Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law
Watch Spy online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
At the time of writing, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy are the main creative driving force behind next summer’s reboot of Ghostbusters – much to the chagrin of a vocal bunch who can’t possibly have been hurt by a film that they haven’t seen yet. Feig and McCarthy, though, have three solid collaborations under their belts already. He directed her to an Oscar nomination for 2011’s Bridesmaids and followed that up by teaming her with Sandra Bullock for 2013’s buddy cop action comedy The Heat. Looking at their third and most recent collaboration on Spy, there almost seems to have been a curve of development up to this point, with the more action-packed moments of The Heat teeing up a movie in which McCarthy finally gets to do some physical comedy in which she is not the butt of the joke.
She plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst who serves as the handler of debonair 007-a-like agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law.) Women want to be with him and all of that, but Susan also wants to be him, desperate to overcome her awkwardness and get assigned some field work. Her opportunity comes in less than ideal circumstances, when Fine and all of the other top agents are seriously compromised by an information leak, and a stolen nuke goes on the black market.
Despite the protests of allegedly super-competent Rick Ford (Statham), Susan is the only agent who won’t be seen coming from a mile off, and so, her first mission is to break up the arms deal and bring the suspects to justice. With some deeply underwhelming assistance from her superiors and her colleagues, she has to get close to crime princess Rayna Boyanov (Byrne) and protect her in order to save the day.
The basic story borrows all sorts from various male-driven entries into the screen spy pantheon, but as a writer and director, Feig gleefully grounds them in comedic terms. Ridiculous things happen, but the characters are quick to become exasperated by them. The film starts close enough to the complete failure of Fine’s attempted seduction of Rayna, even though this approach seems par for the course for him. There are also a whole bunch of double and triple crosses as the film winds its way into a more convoluted third act, but these are also patently absurd. Neither approach gets the job done.
It’s all the more unique for coming from a female perspective. By establishing the practical uselessness of these male tropes in a world that is no less ridiculous, Feig sets up Susan to find another way out of the world-threatening predicament that a James Bond – or, yes, an Austin Powers – might have either bonked and/or filibustered into submission.
On top of that, the action is handled very well. It’s surprisingly violent for those of us who had assumed that it might be another of those 15-rated comedies that got bumped into its bracket by some fruity language or some sex references, but on top of that, it’s very well choreographed. Despite what the marketing would suggest, there is ample opportunity for McCarthy to show some serious action chops, without resorting to pratfalls or toilet humour.Miranda Hart
Both of these factors bode very well for the lady-centric Ghostbusters reboot, but then we could have gleaned that from the way that Feig reinvents tried-and-tested types (the pre-nuptial man-child comedy, the buddy cop movie and now the spy thriller) by casting for a funny female perspective. Spy represents the best of that dynamic to date.
McCarthy proves endlessly versatile in a role that has to change and evolve under pressure, as Susan finds herself creating cover stories and different personas on the fly – she’s actually good at her job. Plus, Byrne is hysterically bitchy as the frazzled crime princess who repeatedly gains and loses the upper hand over her unsolicited bodyguard throughout a series of verbal jousting sessions.
If there’s a weak link, it’s the character of Nancy (Miranda Hart), Susan’s colleague in the office. She’s a confidant early on, but once she comes out into the field, she crowds the raucous chemistry between McCarthy and Byrne and really feels as if she has been parachuted in from another film. The actress might have excelled in the supporting role that Peter Serafinowicz plays, with a little re-writing, but we wouldn’t swap Serafinowicz’s loopy performance for anything. Hart isn’t necessarily bad, but it does feel as if she’s there as the plus-one in a film that isn’t exactly lean and mean as it is.
Aside from Nancy, the problem that carries over from Feig’s previous films is that it’s at least 20 minutes too long. There aren’t usually extended cuts of his films for home entertainment because it’s inconceivable to think that anything was left out. Too often, his go-to in a quiet moment is the kind of endless one-liner rally that was popularised by Judd Apatow’s movies, usually involving characters spouting loads of creative insults up to and after a point that any normal conversation would have moved on.
This kind of thing also slows his latest outing down, but not so much as to bring it to a halt. All of that said, there are two hilarious exceptions to this recurring problem in Spy and they are the aforementioned barbs from Byrne’s character and every ridiculous thing that comes out of Statham’s mouth.
While Law wears the Bond persona well, Statham plays his end of the bargain even more magnificently by being absolutely terrible at his job. The entire joke of his character is that he’s a risible Clouseau type who thinks that he is… well, Jason Statham – and it keeps getting funnier whenever he pops back into the action. One of the line-o-ramas has him list his own purported career achievements so far and it includes at least three instant candidates for the best quote of 2015. (We’re still laughing at the one about what he did in front of the US Congress.)
Even in the face of a scene-stealing Statham, though, it’s Feig’s affinity for funny females that makes Spy so enjoyable and it’s his clear evolution as a director of both action and comedy that make it his best one yet. It’s a little inconsistent, but Spy continuously yields massive laughs and surprisingly thrilling action.