If you were looking for a quick and easy way to describe director Paul Feig’s latest comedy blockbuster, Spy, and who doesn’t like a pithy tagline, you could do worse than calling it a reverse Get Smart.
Embodying much of the spirit of Mel Brooks’ 1960s sitcom satirisation of the hitherto deadly serious business of espionage, Spy, once again starring Feig’s partner in comedy crime, Melissa McCarthy as spy-in-waiting Susan Cooper, is a joyously silly romp across the capitals of Europe with all the gently mocked 007 tropes you could possibly want.
Beginning as it clearly means to go on, the film opens with an extended action scene in which a bumbling male spy, Bradley Fine (Jude Law) – his gender will become important later on – a man who is more enamoured of his tailored suits and witty repartee than his ability to successfully prosecute a mission, successfully evades the nefarious forces of an organised crime lord.
So far, so brilliantly Bond-like.
To this affectionately over the top homage to spy movies past and present, you can add a theme song sung with delicious Goldfinger excess by a Shirley Bassey soundalike, and title sequences that evoke any and all of the opening credits for 007’s many cinematic adventures.
The real joke in Spy though is that male agents like Fine, and his hyperbolically-inclined fellow agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham in fantastically daffy form), whose tales of solo macho derring-do get ever more fanciful and overblown as the movie goes on, only succeed because of the support given to them by female backroom operators like Susan Cooper, and best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart in sparkling, self-depracating form) who toil away, largely unnoticed, in the depths of the CIA’s mouse and bat-infested basement (itself the source of much of the visual humour throughout).
Theirs is a largely thankless role, treated by Fine and co. as one more closely resembling that of a executive assistant rather than the work of the accomplished espionage professionals these woman actually are.
Cooper, who topped her class in every imaginable proficiency from computing to physically taking on the bad guys, is simultaneously in love with the dashing Fine, and yet frustrated that for all her success in keeping him alive and doing his job far better than would otherwise be the case, she is overlooked by all the “real” spies out in the field and her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney).
Her always-the-backroom-operator-never-the-spy days appears to be over though when events necessitate that she go into the field to track and report on attempts by the now dead crime lord’s daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne who steals pretty every scene she’s in) to sell a handily-portable nuclear device to the highest bidder.
What starts out as a simple mission to keep tabs on the would-be master terrorist enabler, one accompanied it must be pointed out by outfits so hilariously unflattering that McCarthy spends much of her time looking, in her words, “like someone’s homophobic aunt”, soon inevitably becomes a chance for the frustrated agent to prove her mettle.
And prove it she does, over and over, in a series of very funny set pieces that are every bit as gripping as anything you’ll find in a Bond or Bourne movie, with the added silliness of preening CIA agents and bad guys and women who think they are far more dangerous and capable than they actually are.
The masterstroke by Feig, who also wrote the well-paced screenplay, is that Cooper emerges from each and every of these scenes as an accomplished professional and not the butt of the jokes (vomiting on recently-despatched baddies from a great height aside).
In that respect, the Police Squad!-esque antics of those around her simply add visual and verbal humour to what are in every other respect, quintessential scenes from any spy movie you could name.
In that respect, Spy shares much of its spy spoof DNA with Kingsman – The Secret Service, both films that though employing differing styles of comedy, keep the essential soul of the espionage action thriller very much alive and close to hand.
Granted the storyline does get sillier and sillier as time goes on, but many of the stunts, such as a mid-air helicopter tête-à-tête, could just as easily be done by Bond or Bourne as Cooper, who is allowed to succeed on the strength of her talent and abilities while the world goes to engaging silliness around her.
You would be doing the film a disservice to describe it as some kind of comedy masterpiece – it is, at heart, simply a highly amusing piece of lighter-than-air (helium?) fun – but it does manage to speak with more substance than you might otherwise expect from a movie of its ilk.
If too, like many people, you find McCarthy’s sometimes uncomfortably brash, scatologically-inclined rage swearing persona a little too much to stomach, rest assured that it is employed sparingly, in favour of a far more well-rounded character who is given a chance to stand out for traits other than the judiciously-employed use of various swear words.
Spy the film may not necessarily save the world but by giving us an accomplished, deftly-realised new spy hero in Susan Cooper, engrossingly over the top action sequences and a lot of very silly, reasonably funny humour it’s given us something to laugh about in a world desperately in a good, soul-cleansing guffaw.