Spy spoofs are something that Hollywood has routinely attempted, yet very rarely succeeded at. This is why it was such a pleasant surprise that Kingsman: The Secret Service delivered 2015’s first truly excellent movie back in February, being a highly successful spy spoof that kicked off a year full of big screen spies, both played straight, and played for laughs. In fact, even more shocking than 20th Century Fox throwing so much behind a spy spoof early in the year, given the repeat failings of the subgenre, is the fact that they’re releasing another spy spoof a mere few months later, with the newly-launched Spy. Surely, that’s madness, and there’s no way that Fox could possibly replicate the surprise success of Kingman: The Secret Service with an entirely separate spy spoof releasing in the same year… Right?
Actually, someone needs to get 20th Century Fox a medal. Have one made. Why? Because Spy is pretty much just as entertaining, hilarious and action-packed as Kingsman: The Secret Service! It’s enough to blow the mind of moviegoers, with the studio delivering a double bill of excellent spy spoofs in the same year, and making it look easy, after so many failed attempts by other studios in the past. It’s an incredible, and very surprising, accomplishment.
If anyone is up to the job however, as much as Matthew Vaughn would be with Kingsman: The Secret Service, it’s Paul Feig, a director quickly proving himself to be on comedy’s cutting edge. After Bridesmaids and The Heat, Feig is yet again re-teaming with Melissa McCarthy, along with a fellow Bridesmaids veteran, Rose Byrne, to headline Spy as protagonist and antagonist, respectively. Just as Kingsman: The Secret Service effectively sent up the absurdity of spy movie action and sophistication, Spy goes right for the jugular of the genre’s frequent sensuality and sexual intrigue, spinning a tale of homely underdog heroes and pretty-faced, yet comically unreliable professionals.
What really makes Spy succeed even more than its hilarious comedy however, is the fact that everything is wrapped around a genuinely entertaining and action-packed tale of big screen espionage. The danger is real, the action is credible, and the threat is apparent, which only makes Spy funnier at every turn! This action-comedy succeeds with flying colours at both its action and its comedy, and it comes highly recommended to those seeking either or both!
Spy stars Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy, a lowly CIA analyst with an outwardly tame demeanour, and a passive, un-threatening appearance. Since Susan is seen as such a pushover, nobody takes her seriously, despite the fact that she’s a qualified agent.
Making matters worse is the fact that Susan is paired with a highly beloved, sophisticated superspy in Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law and his mostly believable American accent, who is a textbook James Bond parody, performing his operations in tuxedos, and blaming everyone but himself for his mistakes. Susan is secretly in love with Fine, but feels that she has no chance with him, since she’s been trained from a young age to let everyone else steamroll over her. Even Susan’s best friend, Nancy, played by Miranda Hart, believes Susan should grow a backbone, but ultimately remains an enabler, giving Susan an excuse to never assert herself.
When Susan gets her chance at being a real spy however, she’s quickly introduced to an array of personalities that all appear better-looking and more professional than her, despite Susan often being more resourceful than them. This is where a lot of the movie’s humour comes from. McCarthy is given the rare chance to mellow out for most of the movie, playing a character more inspired by her role on TV’s Mike & Molly, and on the opposite end as her former, more abrasive personalities from Bridesmaids and The Heat. As she loses patience with her fellow spies and charges however, more and more of McCarthy’s familiar edge begins to shine through with Susan, making the character’s journey feel surprisingly effective for a comedy like this.
McCarthy is definitely the star of the show here, but she’s thankfully complemented by an equally effective supporting cast. Miranda Hart catches the molted wide-eyed innocence of Susan as the movie goes on, to avoid it straying too far from its original foundation, and she makes a great sidekick for McCarthy. Likewise, Rose Byrne plays a hysterical villainess in terrorist arms broker, Rayna Boyanov, being a satire of over-the-top spy villains, who non-sensically kills her own henchmen for even slight slip-ups, and comes off as a spoiled woman-child that is oblivious to her own ludicrous fashion sense and demeanour. Seeing McCarthy and Byrne together again is a lot of fun, particularly for those who have already enjoyed their work in Bridesmaids.
