Susan Cooper works for the CIA as a desk-bound analyst. Her job is to study computer screens and guide her field agent through mansions, around dangerous corners and out to safe extraction points when the mission’s over, in very much the same way that Morpheus instructed Neo to use the scaffold to get to the roof. She warns him of incoming enemy fire. She tells him when to duck and when to sprint. She might even call in an air strike to clear his path. After a job well done, who knows, she might even land a dinner date with him.
What she can’t do, but what she inevitably does very adeptly in Spy, the latest comedy from Paul Feig, is become a field operative herself. She’s just not built for all that action. Behind a computer, with a headset wired in, that’s where she belongs. She’s good at what she does. But because she’s played by Melissa McCarthy, and we know McCarthy likes to tackle the improbable, she will be out in the field in no time, attempting to complete the mission assigned to her fallen comrade.
McCarthy belongs to that select breed of comedians who know how to use their overweight bodies to their advantage. Who says action heroes have to look like Sylvester Stallone? Why can’t they look like Chris Farley and still get the job done? Spy has some fun with these ideas, and introduces a British CIA operative played by Jason Statham, who’s all brawn and testosterone and laments the order to send the plump “lunch lady” out to lasso up the bad guys when he is sure he can do it himself in half the time. By the way, does the CIA hire foreign agents?
The plot centres on Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a Russian bomb maker, who plans to sell her father’s nuke to the highest bidder. Sent to capture and interrogate her is Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the CIA’s sorry excuse for a James Bond wannabe. When the mission goes south and Fine is compromised, the CIA has little option but to send Susan in as his replacement, much to Statham’s disgust.
The rest is pretty routine, as Susan infiltrates Rayna’s inner sanctum (posing as her bodyguard), uncovers very secret details about Rayna’s plans, has a rendezvous with her lascivious Italian contact (Peter Serafinowicz) who may or may not be an MI6 agent, is captured, harassed, teased, beaten, and otherwise inconvenienced. Oh yes, she’s also able to solve the case.
What works about all this boilerplate is the careful pitching of some of the supporting players. Statham, as the useless macho spy, is frequently entertaining as he goes off the grid to tackle the case himself. Serafinowicz aims for a new level of depravity with his Italian contact. Rose Byrne, that Australian actress of charming talent, exercises restraint with Rayna, which offers surprisingly funny results. All these characters surround McCarthy and elevate her. Susan is often flat and one-dimensional as the heroine, reciting dialogue that throws in similes and metaphors as if the writer, Feig, spent his time training at a potty-mouthed literature carnival. She needs strong helpers to make her appear less irritating. She is coached for most of the movie by her good friend Nancy, played by Miranda Hart, but all Nancy does is remind us that Hollywood has no idea how to utilise British comedians effectively in an American setting.
Spy, then, works as a Feig comedy. It’s not clean and innocent. It’s filthy and crass, but it’s also habitually funny. I guess that’s really all one can hope for from a contemporary comedy. When the plot is old and dusty, what better way is there to polish it than with a few laughs?
Best Moment | Seeing Statham in the Italian disco.
Worst Moment | Most of Nancy’s lines.