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Below are review excerpts that compare the 2002 film to the TV series.
Generally, the critics slammed the movie. But in the process they had some
nice things to say about the series.

"Although I have not seen the new I-Spy, I know it is not my I Spy."
-- Bill Cosby to the Hollywood Reporter, October 2002
"I Spy something lazy, slow, shallow, stupid, amateurish, unfunny, unsuspenseful, uninformed, unspeakably dull and witlessly written, directed and acted (the special effects suck, too). It's the movie version of I Spy, the 1960s TV series that scored a racial breakthrough by pairing Robert Culp, as a tennis- pro spy, with Bill Cosby, as his spy trainer."
-- Pat Travers, Rolling Stone
The bad news is 'I Spy' is nothing like the old TV show
"There are two things you need to know about the expensive, effects-heavy and very loud, big-screen version of the well-remembered '60s TV series, "I Spy": 1) Except for the title, it has nothing to do with the old series; and 2) it's not especially good. Like director Betty Thomas' earlier "The Brady Bunch Movie," it takes the kernel of a TV show's premise and burlesques it, in this case beyond recognition. The witty repartee that propelled the original has become computerized pratfalls and race-baiting braggadocio."
-- William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"Once upon a time, there was a television show that was genuinely cool. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby played smart, laid-back guys who traveled around to exotic and romantic locations saving the world. Everyone thought they were a tennis player and a coach who didn’t take anything very seriously, but we knew that they were in reality really smart guys who knew all kinds of great stuff and exchanged effortlessly witty wisecracks. The show was also quietly revolutionary. Bill Cosby was not only the first black actor to star in a television drama, but he played a supremely smart and capable spy who could also play tennis. The casual equality of the two leads just a few years after the march on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech was a milestone of the civil rights movement.
Now that television show has been remade as a forgettable buddy movie that feels like a rejected script for "Rush Hour 3."
-- Movie Mom Reviews
"The movie lacks the sophistication of the 1960s TV series on which it's loosely based, in which Bill Cosby and Robert Culp played globe-hopping secret agents. Actually, the new "I Spy" lacks much sophistication at all, which is no surprise, given that it was directed by Betty Thomas, whose "The Brady Bunch Movie" lampooned another vintage TV show. The new "I Spy" features lowbrow humor, a throwaway plot about a stolen spy plane and lots of wide-eyed wonderment at the toys the boys get to play with. This nimbly irreverent approach produces a loose, lighthearted romp that's a notch above the usual buddy comedies."
-- Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle
"The names remain the same, but any other similarities between the 1960s TV series I Spy with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp and the new feature film starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson are purely coincidental. 'Sony really forced me to use that title,' director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie) said at the film's premiere Wednesday night. Otherwise, she said, 'I wouldn't have.'
'I didn't even realize that the character — I'm playing the Robert Culp character — had the same name as mine until a couple of weeks ago,' said Murphy, 'because I was kind of young for I Spy.'"
-- James Endrst, USA Today
"Owen Wilson is not Robert Culp and Eddie Murphy is not Bill Cosby, and I Spy, the movie, is not I Spy, the television series.
This is a good thing.
When you make a movie that looks like a TV series, you get The Brady Bunch, which is OK when the TV series is beloved for its inanity.
I Spy, the TV series, with its great comedy and breakthrough casting of Cosby as the first African-American in a starring TV role, is revered for its quality. It isn't something you'd want to mock - or even duplicate.
Cosby won three Emmys in his role as Alexander Scott, the secret agent who traveled the world masquerading as trainer to fellow spy Culp, undercover as tennis pro Kelly Robinson. The spy stories in each episode provided Cosby and Culp the opportunity for the wonderful comic banter that was the heart of the series.
...Cosby and Culp were droll, urbane characters who snared laughs by lapsing into goofiness. Murphy and Wilson start goofy and then get goofier. It works."
-- Tom Beal, Arizona Daily Star
"The movie version of I Spy bears about as much resemblance to its TV inspiration as it does to its children's game namesake. ("I spy with my little eye…") The connections are not profound or numerous. Both feature black and white protagonists (this was a daring move in the 1960s; it's commonplace today), a comedy-and-action mix, and a secret agent motif. However, it would be difficult to find a duo less similar to Bill Cosby and Robert Culp than Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. So the use of the moniker is just a shameless case of employing nostalgia as a marketing device. Change the film's title and the names of the protagonists, and not one critic in ten would mention the TV series.
