Director Paul Feig is not trying to save the world.
Last month saw the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that is both a stellar action movie and a brilliant work of feminist art. It excites, it educates, and it empowers. Our culture needs films like Fury Road to violently rebel against the rigid gender norms of the American entertainment industry, to show shortsighted producers (and audiences) that their audience is far broader than they think, to give the next generation of young people a more diverse array of characters to identify with. Films like Fury Road can save the world. Not on their own, of course, but they help.
But as great as Fury Road is, we also need movies like Spy, Paul Feig’s action-comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, which is just a straight-up good movie without any heavy-handed agenda to speak of. Like their raunchy comedy Bridesmaids and buddy cop movie The Heat before it, Spy isn’t so much a riff on a typically male-fronted film genre as it is an unabashed member of that genre, only putting the focus on female characters. It’s not a parody or a complete farce (though there are certainly cartoonish elements), it’s a high-stakes espionage story starring funny people, most of whom play women with depth and agency and flaws and so many of the other characteristics that are taken for granted in male characters but shockingly absent in so many of their female counterparts. Paul Feig isn’t trying to “teach girls how to be strong” like the accidentally paternalistic Joss Whedon, or teaming up with renowned feminist scholars to create the perfect sci-fi allegory for the patriarchy, like George Miller—Feig just wants to make funny movies starring women as if our society didn’t treat that as some kind of novelty. That’s the ideal. That’s the endgame these other filmmakers and critics are aiming for.
So, with that in mind, I’m done talking about gender in Spy. I’ll leave that to, y’know, women to talk about. I’d like to talk about what a solid comedy writer/director Feig and star McCarthy have constructed.
Spy centers around CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), the voice in the ear of Bond-esque superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who spends their missions at a desk guiding Fine through deadly situations using satellite images, intelligence software, and an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. Fine is incredibly dependent on Cooper’s assistance to complete his world-saving missions, but the dashing field agent gets most of the credit and all of the glory, while Susan spends her days in a rat-infested CIA basement that essentially functions like a humdrum office job. She’s not fully appreciated, and she’s not fulfilling her potential.
But when Fine’s mission to track down a stolen nuclear weapon goes belly-up, it’s up to Susan Cooper to go out into the field, locate villainess Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), and stop the sale of the nuke to terrorists. She’s assisted by kooky fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart), and by grumpy field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham). We’re also treated to supporting turns by Peter Serafinowicz (Shawn of the Dead), Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire), and the always brilliant Allison Janney.
Susan Cooper is an incredibly likable character. She’s the least off-the-wall role that we’ve seen McCarthy take on in a Feig film, probably due to being the sole lead rather than being The Wild Card in Bridesmaids, or the Riggs to Sandra Bullock’s Murtaugh in The Heat. McCarthy gets an opportunity to demonstrate some excellent comedic range in Spy, but also some plain-old solid character acting. Cooper spends a nice chunk of her mission under cover—first as a naive tourist and then as a hardened, foul-mouthed hired goon, both of which are fodder for some great comedic bits—but it’s the evolution of the real Susan Cooper, as she evolves from dissatisfied desk jockey to rookie field agent to totally competent (but not super-human) action hero, that really drives the movie.
I mention that Cooper’s not preternaturally skilled as a CIA agent, and that’s actually one of my favorite things about the movie. The unveiling of Susan’s skills is done naturally throughout the story. We first see meet at work behind her desk as she coaches Bradley Fine through a field op, during which she’s jovial and jokey with Fine, but also very cool under pressure. After all, a false instruction from her could result in her partner dying horribly and all of New York getting destroyed by a suitcase nuke, so the stakes are pretty high, but this is all business as usual for the pair. Coop is really good at this. There’s a point during this sequence when she’s momentarily blinded by a swarm of angry bats who have infested the office (remember, this is still a comedy, folks), and she’s still working through it, giving Fine some instructions from memory. It’s a funny bit, but it’s also a great quick character moment, and some planting for later on.
Once she gets into the field, she’s underestimated by just about everyone, but she is a trained CIA agent who knows how to break peoples’ wrists or perform a few sweet wrestling moves, so she manages to kick ass in a way that doesn’t feel staged or unrealistic. Coop’s a big lady, but her ability to perform leaps or takedowns is no more exaggerated than Ethan Hunt’s in the Mission: Impossible movies. It’s a credit to Coop’s character that she knows how to play to her own physical advantages and downplay her disadvantages, like any other field agent would.
Throughout the film, we see occasional flashes of overhead computer-rendered maps, showing us a peek at how Coop sees the world while she’s at her desk guiding another agent—only now that she’s the field agent, all of that studying has stuck with her. She still knows the fastest way to get from A to B in Paris, or how to fly a Leer jet. After being a voice in someone’s ear for a decade, she doesn’t actually need one. So, in the lead-up to the climax, when another agent asks her if she knows how to get to the setting of the final battle, Cooper turns to him, smirks, and says “I know everything,” and you know you’re watching the most unlikely James Bond being born in front of you.
Rose Byrne earns some great laughs as the evil Rayna, the snobbish and impossible to please crime lord who dispatches with her henchmen with the detachment and frequency of a veteran supervillain; Miranda Hart plays the “goofy best friend” role with panache; and Peter Serafinowicz steals most of his scenes as the handsy Italian agent Aldo; but the real comedic gem in Spy is, of all people, Jason Statham. Statham’s Agent Rick Ford is basically that kid from the playground who gets clearly tagged out in kickball but says “NUH-UH” over and over again until you just give up and let him keep playing. He’s playing a sort of over-the-top parody of his own super-intense badass action hero type, and his intense, dead-on deliveries of his (seemingly improvised) tales of past, heavily exaggerated achievements deliver every time. Rick Ford is the star of every scene he’s in, quite a feat considering who he’s sharing the spotlight with.
Like The Heat before it, Spy succeeds so greatly because it’s both a really funny comedy and a truly exciting action movie, driven by an expert filmmaker and led by top-tier comedic talent. Is Spy a perfect film? Fuck no, not even in terms of our favorite progressive benchmarks. (For all its Bechdel Test-shattering glory, there are practically no people of color in this movie.) Is it going to save the world? Nope. That’s not what it’s for. It’s just a movie, a really good movie. Spy is the kind of movie that, twenty years from now, I hope we see three of every summer without even making a big deal out of it, and even then, Spy would stand out for its quality.
Spy is in theaters now.