Melissa McCarthy is back on course for comedy greatness after hitting a bump in the road with Tammy. Paul Feig can take much of the credit for that, having directed her in Bridesmaids, The Heat and now the dizzyingly funny Spy. He brings out the goofiest best in his star, who this time is playing a Miss Moneypenny-type plucked from basement operations at the CIA and sent into the field to gather intelligence on Rose Byrne’s moody master criminal.
Of course McCarthy, as Susan Cooper, is not your typical slinky Bond girl, and Feig has lots of fun with her glamour-defying image early on, picking out blue-rinsed wigs for disguises that come complete with gadgets and pills packaged as haemorrhoid treatments. Other than that, there’s refreshingly little toilet humour; instead, McCarthy is gifted with situations that make her laughably incongruous when she should be inconspicuous.
Byrne is happy to point out her flaws as the deliciously bitchy yet dispassionate villainess, Rayna Boyanov, after she coolly disposes of Cooper’s super-agent boss and secret crush Bradley Fine (a small but wonderfully silly role for Jude Law, himself once touted as a 007 contender). Cooper breaks protocol by sidling up to Boyanov with all the subtlety of a boulder, presenting herself as an ally then blundering around from one swanky European location to the next, goofing up classic spy movie set pieces like a chase through narrow city streets aboard a wheezing moped.
The rapport between McCarthy and Byrne, who worked together on Bridesmaids, is not only fun but strangely touching as well, becoming unlikely gal pals despite the blood spilled between them (and there is some dark humour in that regard as well). The dialogue, laced with acerbic one-liners, feels partly improvised and is all the more lively for it.
But if there is a secret weapon in this comedy, it’s Jason Statham. He steals scenes with the casual dexterity of the Milk Tray man as Rick Ford, a top agent who muscles in on Cooper’s action because he doesn’t think she can handle it, and who frequently lists his achievements – plus injuries incurred – in hilariously embellished detail.
Even so, it’s clear who the star of the show really is. McCarthy earns her badge as a bona-fide movie star, commanding the screen with her winning mix of strutting brashness and soft-hearted vulnerability, as well as being naturally very funny and able to deliver a routine line of dialogue and make it tickle.
The Heat still has the edge when it comes to the comedy of subverting traditional gender roles, perhaps because McCarthy and Sandra Bullock had to deal with more macho nonsense in that film. The casting of Miranda Hart as a sidekick (being very Miranda) is a tad jarring, although she does score a few laughs by being similarly sore-thumbish under cover.
In some ways the jokes are obvious, but it’s the crazy-eyed zeal of McCarthy and the way she carries off a punchline – as well as rooting them out from average scenes – that gives Spy a definite edge. She also shows off some mean martial arts moves in a brilliantly choreographed knife fight, and with skills like that a franchise mightn’t be out of the question. Despite a lack of grace in other areas, McCarthy is a heroine that both guys and girls can get behind. Move over, Daniel Craig.