Spy: rip-roaring Melissa McCarthy comedy subverts chauvinistic action movie tropes

Melissa McCarthy stars in the criminally underrated 2015 action-comedy Spy, playing desk-bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper. The meek and mild Cooper is perfectly content with monitoring high-tech surveillance and being the spy equivalent of a guardian angel GPS, feeding vital information via a hidden earpiece to her partner in the field, super-agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Despite the Bond-sounding musical score and flourishing opening credits, a comical mishap quickly lets the audience know this is not your typical spy film.

While tracking the sale of a nuclear weapon, the CIA becomes compromised and the secret identities of their active agents exposed. Realising Cooper’s anonymity is her greatest asset, she is vaulted from the bat-infested basement into a world of undercover espionage.

McCarthy gets to showcase the breadth of her comic abilities as she assumes different aliases and becomes embroiled in the high-stakes world of global assassins, private jets and double-crosses.

While Cooper is polite, anxious and reserved, her spy alter ego evolves into someone cunning, agile and ruthless. McCarthy elicits the biggest laughs from her physical comedy, including some less-than-perfectly-executed stunts.

McCarthy shines in an ensemble cast that includes Miranda Hart and Allison Janney, with each collaborator bringing their comedic big guns to the armoury.

Jude Law has way too much fun as a suave American super spy, leaning into every stereotype with a knowing glint in his eyes.

Reuniting with McCarthy is her Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne, who plays the deliciously deviant arms dealer Rayna Boyanov. With her posh demeanour and a permanent look of disdain, Byrne’s villain is quick with an insult and a withering glance, her savage commentary making her the perfect sparring partner for Cooper and her profanity-laden insults.

Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy.
Sparring partners: Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

But the big surprise packet is the comedic turn by tough guy Jason Statham as rogue agent Rick Ford. Poking fun at his macho, action-hero persona, Statham lands some of the biggest laughs in the film.

Ford is thoroughly unimpressed by the inexperienced Cooper taking on the undercover assignment, and gruffly decides to shadow her mission. Together they end up trading feisty barbs like an old married couple. Ford brags constantly about his methods for surviving treacherous feats, each tale getting more and more outlandish.

Writer/director Paul Feig does a tremendous job of flipping the chauvinistic tropes of the spy genre in a playful yet deliberate way, delivering strong female leads, daggy spy gadgets and authentic chemistry between compatriots and enemies alike.

Some of the language in Spy can be jarring if you’re not accustomed to McCarthy and Feig’s previous cinematic partnerships (Bridesmaids; The Heat). And despite Spy’s fun and frivolous tone (and the fact it’s streaming on Disney+), you might find yourself feeling squeamish at a couple of visceral, graphic death scenes and visual gags, cementing the fact this movie is definitely not one for the kids.

Spy is a cheeky, engaging and wildly entertaining ride. Feig delivers likeable (if unlikely) action heroes in a convincing espionage plot, complete with high-octane action sequences, surprising twists and exotic locales which all serve as impressive counterpoints to the salty dialogue and boundless humour.

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