This review originally ran as part of our Cinemacon 2015 coverage
Comedy films are some of the hardest to review, as it’s such a subjective genre; what I think is funny you may absolutely loathe and vice versa. It’s just the way it goes. With that said, I generally look at the success of a comedy by one simple question: Did it make me laugh out loud and frequently? So, in watching SPY, the latest comedic effort from director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, I applied the same rule of thumb and it came out much better than expected. I did, in fact, laugh out loud and it was at a frequent pace. In that respect, SPY is a funny flick that delivers on its premise, albeit not exactly a classic.
At this point you’re either on board with McCarthy’s comedic stylings or you’re not. If you’re not, then there’s no need to continue reading. If you are, or are at least open to her shtick, then stick with me. SPY features McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a seemingly mild-mannered CIA operative who runs a desk, helping her man-crush field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) as he navigates top secret missions in Bond-like fashion, while treating her as a platonic bestie. However, a sudden change in the status quo opens up a unique opportunity for Cooper to take to the field herself and test her own SPY mettle, thus beginning her adventure into a whole new world.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale mixed with the underdog trope and it ends up working quite well. Sure, there are some stereotypical moments here and there and a few running gags that don’t quite work (such as the recurring rodents in the CIA office bit), but they mostly pull it off. McCarthy plays to her strengths without overdoing it (mostly) and the supporting cast is nothing short of great, including Jason Statham as a “rogue agent,” Rose Byrne as the main villain with some serious big hair and anger issues, Peter Serafinowicz as a lewd European spy, Miranda Hart as Susan’s best friend, Nancy, Allison Janney as the humorless CIA boss, and Law’s Bond-esque character, who rocks the charm and action without falling into spoof.
And that’s another aspect that really helps SPY stay fresh; it’s not a spoof or a parody, so we’re not in NAKED GUN territory making fun of the spy genre, but rather a straight comedy that happens to take place within it. While there are some obvious nods here and there, it operates on its own frequency and plays to the strengths of the various cast members, chief among them McCarthy who manages to balance her comedy without going overboard, creating a heroine that’s funny, sassy, kind of a badass, and surprisingly humble; She’s definitely more BRIDESMAIDS than TAMMY here.
Byrne’s villain role is perfectly suited to her and she plays Raina Boyanov without the usual charm that we’ve seen in flicks like NEIGHBORS or the seriousness of INSIDIOUS; she’s clearly having fun with the bad-guy role and it’s a nice change of pace for her. However, nobody is having more fun in this film than Statham, who pretty much plays a stereotype of all his badass roles of the past with his Rick Ford. The only difference is that he’s more talk than action, as his deeds rarely match his words and it’s hilarious to see him bumble through the action rather than take charge. His back-and-forth scenes with McCarthy are one of the highlights of the flick and they both play exceedingly well off of one another.
The action in SPY is a mixed bag and it’s both one of the strengths and weaknesses of the film. There’s some well choreographed scraps throughout, including a fairly impressive knife fight between McCarthy and a female baddie and a decent car/moped chase, but the use of speed ramping gets a tad excessive and doesn’t always work, sometimes taking you out of the moment rather than into it. In terms of story, SPY is in no way reinventing the wheel, so in that respect it’s very basic and fairly pedestrian in plot (yet another ‘bad guys trying to get a nuke’ story). But this is a performance-driven comedy and thankfully that aspect works very well, although a few performances do fall into blandness, with both Bobby Cannavale and Morena Baccarin never rising beyond cardboard cutout characters by the time the credits roll, which seemed like a waste given their talents.
The R-rating is utilized well here, as the profanity is out in force and even the violence takes on some bloody (and hilarious) turns, giving the film a slight edge in both departments. With a "PG-13," I think SPY would’ve suffered tremendously, so letting everyone cut loose with an "R" made a world of difference. For those looking for a not-so-safe PG-13 comedy, SPY offers up some decent non-PC fare. It’s silly, crass, sometimes shocking, sometimes stupid, but always entertaining. In the end, I found myself laughing from start to finish and that made it pass the comedy test. It’s not a total package win, but there’s more than enough to satisfy the masses, even if you aren’t a McCarthy fan, as the main supporting cast helps round out the film, especially with Statham, Byrne, and Law, who make this more of an ensemble piece than the McCarthy show. If nothing else, this should be a fun escape from all the big-budget mayhem that’s coming down the pipe this summer.
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