There’s a special sort of joy that comes with seeing a movie that exceeds all of your expectations. Ostensibly, I should have loved Spy from word one. The latest collaboration between writer-director Paul Feig and comedic tour-de-force Melissa McCarthy looked to marry McCarthy’s outsize onscreen persona with Feig’s. Plus, it boasts a dynamite supporting cast including Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, Jason Statham, and Miranda Hart. Yet, for some odd reason, I found myself doubting that the film would be worth my while. I cannot believe just how wrong I was. Like McCarthy’s happy-go-lucky heroine, Spy won’t just exceed your expectations; it’ll shatter them.
Much like in Bridesmaids and The Heat, Melissa McCarthy plays a character that other people are all too willing to write off. In Spy, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a high-level intelligence officer at the CIA who serves as the eyes and ears behind the scenes for the deadly, dapper, and debonair secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). While Bradley makes saving the world look easy, one snapped neck at a time, he relies on Susan to feed him information about assets, enemy combatants, and to generally reassure him that he’s the handsomest man in the known universe. It makes for an almost Batman/Oracle-style dynamic between him and Susan, except Susan also happens to harbor a long-running crush on Bradley. While he is trapped in international hot zones, Susan is trapped in the friend zone, judged merely by her secretarial and administrative merits.
However, when a haughty femme fatale named Rayna (an archly aristocratic Rose Byrne) gains control of a nuclear warhead and Bradley goes missing in action, things take a turn for our plucky hero. Not only does Rayna intend to sell the nuke to a slimy arms dealer named DeLuca (Bobby Cannavale), but she knows the identity of all the active CIA field agents. No one can get close enough to the enemy in time to stop the nuke sale without blowing their cover. They need someone unknown, someone who the enemy would never suspect in a million years of being a CIA agent. Though the other agents, especially Jason Statham (who steals every scene he’s in by dialing the machismo meter up to eleven), are outraged and the agency director (the hilariously no-nonsense Allison Janney) are reluctant to give her a shot, they realize that Susan Cooper may be their only hope. Excuse me, Agent Susan Cooper.
What follows is a grand globetrotting adventure as Susan is assigned to track and report the movements and whereabouts of DeLuca, in the hopes of figuring out where the bomb is being hidden. Naturally, the mission goes more than a little awry, and soon Susan finds herself doing more than just tailing her targets. To keep a low-profile, Susan is issued a string of increasingly unflattering undercover identities (“I look like I’m someone’s homophobic aunt,” Susan sighs). However, later in the film Susan is forced to improvise and thankfully reinvents herself with a more confident, no-bullshit persona which lets McCarthy let loose with the amazingly vulgar improv that we’ve come to know and love from her. It’s actually a nice change of pace seeing McCarthy a little more sweet and subdued for most of the film, and offers a nice testament to her range as a comedic actress. Speaking of which, she is unrivaled when it comes to physical comedy. She’s one of those people who can double you over with laughter simply by entering a frame or with a single look, a skillset Feig makes the most of in Spy.
In the hands of a lesser director, Spy could have easily fallen into numerous pitfalls that come with spoofing a well-worn genre like espionage films. As far as parodies go, this film has a more intelligent, coherent plot than most. Feig handles the action-comedy with a deft touch, seamlessly blending together well-choreographed action sequences (including multiple, massive explosions, and some visceral close-quarters combat) with riotously funny one-liners and recurring bits that elevate the film above its peers. Best of all, Feig keeps the action moving at a steady clip. The first third of the film feels a little clunky in terms of setting up the stakes, but that is only because the latter two-thirds flow so smoothly. Unlike many other comedies, Spy doesn’t wear out its welcome or run its premise into the ground; rather, it offers a tight, mostly enjoyable, and frequently hilarious viewing experience.
Perhaps what makes Spy work as well as it does is the fact that Susan Cooper is, by all accounts, a certified ass-kicker. She may seem clumsy and out of her depth, but you might too if it were your first time out in the field. Even so, she is a highly intelligent analyst who often susses out clues and leads that would escape agents many years her senior, and she proves time and time again that her fists (or Cagney and Lacey, as she calls them) are deadly weapons. With a tremendous supporting cast by her side–including her gawky, nervous pal Nancy (Miranda Hart); the perpetually horny Italian field operative Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz); and the super-macho but ultimately inept Agent Ford (Jason Statham–one can’t help but root for Susan and her pals to pull of the unexpected and save the day. And that’s precisely the point. With Spy, Feig and McCarthy has proven once more why they’re one of the most formidable comedic creative pairings working today. This is one mission that you should absolutely choose to accept.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
Spy premieres on June 5, 2015. Note: the version reviewed was screened at SXSW 2015, and the sound mix, as well as other elements, may be subject to change prior to release.
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