When people talk about the success of Bridesmaids and The Heat, it’s often with a sense of surprise, as though the idea that audiences might want to see a female-centered film is somehow shocking. In fact, The Heat, which cemented Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig’s reputation as box office powerhouses, is primarily about confronting those gender politics head on. Reuniting for a third time, McCarthy and Feig certainly don’t abandon the politics that have made their films so popular, but they take a slightly more nuanced approach. The result is their most entertaining and flat-out hilarious film yet.
Spy is Feig’s most ambitious film to date, and this time he serves as both writer and director. At the film’s opening, CIA Agent Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is hardly the typical action hero. She sits behind a desk, providing tactical support for super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) via an earpiece. It’s a successful relationship, but one that makes Susan feel like more a personal assistant than an agent. It doesn’t help that Susan’s been holding a torch for Fine for years, a crush that goes miserably unnoticed. When Fine is suddenly assassinated by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), an international arms dealer who somehow knows the identities of all the bureau’s agents, Susan is sent into the field to stop the sale of a compact nuclear bomb.
The plot is pretty standard spy fare, but it gives Feig the room to play with the genre. Spy is certainly not a straightforward spy film, but it’s also not a straight parody, the way the Austin Powers or 0SS 117 films are. The characters in Spy aren’t simple mock-ups of genre archetypes, even if they sometimes step into those shoes; rather, they have legitimate substance. Feig never relies heavily on situational humor, instead putting the emphasis on the cast he’s assembled. It’s a decision that pays off in spades.
McCarthy is outstanding as Susan Cooper, bulldozing every preconceived notion of what an action star must, or should, be. Susan doesn’t just upend convention, she’s a far more balanced character: equal parts sweet, smart, naive, and badass. We find out that behind her kind, cake-baking exterior, Susan is a more than capable ground agent. This information comes in the form an old training video that her director (Allison Janney) says should be on YouTube. Susan Cooper certainly isn’t what comes to mind when you think of action hero, but Spy raises the compelling question: why not?
Spy is very much McCarthy’s show, but it wouldn’t be much fun to watch if she didn’t have anyone to play off of. Thankfully, Feig has assembled an exceptional cast. Jude Law has a ball slipping into his James Bond shoes to play Bradley Fine, delighting in the lunacy and self-obsession the role requires. Rose Byrne, who’s emerged as a comedic goldmine in Bridesmaids and Neighbors, is fantastic as the foul-mouthed weapons dealer Rayna. Byrne and McCarthy have some of the best comedic chemistry in recent memory, trading barbed insults that are truly side-splitting. Jason Statham steals every scene he’s in as Rick Ford, a loose cannon agent convinced that he alone is capable of completing the mission. Ford is a hyperbolic amalgamation of Statham’s entire career turned on its head, showing up every so often to rattle off increasingly impossible acts of heroism from his past exploits. Case in point: a story of how he once had his right arm blown off and had to sew it back on with his left.
Feig’s script balances globe-trotting spy conventions with action and comedic set pieces that work surprisingly well, leaving its two hour run time feeling tight and exciting. But the writing’s most commendable aspect is in its treatment of Susan. To call Spy a feminist critique on the genre isn’t wrong, but it’s also an oversimplification of what Feig and McCarthy are doing. We see this in the way Feig balances his jokes. The film delights in the absurdity of McCarthy’s appearance, dressing her up in a terrible perm and cat sweater, but it takes even more pleasure in cutting that perception of her to shreds. In the hands of a lesser director, that might seem like a film trying to have its cake and eat it too. In the hands of Feig, it’s set up and punch line. It’s comedy.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
In many ways, Spy is something of a balancing act. It’s a film that counterweights action with comedy, absurdity with some genuine emotional heft. McCarthy brings all her foulmouthed accoutrements to the table, but this time in a role that feels multi-dimensional. Feig’s writing doesn’t exactly drip suspense, but it keeps the laughs coming and provides just the right amount of satiric sting. Spy might not be the most nuanced or complex film to take on gender politics this year, but it will probably be the most fun.