk) arrives for a third-act showdown full of gunfire, car chases and explosions. Sophie is put in peril. Good thing she brought the muscle.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“My Spy”

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Ken Jeong. Available to stream via Amazon Prime.

(PG-13 for action/violence and language.)

Grade: B-