Defying Convention: a Curvy Comedienne Becomes the Spy

Spy isn’t your typical espionage spoof. While the trailer for the film might suggest it is a movie in the vain of Get Smart, what actually transpires is a lot more engaging, since it offers a great critique on both the espionage action/thriller genre as well as biting commentary on social norms, and expectations. We don’t normally think of great spies as being overweight or socially awkward, but Melissa McCarthy shows that there is a lot more to being a spy than having the looks and debonair sophistication of a James Bond.

The film begins in a fairly standard manner for the genre. Agent Bradley Fine (played by Jude Law) is a top spy for the CIA on a dangerous mission to recover a suitcase nuke. He is good looking, witty, and generally a complete douche. Talking him through the mission is CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) whom he views as helpful albeit somewhat silly. Unfortunately, right when Agent Fine is about to learn the nuke’s location from bad guy Tihomir Boyanov, Fine sneezes and shoots him in the head, killing him instantly. So begins this comedic exploration of the espionage world, with the whereabouts of a nuke capable of destroying a city unknown.

Susan has a crush on Fine, as is immediately apparent from her flirty banter, and their hilariously awkward dinner “date” before his next mission. After the CIA learns that Boyanov has a daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne), and that she might be in possession of the nuke, Agent Fine is sent back to the field, and Susan is forced to watch in horror as he is executed with a gunshot to the head by Rayna. After this incident, the identities of all top CIA agents are compromised, and it is up to none other than Susan Cooper herself to save the day.

As farfetched as it might sound for the CIA to send an unexperienced analyst into the field, it turns out that Susan is actually a trained cop in her own right. Despite having the “help” of a self-proclaimed top spy, now gone rogue, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), Susan plunges head first into the espionage world in order to recover the suitcase nuke once and for all. And when I say plunge, it isn’t so much of a swan dive as it is a gigantic belly flop. What ensues is a never ending run of comedic genius, as well as a generous—and playful—breaking down of movie stereotypes thrown into the mix.

The cinematography is perfect for the film. It is both glossy and flashy, which goes a long way toward creating a palpable feeling of suspense, while also maintaining a sufficiently humorous atmosphere. This isn’t director and writer Paul Feig’s first foray into the action-comedy genre, and it also isn’t his first time working with Melissa McCarthy. The director’s familiarity with McCarthy’s comedic style is particularly palpable, and a lot of that credit goes to Feig for creating a part that was perfect for her, as well as for making sure the execution and comedic timing are on point.

McCarthy herself shines as the star of Spy. She portrays perfectly her character’s shift from a desk bound analyst job to a field agent, and she weaves in her hilarious lines so naturally (much of them improvised) that Susan Cooper becomes a very real person, despite her unlikely surroundings. McCarthy also continues to challenge the stereotypes of what overweight people are supposed to be capable of, as she performs numerous athletic feats which the average person could never even dream of accomplishing. Supporting her in her role are outstanding performances by Miranda Hart (as fellow analyst Nancy B. Artingstall) and action superstar Jason Statham. Statham’s part is particularly intriguing as his character claims to have done a number of highly improbable and borderline impossible feats of espionage and manliness. However, if you know the actor’s work in previous films, you will be aware that a number of Rick Ford’s feats are actually a nod to previous characters played by Statham, thereby making Rick Ford a living spoof of all of Statham’s previous roles.

While not entirely original in terms of genre and storyline, Spy excels at making the unexpected believable, and the unbelievable humorous. Moreover, seeing a woman in the starring role of an espionage thriller is already surprising, let alone a woman who does not fit society’s beauty ideals. This certainly represents a step forward for the genre. Could a woman other than Melissa McCarthy have been as perfect for this role? Probably not. But with McCarthy leading the charge, I look forward to seeing more action films, comedic or otherwise, without the stereotypical handsome man in the leading role of the spy who saves the day.

Grade: A                                                                                                                     Comedic genius that goes a long way towards refreshing the espionage genre.

Rating: R                                                                                                                           Being a spy is an inappropriate career path for children.

Spy, 20th Century Fox                                                                                      Runtime: 120 minutes