The James Bond franchise has been so thoroughly parodied at this point that "Bond Parody" almost feels like its own genre. Now that the Our Man Flint movies, the Austin Powers movies, the OSS 117 movies, the Johnny English movies and countless other movies (not to mention the TV show Get Smart) have taken their shots at the Bond series, one can't help but feel that just about every possible comic riff on 007 has been thoroughly wrung dry. Still, here is Paul Feig's Spy, doing its level best to find some new jokes. It doesn't find many (the John Barry-riffing Theodore Shapiro score continually reminds us that we're treading familiar ground), but surprisingly, it does manage to make quite a few old jokes feel fresh and funny again.
Bradley Fine (Jude Law, I Heart Huckabees) is the CIA's most distinguished agent - handsome, charming, good in a fistfight, better in a gunfight, always ready for danger. However, Agent Fine owes much of his success to Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy, The Heat), a deskbound analyst who provides Fine with loads of valuable intel. Susan is exceptionally good at her job, but she's treated rather dismissively by most of her co-workers - they often refer to her as a secretary, despite the fact that she's technically an agent.
Then, it happens: Agent Fine gets taken out of commission and the CIA suffers a serious security leak the compromises the identities of all of their active field agents. The government needs someone to continue Fine's efforts to stop a nuclear arms deal, but they'll need to look outside their usual talent pool. To make a long story short: Susan is sent out into the field for the very first time in the career.
Given the nature of McCarthy's other star vehicles, you might expect the film to push her into a series of wacky hijinks and call it a day. Thankfully, Feig has some smarter, funnier ideas up his sleeve. It turns out that Susan is not just a competent field agent, but an exceptionally good one - better than most of her peers, in fact. Alas, her unpopularity within the agency and her heavyset build inspire CIA head honcho Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney, Juno) to give Susan a series of insulting secret identities: a dowdy lady with hygiene issues here, a crazy cat lady there. In a way, the film doubles as a commentary on Hollywood's wearisome view of women (particularly women who look like McCarthy): why does the notion of McCarthy being good at her job seem so ridiculous, anyway?
The film eventually allows McCarthy to turn into a full-blown action hero, but it doesn't turn her into a straight man. She flourishes during her confrontational scenes with Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, Neighbors), the villainous daughter of a powerful arms dealer. McCarthy and Byrne trade insults with hilarious venom, the former delivering blustery, profane rants and the latter serving up considerably icier daggers. A sizable chunk of the film plays as a delightfully surly buddy comedy between the two, and the dynamic gets even better when the lanky, loopy, cheerful Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) is thrown into the mix.
The men in the cast generate their share of laughs, too. Law's slick Bond imitation is a little bland, but Jason Statham (Crank) delivers big laughs parodying his own hyper-intense image. Most gruff action stars parody themselves by softening their screen presence in some way, but Statham simply doubles down on the sort of thing he usually does. The result is gloriously absurd, particularly once you realize that Statham's character is, in fact, a genuinely terrible secret agent. I also greatly enjoyed Peter Serafinowicz (Running Wilde) as a creepy Italian lech named Aldo. His scenes probably ought to seem repulsive (they're almost entirely built on sexaul assault jokes), but Serafinowicz's performance - from his ridiculous accent to his physical embodiment of dumbstruck lust - is so gloriously silly.
Spy arguably offers Feig's best laugh-per-minute ratio to date, but it shares some weaknesses with his previous films. The pacing is inconsistent, the heavily improvised nature of the film leads to some oddly inconsistent scenes and there's a intermittent sense of slackness. It's hard for most comedies to justify a running time north of two hours, and one can't help but feel that Spy could stand to shed 10-15 minutes. On the other hand, Feig's technical skills are getting stronger with time: there are moments when the film looks genuinely cinematic, and the action sequences boast a kinetic energy that was absent from The Heat. It's a lumpy movie, but a very funny one, and the fact that it makes an effort to challenge some wheezy stereotypes is icing on the cake.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2015