Spy films are built on our deep-seated paranoia and distrust of everything. It’s no surprise they became popular during major wars, but long gone are the days of the Hitchcockian and classic Bondian spy films that provided political commentary and a sense of dread based on current events. Whether openly posting our lives on social media has made us care less about the idea of privacy, or we’ve grown desensitized to the fear of spies since our own government unabashedly collects all our private information, the result ends up the same: spy films have lost their impact. To be taken seriously, even the James Bond franchise has had to get rid of its more exaggerated, outdated (often racist, sexist and homophobic) elements and gadgets, opting instead to be more grounded in reality. Spy doesn’t have that problem, bringing back many of the outrageous aspects of the spy genre and delivering them in lovingly curated homage to the genre.
In a surprising performance, Melissa McCarthy breaks through her typical crass, ball-busting character shell and gives us a peek at her true range. As soft-spoken Susan Cooper, we see a more subtle, relatable side to McCarthy that most of us thought we would never see. Susan is a CIA analyst who is partnered with a charming field agent named Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who falls trying to complete a mission against terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). After all of the agents’ identities are compromised, Susan is forced to take Rayna down and avenge her slain colleague with the help of her plucky analyst friend Nancy (Miranda Hart). Aside from facing great obstacles, she must also overcome problems at home from people who don’t believe in her abilities, like the headstrong Rick Ford (Jason Statham) who is constantly, tragically in Susan’s way.
Paul Feig (writer/director) is no first-timer when it comes to the McCarthy rodeo, having worked with her in her breakout role in Bridesmaids and the buddy-cop film The Heat. With her strong personality, a little McCarthy can go a long way, and it seems Feig has finally figured that out. Before, many of McCarthy’s performances seemed one-dimensional, forced, and improvisational: beating an initially funny joke to death by adding piles and piles of unfocused improv-style rifts on top of them. Eventually you just write off the joke and the entire character as a whole. Spy is different, giving us a focused and more controlled character that could believably be a person who exists in the real world. That is all thanks to the newly displayed depth McCarthy has delivered, and I hope will continue to deliver in any future projects.
Feig has finessed each punchline and every bit of slapstick humor so that their effects have us rolling on the floor laughing rather than rolling our eyes. Contrary to what you might think, Spy is not a spoof film. It has all the appearances of a spoof film, but with a closer look you can tell it is instead a finely honed homage to spy films in general. Yes, a lot of the elements in it are comical, but that is just Feig intentionally bringing to life very real spy cliches from the past 70 years of espionage-esque films.
One of the best things Feig introduces into the spy canon is a paradigm-crushing example of an inspirational female spy. Like male spies, females spies are often hyper-sexualized, forcing only tall, thin, blonde or dark-haired women to be the standard. With their impractical plunging necklines and foot-torturing high heels, they are laughably ill-equipped for battle, yet they somehow manage to easily overcome their opponents. Feig introduces a more realistic spy with Susan Cooper, one that shows us how intelligence and skill will always win over sexual manipulation and stilettos.
The talented ensemble cast each embody a very specific spy film archetype. The only exception is McCarthy who, I hope, embodies the future of spy films, giving life to the notion that not everyone is fit to be a spy, but with training, even your average person can make a big difference. One of the real villains Spy battles (and annihilates) is body shaming standards and sexism. Each are crushed by our champion, Paul Feig.
Aside from the obvious heroes (Feig and McCarthy) and villains of the film, there is another unsung hero that you will agree was of great importance to the film, even though he was one of the main obstacles in it: Jason Statham. Returning to his roots, Statham unconventionally adds humor with his macho, pretentious character foil to McCarthy’s Susan. He represents the overblown male ego in this film, constantly standing in his own way and hurting the mission with his overestimated sense of self-importance. Statham is the perfect testosterone counter that ends up helping McCarthy’s character truly shine.
You’re only as good as your team, and Spy proves that an unconventional approach is the most successful. With a great foundation (Feig), exemplary agents (actors), and a challenging mission (fighting set standards), Spy shows us it’s ready to tackle any problem. Even if it means physically running it down in sensible heels and a long, flowing dress.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★★ (9/10 stars)