Thursday 11 June 2015

On her secret service: "Spy"

Just as certain rock stars have expressed a desire to be footballers (and, more regrettably, vice versa), so too there may be some aspirational crossover between action and comedy directors: for corroboration, you need only sample that run of features that have situated themselves on the boundary between the two genres, a lineage that has extended from such pre-millennial favourites as 48HRS. and Midnight Run to the Rush Hour series, Pineapple Express and The Other Guys. Having raked in major dollars with 2011's Bridesmaids and 2013's The Heat (itself a comic reworking of the buddy-cop formula), the writer-director Paul Feig has now been handed the production budget and the stunt team that might enable a larky fellow to make a movie that might hold its own at the heart of this franchise-heavy summer.

Spy is Feig's idea of a Bond movie: it has the brassy theme song, the stylised credits, the gadgets, the nuke-touting nemesis and the obligatory casino showdown, but organises itself around a what-if gender reversal, sending the equivalent of a Miss Moneypenny or Chloe - Melissa McCarthy's undervalued CIA flunky Susan Cooper - rather than a James Bond or Jack Bauer-type into the field, and investigating, as Feig did in The Heat, the possibilities of sending a woman to do what the movies have long demarcated as a man's job. It qualifies as a refresh, if perhaps not a radical one: what Feig is doing here only really counts as new when set against all those bromances initiated by Judd Apatow's paradigm-shifting The 40-Year-Old Virgin ten years ago; it's arguable that Spy is no more than the market correcting itself after a decade of dick jokes.

What's clear is that, emerging from years of serial TV work (Arrested Development, Nurse Jackie, The Office), Feig is much more of a storyteller than the spitballing Apatow: he genuinely seems to care about the details of the espionage plot his heroine is thrown into, at least as much as he does about the gags that result from it, and he's banished a high percentage of the indulgence the post-Apatow comedies fostered around their mewling manboys. Although he retains his predecessor's fondness for throwing the most unlikely performers together - Spy, at various points, pairs Jason Statham (never more hilarious) with Allison Janney, Miranda Hart with 50 Cent and, briefly, McCarthy with Eurovision novelty act Verka Serduchka - he's far more attentive to what works and what doesn't: the restless rhythms of the modern action movie allow him to cut out of a situation if it isn't catching fire.

Such precision helps Feig through the fight scenes and the more knockabout comedy, and seems to keep his actors on their toes, too: he gets another terrific, Martini-dry comic showing from Rose Byrne as McCarthy's target, an arms dealer so jaded by her life of luxury that she continues to text while dispatching her foes. In McCarthy, meanwhile, we evidently have another A-list star on our hands, one capable of outmuscling both The Rock's San Andreas at the UK box office and the Entourage boys in the States. Watching her slobbish hurricane in last year's Tammy, flattening every joke and scattering viewer sympathies in her wake, you probably wouldn't have got this, but Spy is the film that reveals her as an incredibly precise performer when the material calls for it.

You see it in the way she handles a hefty wine list in a fancy restaurant, eventually ordering what turns out to be the bistro's name - another of Feig's apparently throwaway gags that go to defining Susan's gauche, try-hard character - and more generally in how the actress seems to calibrate our rogue agent's progression from meek underling to foul-mouthed badass. (Feig pulls off something unusually perceptive for a mainstream comedy here, ensuring that, however salty her language, however many ne'er-do-wells she offs, Susan never loses touch with the tremulous, self-doubting voice in her head - whether her own, or that of PA Hart.) You could come to it as another of Feig's studies of women on the job (he has that Ghost Busters redo on the go, remember); you could claim Spy as a rare example of multiplex empowerment fantasy. Above all else, though, it's a funny Friday night out at the pictures - and some movies require no greater label than that.

Spy is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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