"Spy" may be stuck with a stale title, but as a frequently uproarious comedy that also takes itself seriously as a globe-trotting espionage actioner, it never loses its wily freshness. Writer-director Paul Feig's third crackerjack collaboration with Melissa McCarthy (following 2011's "Bridesmaids
" and 2013's "The Heat
") is immensely winning, no-holds-barred, and refreshingly feminist, made by a man who clearly adores and respects women. In Feig's eyes, anyone can be funny, but it is the various interplays between McCarthy, a delectably nasty Rose Byrne (2014's "Annie
"), and disarming British import Miranda Hart (in her first Hollywood film) where the picture really gets its vivacious, mile-a-minute verve.
40-year-old Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is an office-bound CIA analyst who acts as the eyes and ears of suave field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), getting him out of one sticky situation after the next as he tussles with the bad guys. When Fine is cruelly taken out by one Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a snooty, cold-blooded, Oxford-educated Bulgarian arms dealer looking to sell her late father's small-scale nuclear warhead to terrorists, Deputy Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) must find someone else to send into the field to continue the investigation. With Rayna already aware of all the active agents, Susan is shocked to hear herself offering her services for the job. Arriving in Paris in the frumpy disguise of alias Carol Jenkins ("I look like someone's homophobic aunt!"), she quickly goes to work. What is supposed to be a simple track-and-report mission, however, turns into something far more dangerous as she formulates a new identity and infiltrates Rayna's circle under the auspice of being a bodyguard hired by the femme fatale's father to protect her. With rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) nipping at her heels, Susan quickly discovers that she is a far more competent and able-bodied spy than she and her colleagues could have ever imagined.
With the possible exception of a 007-inspired opening credits sequence, "Spy" avoids the temptation to spoof James Bond and instead aims to tell a legitimate, cohesively conceived story about an unlikely undercover agent who gets into plenty of hot water but has what it takes to save the day. That the film's R-rating allows it to be more realistically violent and less homogenized than most mainstream spy pictures while at the same time being very, very funny gives it a unique and urgent vitality. Feig is unquestionably a master of the comedic form, and he does it again here, patiently layering jokes on top of each other while building extended set-pieces that rely on the sharpness of writing, performance, improvisation and comic timing. If the emotional undercurrents do not run as deeply as they did in "Bridesmaids
" (still one of the very best and truest comedies of this century), that's okay; while of a thematically fluffier nature, this movie is pure entertainment, plain and simple.
In addition to Feig, much of the credit deserves to go to the indomitably fearless Melissa McCarthy. One of the most successful and reliable box-office draws of the moment (and for good reason), McCarthy is both a consummate character actor as well as a true-born headliner who can carry movies and effortlessly earn the audience's sympathy. Susan is a sweet-natured, down-to-earth character, what Molly Flynn (her role on TV's "Mike & Molly") might be like if she was a professionally trained CIA operative. Seeing her think on her feet, outsmart Rayna, and ultimately come into her own as she orchestrates a new appearance and monikerthat of a salty-mouthed bodyguard named Amber Valentine who gives as brutally as she takesis empowering to watch take shape, and McCarthy is as fierce as she is hilarious in the part.
The cast surrounding McCarthy is of a top caliber, starting first and foremost with the smashingly brilliant Rose Byrne, voraciously digging her nails into unforgiving, overwhelmingly maned villainess Rayna Boyanov. Witnessing McCarthy and Byrne sparring with each other as they verbally fire off a nonstop stream of deliciously vicious insults is glorious to behold, and a lot of its hilarity comes from Byrne's impeccably dry delivery. When it comes to chemistry and earned laughs, there may not be a more jocular screen duo all year. As Nancy Artingstall, Susan's fellow outsider co-worker and friend, Miranda Hart is an exuberant find. Superseding certain romantic advances of the opposite sex in the final act is the friendship between Susan and Nancy, pleasingly placing greater value on their longtime bond than anything a smooth-talking agent could give them. Said handsome agents include Jason Statham (2015's "Furious Seven
"), loose and willing to go for it as Rick Ford despite comedy obviously not being his number-one forte, and Jude Law (2013's "Side Effects
"), delectable as the skilled if slightly obtuse Bradley Fine.
"Spy" blesses Melissa McCarthy with a revolving door of diverse looks and identities, from divorced cat lady Penny Morgan to the stunning, sleekly banged Amber, while throwing her into the middle of fantastic action scenes where she gets to zoom around on mopeds, hang from helicopters, and get into physical altercations involving knives and frying pans. A crowd-pleaser that never panders, the film is briskly paced even at a longish 117 minutes, rarely losing steam or falling flat (though a brief running joke involving Nancy's obsession with 50 Centor as she affectionately calls him, "50 Cent Piece"could have been done without). If a new franchise dealing in Susan Cooper's adventures as a secret agent were to come to fruition, there are endless possibilities as to where it could go. Nevertheless, it might be even better to let "Spy" be a one-and-done hit, a 'la
." Living up to the home run Feig and McCarthy have hit would be a tall proposition.