We’ve all witnessed decades of gloomy James Bond clones vying for summer action blockbuster. In their wake, Paul Feig’s Spy is a breath of fresh air in a dark and smoky room. As its title suggests, the film plays with spy movie clichés, turning old tropes on their heads faster than its all-star cast can deliver their delightfully acerbic one-liners.
We are thrown into the opening scene with CIA field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) awash in clean-shaven, perfectly tailored charm. As he works his way through a lavish party, his partner—dowdy, shy office agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy)–talks him through his every move from an earpiece back at base. Soon, a simple mission goes awry, leaving Fine out of commission and the Agency jeopardized. Cooper is the only one obscure enough to fly under the radar to obtain a suitcase nuke trading hands on the black market.
And so Cooper is sent to Paris, taking us with her on an epic adventure of hijinks and espionage. Her operation is complicated by a rogue agent determined to take the mission for himself (Jason Statham) whom she constantly has to save. Her simple track-and-report assignment quickly falls apart as she works her way into the inner circle of evil heiress Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) when she is forced to save her life. Along the way, she transforms from an awkward, quiet desk jockey to a loud, crude, pull-no-punches, and yes—still awkward—superspy. All the while, McCarthy proves that she can do bad-ass hand-in-hand with slapstick, showing us a range in talent that she’s not had the chance to reveal yet in her career. Now given that chance, McCarthy creates one of the most well-developed and dynamic protagonists in action’s recent history.
In fact, what’s most revolutionary about the film may not be what McCarthy becomes, but what she does not. For a woman who is so often discussed in terms of her weight, Spy might be the only film she’s starred in that doesn’t turn her into a fat joke. Not one reference to her weight is made in the course of the entire film. Her character is still a huge gag, in everything from her disguises to her bumbling attempts to play it cool. But never once is she a joke because of her weight. Meanwhile, she’s not withheld the old superspy treatment of multiple love interests, but her character stays independent from them in the same tradition as every ultra-capable male lead before her.
Instead, her chemistry with the villainous Rayna Boyanov is the unexpected romance of the film. Their forced codependency is the source of an unlikely friendship that gives us a refreshing perspective on the bad guy’s side of things. Rayna isn’t a stoic femme fatale or a buffoonish parody of evil. Rather, she manages to straddle both tropes while retaining a realistic and relatable character. Together, she and Cooper are a perfectly compatible and hilariously dysfunctional team.
While these two may steal most scenes, Allison Janney and Miranda Hart shine just as brightly as Cooper’s straight-faced boss and jittery best friend. That most of the laughs come from the interaction of these women is a pleasant change from the everyday thriller. Although the film spans three male-dominated genres (secret agent; action; comedy), none of the female characters feel forced into the narrative. In fact, it may escape your notice that the cast is predominantly female at all.
In spite of its more progressive appeal, the film still falls back on some more traditionally bawdy humor. For every whip-smart gag is a scene with someone getting groped for no reason or falling face-first into a rear-end. There are not one, but two sixty-nine jokes, and the character Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) seems to exist solely to sexually harass and molest Cooper as she tries to do her job.
While the script may take a creative break for the sake of these moments, Spy has made critics sit up and pay attention by giving its story multi-faceted characters gripping twists instead of regurgitating the tired Action Flick blueprints. And it does all of this while poking fun at the spy archetype with more wit and ingenuity than Austin Powers.
Although director Paul Feig has worked with McCarthy before on Bridesmaids (2011) and The Heat (2013), this is his first feature film as both writer and director. In fact, this is Feig’s first solo run in the writer’s room, which may explain why this film is something we haven’t seen before. Feig will take on the dual writer/director role for the second time in 2016 with a genderbent version of Ghostbusters. Starring? You guessed it, the astoundingly adaptable Melissa McCarthy.
Spy Trailer (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)