Dir: Betty Thomas. US. 2002. 96 mins.

At the end of a year of box office disappointment, Eddie Murphy could certainly do with the kind of boost promised by a big screen version of a popular TV show and a teaming with an up-and-coming younger star. Sporadically effective action comedy I Spy, loosely based on the mid-1960s US TV series of the same name, won't return Murphy to his Beverly Hills Cop glory days, or finally push co-star Owen Wilson onto the action A-list. But it should partially compensate for the failures earlier this year of Murphy's The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Showtime and provide producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna with a respectably successful debut for their new C-2 Pictures banner.

Just how successful will depend on how long I Spy can hold up as holiday season competition builds in the US market. Domestic distributor Columbia, launched the film last weekend (Nov 1) where it grossed a slightly disappointing $12.8m for third place. In international markets, where Columbia TriStar is planning mostly New Year releases, the film will find more room to grow but ppossibly less receptive audiences - lately, even Murphy's most successful domestic releases (like family sequels Dr Doolittle 2 and The Nutty Professor 2) have struggled outside the US, and Wilson is not yet a big enough pull to make up the difference.

Taking the places of the dryly witty TV series' Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, Murphy and Wilson portray, respectively, arrogant, motor-mouth boxing champ Kelly Robinson and insecure US special agent Alex Scott. Don't ask why, but Robinson is recruited to provide civilian cover for Scott in Budapest as the latter attempts to retrieve a stolen secret fighter plane from arms dealer Arnold Gundars (McDowell). When spy and boxing duties allow, Kelly is also coaching the reticent Alex on how to woo fellow agent Rachel (Janssen).

Murphy is in good, energetic form as the comically smooth and self-possessed Robinson, with sharp verbal chops and enough of a twinkle in his eye to play comfortably beside his more youthful co-star. Wilson, who clicked so well as Jackie Chan's foil in Shanghai Noon (well enough to spark the upcoming Shanghai Knights sequel) before making his solo action debut in last year's Behind Enemy Lines, is less well served by the frenetic script and his diffident charm only peeks through on occasion.

Together, Murphy and Wilson create a few moments of real chemistry and handle their snappy dialogue exchanges with impressive skill. Director Betty Thomas (Private Parts and Murphy's first Dr Doolittle movie) stages some amusing set pieces, including a very funny Marvin-Gaye-as-Cyrano-de-Bergerac sequence.

The comedy, however, stays on the same, rather shrill note throughout and the film offers little else to vary the tone. The plot, certainly, is even more than usually disposable (McDowell's villain and the pursued fighter plane barely seem necessary at all) and the Budapest locations are not used as interestingly as they might have been. The action, meanwhile, which might have given I Spy an enjoyable extra dimension, is for the most part disappointingly tame.

Prod cos: Tall Trees, C-2 Pictures, Sheldon Leonard Productions
US dist:
Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar
Jenno Topping, Betty Thomas, Mario Kassar, Andy Vajna
Exec prods:
Warren Carr, Marc Toberoff, David R Ginsburg
Scr: Marianne Wibberley & Cormac Wibberley, Jay Scherick & David Ronn
Oliver Wood
Prod des:
Marcia Hinds-Johnson
Peter Teschner
Richard Gibbs
Main cast:
Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole, Phill Lewis