In the new action-comedy Spy, Melissa McCarthy gets the kind of double-barreled role she was born to play: Part cherubic auntie, part two-fisted biker mama on the rampage.
McCarthy, who burst out in Paul Feig's 2011 breakthrough R-rated comedy Bridesmaids, has been an undeniable but underdeveloped resource: An immensely likeable star, who can perform precision slapstick comedy with her non-conformist body and dazzle with her motormouth power-riffing, she has been the best part of a string of recent mediocre buddy comedies, including Identity Thief (with Jason Bateman), Tammy (with Susan Sarandon) and Feig's The Heat (with Sandra Bullock).
Spy, a boisterous, feminine-centric secret-agent spoof, is her first unshared starring role, and she rocks it. McCarthy's character of CIA office drudge Susan Cooper is, to use the word of former president George W. Bush, someone who is easy to "misunderestimate." A fortyish desk-bound employee, she labours in a crappy, vermin-ridden basement office in Langley, Va., where her job is making other people look brilliant.
In the extended opening sequence, we watch as Susan, through her computer screen and an earpiece, guides suave James Bond-like agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) through a Bulgarian mansion, in search of a stolen nuclear device. As Susan feeds him intelligence from surveillance devices, Bradley makes his way through a maze of corridors, shooting, chopping and kicking his way through an army of goons, toward his target.
One reason Susan is so vigilant in protecting the agency's star asset is that she's hopelessly, and unrequitedly, in love with the man. Bradley, in an echo of the Bond-Miss Moneypenny relationship, reciprocates with a little condescending flirtation, while treating her like a factotum.
But things change abruptly when Bradley's flashy career gets abruptly terminated by Rayna Boyanov (Feig regular Rose Byrne), the glamorous daughter of a recently killed Bulgarian baddie, who catches the spy-guy in her father's home. In a fiendish flourish, Rayna, who sports a scarlet slash of lipstick and a gravity-defying bird's nest of hair, looks into Bradley's contact-lens cam and warns the CIA that she knows the identities of all their top agents – so they had better back off or watch the body count rise.
A grief-stricken Susan wants a chance for revenge, and with no other options, Susan's skeptical CIA superior (Allison Janney) agrees to put her into the field. A macho fellow agent, Rick Ford (Jason Statham, who does a great job sending up his own hammer-headed Cockney persona) resigns in protest. He then decides to "go rogue" to establish his superior credibility and spends the rest of the movie finding ways to get in Susan's way.
After Susan's initial excitement about getting sent to Europe on a top mission, she begins to adjust to the demeaning reality. She's set up in a divey Paris hotel and presented with a series of frumpy Middle-American tourist disguises, which include muffin-shaped wigs and cat-print sweatshirts ("I look like someone's homophobic aunt," she protests). Even her spy kit is lamentably unglamorous (stool softeners, rape whistle).
Although this fish-out-of-water scenario might sound over-familiar, both the humour and action here are startling and visceral: The first time Susan sends an enemy goon tumbling to his death, she looks down at the impaled body and emits a stream of vomit. Throughout, writer-director Feig changes the tone deftly, tightroping between a plausibly suspenseful action film and a comedy where the characters are all the more funny for playing their ridiculous characters straight.
The emotional core is provided by McCarthy's Susan, a professional people-pleaser who has been habitually treated like office furniture, and who surprises everyone, including herself, when she taps into her bottled-up gift for aggression.
In the midst of her surveillance assignment, Susan finds herself forced to improvise a more assertive role as a bodyguard hired by Rayna's late father to protect the crime princess. That calls for a more glamorous outfit, and a lot more action, allowing McCarthy to display her slapstick talents in some seriously hair-raising fight scenes (enhanced by clever editing). McCarthy also has a chance to unleash her arsenal of uproariously rude machine-gun insults and threats. While all of these set-piece rants are unprintable, one memorably involves a threat of her two fists – named "Cagney and Lacey" – entering different orifices and playing someone's heart "like an accordion."
Eventually, though, Spy becomes to feel like too much of a good thing. The movie runs long, conforming more to the two-hour running time of a spy movie rather than a comedy, though it's an understandable fault. Feig's mission, in his third female-centric film after Bridesmaids and The Heat, is to do a full feminist (one f-word that doesn't pop up in the script) revision of the macho semi-tragic fantasies of the Bond genre, the tailored assassin-heroes, their tax-supported luxury lifestyles and svelte disposable sex partners. While the script is the opposite of sanctimonious, the gender politics are unambiguous.
With Spy, Feig, McCarthy and a strong ensemble cast have staked out the territory for what could be the kickoff to a major franchise to rival Mike Myers' Austin Powers comedies or Peter Sellers' The Pink Panther series, if the movie world needs any more franchises. In the meantime, Spy only whets appetites for Feig and McCarthy's next collaboration: the female reboot of Ghostbusters, with McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Saturday Night Live's Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.