Spy films lose heart

Special to The Times

One more classic spy show has been trashed by its big-screen counterpart -- a fact that hasn’t escaped audiences who roundly rejected “I Spy” last weekend at the box office. The movie “I Spy,” as most critics have pointed out, isn’t really “I Spy.” It’s just another lame buddy-cop comedy that bears little resemblance to the well-produced, fondly remembered and Emmy-winning adventure series that starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.

This is the latest in a seemingly unending run of disastrous adaptations of the lighthearted espionage dramas that were a staple of mid-1960s television. “Mission: Impossible” (1996), “The Avengers” (1998) and “The Wild Wild West” (1999) also ran roughshod over the characters and concepts of the originals.

“What bothers me about all of these films is the incredible artificiality of all the ‘coolness,’ ” declares television historian Ric Meyers, author of “TV Detectives” and “Murder on the Air.”

“On television, these characters really cared for each other. Hollywood just seems to hate that. They always get rid of it, and by taking that out, you’re literally ripping the heart out of the movie.”


The new “I Spy” has Eddie Murphy playing Kelly Robinson, an arrogant middleweight boxer who is recruited to help Owen Wilson, as second-rate American spy Alexander Scott, crash a Budapest party where bad guy Malcolm McDowell is about to auction off a highly advanced version of the Stealth bomber.

In the TV show, Kelly Robinson (Culp) was the white guy. He was also an extremely sharp secret agent who posed as a tennis player on the international circuit (and wouldn’t have needed the “help” of an obnoxious jive-talker with an entourage). Alexander Scott (Cosby) was not just a sidekick, either. His cover was as Robinson’s trainer, but he was a Rhodes scholar who could speak a dozen languages fluently.

No one could accuse the current bumbling duo of being Rhodes scholars. The new Robinson and Scott, says TV Guide critic Matt Roush, “are two goofs. There’s nothing cool about them. They think they’re cool, whereas Culp and Cosby knew they were cool. They weren’t trying to impress anybody. They were just impressive.”

Meyers’ and Roush’s opinion is echoed by TV experts and die-hard fans of the old shows, who contend that contemporary filmmakers have failed to recapture the essence of the classic spy series -- or worse, simply ruined them.


Notes Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University: “What we loved about that program was the interaction between the two characters. By the time ‘I Spy’ was into its second season, they had a relationship that really clicked. You can’t do that in one ‘Sexual Healing'-'Cyrano de Bergerac’ scene,” he adds, referring to a comical moment in the movie.

The translation of “The Avengers” from TV to film was equally problematic, Meyers points out. Genuine affection was missing here too. Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, as British spies John Steed and Emma Peel, “were unbelievably charming. They loved each other; they loved what they were doing. You looked at Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman [Steed and Peel in the movie], and there was not an ounce of charm or joy in them.”

“The Avengers” may have been the most difficult, because of its peculiarly British Swinging ‘60s sensibility and the innate style of Macnee and Rigg, the latter a feminine ideal for the mod era (smart and sexy, athletic but not too threatening).

But at least it retained the original musical theme, which is such a key element in all these shows. “I Spy” dispenses completely with the signature music of Earle Hagen, just as “The Wild Wild West” alludes only briefly to Richard Markowitz’s famous theme, which was as integral to the TV show as the private railroad car of James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).

A bigger problem with that film was the unlikely notion of a black Secret Service agent in 1869 America.

“By putting Will Smith in it,” Meyers says, “they thought that they could ignore the fact.” Adds Roush: “They turned it into this elephantine thing, trying to clobber the audience with spectacle and the sense of ‘selling’ something.”

“Mission: Impossible,” the only one of these features to perform well at the box office, was a complete betrayal of Bruce Geller’s acclaimed, long-running spy series.

Ahead of its time both visually and in its stories, TV’s “Mission” demanded the full attention of the viewer as it wove an intricate tale -- often without dialogue, relying on sound effects and Lalo Schifrin’s music -- involving a team of American agents working several angles at once.


“Mission: Impossible” was about a team, Roush points out. “It was about the intricacy, about the process.” Instead it became a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. And worse, it made Impossible Missions Force team leader Jim Phelps (played on TV by Peter Graves, in the film by Jon Voight) a treasonous villain.

“That could have made a really good movie,” says Thompson. “What worked so well [on TV] was that great moment, the thrill at the end where the plan all came together, where you wanted to jump off the couch and scream ‘Busted!’ ” That was totally lost [in the feature]. The puzzle never came together. It remained a puzzle.”

The TV shows worked, says Thompson, “because they were constrained by the small screen. They were able to concentrate exclusively on character and story and the relationship between the characters. The luxuries that the filmmaker has -- the big screen, the big budget, special effects and all the rest -- tend to completely dilute, and in the case of ‘Mission: Impossible’ completely eliminate, the very things that made these shows interesting in the first place.”

Despite the apparent failure of “I Spy,” we may not have seen the end of big-screen adaptations of classic spy shows. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is in development at Warner Bros. Notes Roush: “I think the original series are going to outlive these rotten movies that are so cynically made out of them, turning them into these cheap spectacles that are so annoying. I quake in fear of what they’re going to do with ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ ”

Jon Burlingame is the author of “TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes From ‘Dragnet’ to ‘Friends’ ” and “Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks.”