Much as he did with his previous film, THE HEAT, writer-director Paul Feig has taken a fairly tired genre that has been worked and reworked countless times, and injected it with a little electricity—in this case, he once again brings in his go-to leading actor Melissa McCarthy (the pair also made BRIDESMAIDS together) to make the film funny, encourage the other actors to do the same, but without turning SPY into a parody or spoof. He also turns the tables on the genre by making a great deal of the film into a workplace comedy—one of the more interesting workplaces on the planet, mainly the CIA offices where the people supplying in-the-field spies with their intel.
McCarthy's Susan Cooper has formed a significant partnership with her Bond-like counterpart, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She feeds him satellite data and other important information to help keep him alive and stop the transfer of a nuclear weapon. But he is captured and apparently murdered by a criminal organization led by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). In the process, Rayna get the names and faces of every CIA field agent, placing all of their lives in danger. Susan's boss (Alison Janney) decides the agency needs to send an unknown agent into the world to stop Rayna from delivering the bomb to another criminal type, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), and Susan volunteers to be that agent, if only to avenge Fine's death. Despite the protest of a chorus of other, more qualified agents (led by the truly hilarious Jason Statham as Agent Rick Ford). But before long, Susan is jetting off to Europe to save the world.
Unlike a few of McCarthy's other recent lead roles, she opts to not play Susan as clumsy or ridiculous or otherwise brain impaired. She's a trained agent, just without a lot of field experience, so there is a learning curve. But more importantly, she's smart, resourceful and quick thinking on her feet. Her best work buddy, Nancy (Miranda Hart of "Call the Midwife"), is now the voice in her head, and the pair manage to slip Susan into Rayna's criminal world.
Above all other things, SPY is just damn funny. I first saw the film at SXSW in March, thought it was great, but chose to see it again to make sure I wasn't just caught up in the premiere-screening atmosphere. Turns out, I laughed more the second time. We haven't seen this version of McCarthy on the big screen before, and I love how she responds to her fellow agents' treating her like an amateur. It's her frustration and determination to show she's ready for the job that get the biggest laughs. And when Peter Serafinowicz shows up as Aldo, a handsy Italian agent working with Cooper, the humor truly kicks into overdrive.
Byrne is also quite good with her superior attitude, confusing accent, and mile-high hairstyle; she provides Spy with a touch of old-school Bond villain and balances McCarthy's broader sense of comedy (lest you think I'm suggesting that, although McCarthy is dialing it back, she's by no means turning it off). And while director Feig is emerging as one of the great makers of comedic films these days (we'll see how GHOSTBUSTERS turns out), he's just as concerned with getting the action material just right. Fight scenes are brutal and bloody; there's a real body count; and the explosions are plentiful. There's a one-on-one fight scene in a kitchen between McCarthy and supermodel Nargis Fakhri as a cold-blooded assassin, and it's a kickass fight, almost never played for laughs (sometimes silly kitchen appliances are used as weapons, but that's a ridiculous as it gets). It's so violent, in fact, that it's tough to watch because the pain looks and sounds legit.
The combination of taking the genre seriously while still making room for big laughs is the key to SPY being so damn funny. The biggest shocker for some might be Statham's character, whose constant game of one upmanship with McCarthy reaches atomic proportions at times. Those of us who remember Statham from his early days with Guy Ritchie might not be quite as surprised by his keen comic sensibilities, but it's nice to be reminded. With SPY, you go in for the laughs, but you'll get reeled in by the adventure; two great tastes that go great together.