Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Morena Baccarin, Bobby Cannavale, Julian Miller
Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Spy comedies are about as old as spy thrillers themselves. Finding just the right balance of madcap action adventure and delirious comedic excitement is the toughest task, one that few films have managed. Spy does it all with surprising alacrity with social responsibility mixed in for good measure.
Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a dreary social outcast working in the basement of the CIA facility in Langley, Virginia where she acts as long-range tactical support for one of the agency’s top agents, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Longing to mean more to him than just being his trusted and talented assistant, Susan tries hard to win his attention, but his untimely death and the revelation of several top names of spies at the CIA leaves her and the department in disarray.
Having few other choices, Susan is sent into the field to reconnoiter a potential nuclear weapon sale facilitated by smarmy capitalist Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) on behalf of the beautiful Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). After Rayna’s father is killed accidentally by Agent Fine, she becomes the only person who knows the location of the device, which means that our heroine must, of course, eventually track her down and elicit the information.
What follows is a whip-smart narrative that plays on all the traditional tropes of the spy genre while mixing in clever bon mots, witty bits of banter, semi-predictable plot turns and some incredibly exciting fight sequences. All are blended together beautifully under Paul Feig’s surprisingly strong direction, something you might not have suspected after his lackluster The Heat and the tepid preview trailers for the film.
McCarthy is one of the most uneven comedienne’s working today. Fine in small doses, her excellent comic timing is hindered by scripts that don’t quite know to use her. Feig does and this script is perfectly sculpted for her rapid-fire delivery capabilities and appreciation for physical comic acts. There are thankfully few gross-out moments, but those that exist seem utterly pointless in hindsight. The segments in and around them, however, help purge the mind of their murky inclusion.
As her cunning foil, Rose Byrne impresses with her self-deprecating charm and uncanny timing. As Rayna, Byrne creates a loathsome, hateful character so full of herself that she would compare to the likes Auric Goldfinger and Ernst Stavro Blofeld if she weren’t so amazingly incompetent at times. This play-off on the always-faltering plans of James Bond’s villains is an astute deconstruction of those characters. As such, she spends much of her time menacing McCarthy’s Susan. Rayna is a ruthless, cold-blooded antagonist in spite of the fact that Byrne makes her inherently likable even while the audience is hating her.
The film’s most shocking transformation is action star Jason Statham, an actor whose performances have never equated to more than flat characterizations. For once, Statham is loud, boorish and, as a result, efficiently funny. This may be the best fit for an actor like Statham who’s never shown a modicum of the talent that is on display in this film.
Allison Janney is dependably solid as CIA Director Elaine Crocker, McCarthy’s boss who doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, but nevertheless knows how to command a situation. Law does fine as Fine, but he’s been so much better in other places, as has Bobby Cannavale who can’t help but ham it up as the deceitful Sergio. The women, however, are the lights of the film. Alongside McCarthy, Byrne and Janney is Miranda Hart playing straight to Susan as her best friend Nancy. Gangly, witless and cumbersome, her strong performance creates a calm balance to McCarthy’s antics and then switches comic/straight roles with her with relative ease.
Spy comedies are a tradition that goes back to Casino Royale, the Peter Sellers/David Niven/Woody Allen romp from 1967, released just five years after James Bond’s first foray onto the big screen in Dr. No.. It parodied the rich lifestyle of the Bond character while lampooning the super serious, action-heavy elements of the Bond franchise to that point. Spy is a natural heir to that film finding interesting ways of dissecting the genre and boiling it down to its basest elements and making those moments funny while laying the premise out in precisely the same direction and with the same plot beats. It’s homage, parody and departure simultaneously.
What’s more interesting about the film is how it flips the table on gender conventions. In 24 film incarnations of the Bond character, the primary villains have always been male. You could debate how central a role Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in From Russia with Love and Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) in The World Is Not Enough play in the affairs of those films, and whether they would be classified as classic villains, but even if you count them, only two women out of more than thirty villains is hardly a respectable representation.
Apart from the gender reversal of M in the last few Bond films, Bond has been a largely masculine affair with leaders, assistants (save semi-non-romantic interest Miss Moneypenny) and villains all men. Here, you have the three strongest characters: protagonist, antagonist and operations director representing the feminine. While McCarthy never gets the level of suave romantic entanglement Bond always got in his films, there’s no question that the gender dynamics of spy thrillers have gotten sufficiently dumped on their heads. This is precisely how you create a female-led feature that exemplifies equality in filmmaking.
While you may debate just how richly constructed the women in Spy are in a broader look at motion pictures, there’s little doubt that they are strong, competent characters who can stand on their own. Several scenes in the film reveal just how misogynistic these agents are as they question Susan’s capabilities at frequent intervals. It’s not until she’s proves she’s more competent, both mentally and physically, than her counterparts that she’s finally given the respect she deserves. Thereby, Spy also acts as a statement film dragging the male-driven world of spy thrillers out of their comfortable seclusion and giving audiences the idea that perhaps a non-comedy spy film could benefit from a few great female heroes and villains.
Potentials: Original Screenplay
Unlikelies: Actress (Melissa McCarthy), Supporting Actress (Rose Byrne), Original Score, Original Song
June 11, 2015