2015 should be the year of the spy. James Bond pastiche Kingsman and actual James Bond film Spectre are bookending the calendar while similarly explosive fare like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. filled out the summer season. As we creep into fall, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are set to deliver Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, possibly with an eye on the Oscars. The TV game is strong too. Long running British hit Spooks made a leap to the big screen, and the BBC’s all wound up for Night Manager and London Spy. Back in the U.S., critically acclaimed, always underappreciated The Americans wrapped up a third season while Revolutionary War drama Turn was picked up for its third.
So where does a boisterous comedy like Spy fit in? It would be easy for the film to get lost in the shuffle, but it uses its assets well. A star vehicle for Melissa McCarthy by director and collaborator Paul Feig, it doesn’t come with gallons of polish but still does both the spy and comedy genres proud, shooting and knife fighting its way to the top while racking up strong laughs along the way. McCarthy provides some respite from the sex-laden, gross-out funny that has dominated, showcasing a smart, stable woman who, though she could use help in the man department, is firmly outside the Judd Apatow “kidult” model.
An analyst for the CIA, Susan (McCarthy) has what must be a completely made up job as a techie guide for field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). While he is channeling James Bond – deliciously, purposely, I might add, Susan is stuck in a bat-infested D.C. basement, monitoring the ground situation through a frighteningly intrusive surveillance system. She is equal parts cheerleader, nanny, lovesick fangirl, and life-saving GPS to him, ensuring that he not only executes his job, and target, safely (and looks “Fine” doing it) but also that he remembers to take his allergy medicine. He doesn’t – and accidentally kills a baddie in possession of a nuclear weapon. The CIA suspects his daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne), may know where it is hidden and sends Fine to uncover its location. When things don’t go as planned, Susan takes over and unexpectedly finds herself getting close to Rayna.
The plot is culled from the most basic spy thrillers – slick agents pursue an Eastern European femme fatale in possession of a secret nuke while she tries to sell it to a greasy international arms dealer. And though the action gives the film form and intensity, the real gold is in the cast, with the hilarious McCarthy leading the way. The movie is a showcase for the actress, who ping pongs hard between sobby cat lady, no bullshit enforcer, glamazon, and average thirtysomething woman; the comedienne doesn’t miss a beat. Her jokes land with surgical precision, on Rayna (“slutty dolphin trainer”), on Rayna’s henchman (“a limp dick unicorn”), on herself (“just missing a shirt that says I’ve never felt the touch of a man”). But Susan is more than the sum of her rapid-fire quips, and just as she discovers her talents as a field agent, Hollywood seems to discover that female characters can be appealing as all these identities at once.
McCarthy is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including her three female costars who effectively run the Spy world. A frosty Byrne again proves she is a capable foil, game for playing the high glamour gal in some unglamorous situations, while Miranda Hart, Susan’s best friend and colleague, is her opposite – nurturing, awkward, British. CIA boss Alison Janney meanwhile is no slouch, a woman who dispenses with terrorist threats as handily as she does sexist agents. Jason Statham’s character is the worst offender. The actor plays a steroid version of himself and draws some of the loudest laughs with his brash insistence that he is the real spy of the bunch. But even for a guy who has parachuted off buildings with raincoats and had one arm ripped off only to be replaced by the other, he is almost upstaged by a scene stealing Peter Serafinowicz, who plays an amorous Italian asset with chewy aplomb. It’s an ensemble to die for, and, dare I say, nobody does it better.
Prod: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Dir: Paul Feig
Writer: Paul Feig
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz, Richard Brake, Morena Baccarin, 50 Cent
Time: 120 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United States