This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.
Melissa McCarthy may be America’s comedic sweetheart, but her filmography has been extremely hit-or-miss as of late. Where The Heat is a riotous take on hilarious buddy-cop antics with a female-driven spin, Tammy’s down-on-her-luck optimism barely musters a single chuckle-worthy joke throughout the entire film. But when McCarthy and filmmaker Paul Feig work together (The Heat/Bridesmaids), something magical always seems to happen, and in that same fashion, Spy ends up being another winning combination of Feig’s jovial cinematics and McCarthy’s sweetly bullish comedic stylings. Feig’s screenplay is smarter than the average spoof, McCarthy doesn’t overpower audiences, and a wonderful supporting cast ensures that every character scores a few laughs while kicking some terrorist ass along the way.
The film follows Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a desk-chained overseer who has an obvious crush on her assigned field agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But when her partner’s identity is compromised, along with all the other active field agents, the CIA finds itself without the ability to send their top agents out for revenge – which is where Cooper comes in. Since she’s never been in the field before, Cooper’s identity is still unknown, and she can be the ghost who gathers intel regarding the recent exposure. Armed with only her training and a few custom gadgets, Cooper must gain the trust of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and expose how Fine’s cover was blown. You know, the old “send the rookie into the fire” gag.
The key to Spy is that McCarthy isn’t forced to carry an entire film on her shenanigans alone. Even though Tammy has a supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates, every scene is driven by McCarthy’s domineering presence. Feig understands that she works better when other talented actors have their own moments of goofy humor, and in doing so, he takes some of the pressure off of McCarthy. There aren’t any long-winded bantering scenes where the actress rattles-off one-liners for what seems like an eternity, in a “let’s see what sticks” type of way. Spy features a more toned-down and focused Melissa McCarthy, and in the world of comedy, this version of the actress is a damn Queen.
Feig jam-packs his espionage spoof with a slew of tremendous talents, who always seem to be outdoing one another. Between Rose Byrne’s ability to play a snobbish Bond villain of sorts who can kill you with a bullet or hurtful, emotionally destructive insults, and Jude Law’s more out-of-the-box performance as a seemingly suave spy who isn’t so perfect, there’s plenty to laugh at (besides McCarthy) – especially considering the performances that Jason Statham and Peter Serafinowicz put forth.
Serafinowicz finds success as an Italian secret agent whose inappropriate advances towards McCarthy are blunt and romantically perverse, but even Aldo can’t compare to Statham’s unforgettable turn. It’s the actor’s job to play a badass British agent who goes rogue, the straight-man if you will, but by channeling his inner Leslie Nielsen (if Leslie Nielsen could snap your neck, that is), Statham’s deadpan delivery scores some of the BIGGEST laughs in the film.
His schtick revolves around telling war stories from the field over and over again, and while they start somewhat heroic, his claims grow in preposterousness, until he’s talking about the time he was forced to attach his completely severed right arm with only his left arm. McCarthy’s chemistry when responding to Statham is always razor sharp, staring in disbelief while humoring his ego, but Statham finds himself matching up perfectly with the more comedically-trained actors around him, never getting lost as an action-hero distraction.
Spy could have been an epic dud considering how spoof movies have been dive-bombing as of late, but there’s more to Feig’s film than buff secret agent jokes. By creating his own cinematic world where spies all have a guardian angel watching their every move (McCarthy’s Cooper to Jude Law’s Fine), Feig opens up channels of creativity that don’t just simply reuse action thriller norms in weird and obscure ways. You’ll find yourself laughing at the agency’s pesky vermin problem, which of course only comes out at the most inopportune climaxes, but you’ll also be treated to in-action pieces that show McCarthy’s unexpected level of martial arts mastery (via a stunt double, I’m assuming) – and her weak stomach for death.
Sure, the technology used is all-knowing, so certain moments become a bit coincidental, but the intelligence is also super sleek and inarguably cool. Pair that with Byrne’s ability to never remember anyone’s name (because that’s how disinterested she is), jarring sequences of bone-crunching action (seriously, Feig has some serious kill sequences), and Statham’s absurdly unbelievable fables, and you’ve got a recipe for success that’s hilarious, action-packed, and begging for a sequel.
Melissa McCarthy is an extremely funny woman, but her best work comes from filmmakers who understand how to utilize her talents effectively. Feig has proven time and time again that he knows how to make McCarthy shine, and Spy is no different from the formula he’s been tinkering with. The entire cast has a blast with the material, but more importantly, everyone has their chance to shine. Some sparkle brighter than others, showcased by the roars of laughter that both Statham and Serafinowicz were met with, but the likes of Law and Byrne aren’t pushed to the side. Spy is a successful comedy that makes use of all the working genre parts, from fiery explosions to battles of snap-fire wit (and kitchen utensils), but Feig ensures that the laughs are never sacrificed – no matter what the situation.
Paul Feig once again shows that he understands how to draw only the best out of Melissa McCarthy, which ensures that Spy is a hilarious espionage thriller that doesn't skimp on the action.