Agent of change...
Bulletproof actor-director partnerships are a rare find, but Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig’s third comedic collaboration builds on the genre-subverting smarts of Bridesmaids and The Heat in a deliriously funny dismantling of the spy movie.
Where Austin Powers poked fun at the James Bond movies’ familiar tropes and old-fashioned misogyny by imitating them to exaggerated levels, Spy’s female focus allows for a different and more knowing kind of parody, while also giving McCarthy her most nuanced role to date.
Taking his first writing credit in more than a decade, Feig kicks things off with a 007-style prologue in which slick super-agent Bradley Fine tries to locate a nuclear bomb inside a labyrinthine Bulgarian mansion. He’s played with caddish relish by Jude Law, who’s plainly having a ball reminding us all that in a different, less gritty era he could have slipped effortlessly into the DB5 himself (and came close, depending on who you believe).
In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern fashion, our focus shifts from the obvious hero to the behind-the-scenes types back at Langley, specifically to Fine’s devoted desk-bound partner, Susan (McCarthy), who guides him through his missions via earpiece. It’s a much sweeter, softer performance than we’re used to from McCarthy, who entirely embodies the role of a timid, downtrodden fortysomething – Susan’s a fully trained CIA agent who’s been sidelined into a glorified secretarial role and pines hopelessly for the oblivious Fine.
But Susan’s anonymity and lack of field experience make her invaluable after Fine is assassinated by a haughty arms dealer named Raina (Rose Byrne), who knows the names and faces of all the CIA’s major agents. Her dormant inner badass unleashed by grief, Susan persuades the CIA chief (a steely Allison Janney) to assign her a field mission tracking one of Raina’s associates in Paris.
So begins another smart, gender-loaded riff on a Bond trope – instead of the slick spy subterfuge she dreamed of, Susan’s forced to camouflage herself as a frumpy Midwestern tourist (“I look like someone’s homophobic aunt”), while her Q equivalent arms her with gadgets disguised as believable luggage items: rape whistle, pepper spray, stool softener.
“All I’m missing is a shirt that says ‘I’ve Never Felt The Touch Of A Man’” she complains, but despite her disillusion she’s still raring to get out into the field. Sharing in her wide-eyed excitement is endearingly daffy best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart, who’s just one of several bits of enjoyably off-piste transatlantic casting).
Susan’s best foil is CIA meathead Rick Ford, played gloriously straight in a self-parodying turn by Jason Statham. Incensed that she’s been assigned the mission in his place, Ford takes every opportunity to rattle off increasingly outlandish stories of his past exploits (“I once drove a car... off a freeway... onto a train... while I was on fire”) in a deadly serious monotone which contrasts beautifully with McCarthy’s expressive energy.
Without ever making a big deal of its gender dynamics, Spy is an empowering breath of fresh air for female-driven comedy much like The Heat, which cast McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in an otherwise traditional buddy-cop partnership. The balance of power is entirely feminine, with the hapless-yet-competent Susan finally coming face-to-face with nemesis Raina in a series of breathlessly entertaining scenes that make you realise just how rare the combination of female hero and female villain is on screen.
Having become known for playing variations on the aggressive take-no-prisoners ballbuster (The Heat, Tammy, Identity Thief), McCarthy is extraordinarily loveable here, bringing a grounded humanity and sweetness to even the most outlandish slapstick set-pieces. Her shifting power dynamic with Byrne allows her the most room to play, though she’s surrounded throughout her mission by an array of memorable supporting characters.
Notably there’s Peter Serafinowicz on fine form as an overly amorous Italian chauffeur named Aldo, whose attention to Susan helps to ensure running gags about her appearance and ageing singledom never feel genuinely mean-spirited. And once again, Feig does something quietly revolutionary by concluding his heroine’s journey without a romantic happily-ever-after, though her crush on Fine gets payoff aplenty.
The third act pivots on a twist you can see coming, but intentionally so – this is as much a genre riff as Bobby Cannavale’s thinly motivated terrorist villain, or the regular references to the kind of budget constraints that never trouble Bond. Matching big set-piece comedy with small, detailed character writing in a script as sharp and genre-savvy as its execution, Spy bodes very well indeed for Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters.