Ever since she stole ‘Bridesmaids’ away from a cast too good for that to be easy, Hollywood has struggled to find a movie worthy of Melissa McCarthy’s sudden stardom. After a bunch of financially successful but not particularly good attempts, ‘Spy’ comes as something between a pleasant surprise and a relief. It’s no groundbreaking masterpiece (after all, spy movie parodies are as old as the concept of parody movies), but it’s damn funny and could even kick off a franchise.
McCarthy stars as a CIA desk jockey who sits in a rat-infested basement surrounded by computers that allow her to be the eyes and ears to assist Jude Law in his superspy ways. Unfortunately, his latest mission goes wrong, and a dastardly Rose Byrne learns all the names and identities of Law’s fellow spies, making it impossible for McCarthy’s boss (Allison Janney) to send in any of her top agents to stop a convoluted plot involving a nuclear warhead. That’s a real shame since the team includes Jason Statham, who could clearly set things right all by himself, and he has many delightfully vulgar rants expressing that frustration. With no other options, Janney is forced to send McCarthy out into the field under a series of unflattering assumed identities. Do you think there’s a chance that this woman who seems like the exact opposite of an action hero might possibly be the perfect person of the job? Hmmmm, I wonder…
Yes, maybe the premise of this big glossy summer comedy isn’t the greatest ever conceived. (Look! It’s a fish, but out of water!). However, it’s just good enough to generate the type of crowd-pleasing laughs necessary to be a hit. McCarthy gets a chance to do everything she’s good at, from painfully awkward fumbling to filth-flinging insult comedy along with plenty of physical business.
The movie obviously has plenty of time for “fat person falls down = funny” shtick, while also giving McCarthy (and presumably a few stunt ladies) a chance to do some genuine ass-kicking. In an age when internet activists cry out for female star vehicles and body positive blockbusters, ‘Spy’ delivers both with heaping loads of empowerment. Yet it never wastes time patting itself on the back for such self-righteousness. This is a popcorn laugh factory with all the trimmings, and the empowering politics just happen to be inherent to the premise rather than hijacking the movie.
McCarthy is also surrounded by an immensely talented cast who help carry the laugh quotient above the norm – from known quantities like Law, Janney and Bobby Cannavale to relative Hollywood unknowns like longtime awkward Brit comedy specialist Miranda Hart. The supporting MVP trophies have to be handed out to Byrne and Statham (with a Special Achievement ribbon passed along to Peter Serafinowicz, who takes a one-note Italian perv role and transforms it into Pythonesque surrealism).
Bryne has been running with her unexpected comedy career for a few movies now and really comes into her own her as a foul-mouthed Bond villainess type who spits out some nasty dialogue in a prim and proper way that never gets old. She’s an ideal sparring partner for McCarthy. Their filthy exchanges will likely go down as some of the best hard-R comedy of the summer.
Then there’s the great Jason Statham dipping into a little self parody as an absurdly arrogant special agent spewing out ridiculous claims of past espionage triumphs (usually involving his entire body being on fire). He’s absolutely hysterical in a way that will hopefully land him some better work. After all, the guy was a bit of a comedic genius in the ‘Crank’ movies and burst into film through Cockney comedy in Guy Ritchie’s first features. He might have transformed into one of the great action stars of our time, but he’s also freaking hilarious when given the chance and deserves more flicks that exploit his comedy chops.
‘Spy’ isn’t destined to spark any new big screen trends or go down as a classic, but it delivers exactly the type of pleasant guffaws and escapism that a summer comedy needs. The credit that doesn’t go to McCarthy should be handed over to writer/director Paul Feig, perhaps the most unlikely action-comedy specialist to ever blockbust. After the growing pains of ‘The Heat’, Feig really starts to come into his own as an action director here. Sure, the big set-pieces won’t exactly steal any thunder from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, but they’re surprisingly well handled for a guy who used to specialize in high school humiliation on ‘Freaks and Geeks’ (though the filmmaker does welcomely sneak in a little of his old cringe comedy gold).
Feig has done well off the back of ‘Bridesmaids’, embracing mainstream comedies while still slipping in his own idiosyncrasies. Based on what he pulls off in ‘Spy’, maybe the ‘Ghostbusters’ reboot isn’t in bad hands after all. The action sequences here are better than the ones Ivan Reitman mustered in ‘Stripes’ as his blockbuster audition piece. Perhaps Feig really is ready to take on an iconic franchise. Hell, the guy even managed to sneak a 50 Cent cameo into ‘Spy’ that somehow isn’t annoying. If he can pull that off, surely ghostbusting can’t be too hard.