Also a surprising comedic triumph here is Jason Statham, portraying a perfect cross-breed between John Rambo and Inspector Clouseau in reckless idiot spy, Rick Ford, a rogue agent that follows Susan around, and tries to convince her that she’s incompetent, with no actual evidence to that effect. It’s been quite a while since Statham has done full-blown comedy, but you’d think he’d kept it up for many years. Statham’s dialing up of his super-badass action persona to hilarious extremes proves to be very effective, with Rick constantly recounting seemingly impossible spy exploits throughout the movie, yet constantly getting caught with his pants down as Susan has to keep bailing him out of certain doom. By the end of the movie, Rick has become a full-blown fool of a spy, and Statham’s increasingly less subtle random appearances make for some of the movie’s funniest jokes.
It’s a shame then that a few supporting actors feel a bit short-changed, since Spy’s surprisingly large script is trying to cover so much ground at once. Morena Baccarin portrays the spy idol of both Susan and Nancy, but she barely has any screentime, no doubt due to television commitments on Gotham. Likewise, Allison Janney has some pretty funny moments as CIA boss, Elaine, though she’s often a background presence that only has a couple of big scenes. She also seems to be a bit of a reactive character as well, relying purely on the hijinx of characters like Susan and Rick to entirely sustain her material.
Ultimately though, even the short-changed characters get some great material when they do appear. Spy clearly comes from someone who loves spy movies an awful lot, with Paul Feig not only directing the movie, but also solely writing the entire script, along with producing it. Despite having such a heavy bearing on every element of Spy’s production however, Feig once again proves himself as a comedic visionary, assembling a brilliant team of personalities that comes together excellently.
Spy hits a lot of familiar tropes with spy movies, namely the nuclear weapon macguffin, and the compromised list of agents. Surprisingly though, the familiarity works in the movie’s favour, since it’s all proceeding by Melissa McCarthy, who is probably the last person that anyone would expect to portray a spy hero at the movies.
This is what makes Spy succeed as an underdog story; Its tale feels believable as far as spy movies go. The movie avoids feeling lazy by placing Susan in a plot that contains actual, prevalent danger. The story succeeds when we see how Susan uses her surprising ingenuity to navigate the field of spy work, with a routine mission helping to make Susan feel like she’s part of the club by the end. Even when her own boss strives to keep Susan down, telling her not to engage targets, and giving her humiliating undercover identities as they track a stolen nuclear weapon in the hands of the daughter of a terrorist broker that Susan’s agent accidentally kills in the intro, Susan finds a way to succeed. Sometimes, Susan succeeds by accident, but more often than not, her wits get her through, and that’s what makes Spy feel so cool and uplifting.
Even if it is familiar though, don’t think that Spy doesn’t pack surprises or entertainment value. It’s the cast, particularly the efforts of McCarthy as the unlikely lead, that make the otherwise routine story into something special. The movie only serves to get funnier as it proceeds on, with the story gradually unfurling into something more and more ridiculous as it delves into the world of spy movie cliches, but the fact that it never fully escapes the realm of plausibility is very commendable.
The only slight issue with the otherwise well-executed and very funny storyline, is the fact that the ever-increasing comedic scale of the movie does threaten to collapse it under its own weight toward the climax. The script begins to feel a little convoluted towards the end, despite its initially pedestrian spy spoof plot, and if you’re actually trying to follow events, you might feel like the movie loses track of itself to a point in its third act. Still, this could well be intentional, with spy movies having some of the most infamously and needlessly convoluted plots in Hollywood history at times.
The bottom line with the story of Spy however is that it is indeed quite funny. In the hands of a lesser director and a lesser cast, the movie might have ended up as by-the-numbers as it initially appeared. Thanks to the efforts of all involved however, Spy serves as a great template of how to do a spy spoof right, providing a more grounded, witty alternative to the more off-the-wall and comically insane Kingsman: The Secret Service, though one that proves no less effective at what it sets out to do.