....I will admit to being a little disappointed not seeing Cosby and Culp in at least cameo roles. (My guess is that they were offered the chance, but turned it down.) Their absence further distances the movie from the TV show. Maybe that was the intention. Either way, anyone going to see I Spy because of a lingering fondness for the film's small-screen predecessor will discover a much different beast. I Spy is an unremarkable, modern action/comedy buddy movie whose only nod to nostalgia is in the title."
-- James Berardinelli, ReelViews
"It's freakish, too, for this kind of grandstanding to be happening in a film derived from a television show that was based on chemistry and the two stars falling in love with each other's styles. By the end of the last season of the 1960's comic spy drama, Robert Culp had broken free of his upright WASP-y posture and adopted his co-star Bill Cosby's jazzy fluidity. Mr. Culp had become the small screen's first white Negro; Norman Mailer, who coined the phrase, would have been proud. The chemistry in the new film version, however, is like combining hydrogen and oxygen; and here the product is as bland as H2O.
....Fans of the old television series may be outraged that more of the show isn't used here, but there's no reason to use more. The miraculous work of Mr. Cosby and Mr. Culp and Earle Hagen's martial bossa nova theme aside, not much was going on there. It was mostly a travelogue, with the bravura banter stitching together the holes between the Elvis Presley-style karate battles.
The movie version of "I Spy" reverses the "Gunga Din" center of the old television show, in which Mr. Culp was a tennis pro and Mr. Cosby his trusty trainer. The joke came out of the fact that Mr. Cosby stole the show because he was a much more charismatic and subtle actor. There's probably a laugh for fans of Mr. Murphy since he began his career needling Mr. Cosby's relentlessly G-rated paterfamilias/huckster....
....But the small touches aren't enough to rescue "I Spy." The old show took something negligible and made it sui generis; this new version is just plain generic."
-- Elvis Mitchell, New York Times
"Fans of the witty, original "I Spy" TV series with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, will hardly recognize it in the lame movie version, starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.
Hollywood's Thanksgiving turkey arrives today - 27 days early - in the gobbling guise of the heavily hyped, brain-dead comedy, "I Spy."Yes, Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson share the names of the characters played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the sophisticated '60s TV series, which made history by casting a black man in a leading role."
Lou Lumenick, New York Post
"Why...lift the concept from one of the most sophisticated TV shows of the 1960s if all you're going to bring to it is the sitcom sensibility (courtesy of director Betty Thomas) that previously characterized 'Dr. Dolittle' and 'Private Parts.'?"
-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
"I Spy is based on a popular 1960s television show by the same name where two mismatched spies, one white (Robert Culp) and one black (Bill Cosby), engage in wild antics to fight evil around the world. For a series during the middle of the civil rights era, it was considered groundbreaking. Unfortunately, the movie version completely disrespects this inventiveness of the original series. In fact, the movie is thoroughly insulting.
....In the television series, Culp was a playboy who masqueraded as a tennis pro, while the better-educated and professional Cosby acted as Culp's trainer. These roles are completely reversed for the film version. Murphy plays the hotshot athlete because he is black, while Wilson is the white, highly-educated spy. I would think a modern day film could avoid the casting of its leads in stereotypical roles, especially when the original handed them the twist 40 years prior."
-- David Levine,
"I Spy? You lie, because this load doesn't compare to the superior '60s TV series. Too bad, because original Spy guys Robert Culp and Bill Cosby had a wonderful, easygoing chemistry--something Murphy and Wilson can't seem to muster up."
--E Online
New 'I Spy' far from original
"I Spy the movie bears only trace resemblance to the ground breaking television series that inspired it.
That is to say it features a white guy and a black guy as partners in espionage. Whereas the old series was the only one of its kind, the new movie is just another cookie from a well-worn cutter: Mismatched duo forced to work together to avert a crisis bicker, bond and crack wise. Roll credits.
....This film does no favors to the memory of the I Spy TV series, a genuine original that knew how to pull off a surprise. On the big screen, it is as ordinary as they get."
-- Margaret A. McGurk, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Murphy-Wilson, Cosby-Culp; Spy Combo Fits the Old Image
The best thing about the new "I Spy," a highly entertaining movie that stars Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, is that it might bring much-deserved attention to the absolutely dazzling TV series of the 1960s that starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.
