“Spy” marks the second time this year that Hollywood has satirized the spy film genre (the first was “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), and in both outings the characters are driven by an underlying eccentric quirk that make them prime pickings for a variety of undercover endeavors. But whereas “Kingsman” was also more intricate when it came to understanding all the nifty gizmos and gadgets that spy agents are equipped with, here is a movie that essentially uses it all for less intensive reasons; they exist only in the peripheral to create a unique sense of danger to dangle the characterizations over. That might make it all sound like an inferior counterpart to the earlier picture, but it all comes down to a matter of your perspective, really. Some enjoy the sharpness and wit of a film like “Kingsman” and how it is married with the precision of narrative comic timing; others will gravitate towards the more personable aspects of this one, and admire the charm of its less choreographed sensibilities even when the material processes everyone through a checklist of formula staples.
McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a smart but frumpy CIA official whose routine relegates her to that obligatory behind-the-scenes role often given to chubby girls in the movies. Se blurts warning shots over the earpiece of a spy out in the field, and functions as a second set of eyes in situations where he may or may not be ambushed by unseen adversaries lurking around the corner. In an early sequence, her skill is displayed with impeccable precision; her primary agent Bradley (Jude Law) is caught in a trap while searching for the whereabouts of a stolen nuclear warhead, and her eyes are able to see all of the active figures of the compound as they descend on him (usually just before he has to make critical life-saving decisions, like when to duck or when to turn right or left). It is a pattern that both have seemingly followed since well before the opening scenes of the film, and one that has yielded two opposing views on the dynamic of their relationship; Bradley sees her as an irreplaceable asset in his career, and Susan, well, has developed romantic feelings for him. Those realities are thrust into new considerations when a new assignment seemingly ends Bradley’s life, and Susan figures that the only way to keep the case active is to throw herself – who already has most of the information – right into the crosshairs of the assignment.
Zany antics ensue. A lead CIA operative named Elaine (Allison Janney) is impressed by training videos of her from the farm but doesn’t provide her with very flattering identities to go undercover with; to her, it’s best for Susan to be completely inconspicuous. A hotshot agent played by Jason Statham protests loudly against her inclusion in frontline activity; the running gag between them is that he will always show up in the middle of one of her undercover stints, usually to – inadvertently – create an unnecessary ruckus. And then the field supplies her with some high-tech gadgets while hiding them under unflattering packages (notable examples: anti-poison pills in a Stool Softener bottle, and tranquilizer darts inside of a rape whistle). Each of these is used in succession to loftier plot contrivances, all of which involve Susan attempting to keep her real identity private even as she comes into the inner circle of the bomb maker’s daughter (Rose Byrne) and must pretend to be her personal bodyguard in order to keep alive long enough to find the whereabouts of the nuclear device.
Every detail, twist and turn is written in flaccid ease by Paul Feig, but not out of laziness or lack of inspiration; he knows that his movie must be a series of basic setups, because it is within the work of his actors that the material will come alive. Sometimes that can be a detriment – especially in endeavors where a screen personality can contradict the merit of the premise – but “Spy” benefits from pitch-perfect casting in that regard. McCarthy’s prime schtick has always been to look deliberately embarrassed by the situations she is thrown into, and here is a story that sees few limits in pushing her to the brink of awkward situations. Likewise, she plays well off of her peers here – most notably with Miranda Hart, who plays another behind-the-scenes CIA operator and does a good job of contrasting the determined demeanor of Susan with an almost seizure-like nervousness. Janney, meanwhile has a few solid scenes as a boss who is brought to visible discomfort with such colorful personalities showing up in top secret situations, and Statham, so ordinarily deadpan in action films, is rather charismatic as a brutish agent whose over-the-top violent reactions are a threat to no one but himself.
We laugh a lot during “Spy,” usually in relation to how an actor will respond to his or her embarrassing predicaments. The story is little more than a collection of setups strategically placed to fuel the energy of the liberated actors, but of course it is; a screenplay that was more controlling would have suffocated the possibilities of chemistry. The dialogue, I reckon, was mostly adlibbed. How else would anyone – least of all Feig – been able to precisely figure out the right pitches for each of his actors in moments where they sound like extensions of themselves rather than characters out of some distant context? This kind of movie was more common in the days of Hollywood where personality was considered the greatest outlet to humor, but to see it in action now, in the thick of times where film comedy is controlled by writers with varying degrees of skill, is to be reminded of simpler possibilities. And as a vehicle displaying the talents of already-established starts, it is a testament to the brewing star quality of Mellissa McCarthy, who is likable, infectious and more joyful in her delivery than most have been in a long while at the movies.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Action (US); 2015; Rated R; Running Time: 120 Minutes
Melissa McCarthy: Susan Cooper
Jude Law: Bradley Fine
Rose Byrne: Rayna Boyanov
Jason Statham: Rick Ford
Peter Serafinowicz: Aldo
Miranda Hart: Nancy Artingstall
Allison Janney: Elaine Crocker
Produced by Gergo Balika, Peter Chernin, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, John J. Kelly and Jenno Topping; Directed and written by Paul Feig