Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear – specifically, the mid-to-late 1960s – when the line between madcap spy spoofery and serious secret agentry often was smudged in slick flicks pitched somewhere between the edgy exploits of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer and the antic excesses of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm.
Spy, the latest collaboration between Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy and filmmaker Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is a satisfyingly amusing and sporadically hilarious throwback to the era when 007-spawned comedy-adventures were as ubiquitous as comic-book epics are today, and notables as diverse as David Niven, James Garner, Dirk Bogarde, Cliff Robertson and rotund stand-up comic Jack E. Leonard (who played a dual role opposite Jayne Mansfield and Phyllis Diller in 1966’s aptly titled The Fat Spy) slipped into James Bondage with varying degrees of success.
Like many, if not most, of those Swinging ‘60s curios, Spy is a mashup of broad comedy, sci-fi gadgetry, brutal mayhem – broken limbs and lethal weapons are utilized as punchlines – and snappy/snarling one-liners. Unlike all but the best of its predecessors, however, it manages the difficult feat of maintaining a pleasing ratio of funny business to rough stuff.
McCarthy is perfectly cast and consistently engaging as Susan Cooper, a modestly frumpy but exceptionally adroit CIA systems analyst who, from her desk in the Langley headquarters basement, monitors, directs and warns far-flung agents in the field. She issues her info – culled from surveillance satellites and super-duper computers – through earpieces worn by such licensed-to-kill daredevils as Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a lethally smooth operator who has become the object of Susan’s unrequited desire. Behind every successful secret agent, Spy indicates, there is an unsung desk jockey – a set-up, the movie none-too-subtly suggests, that mirrors the bond between overpaid male corporate executives and their underpaid but unquestioningly loyal female underlings.
But when bad guys hack into the files at Langley to access names and faces of every CIA spook with field experience, it’s up to the heretofore underappreciated and, better still, conveniently anonymous Susan to get off the bench and enter the spy game. Eager for the glamorous, globe-hopping life of a Jane Bond, she initially is disappointed to find she’s expected merely to observe and report as she zigzags throughout Europe while decked out in guises – a bespectacled cat lady, a champion Mary Kay Cosmetics salesperson, etc. – that are equal parts demeaning and demoralizing.
(By the way: Since we are living in the age of political correctness, when the professionally outraged are constantly on the alert for things to be outraged about, I fully expect someone to complain that Spy actually is trafficking in sexual stereotypes that are demeaning to cat ladies and Mary Kay salesepeople. Yes, I really do.)
Only gradually does Susan get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to express her inner badass, after she fortuitously gains the trust of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a cunning and condescending arms dealer with a stereotypical crew of incompetent underlings. Trouble is, even with the help of a gawky Langley co-worker (Miranda Hart of Call the Midwife), an inappropriately touchy-feely Italian agent (Peter Serafinowicz), and an incessantly self-aggrandizing and unabashedly sexist CIA operative (Jason Statham, robustly spoofing his own tough-guy image), Susan may have a hard time keeping Rayna from sealing the deal on a compact weapon of mass destruction.
Working from his own screenplay, Feig keeps Spy moving at such a brisk clip that it’s difficult to make sense of the byzantine plot, and unlikely that’s you’ll really care. He relies a bit too heavily – and too often -- on scenes in which McCarthy (evincing blue collar brass) and Byrne (exuding mean girl haughtiness) swap profanity-laced insults that, apparently, are meant be at least mildly shocking in their gender-reversed ferocity. (Wow! Look at that! Gals can be just a vulgar as guys!) On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see that, for once, McCarthy’s plus-size physique is cannily employed for something more than the occasional sight gag.
At the risk of spilling a few beans: After a certain point in Spy, you have to believe Susan can make the transition from wisecracking to ass-kicking. And, trust me, I mean it as a compliment to say McCarthy makes it very easy to believe that the seemingly mousy desk jockey is quite capable of beating the living hell out of men who make the fatal mistake of taking her too lightly. And because of that, Feig is able to make the leap from flat-out farce to comedy-laced thriller – and then back again – with relative ease. Again: That’s not something you can say about a lot of the Swinging ‘60s spy capers.
Indeed, as I sauntered out of the multiplex on my way to the parking lot after a preview screening of Spy, I found myself thinking: In the real-life world of international espionage, the men and women who do the actual heavy lifting probably are low-profile, deceptively unprepossessing pros who look and sound a lot more Melissa McCarthy than, say, Scarlett Johansson.
No joke: As much as I enjoyed Spy, I now want to see McCarthy in a (relatively) serious action-adventure in which she cracks heads and shoots straight and surprises everybody.