Spy (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Spy (2015)

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Susan Cooper is the eyes and ears analyst for field agent Bradley Fine.  When a leak in their operation results in a list of all active agents falling in the hands of the enemy, the task falls to Cooper to enter the field and make the world safe again.  Paul Feig writes and directs Spy and stars Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, and Jude Law.

I am so badassWhen was the last time we had a great performer / director comedic team?  Decades past seemed to be littered with them from the likes of Leslie Nielsen and David Zucker, to the wonderful pairing of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks.  I ask not because Spy signals the beginnings of a great comedic team of performer Melissa McCarthy and writer / director Paul Feig, but that the former may bring out the potential in the latter to make something which stands the test of time.

I laughed a lot in Spy, so much I'm days later still giggling at the deep intelligence which lay behind the seemingly cheesy gags.  The comparison of McCarthy and Feig to the great comedic teams of the past out because Spy effortlessly brings out great heart in such a ridiculous premise.  Instead of the obnoxiously self-satisfied Kingsman: The Secret Service, Feig writes and directs Spy as a loving ode to various black ops films of the past by taking them at face value and creating a scenario where characters can point out the flaws in those stories while finding ways to advance.  In another manner, he lets the characters dictate the gags and set-pieces of Spy, not a smirking template of self-aware James Bond-ish mugging.

I admit to having a certain weakness watching people watching characters McCarthy plays display extreme competency.

I admit to having a weakness watching people watching characters McCarthy plays display extreme competency.

Feig's basic structure to Spy is brilliant in its simplicity.  He criticizes the male-swagger heavy spy genre by presenting two familiar flavors of spy, the suave Bradley Fine (Jude Law) and the no-nonsense Rick Ford (Jason Statham), and takes the piss out of them by making their antics familiar, tired, and counter-productive.  The plot of Spy revolves around sending Susan Cooper (McCarthy) into the field because the big bad Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) outed all the current spies.  I love how Fine and Ford are so deep into their typical routines that the slightest deviation, like a sneeze from the otherwise cool Fine resulting in an unwanted execution, makes them all but useless.

It's like Feig started with a template of a spy movie then thought of ways to transfer the typical male signifiers into a situation where they're ineffective and why a different approach is needed.  This mirrors what I've said to people who cry "political correctness" when it comes to diversifying movies.  The key isn't in filling out some quota chart like Feig is sitting with his writer's pad and a gauge going, "Just needs a little more woman here and we're good."  What's important is how those different perspectives illuminate different aspects of storylines which have become too typical.

Feig's masterstroke here was in writing an excellent foil to Cooper with Boyanov.  Both highlight the typical paternal leanings of spy films be they for the pro or antagonists.  In Boyanov's case it's literally living in the shadow of her father (the always wonderful Bobby Cannavale), and in Cooper's case a sort of paternal superego / id thing going on with Fine and Ford.  This makes their banter, already riddled with jokes as Boyanov struggles to realize the cat sweater wearin' hemorrhoid wipe packin' Cooper is a talented bodyguard and secret agent.  Their dialogue is great with "Are your hemorrhoids particularly large or just tenacious?" rolling off Byrne's tongue in an amused yet curious cadence.

The criticism of the paternal nature of spy films rolls on into the supporting characters as well.  Miranda Hart absolutely slays the screen with her limited time onscreen as Cooper's sidekick, the lanky Nancy Artingstall (just a side note, I love the absurd names of all the characters).  In an unfortunate bit of stunt casting she has to state her dominance over a cameo appearance by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson.  But when she stands bewildered why anyone would assume she's strong because she's tall with stumbling responses like "I have the muscle capacity of an infant, my arms are like two noodles" she manages that spectacular combination of a confident put-down with a tad of self-effacement.

McCarthy and Statham makes a wonderful comedic duo and I'd love to see them work together again.

McCarthy and Statham makes a wonderful comedic duo and I'd love to see them work together again.

Then it all rolls back around to the wonderful McCarthy.  I've fallen in love with her performances over the years and Spy shows her at her best.  She has this fantastic way of wrenching sympathy from absurd scenarios by finding those small flaws in her characters and turning those into points she hesitantly confronts.  This manifests perfectly in her hate / hate relationship with Statham.  I hope Statham does more comedies, because he's playing slightly against type as the rugged foreign secret agent who nonetheless sticks out badly and gets into fights with McCarthy devolving into childish taunts about how she'll ruin the mission - times infinity.  McCarthy's slight confident steps forward make for a wonderful contrast to the blustering Statham, who frequently responds to yet another Ford-caused blunder by responding, "I was having such an empowering moment before this happened."

I loved Spy, and McCarthy's performance is stellar as always, but Feig's direction around the action set-pieces was a bit awkward and distracted from the excellent character work going on.  It's telling that the greatest part of one chase is when the action comes to a complete stop so Cooper can talk about how she's got the situation under control even as her motorcycle is stuck in concrete.  Feig's great on a smaller canvas with tight dialogue.  So long as his partnership with McCarthy produces results like this, he'll write one of the all-time greats.

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Tail - SpySpy (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Paul Feig.
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, and Jude Law.

Posted by Andrew

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