Credit writer-director Paul Feig for realizing that the best way to give Melissa McCarthy’s film career a shot in the arm would be an espionage comedy in which several people get shot in the arm.
Following her “Bridesmaids” breakthrough, also directed by Feig, the immensely likable McCarthy was in danger of becoming a caricature after just three starring vehicles. But “Spy” is the sort of game changer that proves she’s able to do much more than fall down a lot (“Tammy”), look like a hot mess (“Identity Thief”) or a slob (“Tammy,” “The Heat”) and unleash a string of anatomically improbable threats (all three).
Best of all, “Spy” invites audiences to laugh with McCarthy for once instead of at her.
Deskbound CIA analyst Susan Cooper (McCarthy) watches over suave superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) from her drab workstation in Virginia. She’s always in his head, talking through his earpiece and seeing everything he does through a tiny camera in his contact lens.
Susan also is clearly in love with him, as she plays along with Fine’s catchphrase (“Who’s the finest of them all?”) and greets his bons mots with an enthusiastic “Zinger!” She also puts extra allergy medication in his jackets, picks up his dry cleaning and fires his gardener for him.
But when Fine and the CIA’s other top agents, including the cluelessly macho Rick Ford (a gonzo Jason Statham), are compromised by arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (a terrific Rose Byrne), the sweet-natured Susan volunteers to go undercover as the last person Rayna would suspect of being a special agent.
As it jet-sets from Paris to Rome to Budapest, “Spy” isn’t a spoof, but it does send up several spy genre conventions, down to its 007-style theme song and opening credits. Instead of flashy cars and high-tech gizmos, all of Susan’s gadgets have been tailored to fit her cover as a dowdy single mother of four, so they’re concealed in a rape whistle, antifungal spray, hemorrhoid wipes and stool softener. Of her new style, Susan sighs, “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt.”
And, despite its joke-and-dagger trappings, “Spy’s” action is very real, with numerous characters dying in horrible, or horribly funny, ways.
Susan isn’t as sophisticated as Fine. During one fancy dinner, she mistakenly tries to eat a hand towel. During another, after being handed a wine list as thick as a New York Times best-seller, she bluffs her way through by announcing, “I like a wine with the grit of a hummus that’s of course been thinned out.” But she’s intelligent, capable and — once she ditches the cat sweaters her cover identities demand — stylish.
And the disturbingly graphic threats only materialize once those covers are blown and she’s forced to invent another — tough-talking bodyguard Amber Valentine — on the fly. (Much like J.J. Abrams’ lens flares or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back,” there’s apparently only so long McCarthy’s trademark explosive anger can be restrained.)
Having worked together on “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” Feig and McCarthy have an easy rapport that translates onscreen. But Feig, the “Freaks and Geeks” creator who notches his first big-screen writing credit in a dozen years, also elicits first-rate performances from the movie’s solid supporting cast.
Statham has never been better as Ford, who quits the CIA in disgust, goes rogue and keeps crashing Susan’s mission with often disastrous results. He’s hilarious in that Leslie Nielsen-“Airplane”-“Naked Gun” way, because Ford has no idea how ridiculous he sounds as Statham sends up his action hero-persona braggadocio. When told his identity has been revealed, Ford has a simple solution: “I’ll go into the ‘Face/Off’ machine and get a new face.”
Byrne, another “Bridesmaids” alum, is straight-up fantastic as the snootily disinterested Rayna. Picture “Downton Abbey’s” Lady Mary fencing a nuclear bomb while dressed, as Susan notes, “like a slutty dolphin trainer.”
And Allison Janney, fresh from playing McCarthy’s mother in “Tammy,” is plenty entertaining as Susan’s CIA boss.
Not all of Feig’s character choices are a direct hit, though. Susan’s best friend and co-worker Nancy (Miranda Hart) and her randy, handsy contact Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) feel like they’ve escaped from a different, broader comedy.
But those are minor quibbles considering that “Spy” finally gives McCarthy the positive showcase she deserves.
And, while nothing will make her next collaboration with Feig feel vital, there’s enough promise in “Spy” to make their “Ghostbusters” reboot seem like less of a looming national tragedy.
Review: “Spy,” 115 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity. Grade: B-.