Writer/director Paul Feig has a ton of fun with the character archetypes, exotic locales, and other expected tropes of the spy film genre in his latest collaboration with Melissa McCarthy, simply entitled Spy, and thanks to game turns by McCarthy, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, and the surprisingly hilarious Jason Statham, audiences should have a lot of fun with it, too. It’s a smart, brisk, laugh-out-loud globetrotting action comedy with a great message tucked subtly between the frames, a perfect alternative to any summer action blockbuster that makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.
McCarthy plays CIA analyst Susan Cooper, once a promising candidate for field agent, but who chose instead to devotedly run comms and support for “field man” Bradley Fine (Law), the kind of super-agent that can beat up a score of henchman, save the world and get the gorgeous girl (or girls) all without his tux and bow tie getting so much as a wrinkle. Fine tremendously values Susan, or “Coop” as he calls her, because he knows he couldn’t possibly do what he does without her near eidetic memory and problem-solving ability in his ear and at his disposal, but he’s completely oblivious to the fact that Coop does what she does for him because she’s very awkwardly pining for him.
When Fine’s latest mission to track down a rogue nuclear bomb appears to end not only with Fine’s demise, but also with the identities of the CIA’s other top field operatives compromised and the bomb still in play, Coop volunteers to carry on with the mission. Her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), and Fine’s former peers, especially the hyper-intense and loud-mouthed Rick Fox (Statham), are all skeptical, but since Coop has never been in the field, it’s far less likely the targets she’d be tracking would see her coming, as opposed to any other more experienced option.
After a peek into Coop’s past record, Crocker relents and send her into the field with orders to track and monitor only, which, of course, completely go out the window once things start to go awry. With her best friend and fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart) squawking in her earpiece, some unwanted help from Fox, who quit and went rogue in order to finish the mission his way, and her own quick mind and quicker mouth, Coop finds herself taking on some serious international baddies, the nastiest of which is Rayna Boyanov (Byrne), the insufferably-entitled daughter of the arms dealer who planned to sell the nuke to the highest bidder before his untimely demise. Rayna wants to take her father’s place at the top of his criminal empire, and doesn’t care how many poorly-dressed and intellectually-inferior people have to die in order for her to get there, which puts Coop and the CIA square in her sights as she seeks to carry out her late father’s plans.
What makes Spy work as well as it does is mostly attributable to Feig and his cast’s seeming commitment to not steering this film into spoof or farce territory. There’s clear reverence for both classic 007-style and more contemporary Bourne-style espionage thrillers in just about every shot here, but Feig in his script takes every opportunity in those shots to look for opportunities for humor. The cast, in turn, takes the great material and runs with it, and though McCarthy delivers her trademark amiability and ability to deliver rapid-fire zingers to her portrayal of the earnest, capable, plucky and occasionally potty-mouthed Coop, it’s the supporting players here who really bring the laughs. Law is simply perfect as the stalwart yet hopelessly self-absorbed Bradley Fine, who puts his hair back into place after every bone-crunching fistfight and death-defying gun battle, and Byrne once again shows her versatility and her talent for comedy as the snobbish and humorless Rayna, whose almost every line is an insult to whoever she might be addressing at the moment.
But the absolute scene stealers are UK sitcom star Miranda Hart as the well-meaning but clumsy and socially-inept Nancy and Statham, who talks and walks like Jack Bauer but has more in common with Inspector Clouseau. Statham delivers his lines the way he delivers punches and kicks in his other straightforward action work, which makes it all the funnier once it’s clear that the man is more a danger to himself than to any international evildoers he might be taking on. Other fun cast members to look out for here are Bobby Cannavale (Chef, HBO‘s “Boardwalk Empire) as an impeccably stylish broker of all things illegal and dangerous working for Rayna, and Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead) as Coop’s driver in Italy, Aldo, who just can’t seem to keep his hands off her regardless of whatever predicament they might be in. There are some really clever running gags to enjoy here, too, from digs at Rayna’s impossibly bouffant hairstyle, Coop’s progression of unflattering cover identities, and the alarming rodent problem in the basement at CIA headquarters where Coop and Nancy normally work, just to name a few.
But in reality, the appeal in Spy aside from the glamorous locations, the well-choreographed action sequences, and all the great gags and verbal jabs traded by the cast is the idea that drives the film, that it’s not just the bold and the beautiful people in the world that are capable of saving it when needed. Feig and McCarthy, who are on their third collaboration after Bridesmaids and The Heat, lock on to a very real truth here that audiences far and wide should identify with readily, that sometimes the most difficult obstacle people face on the road to success is underestimating themselves, especially when their outward appearance invites others to underestimate them, as well.
That truth applies in a way to the film itself — the way it’s being marketed, focusing on the physical comedy and easier jokes that come from McCarthy in a “fish out of water” role, it might be easy for people seeing the trailers and commercials to underestimate just how enjoyable this film might be, perhaps likening it to Tammy, McCarthy’s comedy from last summer that bombed spectacularly despite the presence of some very talented and funny women in its cast. If that’s the site-unseen conclusion you’ve come to about Spy, put it aside, go see the film, and then try not to admit you were wrong. It make look like spy movies played purely for laughs, but it has more in common with Kingsman: The Secret Service from earlier this year in terms of what it has going for it, and that’s a very, very good thing.
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, and Jude Law. Directed by Paul Feig.
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity.