Film review: SPY, from ‘Built For Speed’

Writer/ director Paul Feig had a massive hit with the hilariously obscene women behaving badly comedy Bridesmaids which featured an unforgettable star-making performance from Melissa McCarthy.  Their subsequent collaboration on the disappointing female buddy cop comedy The Heat however, had critics and audiences questioning their comic smarts. McCarthy’s box office appeal took an even bigger nosedive after her obnoxious performances in the Identity Thief and Tammy where she seemed to be transforming into the female Adam Sandler.  Feig and McCarthy collaborate again on Spy, a comical twist on secret agent action movies that definitely improves on The Heat but doesn’t always hit the mark as a comedy.

Melissa McCarthy plays the frumpy mild-mannered desk-bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper whose role is to guide dapper secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) from the CIA’s high-tech central command bunker as he blows away villains in a foreign land. When Fine disappears while pursuing the glamorous yet deadly international arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and at the same time all field agents’ identities are compromised, the CIA decide the only person they can send to Budapest to tackle Boyanov is an agent unknown to international villains, namely Susan. While her colleagues, particularly boorish alpha male Rick Ford (Jason Statham), treat like a joke, Susan actually displays remarkable tenacity and combat skills as she takes on Boyanov and her army of goons.

This film relies on several different types of comedy.  First there’s the parody of Bond movie tropes such as the traditional visit to the gadget store where the agent, in this case Susan, shows no respect for the tech-head’s craftsmanship. There’s also the comedy of humiliation as Susan is constantly demeaned by her glamorous fellow agents and her foul-mouthed boss (Alison Janney) and is made to adopt the identity of dowdy middle-aged cat lady when she goes undercover.  Third, there’s the obscene insults traded by Susan and Rayna.  The film also relies on pratfalls where Susan falls over and hurts herself.  Lastly Feig throws in some bizarre scatological gags about bats and rodents invading the CIA offices.

Despite its varied comic attack this film is simply not as funny as it should have been. The Bond parody is moderately amusing but isn’t pursued to the outrageous extent of an Austin Powers movie and certainly doesn’t critique or re-examine the spy movie in a particularly insightful fashion.  The scenes of Susan being ridiculed by her idiot colleagues are funny at times but the dialogue is not particularly clever or memorable. Jason Statham’s boorish, blustering, boofhead routine as Rick Ford also becomes old very quickly.  The later scenes in which Susan and Rayna fire insults at each other may amuse some audience members but having characters just being blunt and rude does not necessarily equal wit.  Also, Susan is so spiteful in these sequences that it jars with the rest of the film where she’s a sympathetic figure.   Initially, the pratfalls are funny but after we see Susan handling herself like Bruce Lee and pulling off elaborate acrobatic feats, the notion that she is a clumsy doufus no longer flies and the later pratfalls feel false. 

Part of the problem is that Feig tries to have it both ways; he attempts to make Spy a pastiche of espionage movies but he also tries to make it a legitimate action film.  This means the actions scenes are at times genuinely exciting but the violence seems excessive in a comedy and some of the bone-crunching fights grate with the sillier comical scenes.

While the comedy is questionable, Feig does make some interesting points about the status of women in the workforce with Susan the amiable put-upon working woman whose abilities and value as an employee are overlooked before she emerges as the hero.  Oddly, though, the film makes light of scenes in which she is sexually harassed by a stereotyped Latin lothario (Peter Serafinowicz).

With Austin Powers, Johnny English as well as the earlier Flint and Matt Helm films, the spy parody is becoming a pretty well-worn genre so to enliven it something special is required.  Despite its well-staged action scenes and hints of political worthiness, the tonally confused and only vaguely amusing Spy is not that film.

Nick’s rating: **1/2.

Genre: Comedy.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Paul Feig.

Release date: 21st May 2015.

Running time: 100 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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