Maybe someone will even put it on the air again.
Imagine. We now have more TV channels than a secret agent has girlfriends, yet none currently airs the single most romantic show ever made.
Today, "I Spy" is mostly remembered for Cosby's groundbreaking role as spy Alexander Scott; he was the first black performer to star in a glamorous, heroic role on TV. Apart from that, the show tends to be lumped into the "Cold War: Great Entertainment" package with James Bond movies and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
That's not wrong, exactly; Cosby did give a breakout performance, and "I Spy" definitely reflected the geopolitics of its era.
But those categories overlook the true genius of the show. "I Spy" took the romantic hero of legend out of his shining armor to prove he was just as alluring in blue jeans or a dinner jacket.
On the TV series, Kelly Robinson and his partner, Scotty, operated under cover. Disguised as a tennis pro (Culp, supple and debonair in countless scenes involving lobs and crisp white sportswear) and his trainer (remember, this was in Cosby's pre-paterfamilias days, when he also looked great in shorts), they traveled the world, conquering evildoers and female hearts in equal measure.
They were gentlemanly and idealistic without being goody-goody; they were physically brave yet vulnerable (as their endless injuries reminded us); they were educated sophisticates who were cool enough to kid around instead of taking themselves too seriously. They were Tristram and Lancelot, deliciously at ease in the modern world. And, they were the best of friends, something that their devoted audience understood because of the way they talked to each other. Even in peril, and they were always in peril, they kidded each other. Their repartee -- jazzy, smoky, quick -- set the rhythm for their relationship and for "I Spy," the very definition of cool.
Fortunately, the movie gets that key element right. Director Betty Thomas captures the rhythm, and with it, the affectionate relationship between the heroes that forms the "I Spy" crux.
It's kind of surprising that they managed, since the movie seems to have been based on a mistake. Movie producer Andy Vajna has said that he was intrigued by the fact that, on the TV show, we never found out how Kelly and Scotty met.
Not true. Whether Vajna is trying to con us or is misinformed, he overlooks the TV episode that supplies the answer: They met in spy school.
As the top two students, Kelly and Scotty began with a natural rivalry that quickly evolved into a natural partnership. It makes perfect sense, whether there's such a thing as "spy school" or not.
Nevertheless, Thomas takes us back to square one in the movie, which is updated to the present day. She's also switched the roles. In the movie, Wilson, the white guy, plays professional spy Alexander Scott (called Alex, not Scotty). Murphy keeps the athletic theme running as Kelly Robinson, not a spy at all but the world middleweight boxing champion. (Murphy is probably too old to play an athlete at the top of his form, but he's slim and kind of ageless, like Cary Grant; it's not a problem.)
Alex, like his precursor, is a linguist and a brain, but he's not as cool. He's sort of nerdy, in a sweet way, mooning after a gorgeous agent named Rachel (Famke Janssen) and the super-duper gear that the "star" spies get. When the president calls on Kelly to help retrieve a high-tech reconnaissance aircraft that has fallen into the hands of a ruthless international businessman (suave Malcolm McDowell) who's a boxing fan, the men are teamed up on a dangerous romp through beautiful old Budapest.
Forget plausibility; it all works. As the ridiculously wealthy and cocky prizefighter, Murphy maintains the "I Spy" glamour quotient, in a gaudy hip-hop style that's simultaneously an update and a clever joke. Wilson supplies the lithe good looks and boyish charm that give the duo its timeless appeal.
And, they keep talking. Their conversation redeems the requisite, amazingly long car-chase sequence, undercutting peril with a stream of hip dialogue that develops their friendship's nonchalant terms. They talk when they're trapped, when they're hurt, when they're plotting; in the single best scene, they talk secretly, Cyrano-and-Christian style, so that the smooth Kelly can help his shy new pal woo Rachel.
Murphy and Wilson aren't going to take over for Culp and Cosby, who made the roles indelibly their own years ago. But this witty homage never insults them, either, and might do them the real justice they deserve: Air time.
-- Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Can we really hold out much hope for a movie like "I Spy," another in the endless line of Hollywood's vintage-TV-show knockoffs? Based on one of the hippest '60s TV series - the sly, interracial espionage adventure with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby - "I Spy" has become an overblown clunker full of bad jokes, howling cliches and by-the-numbers action sequences.
