If you didn’t believe in Melissa McCarthy’s potential as an action star, it’s time to start believing. Not only does she nail the comedy in her new film Spy, as expected, she also proves her worth as an actress capable of much more. McCarthy takes every line and makes it her own, and deftly creates her own space in a field that many doubted someone like her could inhabit. She makes vulnerability look easy, and even though it’s probably not her doing the stunts, her gung-ho attitude makes us believe that she totally could if she wanted.
In Spy, former teacher Susan Cooper (McCarthy) works at a desk for the CIA talking in the earpiece of one of the United States’ undercover agents Bradley Fine (Jude Law), giving directions and being the agent’s eyes and ears. Everything changes when a mission goes wrong, and she volunteers to go undercover to complete a surveillance mission. After all, she is a trained agent: she may not be in the field, but she did receive training and spent years watching through the eyes of a spy. Who better than the woman who is virtually anonymous to the enemy?
It’s easy to compare Spy to this year’s other spy thriller action-comedy, Kingsman: The Secret Service. After all, both films do center on an unlikely person becoming an international spy with superior physical and mental prowess. The biggest difference between the two films is that Kingsman focuses on a group of Englishmen who are visibly physically fit, and Spy focuses on an American woman who is presumptively not, except for the part where she actually is agile, probably trained in martial arts, and a great person to have around in a gunfight.
She is given a series of items only a single woman traveling abroad would need: a rape whistle, hemorrhoid wipes, and a Beaches watch. Of course, they all have alternate functions, but Susan’s flabbergasted response to the blatant sexism demonstrated by the agency comes to a head when it comes to the costumes she must wear while undercover. They are awful. The false idea that a larger person is automatically ugly is constantly addressed, as Susan is a well-dressed and put together person. When she goes undercover, she balks at having to make herself look like a stereotypical middle American, and chooses to buy new outfits that reflect her positive self-image. The villain of the film, played by Rose Byrne, becomes more villainous because of how she addresses other characters that do not fit into her standards, beauty included.
Susan is clumsy at times, but no more than any other lead in a comedy. Let’s not forget that McCarthy is great at physical comedy, and that translates so well for the spy genre: chase sequences are much funnier because McCarthy is skilled at falling down, getting up, and just being surprising. There are a number of great sequences featuring every cliché from spy thrillers, from car chases to double crosses, plane fights, and even a helicopter fight. It’s the real deal, and functions well as both an action film and a comedy. We take Susan seriously because she put herself in a position where she could become endangered, and she manages well, even outclassing her fellow spies.
Speaking of her fellow spies, Jason Statham’s Rick Ford was easily one of my favorite characters. For some reason, I think everyone forgot that Statham has a healthy sense of humor, as demonstrated in his work with Guy Ritchie, especially in Snatch. Ford is basically that one guy who knows he’s great and has to make sure everyone knows just how great he is. But in this situation, he’s a spy who routinely just does not know how to die. Near the beginning of the film, he says that he wants to go undercover for the mission and use the Face/Off machine, which doesn’t exist, but he refuses to believe that. There is even a joke about how he went undercover, in blackface, and Susan’s response is how inappropriate that idea is, without putting him in blackface in the film. Thank you, Gods. See how easy that was?
Director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) previously worked with McCarthy on Bridesmaids and The Heat. They seem to have developed a great working relationship, as he can highlight everything that she does well, letting her seemingly deliver amazing one-liners, while making Susan increasingly snarky as she is forced to deal with more and more distracting characters and situations. In some ways, the weaknesses seem to function as a way to poke fun at the problems of the action film genre overall. Feig also proves that he is a skilled director of action sequences, providing great visual understanding to the physical space and choosing a small amount of slow-motion to demonstrate the grander visual effects.
So even though the film plays on many of the same tropes as Kingsman, the two films are two wildly different animals, and Kingsman is the more serious of the two. Both are very funny, in different ways. Spy is worth it for Bond fans, and for non-Bond, then it’s worth it for McCarthy alone. Sure, the rest of the cast is great, but she is just too good.