Feig demonstrated that he knows action as much as he knows comedy back in 2013 with The Heat, and Spy allows him to take his action pedigree to a whole new level. This often results in what feels like Feig’s tightest and most impressive directing job to date, as he deftly balances both comedy and action without teetering the scales in favour of either side.
Naturally, Feig continues to work incredibly well with McCarthy and Byrne, but he gets just as much outstanding comedic mileage from his supporting cast as well. Spy has a fantastic sense of energy and inspiration, with the delivery of the actors proving perfectly matched with Feig’s sharp and perfectly-executed script. Everyone involved is clearly enjoying making the movie as much as audiences will enjoy watching it, and that shines through amidst all of the outstanding humour that Spy is absolutely packed with!
Like I said though, Spy doesn’t tip everything in favour of the comedy. It’s also a very well-directed action movie, with tightly-choreographed fight sequences and chases, along with kinetic, nicely-stylized shooting of some surprisingly brutal enemy kills. A highly-touted highlight, for good reason, is a very intense knife fight between McCarthy and an assassin that is so fantastically realized, that it’s even better than some of the offerings in dedicated action movies, and that’s not the only fight of its ilk in this movie either! Feig even kicks off the movie with an effective, James Bond-esque intro, complete with an original song, “Who Can You Trust?” by Ivy Levan, giving Spy a surprising sense of polish, albeit also a tongue-in-cheek one.
The fact that Spy is as thrilling as it is funny means that it will easily entertain both action fans and comedy fans alike, without feeling like it’s missing a beat. Marrying these two genres is tricky, but essential. Spy thankfully succeeds as both a comedy and an action movie, and could be taken as either, though it’s at its absolute best if you’re willing to take it as both.
R-rated comedies have seen some struggles lately, and they felt worse off than ever after their especially weak year in 2014. Fortunately, 2015 now appears to at least somewhat be righting the course for comedies marketed toward adults, at least with its duo of spy spoofs, and that’s a most unexpected and treacherous of subgenres as well! Fortunately, after Kingsman: The Secret Service brought a whole lot of fresh energy and inspiration to both R-rated comedies and spy spoofs, Spy continues that success, with a more down-to-earth, yet extremely clever and funny take on the spy spoof.
Spy stands in stark contrast to Kingsman: The Secret Service, since it’s a lot more relatable and grounded, but it provides an outstanding action-comedy for the opposite reasons that Kingsman: The Secret Service does. Where Kingsman: The Secret Service gave spy movies a new sense of freshness and vigor with its bold insanity, Spy creates a spy-themed comedy that captures the established fundamentals of a genuinely fun spy movie, including the ever-present sense of real danger, and layers them with all sorts of effective satire and self-aware ribbing, all brought together by a likable and charming protagonist who can hold her own, despite appearances, along with an equally excellent supporting cast.
Despite its generic title and seemingly unremarkable plot, Spy is continued proof that Paul Feig can take on just about any genre blend of comedy, and not only deliver a good movie, but also set the bar for the subgenre while he’s at it! The movie’s superb final product should leave people more excited than ever for Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot next year, which will once again team him with Melissa McCarthy. Hey, that’s well and good, since the team of Feig and McCarthy seems like they can do no wrong at this point.
So, whether you enjoy action movies, comedies, or, ideally, a mix of both, Spy will inevitably prove to be one of this Summer’s top surprise hits, and a movie that feels like it can easily stand with the big boys, even in a year that will see the release of both a new Mission: Impossible movie, and a new 007 movie. Susan Cooper may not be Ethan Hunt or James Bond, but she’s well worth the call of your box office dollars, since she certainly kicks just as much ass!
- McCarthy is an outstanding, hysterical lead
- Supporting cast is universally hilarious and memorable
- Action scenes are genuinely thrilling and well-directed
- Some characters needed more fleshing out