That's not necessarily the fault of its co-stars. Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson take over the main roles, and their chemistry is really the only thing that saves the movie. Murphy plays Culp's part, Kelly Robinson, who here becomes a middleweight boxing champ recruited by the U.S. for spy stuff in Hungary. And Wilson does Cosby's Alex Scott, now an accident-prone government agent disguised as Kelly's assistant.
They work well against each other - though not as well as Cosby and Culp....
The TV show was notable for a number of things: the casting of Cosby as Alex Scott (back then, the "trainer" for Culp's tennis pro Kelly), the round-the-world location shooting, the urbane cool of the two leads and their interracial friendship. "I Spy" was a show that changed television.
The TV "I Spy" was loved by audiences mostly because of the unforced, believable camaraderie between Cosby and Culp. The movie version, mired in modern buddy-buddy conventions, introduces Kelly and Alex as two guys who are complete opposites and seemingly can't stand each other - until their sewer slobber session."
-- Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune
"Murphy and Wilson play Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott. Students of the 1960s TV series will note that the roles have switched their races; Murphy is playing the Robert Culp character, and Wilson is in the Bill Cosby role. This makes not the slightest difference, since nothing in this movie refers to the TV series in a way that matters."
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Once again, Hollywood's pirates plunder the memory of a ground- breaking baby boomer TV series to feed mall machines with flimsy formula film fodder.
Except for the names of the secret agent heroes, Betty Thomas' "I-Spy" has little in common with the original 1965-68 NBC TV series.
"I Spy" starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby (the first black actor to star in an American prime-time dramatic series) as Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, who used their jobs as a tennis pro and his manager as cover for espionage.
The two highly educated spies really liked each other, and they frequently indulged in subtle, humorous exchanges that became a hallmark of the series. Take the time both agents shoot a menacing cabbie.
The noise prompts Cosby to wonder why his partner doesn't use a silencer. "It tears the lining in my jacket," Culp says. "Why don't you use a silencer?" Same reason.
Thomas' "I-Spy" (hyphenated for reasons yet to be discovered by science) abandons the characters and the charm of the TV show and plunges headlong into the popular genre of noisy, low-brow, racially mixed buddy action-comedies such as "Shanghai Noon," "Rush Hour" and "The Tuxedo."
-- Dann Gire, Daily Herald
"Gadgets and gags -- a classic pairing. Ditto for secret agent spoofs based on mismatched partners. Given the hackneyed subject matter, it's surprising the formula works so well for heavy hitters Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson in a cookie-cutter film that pays little homage to the '60s TV series upon which it is supposed to be based.
The original show, for those who've forgotten, featured Bill Cosby (the first black star of a TV drama) and Robert Culp foiling the bad guys with skill and humor. It featured espionage aplenty and a colorful host of street-level villains.
Less flashy than feisty, the series carved a niche for itself on the small screen far beneath James Bond's over-the-top antics."
-- Scott Steinberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"If the '60s TV show "I Spy" helped formulate the mismatched-buddy genre of action comedies, the movie version starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson slaughters it.
....On television, "I Spy" broke ground for teaming black and white leads, Bill Cosby as agent Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as his civilian partner, tennis player Kelly Robinson. The show also had a brain and a heart, and the heroes made for a genuinely interesting contrast.
....The advertising blitz for "I Spy" will attract huge crowds on opening weekend. But if you spy a sequel creeping your way, stab it with a pitchfork and bury it in the backyard, then celebrate by sampling the original "I Spy," whose three-season run is available on DVD."
-- David Germain, Associated Press
"Apparently the Hollywood studios can no longer be bothered to actually watch the old TV shows they are ripping off, which would explain the thoroughly misremembered -- and largely misbegotten -- remake of the '60s series ``I Spy'' that arrives in theaters today.
All you need to know about this misread Cliffs Notes version of the original adventure-comedy series, which ran 1965-68, is that the people making the movie couldn't even keep track of which one was the white guy and which one was the black guy. The studio's production notes claim that Bill Cosby played a tennis pro on TV, which may explain how Eddie Murphy wound up in the movie as Kelly Robinson -- a role occupied in the series by the assertively Caucasian Robert Culp. Alexander Scott, the non-white sidekick role that made Cosby a star, is played here by the preternaturally blond Owen Wilson.
