One could say calling your film Spy suits the unimaginative titles that a Hollywood executive would like such as Let’s Be Cops or Shoot ‘Em Up. Films with titles like Quantum of Solace make people blush now a days, and we’re long past the days of films like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Then again, masters like Fritz Lang called his earliest spy film Spies so maybe I’ve got to surgically remove my nostalgia-goggles. Spy has been received some surprisingly positive reviews and I’m not really sure if it’s well deserved.
Spy is a comedy by Paul Feig starring Melissa McCarthy. The two have worked together in films such as Bridesmaids (which Wikipedia humorously describes as a “neo-noir romantic comedy” currently) and The Heat, neither of which I’ve taken the time to view. In this film, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper who works for the CIA as a highly talented desk agent who guides Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions. After Fine is kidnapped on a mission, the CIA requires an unknown to go and finish his case and find out about his whereabouts. Cooper springs at the opportunity which has her running around Europe.
Spy seems to have traits of other American comedy films I’ve seen today involving a script which just has the basic necessities to make characters go from point a to point b and then letting the actors improvise when you really need to juice up a scene. I’ve seen clips of this in McCarthy’s other film Tammy as well, where the camera cuts away from a scripted scene and then have a close-up of the comedian is available in the scene and have them adlib a line where we do not see a character’s reaction until a cut away. This sort of ruins the cinematic nature of a film comedy to me, but it doesn’t make Spy a complete throw away that Tammy was. McCarthy and her Miranda Hart who plays her sidekick, are funny enough in these scenes and has enough zingers that will at least squeeze out a smile out of the audience if not a strong laugh. This also goes for Hart who also is squeezed into similar gags.
This isn’t the case for all the characters. Jason Statham surprisingly provides a comic performance of tough guy spy upset with McCarthy’s recent promotion to being a secret agent and often tries to one-up her or brag about his own past work. Also good is Peter Serafinowicz who plays an Italian sleaze ball spy who wants nothing more than to sex up Miss McCarthy. These guys seem to be sticking to the script and if they aren’t, I can assume that their characters have such short screen time that it allows them to feel more natural. Although the film is not as wildly out there as the films in the Austin Powers series, those films characters at least stick out in our mind as unique enough James Bond pastiches. McCarthy’s character of Cooper is given several identities which are amusing sight gags, but are immediately tossed off instead of developed into characters like Statham or Serafinowicz’s characters are. It made me wonder if the script wasn’t originally penned as a spy film. Scenes are sometimes connected strictly by McCarthy’s character saying “we have to do this now!” or “oops! I’ve left my gun in the other scene!”. At one point, McCarthy’s character drops her role as a spy to become a bodyguard to Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) or when spy elements are handled poorly to make a character like model and bollywood actress Nargis Fakhri’s role as a rival spy seems a bit shoe-horned in.
Balancing action and comedy is a real complex cocktail. Spy makes some strange choices. First, some gags are straight slapstick which is fine, but the best masters of physical comedy didn’t let it be part of the entire set-up, whether it’s Keaton’s ability to move back and forth on a steam train seem different each time in the The General or Jackie Chan’s ability to have a simple gag like being stuck in a barrel in Drunken Master 2 changes the stakes of a scene opposed to a one-time gag that has no consequences. Spy is a bit all over the map, it ranges from the bad of just having her fall as she gets into a vehicle, to the better involving a successful bike jump over a ramp, that lands her into a pile of cement. The best humorous action scenes involves an airplane flight scene, which leads to bullet holes in a plane humorously plugged with whatever objects are laying near by.
Don’t even get me started on the special effects though as we get the expected CG created helicopter and airplane scenes, the worst offender is a vomit gag with CG puke. This makes me the most paranoid about the future as this director is in charge of the Ghostbusters remake which is a film that needs really strong comedy and special effects to work. The effects work and editing in Spy is a really crap sign of things to come.
Spy works best with expectations set low for theaters, but otherwise a satisfying enough film for a rainy afternoon. Story is just “there”, it has no real visual or kinetic flair but it’s just “funny enough” to maintain your interest and see what other funny things might happen. For a film simply titled Spy, that’s all I could ask for.