Credit where it’s due. Despite a string of disappointments – let’s face it, Tammy was awful and Identity Thief was worse – Melissa McCarthy is going nowhere. And with good reason. Her turn in the comedy/drama St. Vincent showed how good and sympathetic she can be when not falling back on being the objectionably foul-mouthed, slovenly bore. And in the new comedy Spy, a sort of spoof on the Bond genre, she’s hugely likable.
Spy is an action comedy that reunites McCarthy with Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne and director Paul Feig. It takes the world of James Bond as a base then springs from it into its own nonsense universe. The well designed opening credits are reminiscent of the kind that Maurice Binder would create for Bond, while Theodore Shapiro’s music echoes the arrangements of John Barry’s horns and atmospheric strings. Even the song sung by Ivy Levan sounds as though she’s channeling her best Shirley Bassey.
McCarthy is Susan Cooper who works at a desk in the basement of the CIA. Her partner in the field is Bradley Fine (Jude Law), an agent who with his debonair good looks, suave manner and a taste for tuxedos looks not unlike a certain British agent with a double-o membership rating. “We’re a perfect team,” Bradley tells Susan. “That’s why we work.”
But Bradley is caught by the bad guys, principally Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who puts a gun to Bradley’s head – witnessed by Susan back at the CIA through a concealed camera – and Bradley’s days as a spy are over. What follows is a plot revolving around a nuclear bomb and its secret whereabouts, but, in truth, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fun of seeing desk-bound Susan rise from the ranks of guiding agents electronically from the safety of her basement cube and going out in the field undercover as a plump, curly-headed, mid-westerner cat lady on a European vacation. “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt,” Susan declares.
Allison Janney is her boss. After watching an impressive video of Susan expertly dispatching karate chops and kicks in a CIA training video – “I almost put it up on You Tube,” Janney states – the boss sends Susan on a track and report mission to help locate that nuclear bomb. From there, the story doesn’t matter. In fact, you might find yourself wondering exactly why we’re in Paris, then Rome, then Budapest, but of course, like all good spy films, you need these locations for that certain, exotic spy-laden flavor whether they’re necessary or not.
It’s a fun cast. In addition to McCarthy and Janney, there’s Jason Statham, toying with his usual tough-guy act by playing fellow CIA agent Rick Ford. He angrily quits his job when the agency sends Susan out into the world instead of him. But he can’t let go and continually turns up, usually at the wrong moment, to shoehorn himself into the action. What makes Statham’s Ford particularly funny is how he plays it straight, even though he’s actually a bumbling idiot. Rose Byrne, complete with a cultured sounding English accent, looks to be relishing her bad girl character, coldly dispatching anyone around her who disappoints her, while British TV comedienne Miranda Hart makes a good impact in her first American film as the fussy Nancy, another desk-bound CIA agent who somehow makes it out into the field to help support her friend, Susan.
Spy has a great initial setup – the first hour works well; watching McCarthy release her inner John Wick on the enemy is funny – but the film can’t quite sustain either the comedy or the action well enough to support a two hour running time. The violent knife fight between ravishing Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri and McCarthy is too flinch-inducing realistic to be funny – the nastiness outweighs the comedy; when McCarthy makes a joke during the fight it falls flat – while the chasing and the action seems to go on for a few set pieces too many. Plus, having characters suddenly mouth endless f-bomb laden insults at each other in lieu of some of that wit of the first half comes across as more desperate than funny. Perhaps writer/director Feig ran out of humorous things to say and substituted the dialog with obscenities for easier laughs. That’s just lazy.
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in the first half, and it’s good to see a film that gives the gifted McCarthy a chance to extend that likeability factor beyond TV’s Mike & Molly and shine on the big screen, even if the film fizzles somewhat in the final act.
MPAA Rating: R Length 120 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)