Although a relative success by box-office standards (cost of production vs. actual returns), Melissa McCarthy’s last attempt to headline a film, last year’s underappreciated Tammy, failed to match the critical success of her previous big-screen efforts, but what a difference a year makes. Reteaming with her Bridesmaids and The Heat collaborator, writer-director Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), McCarthy is back with a near stellar action-comedy, Spy, a Bond-by-way-of-Bourne spoof that delivers almost as much action – well choreographed, shot, and edited by Feig – as comedy of the physical and verbal varieties. Thankfully moving away from the body humor that characterized some of McCarthy’s lesser, more forgettable efforts, Spy finds McCarthy firmly in control of both her (body) image and the demands of headlining a high-profile action-comedy.
When we first McCarthy’s character, Susan Cooper, a crack CIA handler, she’s guiding the CIA’s James Bond analog, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), through a lethal assignment, offering tips and tricks to avoid detection or anticipate problem areas like well-armed, disposable henchmen. Fine survives without a carefully combed, gelled hair out of place or wear and tear on his obviously expensive tailored tux. Cooper and Fine may make for a terrific team, but Cooper has a dream: She wants to be a field agent. She’s both a victim of her success with Fine and badly underestimated due to her appearance. Other field agents simply ignore her, incapable of looking beyond their prejudices and biases to the stellar spy underneath Cooper’s frumpy exterior. That Cooper isn’t inept – she’s exactly the opposite – but simply untested in the field provides Spy with the source of much of its humor (as opposed to body humor).
Everything changes (insert character/story arc here) after one of the CIA’s top targets, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a black marketer with a nuclear suitcase bomb in her possessions, reveals she knows the identity of the CIA’s field agents, giving Cooper the perfect opportunity to trade in her headset and keyboard for a variety of wigs, mom clothes, and a few spy gadgets (hidden in embarrassing-looking personal hygiene products). While Cooper’s boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), and another hyper-intense, hyper competitive agent, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), have their doubts, they have little choice but to send Cooper on a globe-trotting mission, ostensibly to “track and report” on Rayna, not to engage her or any of Rayna’s henchmen, a major risk for an untested agent like Cooper.
Of course, that’s exactly what Cooper does, in part spurred by Ford’s constant meddling and an encounter with a hitman-photographer in Rayna’s employ. This set-up gives Cooper the chance to prove herself worthy of Crocker’s trust, however reluctant and dictated by circumstance it may have been. Since Spy is, after all, an action-comedy, Cooper gets into all matter of scrapes that give McCarthy plenty of room to use her physical gifts, not to mention her verbal ones. Along the way, Cooper crosses paths with an Italian agent, Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), a walking, talking, and overly handsy caricature of Italian machismo. It’s all well and good, though Feig once again over-indulges his penchant for letting scenes drag on too long or keeping in scenes that serve little to no narrative or comedic purpose. Admittedly, an overlong, overstuffed running time is a small price for moviegoers to pay, especially given all of the comedic excellence Feig, McCarthy, and their equally talented collaborators repeatedly deliver.