SPY Review: A New Kind of Secret Agent

After helping usher in a new age of female centric comedies (Bridesmaids) and spoofing the buddy cop genre (The Heat), writer-director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy continue their fruitful collaboration with Spy – a raucous satire of secret agents that subverts many of the genre’s well-worn tropes while still paying homage. There’s gross out gags, some surprisingly brutal violence, and plenty of pratfalls that reinforce McCarthy’s gift for physical comedy. But in a movie that plays mostly to McCarthy’s strengths, it’s refreshing to see the spotlight occasionally ceded to a supporting cast (including Jude Law, Rose Byrne & Jason Statham) that aren’t primarily known for comedy, but shine when given the chance to bring the funny. Also, 50 Cent appears as himself and has a hard time pulling it off.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst who’s as boring as her milquetoast name implies. The opening finds her guiding an in-the-field Agent Bradley Fine (Law) through a botched mission that sneakily suggests that all one-man ass kickers secretly have a well-trained partner in their earpiece whispering key advice. That scene (which leads to a brilliant James Bond-esque title sequence complete with sillouettes and a theme song) sets the stage for a data breach that forces all regular CIA operatives out of the field, leaving Cooper (whose very existence often goes unnoticed by those closest to her) as the sole agent with enough anonymity to track down the deadly arms dealer Rayna (Rose Byrne) and stop her from unleashing nuclear destruction.

McCarthy finds a nice mix of humility and bubbling dissatisfaction for Cooper in these early scenes, as time and again she’s dismissed by her colleagues and even potential love interests as not worthy. Cooper’s boss (Allison Janney), her Q-like gadget specialist (a creepy Michael McDonald), and even her own mother (who admonished her to “stop chasing her dreams”) all may not have faith but, spurred on by a late-blooming wellspring of confidence, Cooper finds herself determined to prove herself. It seems like a lot of the in-film character’s remarks to Cooper mirror some criticisms that McCarthy may have experienced herself in her ascent in Hollywood, and the film itself often plays like a rebuttal to those naysayers.

The seeds of Cooper’s hidden propensity for hand-to-hand combat and well-placed violence are laid early, and when she gets her first real action sequence it’s something of a revelation in that it’s actually believable and the action is solid and bone-crunching. Without blowing over into hyperbole, a mid-film kitchen knife fight reminds me of recent foreign action classics like The Raid and Sleepless Night, albeit with more goofiness (when someone is stabbed it’s played for both horror and comedy, and works as both).

While the movies chugs along quickly during its setup and getting Cooper into the field (buoyed by quick dialogue, clear characters, and wonky gags like a ceiling full of bats), it loses some steam in its latter half when it gives way to some rote plotting and a story that no one really cares about. Thankfully, there’s a fun cast doing their level best to keep up with McCarthy’s manic antics.

Jude Law’s Agent Fine is a fun Bond stand-in, although his role is brief and mostly serves as the old guard to Cooper’s new and brash type of agent. Rose Byrne continues to crush comedy roles (following last year’s Neighbors) and her condescending baddie Rayna is full of withering put-downs (“Economy Plus flights – it sounds like a pen for filthy animals.”), but it’s Jason Statham who steals the show as the blowhard Agent Rick Ford.

Whether Ford’s boasting about his (patently untrue) accomplishments (like being immune to 179 different types of poison), pettily getting the last word in during an argument with Cooper (“And you – times infinity”), or simply blundering and blustering his way through Europe while Cooper does all the real work, it’s delightful to see him go all-in with such a goofy character. And while it’s exciting to think that a franchise may be spawned for McCarthy’s Agent Cooper (who, when in disguise, “looks like someone’s homophobic aunt!”), a large part of that excitement stems from the promise of seeing more of Agent Ford in action. What I’m saying is Statham needs to keep playing Ford and with luck he can enter the pop-culture pantheon of similarly charming idiots like Lionel Hutz and Zapp Brannigan.

Morena Baccarin and Bobby Canavale appear as an accomplished agent and another bad guy respectively, but they both feel like their best scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Peter Serafinowicz fares better as the sex-crazed Aldo (“Like the shoe store”), an awesomely tacky send-up of cat-calling Italian men. There’s even more characters too, like Cooper’s supportive and over-zealous best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart, who also threatens to steal the show) and some riffs on long-suffering and disgruntled henchmen.

The James Bond references are numerous but subtle, as Spy seeks to both skewer previous spy flicks while still telling a story within that world. The action goes beyond perfunctory and is elevated to great in some of the sequences (a rarity in comedy-action hybrids), while still maintaining a steady barrage of belly laughs. It’s a little lop-sided with much of the best parts coming fast and furious in its first half, but Spy goes the distance in setting up a world in which Melissa McCarthy is a believable (and believably kick-ass) secret agent.

Spy (2015)

Directed by Paul Feig

Runtime: 120 Minutes

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