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Non-Review Review: Spy

Spy is broad, but it is funny. It might just be the best collaboration between director Paul Feig and actress Melissa McCarthy.

Feig reteams with McCarthy following on from the critical and commercial successes of Bridesmaids and The Heat. Both films were frequently cited as leading a new wave in female-led comedy, proving that audiences and critics would respond to classic comedy movie tropes executed with a largely female cast. Although Spy features an ensemble that is more gender-balanced, it remains a feminist comedy. Feig’s screenplay is never heavy-handed in its gender politics, but it wryly aware of how its female characters are wading into a traditionally masculine space.

I spy a winner...

I spy a winner…

Whereas Bridesmaids demonstrated that a female-led Judd-Atapow-style comedy could work and The Heat served as a female buddy cop comedy, Spy puts Melissa McCarthy at the centre of a very broad James Bond spoof. Even the plot itself feels fairly generic – the CIA’s top agent (Bradley Fine) is killed in action, and the agency is forced to send an inexperienced technical officer into the field. It is a story that could just as easily have been told with a male comedian like James Franco, Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill. However, Spy capitalises on McCarthy.

McCarthy is a wonderful comedian, carrying most of the movie’s jokes with her delivery. She is able to pitch her tone perfectly for the individual scene, but without ever losing a sense of character. Feig shrewdly plays to McCarthy’s strengths. He uses a great ensemble to support and compliment his lead, but never to overwhelm her. There is never any question about who is carrying the film, even as the rest of the cast do excellent work around McCarthy. Too much of any given quirky supporting character would be enough to kill the film, so Feig pitches it carefully.

Stat(ham) of affairs...

Stat(ham) of affairs…

Although McCarthy is very much the focus of the film, the supporting roles are given to actors who make the most of their material. In particular, Jason Statham demonstrates an incredible self-awareness playing the hyper-masculine Rick Ford, a man with a traumatic anecdote for any situation. Statham delivers beautiful monologues that seem to offer only slightly exaggerated accounts of events from films like Crank or The Fast and the Furious or The Expendables. Statham cleverly avoids hamming it up too hard, playing stoic self-confidence.

The rest of the cast also work well. Miranda Hart does self-effacing awkwardness superbly. Peter Serafinowicz offers a delightfully sleazy Italian secret agent. Jude Law provides a surprisingly passable James Bond pastiche as veteran agent Bradley Fine, the man with a terrible one-liner for every occasion. Although less attention-grabbing than her co-stars, the always reliable Rose Byrne offers perhaps the most nuanced of the supporting performances as the film’s would-be villain with a penchant for summarily terminating henchmen.

Things are heating up...

Things are heating up…

Spy is not plotted particularly tightly. The script has any number of logical holes and ambiguities, as characters seem to wander into and out of action as the plot demands it. People seem to show up with guns and firepower at random intervals, with lots of betrayals and double-crosses that don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. One climactic revelation invites the audience to wonder why our heroine was even sent on this mission in the first place, given what other characters must have known at the time.

Then again, that light plotting allows for a lot of leeway. Although Spy is primarily a comedy, there is some impressive stunt work from Walter Garcia and his team. Feig is an adept action movie director, perhaps demonstrating the same awareness of physical movement and space that made him such a solid comedy director. In particular, there is a wonderful kitchen fight sequence that uses a frying pan in a manner that feels like a cross between Hong Kong action cinema and classic Hollywood slapstick.

Shaken and stirred...

Shaken and stirred…

Spy is also a quietly feminist piece of work. The basic premise is not gender-specific, but the dynamics certainly are. One suspects that Rick Ford would respond differently were a male technical support officer drafted into the mission. When our heroine receives her secret spy equipment from the quartermaster, she notes that all the items are incredibly passive-aggressive. There is a rape whistle, a foot fungal spray, some laxatives and some wipes. “Did I do something to offend you?” she wonders, as her suave male colleagues get to play with cool hoverboards and gizmos.

Similarly, her direct superior observes that Bradley Fine effectively “spiked” her when they came out of the academy. He convinced her that they should work as a team where he gets to do all the heroic world-saving stuff while she simple enables him from behind the scenes. He gets the glory, she is left behind. At another point, Rick Ford literally tries to climb her like a ladder. This is something of a recurring theme. Inheriting her father’s evil arms dealership, Rayna Boyanov finds herself facing the fact that he always wanted a son.

"There's no I in CIA... oh, wait."

“There’s no I in CIA… oh, wait.”

That said, Spy is never too mean-spirited or vicious. As much as Bradley Fine is a parody or deconstruction of certain aspects of the James Bond persona, the movie never quite goes for the jugular. He is portrayed as obnoxious and dismissive, the film always remains broadly sympathetic to him; there is a sense that the film smiles and nods along with his corny one-liners. Similarly, Rick Ford is presented as stubborn and impulsive, but the film allows him glimpses of humanity and competence.

Those looking for a vicious indictment of the James Bond films might be better suited to look to something like Archer or The Kingsman. Spy is very clearly having a good time and enjoying itself, to the point where it feels like the movie is never laughing at any of its characters. In fact, the hero and the villain of the piece even share a rather warm exchange after the climax has passed – as if to suggest that nobody’s feelings have been too badly hurt by the events of the film.

His word is Law...

His word is Law…

That said, Feig actually has a great deal of fun with the violence on display. Spy is never quite wince-inducing, but the film occasionally uses brutal spy film violence to punctuate sequences in a way that gives it the very slightest edge. One of Feig’s calling cards as a writer and director is a willingness to blend both classic character-driven comedy with more low-brow laughs. Spy is never consistently low-brow, making it all the more effective when the film does throw in a silly bodily function gag in an otherwise serious moment.

Spy is great fun. It is not a tightly-plotted or meticulously-constructed comedy masterpiece, but it works consistently and reliably. The gags come thick and fast, landing in an impressive ratio. The film has a great sense of tempo and timing, keeping things moving and never getting too bogged down. It is probably the best collaboration between Feig and McCarthy, and might just rank as the best of their individual work as well.

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2 Responses

  1. A very fun film and a great review. 🙂

    I was a bit surprised you didn’t compare with ‘the male technical support officer on field mission comedy’ we DID get – the film version of ‘Get Smart’, where Steve Carell played an intelligent but clumsy and overconfident analyst (actually many plot points in ‘Spy’ are strikingly similar, though as you note that is because both films freely use rather generic plots.)

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