'Spy': Film Review

An action-comedy home run that expands McCarthy's playbook

Melissa McCarthy shows Jason Statham and Jude Law how the action-hero game is played.

Melissa McCarthy comes into her own as a comic star in Spy, stepping out from recent supporting- and co-headlining roles to become the big screen A-lister she promised to be in 2011's Bridesmaids. Lampooning the alpha-male conventions of the secret agent flick while transferring some of that badassery to an unlikely character, writer-director Paul Feig remains one of the best friends women in comedy have, managing to get yuks from fat-lady jokes while mocking a world that treats such women like they're invisible. Laugh-stuffed and making excellent use of its marquee-grade supporting cast, it promises to be a home run in its early summer release.

McCarthy's Susan Cooper starts off where we'd expect to find a woman like her in a blockbuster action film: as one of the anonymous keyboard jockeys behind the hero, Jude Law's Bond-like Bradley Fine. She's the voice in his earpiece, watching via satellite and doing his homework so he can magically dodge each attacker and infiltrate any fortress. She's also hopelessly in love with him, a fact Fine exploits with shameless "I couldn't do it without you" flirting.

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When Fine is taken out of commission by an arms dealer (Rose Byrne, a perfectly haughty aristocrat) who declares she knows the identity of every active agent who might stop her, the CIA reluctantly turns to Cooper, who was trained as a field agent before getting stuck at a desk. She's sent on a "track and report" mission, ordered to observe Byrne's movements but not, repeat not, to engage anyone personally. As if to ensure she won't get ideas above her station, Cooper's handlers equip her with the most frumpy cover ID ever imagined. (And, amusingly, high-tech gizmos to match.) Her nervous-Nellie pal Nancy (Miranda Hart) will fill in on desk-jockey duty, with occasional field help from Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), an Italian loverboy with a refreshing fondness for full-figured women.

While she bounces around exotic locales in pursuit of Byrne's suitcase-sized nuclear device, Cooper's biggest headache is not the villains but the good guys: As a British spy who can't stand to be sidelined while a woman does his job, Jason Statham keeps popping up where he's not supposed to be, trying to take down the baddies but just making things worse. (Statham is surprisingly good at sending up this macho numbskull's overconfidence, especially when he tries to establish his bona fides with a hilariously outlandish list of things he's endured in the line of duty.)

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Cooper is a much milder character than McCarthy's previous film roles, a woman who cares what other people think of her and yearns to please. But as she's quietly saving the day for the dozenth time, circumstances force her to invent a new cover for herself — lucky for us, one that allows her to unleash the foul-mouthed, hilarious assertiveness we expect. She stays in character, though, delivering a coherent performance in a spoof that follows suit, spinning a more sensible plot than most "serious" spy films.

Sandra Bullock, McCarthy's co-star in The Heat, made something like an antecedent to Spy with Miss Congeniality. There, a tomboy had to master chasing crooks in high heels; here, McCarthy's girth lends physical comedy to the action scenes. She owns those laughs, though, maintaining more self-respect than many plus-sized male comedians before her. In his third big femme-centric film in a row (and the first he has scripted), Feig puts himself in the service of female characters who share more with the women in the audience than with stock Hollywood stereotypes. Susan Cooper's seriously vicious fight with a knife-wielding supermodel may not be the subtlest example of this brand of multiplex-friendly feminism. But, like so much else here, it sure is fun.

Production companies: Feigco Entertainment, 20th Century Fox
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Jude Law
Director-Screenwriter: Paul Feig
Producers: Peter Chernin, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Jenno Topping
Executive producer: John J. Kelly
Director of photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Costume designer: Christine Bieselin Clark
Editors: Brent White, Melissa Bretherton
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Casting director: Zsolt Csutak
No rating, 115 minutes