Spy-by-the-numbers game

Eddie Murphy knows about black guy-white guy buddy movies, having appeared in one of the best of them, "48 Hours" with Nick Nolte.

He's also made a long, lucrative career of cranking out sequels, including "Another 48 Hours," a couple installments of "Doctor Dolittle" and "The Nutty Professor," and a trio of "Beverly Hills Cop" pictures.

"I Spy" figures there must still be some life in interracial buddy movies. And, I suspect, its makers hope that it will spawn a sequel or two as well. In Hollywood, that's called creating a "franchise," and it's as close as you can get to a sure thing at the box office.

If "I Spy" does win a big audience, it will have its two ingratiating stars, Murphy and towheaded Owen Wilson, to thank. (Wilson, by the way, has been getting his own buddy franchise up and running, starring with Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon" and the coming "Shanghai Knights.") Each in his own way is a master of comic patter, and together they give the film desperately needed life, dishing comic riffs back and forth like a jazz duet.

That's a good thing, since everything else here is strictly spy-by-the-numbers – and numbingly predictable. Secret agent Alexander Scott (Wilson) must stop a stolen American super "stealth" airplane from being sold to evildoers, who plan a terror attack against the US. In his role as undefeated middleweight boxing champion Kelly Robinson, who is recruited to help Scott get into a big party at the villain's lair, Murphy blends a little Muhammad Ali with his own chatterbox Donkey character from "Shrek." But can these two unwilling, bickering teammates become buddies in time to stop the villain and save the world? You guess.

Director Betty Thomas makes sure the requisite action spectacles – car chases, shootouts, and aerial stunts – get plenty of screen time. But the visual star is Budapest itself, with its grand historic buildings, twisting streets, and sparkling, soaring bridge across the Danube.

"I Spy" grabs its title, but little else, from the late '60s TV show of the same name. In that series, white actor Robert Culp played Robinson as a secret agent who travels the world in the guise of a tennis player. Bill Cosby portrayed Scott, his spying partner, who poses as his manager. The role was a ground-breaking one for Cosby, known then only as a standup comedian. He became the first black to star in a regular dramatic series on American TV.

The repartee between Culp and Cosby was cool and laid back, full of wry and droll observations. Murphy and Wilson are inspired more by the "Dumb and Dumber" school of comedy, in which their silly (though sometimes endearing) pratfalls and foibles can be suddenly swapped at key moments for unexpected competence – but only just long enough to beat the baddies.

A few of the gags draw real chuckles, including a fawning phone call to Robinson from "President Bush" and a set piece in which the hip Robinson coaches the shy Scott via a spycam as he woos his love interest (Famke Janssen). And Gary Cole induces wide grins as a sexy ponytailed Latin superspy, a send-up of Antonio Banderas.

• Rated PG-13 (contains action violence and some sexual content and language).

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