A big, broad action comedy, Spy works by using evergreen genre elements – in this case, secret agent thriller tropes – and taking them seriously. There’s a missing nuke floating around the black market and the CIA wants to stop its sale. The process involves evil arms dealers, slimy smugglers, fancy women, and clever gadgets. At every turn we find bruising hand-to-hand combat, bloody shootouts, and fast chases involving several modes of transportation. There are surprise reversals, unexpected reveals, and double, triple, quadruple crosses from agents in too deep. It plays like a rip-roaring globetrotting adventure. That it just so happens to be hilarious is even better. It’s the rare action comedy that holds up both ends of its bargain.
By treating genre elements so plainly – squint a little and it looks like a Bond movie – writer-director Paul Feig gets comedy out of writing scenes slightly askew from the norm. This isn’t a spoof or parody of the spy picture. No Austin Powers here. This is a full-on embrace of the spy picture. Its title sure isn’t lying to you. Spy is what it is, simply and funnily. In the center is Melissa McCarthy, working with Feig for the third time after Bridesmaids and The Heat. They’re having a productive collaboration turning the expected beats of a chosen comic subgenre slightly on its head through force of offbeat screen presences and his ability to get not just laughs, but genuine, affecting performances. Here Feig writes her a starring role in a take on an oft sexist genre and uses it to refute sexist assumptions. In scene after scene, a woman male colleagues dismiss gets the job done. Anything a Bond can do, she can do.
McCarthy plays a mild-mannered desk-bound agency employee, used to compiling dossiers and feeding field agents recon through their earpieces. Over the course of the movie, she’s forced into the field and there, after initial fish-out-of-water floundering, her talents bloom. Putting her in the place of the usual strong silent spy, dry quips become filthy barrages of exasperation and determination. She, an unassuming, underestimated agent, is called into an undercover mission because a baddie (Rose Byrne) is in possession of a list identifying all known agents. An unknown is needed to track Byrne down and take her out, especially since she’s also the one selling the loose nuke and has already removed one suave agent (Jude Law) from the equation. Scenes of espionage take on fresh interest as McCarthy gets an opportunity to be every persona in her range. She’s playing a sweet professional who’s out to prove her doubters wrong, slipping effortlessly into disguises: sad cat ladies, confident whirlwinds of profanity, and glamorous international women of mystery.
Between exposition, one-liners, and dirty insults, Spy is a rush of physical comedy and exciting action. Feig finds a balance between slapstick and violence, moving from tense to jokey, exciting to funny, gory to gross-out gags. It’s a tricky dance of tone pulled off with aplomb. The characters are appealing, the plotting is crisp and clear, and the stakes are silly and high. It’s the breeziest spy picture in ages, delighting in how light it is. It works because the writing is consistently clever, the performances are terrifically calibrated to straddle the demands of serious thriller mechanics and goofy comedy while still feeling consistent in character. The entire ensemble has great fun tweaking their images, playing familiar parts in eccentric directions.
Byrne is a delightful icy villain, while Law has a good time taking the suave superspy to a goofy place of dangerous unflappability. There’s a goofy assistant back at the base (Miranda Hart, in a role calling on eager happiness incongruous to the dire stakes), a no-nonsense superior (Allison Janney), and a greasy Big Bad (Bobby Cannavale, pickling his charm). Best is dependable man-of-action Jason Statham as a macho master spy frustrated after being sidelined by McCarthy. He blusters about her inadequacies while bumbling his way through the story, making things worse for everyone. Showcasing a welcome sense of humor, he pokes fun at his usual roles. At one point he rattles off a list of exaggerated near-death experiences from prior missions – “I once drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while I was on fire” – that’s both amusingly hyperbolic and could easily be actual scenes from his filmography.
And yet McCarthy’s the clear star here. Her arc is treated respectfully without losing sight of her comic gifts. Even when she tumbles out of a scooter or vomits over a corpse, the joke's with her, not at her expense. She's in command of every scene. It’s one of her finest, funniest performances, terrific sight gags and muttered asides keeping the laughs flowing while building up real affection and sympathy for her character. She moves between slippery false identities, slowly increasing a core of self-esteem while becoming a very good spy. She shows her character’s progression filtering through layers of disguises in action. It helps that Feig is a more confident visual stylist with each film he makes. Spy looks, sounds, and moves not like a comedy, but like any big studio thriller, glossy and expensive. The surface sheen makes it all the funnier as it moves so fleetly through its exciting silliness. I was more thrilled and amused by McCarthy's espionage than many non-comic movie spies'.