Paul Feig’s smash-hit 2011 comedy Bridesmaids was one of those movies I was so surprised I didn’t like that I ended up re-watching months later to see if I’d just got it all wrong first time around. I still didn’t think much of it, but I did find Feig’s follow-up The Heat considerably more enjoyable. The Heat is also really the only decent movie Bridesmaids’ break-out star Melissa McCarthy has managed since, otherwise starring in the terrible Identity Thief and Tammy. In all these she’s been playing variations on the same character type too (her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids) and one can’t help feeling that to stay prominent she needs to try and break the mould. Spy is just the movie to do it; it’s the best role for her yet (at least since The Nines), and her chance to prove that she can headline a movie by herself.
She plays Susan Cooper, whose long term role in the CIA involves sitting behind a desk supporting a field agent via a number of different surveillance and communication tools. She’s introduced in a neat sequence that utilises ideas and technology that would feel inventive in a straight-forward spy movie. McCarthy competently sells that she’s pretty good at her job, while nursing an awkward, unrequited crush on her partner. That man is Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a suave, tuxedo-clad secret agent in the James Bond vein. Law is clearly relishing his chance to indulge in a bit of 007 role-play, but it’s essentially an extended cameo appearance, as he soon winds up dead at the hands of arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), despite Susan’s best efforts.
With Law’s posturing, an elaborate credits sequence clearly modelled after the Bond films and indeed the generic movie title itself, I had a little concern that Spy was headed in the direction of being a broad Bond spoof, but it soon drops that and sensibly avoids trying to mine laughs by throwing in a bunch of references.
The set-up is, if a little contrived, perfectly acceptable for a spy movie. Rayna has somehow acquired the identities of all the CIA’s best agents, requiring them to send an ‘unknown’ one after her. With her knowledge of the operation, and uncompromised identity, Susan is chosen for the job.
Paul Feig’s been unofficially dubbed Hollywood’s head of female centric R-rated comedies it seems, and it’s a role he’s happy to inhabit. This was clearly written as a vehicle for muse McCarthy (they already have a 4th collaboration lined up), but rather than making this a more drearily typical story about her making it in a traditionally male world, Feig surrounds her with plenty of other female comic talents. Allison Janney plays the dry-witted head of the CIA, and Carol’s best friend and co-worker is portrayed with bumbling charm by Miranda Hart. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne adds another enthusiastic comedic performance to her résumé as the self-centred, bitchy villain.
Feig’s also smart in where he seeks to generate laughs; McCarthy is thankfully not subject to a barrage of fat jokes when she’s out in the field. Her inexperience shows but the comedy comes from her manners of dealing with the difficult situations she winds up in, not that she’s incompetent. One sequence where an emergency forces her to create a new identity on the spot is a real highlight, and leads to an interesting dynamic between her and Byrne. There’s also a hint of sadness beneath her increasingly confident exterior as we learn what’s held her back for so long. Feig walks a bit of a tightrope here though, as every identity the CIA hand her are of the most unglamorous nature possible, and the gadgetry they provide all take the form of embarrassing products an unhealthy middle-aged woman might carry. It’s a recurring joke that could be viewed either way.
The stand-out cast member however, might actually be none-other-than Jason Statham. He plays one of the top agents whose identity has been compromised, and despite knowledge of this, still believes he’s the man for the job. He’s a foul-mouthed egomaniac who continually insists that Cooper can’t do the job while spinning increasingly ridiculous tales of his own incredible toughness. Statham gamely sends-up his alpha male action hero persona with glee (he did start out in comedy after all), maintaining a straight face while donning a series of silly disguises. The big joke of his character being that, all of his dunderheaded attempts to take the job into his own hands only serve to jeopardise it for others. Statham’s having a blast with this supporting role and Feig sensibly avoids overdoing it with his appearances. I could easily see this leading to more comedy roles for him in the future. *
Statham’s presence wouldn’t be so out-of-place anyway even if her were playing more of a standard role, and Feig seeks to make Spy just as much an action movie as a comedy. He takes in several European locations and stages a number of decent action scenes, involving multiple vehicular chases and hand-to-hand combat. The comedic beats that occur within these scenes tend to play out naturally too, rather than feeling tacked on, there’s a showdown McCarthy has with Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri that’s particularly well-choreographed, even if it was likely achieved mostly using stunt doubles. It’s also fun to see that, knowing the language would give him the R-rating anyway Feig’s not afraid to ramp-up the violence for comedic effect.
Spy works hard to keep both the jokes and the action coming at a solid pace throughout, and mostly achieves this. It does last a little too long, and some gags become a bit repetitive, but it rarely veers too far off the rails, only a brief couple of gross-out gags and a self-aggrandising cameo from 50 Cent should have been left out entirely. It’s never as side-splittingly hilarious as it quite could have been, but it’s another entertaining effort from Feig, and a much better role for McCarthy.
*By the way, one moment in the film that I found glaringly annoying was when Statham mispronounced a bit of British swearing. It’s over in a second but it really smacked of the studio telling him to use the American form. It’s one of those tiny things that I just couldn’t forget about for whatever reason.