Yesterday, I wrote the first in a series of James Bond articles and talked about “Dr. No.” Much of that discussion centered on the “Bond formula,” the things that would become hallmarks of the franchise. I then went out to see the new Melissa McCarthy movie, “Spy.”
Not surprisingly, the Paul Feig directed film offers up more than one element of the Bond formula. At this point, a spy movie—even a spy spoof—almost has to reference Bond. In fact, it would have to be a purposeful effort to not have a spy film find at least one Bondian moment and consequently the overt decision to run away from Bond itself references the film series.
“Spy” opts for immediate references, putting Jude Law in a tuxedo and entering a secret basement room at a swanky party right off the bat (and then it does a nearly full Bond opening title sequence). Honestly though, it is Jude Law’s character, CIA Agent Bradley Fine, who works least well in an otherwise hysterical film. Law sports a terribly unconvincing American accent and I’m not quite sure why. Jason Statham doesn’t do an accent and also plays a CIA agent, so it isn’t that Feig was against Brits speaking in their natural voice. There are even jokes to be made about British folks working for the CIA once you have more than one.
But, I don’t want to get bogged down in the small elements of the film that don’t work, at least not yet, because so much of it does work, and works wonderfully. It isn’t that the jokes are terribly clever either, though some are, it’s that McCarthy commits to each and every one of them; everyone in the film does.
Statham, quite honestly, might be the funniest person in “Spy.” He has such a well established tough guy attitude, that watching him play a bumbling but allegedly top notch secret agent who regularly ruins things is great. Statham is really well cast in the role and makes the most of it.
One of the harder things for many action-comedies, and “Spy” is definitely an action-comedy, is straddling that genre line. Tilt too far one way or the other and the entire project ends up being terribly disappointing — too much comedy without a high stakes plot makes the whole thing pointless and a bunch of failed jokes in service of great action is no better. No fear on either side of that here, Feig nails it. There are enough thrills in the movie to satisfy the action hungry folks in the audience and you never go more than a few minutes without a joke.
It is this straddling that is the most amazing thing about the film. It is a high-wire act, and you can see just about every single joke nearly going too far or almost not being funny, but somehow they stick the landing over and over again. The action sequences are never as big as they would be in a true action movie but juxtaposed with the jokes, there are enough fisticuffs, explosions, and chases that it all keeps humming along quite nicely.
In the wrong director’s hands, or with the wrong cast (which also includes Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, and Morena Baccarin), “Spy” is a disaster, a movie that goes amiss in the first five minutes and never recovers. With the wrong people, it is a series of failed fat jokes that keep getting hurled up onto the screen for nearly two hours as the audience begs for the credits to roll.
I will say that while there aren’t a ton of fat jokes, some do appear, and they are made worse for the fact that the film does a pretty poor job setting up the true nature of McCarthy’s Susan Cooper. “Spy” opens with Cooper being an analyst in a vermin-infested basement in the CIA and later we learn that she is there not because she couldn’t hack it as an agent, but because Cooper was convinced by Fine years ago to take the role. Cooper wasn’t just brilliant as a trainee, she actually has something, apparently, of a photographic memory.
That last bit, unfortunately, seems to grow out of nowhere. In a moment of crisis, it just becomes one of her talents and this ability isn’t established at the beginning of the film because the movie is so invested in making us think Cooper could never be a spy.
Some will say that the issue isn’t Cooper, but the way other characters see her. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. She may be great early on when working on a computer, but her interactions with her boss (Janney) and Fine are rather bumbling. I don’t think that we’re just seeing her through the eyes of others, I think the film is purposefully building the expectation so it can flip our perception later.
These complaints though are all on the smaller end. “Spy” kept me laughing for nearly two full hours yesterday and even if it isn’t perfect, it is slick, it is glossy, and it is hysterical.
photo credit: Larry Horricks/20th Century Fox