I Spy Returns (1994)

Director: Jerry London
Starring: Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, George Newbern, Salli Richardson, Nikolaus Paryla, Jonathan Hyde
Music: Johnny Harris

I Spy Returns is a belated nostalgia film, which plays more like an episode of The Cosby Show than the spy series that spawned it. Let’s begin at the top. The credits roll and there is a slick montage of the old title sequence and clips from the old series – but the music that plays over the top is synth pop of the worst kind (I’ll slag off the music a bit more later). As the show starts Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) has been snooping around his house and finds a gun case remarkably similar to the one he used to have when he worked as a spy. You see Scott has long retired from the spying business and is happily married and lives a normal life as a college professor. Back to the gun case. It can only belong to one person – Scott’s daughter, Nicole (Salli Richardson). Behind Scott senior’s back she has run off and become a spy. To make matters worse, her controller is none other than Scott senior’s old partner Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp).

Angered, Scott gets into his car and drives to the Department Of Agriculture and enters the cutely named Parasite Control wing. This is naturally the Secret Service headquarters. Scott greets Robinson with a punch to the jaw (he obviously glad to see his old friend). Scott demands an explanation and gets one. But not a pleasing one. Yes, his daughter Nicole is indeed an agent. She has just graduated from spy school and about to go on her first mission. The explanation goes from bad to worse, when Robinson explains his son Bennett (George Newbern) is to accompany Nicole on the mission.

Somehow Robinson appeases Scott, and the two youngsters are sent off on their mission to Vienna. Their mission is to meet Viktor Resnikov, a Russian biologist who wants to defect to the west. The two offspring are complete opposites. Nicole is streetwise and savii and is obviously cut out for a life of espionage even though her father would prefer it if she were a librarian. Bennett on the other hand, comes off as, well to use the parlance of when this movie was made – a bit of a dork. But his father keeps pushing for him to be a spy.

It is Nicole and Bennett’s first day on the job and they are following Resnikov. They too are being followed. But not by enemy agents. Their respective fathers have donned silly disguises in an attempt to blend in and are tailing the young couple. Of course Scott senior and Robinson senior collide. They shout at each other for a while, but in the end agree to work with each other to look out for their children. Despite this contrived and unfunny hi-jinx, the day out ends un-eventfully. At the hotel that evening, two enemy agents, clad in black attempt to kidnap Resnikov. All agents, young and old alike, scramble to the rescue. Resnikov is saved but the children aren’t pleased to see their parents.

At breakfast the next morning, the’seniors’ recognise Caesar Baroody (Jonathan Hyde) a scumbag from the old days. Baroody specialises in trafficking secrets, and as Resnikov the biologist has invented a tropical rainforest virus that is extremely harmful to humans, it is reasonable to assume that Baroody is looking to cut himself in on the action.

After some more tired antics by all parties, Baroody kidnaps Nicole and Bennett and has them tied up at his mansion. This begins a string of scenes which are as silly as they sound. Next the children escape. But naturally, their parents come looking for them. The parents stumble into the mansion and get captured. They are tied naked to two chairs. The children realise that their parents would have come looking for them and would have fallen into a trap. So they agree to go back to the mansion and rescue their parents, which they do. Scott and Robinson senior are not only embarrassed that they are found naked, but it is their children who have rescued them. The children that they were in Vienna to protect. While all this family bonding is happening, Baroody is at the hotel kidnapping Resnikov.

Now it is up to agents Scott and Robinson senior to work with agents Scott and Robinson junior to rescue the captured scientist. There’s still one or two minor twists to the story but I will not spoil it for you.

In a reunion movie of this sort you’d expect a few sentimental moments and this film delivers them. But while being sentimental, the film is not very nostalgic. This telemovie never feels like and episode of I Spy. Sure, Cosby and Culp still display a certain amount of chemistry together but introduction of the children’s subplot dilutes the power of these scenes together. Also the introduction of Nicole to Cosby’s character really does send him into Huxtable territory – but without the laughs.

One of the biggest crimes this TV movie makes is that it throws out the sixties style music. Sure it retains the original theme, but it is performed in an ‘eighties’ syth pop fashion. It sounds absolutely dreadful. The incidental music fares no better. I personally don’t see the point of making a nostalgia ‘returns’ film and removing all the elements that made the original series so enjoyable in the first place. One of those elements was the music and Johnny Harris was clearly the wrong choice to score a project such as this.

As a movie, I Spy Returns is hard to despise because, if you are a fan of Culp and Cosby’s work on I Spy, you may find a glimmer of joy in simply seeing the old firm back in business. But if you are too young to remember the original series (or have never caught some re-runs or watched it on DVD), or never liked the series in the first place, you will find this movie really hard going. It’s not funny or exciting. It is a waste of talent and time.

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