Published on June 4th, 2015 | by Josh Glenn0
The spy movie is a peculiar little beast. So ingrained is it into our popular consciousness, through such cultural behemoths as the Bond movies, the various incarnations of the Mission: Impossible series and television institutions like the non-Marvel Avengers, that we are both achingly familiar with its conventions and ever keen to re-appropriate it for our contemporary concerns. Agent 007 is the canniest distillation of the genre’s cycles: the gadgets, girls and gambling (as well as other unapologetic vices) that characterised the campy aesthetic of the ‘60s and ‘70s entries gave way to a focus on Bond’s darker side during Dalton’s era, which was lost in the mix of the many excesses of the end-of-the-century outings and then, in a post-9/11 world, given a reinvigorated emphasis under Craig’s heavily psychologised tenure. But if the cinematic world of espionage is malleable with the times, its narrative beats remain staunchly intact.
It is this inner tension that is both an asset and hinderance in Paul Feig’s Spy. Opening in media res as Bradley Fine (Jude Law) infiltrates a Bulgarian mansion to find the one man who knows the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon, we instinctively know the score even if the specifics are a little sketchy. A series of incidents (which I won’t disclose, lest I spoil some of the film’s biggest laughs) mean that the trail runs cold and all active CIA agents become at risk. Fortunately for the agency, extremely un-spectacular analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is keen to put her life on the line in order track down this ‘one man’s daughter (Rose Byrne), who may also know the location of said WMD. As Cooper commences her globetrotting adventure, she has to contend with forged allegiances, double crossings, the giddy ineptitude of her confidant (Miranda Hart) and an exposed agent blighted by petty jealousy (Jason Statham). Spy zips along at a giddy old pace, packing in plenty of gags, quips and larks, as well as several reasonably impressive action sequences. At the same time, though, it’s never quite enough.
Aesthetically, it’s difficult to discern exactly what the film is attempting to do. It has neither the razor-sharp parody nor David Wain-esque surrealism to imbue the bog-standard plot with a lease of life, meaning that few of the jokes really stick and a good deal of them simply fall flat. The humour teeters down the middle of the road, with an occasional ‘fuck’ thrown in to justify the R rating. As such, little distinguishes it from the crop of spy comedies that litter the path of cinema: Get Smart, I Spy, Johnny English – hell, even Agent Cody Banks.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t laughs. This is a Paul Feig joint, after all, and while the days of Freaks and Geeks are long behind him, he still has a keen knack for developing even minor characters into memorable running jokes. In a turn more unexpected than any of Spy’s various knife-twists, Jason Statham is far and away the film’s MVP. Amping up his tough guy persona with admirable abandon, The Stath chews through increasingly nonsensical dialogue with a hitherto untapped comedic gusto. The film’s best gag is the idea that he feels he’s the rightful protagonist to this movie, but, like a bodged transplant, is continually rejected. Rose Byrne, too, continues to mount a case for being a titan of understated delivery, relishing her role as a bitch that makes her Bridesmaids character look like Jean Weir. As the titular spy, Melissa McCarthy is solid, and undeniably a pleasant screen presence, but her brand of humour is one that, unfortunately, I continue to find elusive.
If McCarthy the performer doesn’t quite shoulder the movie, though, McCarthy-as-Cooper proves to be quite the revelation. The broad arc of the character is a basic hero’s journey, with the everywoman stepping up to the plate and achieving a state of self-actualisation. What really makes it sing, though, are the details. Early on in the second act, she proves herself to be an incredibly adept agent, demonstrating an untapped resourcefulness by rolling with a less-than-ideal punch. From then on the jokes are less ‘look how funny it is that this woman is fat’ and more ‘look how incompetent the people around her are’. It’s an incredibly important transition, and one that marks the film as quietly intelligent. The joke isn’t that she’s an oversized woman trying to do a lean-man’s job; it’s that the idiots around her repeatedly think it is.
Indeed, by the resolution the archetypal male figures are rendered impotent: the suave gentleman is turned down for a date, the undercover agent (a reliably hilarious Peter Serafinowicz) is helplessly smitten, and The Stath has been rendered entirely useless. Hell – and this, I suppose, is something of a SPOILER – even the Big Bad is taken down by McCarthy and Hart, with nary a bloke in sight. More impressive is the ease with which this female agency is achieved: ‘progressive’ doesn’t equate to ‘preachy’, fellas. Despite what the Men’s Rights lot may whine, it has precisely zero impact on the film’s enjoyment.
So maybe Spy isn’t a particularly memorable movie. It cleaves close to the genre with insufficient wit to challenge it and sits only a hair’s width above its incredibly patchy spy-com brethren. But, true to mandate, it is very clearly a movie of 2015. It’s not an all-time great comedy, or even the comedy of the year. It is, however, one that it crucial right now.