Spy starts out with Jude Law (CIA Agent Fine) in Bulgaria aiming his gun at someone; he sneezes and the gun goes off (the first of many scenes of violence with comedy); immediately, he has to fight off 10 assailants. At the writer/director Paul Feig’s SXSW press conference, he said that after he and the stunt coordinator choreographed the scene, he was very apprehensive when Law informed him he could come only a day in advance of filming the scene. Not to worry, though, Feig said Law “nailed it; he should be the next James Bond.”
Feig’s most recent film is unusual in the spy genre in that it’s filled with actresses. Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a trained spy who works at a desk, giving instructions and directions through his earpiece to Agent Fine out in the field. He also has her doing his household chores, and it’s obvious she is smitten with him. But suddenly he goes off the grid, and another agent needs to go undercover to find the killer and to finish the job of locating a nuclear bomb known to be in the hands of cold and beautiful Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), daughter of a wealthy Russian. Agent Ford (Statham) is sure he will be given the order to go by Chief Crocker (Janney), but is taken aback when Cooper volunteers on the basis that absolutely no one will know her. Ford is insulted to be upstaged by a woman—especially this one—behaves very badly, and tries to thwart her in every move she makes.
But it turns out that Cooper has been well trained to do fieldwork, so Crocker thinks she is the best choice. It’s a comedown for Cooper that her new identity will be an Iowan housewife dressed in farm clothes and booked into a seedy hotel. She is ever so resolute, however, in doing the best job possible and sets out, going to Paris, Rome, then Budapest. To her dismay, Ford, against orders to stand down, tails her, and frequently makes mistakes, which Cooper has to handle.
Unexpectedly—and delightfully—Cooper surprises us with her excellent skills in strategy, physical encounters, quick identity shifts, and diplomacy—whatever is called for by a situation. When she manages to have her path cross that of Boyanov, we are in for even more thrills/comedy. Byrne and McCarthy play off each other in a way that to women will be very realistic; Boyanov initially poking fun at Cooper in a gentile way, but gradually Cooper winning her grudging respect, not only for her appearance, but for her skills as well. I am delighted that McCarthy is finally breaking out of the slapstick roles and using her considerable talent in something serious.
Spy is especially gratifying for its inclusion of strong, capable women in a genre sorely lacking such roles. At the press conference, I asked Feig what he saw in McCarthy that convinced him she would be good in an action role. He said that, first of all, he loves filming funny women. He grew up around women and was more comfortable with females as a child than with the horseplay of boys. When he began his career in film, he noticed actresses weren’t being given good roles. Then once, when there was a lull in scripts coming past his desk and he saw Skyfall, he was a bit wistful because he had always wanted to make a Bond film. “Hey, wait!” he said to himself; “I love working with funny women. Why don’t I write my own spy movie starring a woman?” And the movie Spy was born. Even though he didn’t write the Cooper character for her, when McCarthy read the script she immediately wanted the role. He went on to say that “Melissa has power, even though she’s one of the funniest on the planet…She’s also like your best friend…not intimidating.” My goal was to make Spy feel real, and Melissa’s just the best at that.
Feig said similar things about Rose Byrne after his experience with her in Bridesmaids and seeing her in Get Him to the Greek and other productions. He noted how versatile she can be; she can be really scary and cold, but funny as well. She knows how to inhabit a character in a way that can be funny without being forced.
Spy is an exciting film that the viewer can become absorbed in, even with the comedy sprinkled throughout. The actresses are very good, including Janney and Miranda Hart in supporting roles; but so too are Law, Statham, and cameos by Cannavale and 50 Cent.
You won’t want to miss Paul Feig’s latest production.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland