Spy is the third director-actor collaboration between Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy, and it’s clear that the two have a unique connection that brings out the best in both of them. Since the breakout hit Bridesmaids in 2011, McCarthy has appeared in a number of comedies, none of which have been anywhere near that level of excellence. The best of them was probably her last collaboration with Feig, 2013’s The Heat, though even that was a solid buddy comedy rather than anything of real significance.
Spy, however, is much closer to Bridesmaids in terms of quality. In that film, Kristen Wiig took the lead role, but this time McCarthy is the star. There’s a strong argument to be made that this is not only one of her funniest roles, but also her best and most varied performance to date.
As Susan Cooper – a desk-bound CIA analyst – she passes her days utilising high-tech surveillance equipment to guide Jude Law’s Bond-esque spy Bradley Fine through his thrilling and dangerous assignments. They make a great team, but Susan can’t help but feel like a glorified secretary – a feeling not helped by her unrequited love for her dashing, but callous, partner. When it transpires that a Bulgarian crime lord by the name of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) has come into possession of the names and appearances of the CIA’s best agents, Susan begs her boss Elaine (Allison Janney) to send her out into the field to prove her worth. Elaine reluctantly agrees, but only to a non-contact mission. Naturally, that doesn’t last long.
The film is romping and silly, but McCarthy actually has a surprisingly nuanced role here. Although she’s initially trapped in her vermin-filled CIA office, Susan isn’t the bumbling liability that we’ve come to expect from similar cinematic characters; in fact, she’s legitimately kick-ass in her own right. Not only does this subvert the comedy trope of the bumbling hero somehow foiling the plot of a vicious gangster, it also gives McCarthy some good action sequences, in particular a Jackie Chan-esque battle mid-way through versus a knife-wielding femme fatale – a hilarious piece of action comedy.
Having Susan as a capable hero also helps when we get to the second half of the film, allowing the action sequences to remain both funny and believable – a mix that few action-comedies achieve. The gag isn’t that she can’t do her job – it’s everyone else’s perception of her ability to do it. Mid-way through, there’s a triumphant change-up in which Susan has to pose as a hard-talking bodyguard; this gives McCarthy a chance to shift up a gear, delivering some great one liners and hilariously bullying Boyanov’s Swedish associate Anton (Björn Gustafsson).
Feig and his casting directors have surrounded McCarthy with a supporting cast on great form, meaning the laughs come thick and fast, and aren’t restricted to our heroine. Standouts include Jason Statham as bumbling, hard-case agent Rick Ford (amusingly sending up his own hard-man filmography) and Peter Serafinowicz as a lecherous Italian agent.
There are gags that don’t hit the mark quite as well as others, but the cast are on good enough form to ensure that the misses don’t leave too much of a mark – in particular McCarthy, who has the rare ability to elevate lesser jokes with her comic timing and charisma (even the obligatory projectile vomit gag, one of Hollywood comedy’s least funny tropes, raises a smirk). The villains are the least interesting – and least funny – elements in the film, but Rose Byrne’s delightfully preening performance makes her role memorable.
There has already been a film taking a comedic swipe at spy movies this year – Kingsman – but Spy is a far funnier, more broadly appealing watch. McCarthy is terrific as Susan Cooper, but Feig also deserves great credit: his whip-smart script and confident direction lend the whole picture a sense of energy and whimsical charm.