What sets “My Spy” apart from something structurally similar but tonally odious like “Playing With Fire,” for example, is the chemistry between Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman. Each of them brings way more to the endeavor than it probably deserves. He’s got a wounded vulnerability beneath his hulking persona, she’s got a wisdom beyond her years that never veers into precocious kid territory. And the Hoebers have woven a delightfully weird streak throughout the humor that’ll keep you on your toes. It’s consistently a pleasant surprise in what is otherwise a predictable story.
Bautista stars as JJ, a former Army Ranger/Special Ops bad ass who’s now having a hard time transferring his killing skills and sheer brute strength to the CIA, where his boss (Ken Jeong, amusing in a couple of scenes) informs him that subtlety and finesse are more valuable. After botching a job in Ukraine involving a plutonium deal, JJ is sent undercover to Chicago to surveil the relatives of the bad guy who got away: recently widowed ER nurse Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and her lonely nine-year-old daughter, Sophie (Coleman), who’ve just moved there from Paris for a fresh start. JJ’s partner on the mission is the overeager tech wiz Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, making inspired choices throughout the film), who’s brilliant but has zero field experience. The two hole up in a ratty apartment across the way from Sophie and her mom, but Sophie soon finds their hidden cameras, hunts them down and insists that JJ teach her how to be a spy, or else she’ll blow their cover.
The action element of this action-comedy is extremely perfunctory; what the spies scattered worldwide are looking for, and why, isn’t all that interesting, and the film as a whole nearly drags to a halt when it bothers with an actual plot. Where it comes to life, though, is in the interaction between JJ and Sophie. We see where this relationship is going from the second they discover each other—she needs a father figure, he needs to open his heart—but Coleman and Bautista have such a playful, spiky way with each other, it’s hard not to be charmed. When Sophie blackmails JJ into taking her to an ice-skating party because her mom has to work, we know exactly where it will end up: with this muscular, intimidating beast bumbling and stumbling before ending up flat on his back.