Confused? Don't be! ``I Spy'' isn't really adapted from an old television show anyway. It's actually the remake of ``XXX,'' a movie released less than three months ago by the very same studio, Columbia Pictures."
-- David L. Beck, The Mercury News
"It's supposedly based on the 1960s TV series that starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. But any resemblance between that hip small-screen classic and this shrill, big-screen dud (which opens today) is purely superficial....
What made the I Spy show a classic was the casual interplay between Culp and Cosby, whom TV historians call the first black actor to star in a noncomedy series. Back in the '60s, the interracial casting made the show vaguely cutting edge. And even beyond that, the banter between the two stars was something special...
As movie versions of classic, hip '60s spy series go, I Spy isn't quite as dreadful as The Avengers. But it's certainly bad enough...."
-- Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel
It's no secret: This 'I Spy" remake stinks
Debuting in 1965, the TV series “I Spy” featured Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as two American secret agents in the disguise of world tennis player Kelly Robinson and his trainer, Alexander Scott, a Rhodes scholar linguist. This was a really smart espionage show that moved around the world on location. There was an unmistakably warm chemistry between the two actors that developed during its three seasons on the air, with Culp often serving as the straight man for Cosby to deliver some of his standup comedy material in lighter moments.
So you can imagine my disappointment at having to endure the movie, “I Spy,” a loud, witless mess that has none of the charm and little of the intrigue from the TV series.
-- Gary Brown, Houston Community Newspapers
As the latest bid in the TV-to-movie franchise game, "I Spy" makes its bigscreen entry with little of the nervy originality of its groundbreaking small-screen progenitor.
-- Robert Koehler, Variety
Despite its title, "I Spy" bears no more resemblance to that landmark 1960s television espionage-adventure series than it does to "Petticoat Junction."
-- Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter
The action-comedy is supposed to be a movie version of the old NBC espionage show that ran from 1965 to 1968, with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as the coolest Cold Warriors on earth. But no one can tell me what the two have in common aside from the title and an ebony-ivory duo.
The show was absurd and wry. Culp posed as a professional tennis player. Cosby was his Rhodes-scholar trainer. And they trotted the Globe under the cover of representing the United States in Davis Cup tournaments. But they were '60s fashionistas too. Typical exchanges walked the line between mocking vanity and endorsing it. Culp would ask, ''Don't you ever bring a silencer?'' ''Ruins the line of my suit,'' Cosby would reply. ''Mine too.''
Needless to say, there's nothing that droll in the movie. Droll means subtle, and subtlety, apparently, was banned from the set - along with wit, class, plot, craftsmanship, charm, and anything resembling a fresh joke....
[S]omewhere, Cosby is having a Pudding Pop and shaking his head in disbelief.
-- Wesley Morris, Boston Globe
"[T]he film is hamstrung by a leaden, underdeveloped story that feels more like a hurried shotgun marriage between Get Smart and Rush Hour than an intelligent renovation of a once very popular and extremely cool cultural and entertainment milestone.
I Spy the TV show’s partnership of a black and a white American as series stars was a network first. For his work in the series, stand-up comedian Bill Cosby won three consecutive Emmys for best actor in a drama, as an Ivy League scholar turned international spy who masquerades as a pro tennis trainer. The role fit him better than any of his later Huxtable sweaters. Robert Culp became a poster boy for casual swingers as a court-circuit contender. The show had a very fluid, seamless blend of humor and suspense. It also projected an innate, relaxed hipness free of smug and narcissistic posturing...."
-- Mark Halverson, Sacramento News
"I Spy" made TV history in 1965 when it cast a black tennis star (Bill Cosby) with a white secret agent (Robert Culp) and placed them on equal ground.
"I Spy" in 2002 is just another buddy movie action comedy....
If you're looking for nostalgia, you're in the wrong place. There are no Cosby-Culp cameos, no cool animated credit sequences, and if the theme song is remixed here on the soundtrack, it's impossible to recognize....
Sure, the show in the '60s was more about character than complicated plots (that was left to "Mission: Impossible"), but it was also effortlessly cool. The new movie isn't....
-- Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press
With "I Spy", Another Classic TV Espionage Show Becomes A Lame, Less-Than-Cool Movie
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