Movies · Reviews

Spy Makes Us Laugh While Reshaping the Conversation on Spy Comedies

By  · Published on June 3rd, 2015

20th Century Fox

Movies poking fun at the spy genre have been around almost as long as spy movies themselves, but while the amount of laughs has varied among them the one constant has always been the male stars at their center. (Okay, maybe D.E.B.S. is an exception?) From Maxwell Smart to Johnny English, the spoofs have followed the straight spy thrillers’ lead and focused on the men involved in the espionage game.

It should surprise no one that writer/director Paul Feig, the man behind Bridesmaids and The Heat, would be the one to change that pattern with his new film Spy.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a C.I.A. agent whose spy adventures are limited to being a voice in the ear of the agency’s superstar, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She assists his actions in the field from the safety of her desk in the office’s basement where she provides intel, satellite data and allergy advice, but that changes when a devious villainous named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) kills Fine and makes plans to sell a nuclear weapon. With all of their field agents compromised it falls to Cooper to track down Boyanov and her cohorts, gather evidence and then step back while the real heroes save the day.

Again though, it should surprise no one that Cooper might just be a real hero too.

Gender be damned, Spy is one of the funniest spy comedies yet. You’d probably have to look overseas (OSS 117: Lost In Rio) or to a straight-up spoof (Top Secret) to find another one with such a ridiculously high percentage of jokes that land successfully – an especially impressive feat seeing as Feig’s script and the cast’s rapid delivery promises a near steady stream of jokes, gags and razor-sharp barbs from beginning to end.

McCarthy leads the charge with everything from subtly comic expressions to viciously funny insults and threats that target the recipient with cruelly surgical precision. Byrne, a performer who’s been carving out quite the comedically-inclined niche in recent years, matches her beat for beat but does so with a deliciously dry brutality. I could watch these two insult each other for hours on end. Allison Janney and Miranda Hart, as Cooper’s boss and co-worker, respectively, also earn their share of chuckles and smiles.

The men are equally strong with the likes of Law, Bobby Cannavale and (especially) Peter Serafnowicz delivering the laughs, but it’s Jason Statham who surprises as the film’s breakout comedy star. Special Agent Rick Ford is an amalgamation of sorts of Statham’s numerous action roles – something Ford never lets anyone forget as he recites his various acts of insane derring-do at every possible opportunity – and Statham sells the sexist bravado with a perfectly elevated side of idiocy.

20th Century Fox

The performers are on the front line of our laughter, but Feig’s script deserves major credit here. Not only does it spread the comedic wealth across multiple characters, but it gives us two hours of laughter without ever sinking to the level of jokes based in any way on McCarthy’s size. She gets as good as she gives – especially from Byrne and Statham – but none of the digs aimed her direction are fat jokes. Sounds simple, but go watch any comedy with a bigger than “average” star at its center and those jokes become standard fare. That’s not to imply that Feig doesn’t allow his characters to swing low either as McCarthy, Byrne and the rest are no strangers to f-bombs and delightfully crass cracks regarding body parts inside and out.

The story details don’t break any new ground although it’s refreshing seeing women in charge both at the C.I.A. and at the top of the nefarious and immoral chain of evil-doers. Also worth noting is Cooper’s competence. She isn’t a bungling goof who accidentally fumbles her way through the mission – she’s qualified, capable and simply never had the opportunity to shine. The film avoids ever becoming a proper spoof but instead has fun with the conventions with which we’re already familiar. From the James Bond-like opening credits to a visit with the agency’s tech department – where Cooper is given gadgets modified to look like things a lonely, middle-aged woman with hemorrhoids would be carrying, obviously – the movie enjoys and embraces the genre heart, soul and funny bone.

Comedy remains the focus here, but action fans will not be disappointed either as Spy takes a route similar to the likes of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films or the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service with deliriously fun, beautifully choreographed fight scenes. They’re visually sharp and inventive, and McCarthy gets her hands dirty on more than one occasion – her kitchen brawl with Nargis Fakhri here is particularly fantastic.

Some people will be tempted to lump Spy in as just another smack-talking Melissa McCarthy film – if you don’t like her comedic stylings then this is simply not the movie for you – but it’s actually that and something far greater. In a year that has already seen several excellent films with powerful female presences (Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) this wickedly funny and constantly entertaining romp enters the fray with guns blazing, laughs flying and lips flapping.

The Upside: Jokes land at an incredibly high success rate; energetic and entertainingly choreographed fight scenes; no fat jokes; fantastic spin on various character types; pro-female in characters/writing; delightfully crass

The Downside: Spy antics sometimes ridiculous; terribly obvious body double during entirety of moped scene

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.