Two and a half stars (out of four)
R (language, violence, sexual content, brief graphic nudity)
In just five years, writer-director Paul Feig and leading lady Melissa McCarthy have become an unstoppable force in the world of R-rated comedy, conspiring to create sly, ribald girl-power laugh fests audiences can’t resist.
In 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” they blissfully upended the tired tradition of the wedding rom-com. Two years later, they put a fresh, feminist twist on the buddy-cop comedy with “The Heat.”
Their latest joint effort, “Spy,” tackles another male-dominated genre, the ripe-for-mockery field made famous by James Bond and Jason Bourne, not to mention the Pink Panther and Austin Powers.
“Spy” doesn’t achieve the gut-busting excellence of Feig and McCarthy’s hilariously sublime first outing but it’s almost certainly funnier than “The Heat” and it blossoms into an entertaining approximation of the very espionage flicks it parodies.
This is Feig’s most complicated project so far. “Spy” has a large cast, a goofily convoluted plot, exotic locations and stunts that could pass in a straight-up action blockbuster.
However, the main attraction, as always, is McCarthy, whose appeal mingles shameless self-deprecation with a strange and admirable dignity. Melissa may be taking most of the pratfalls, but she’s never the butt of the joke.
In “Spy,” she plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who has never set foot out from behind a desk, content instead to function as the reliable voice in the ear of flashy agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law, spoofing Bondian buffoonery with suavely silly style).
In the movie’s fantastic opening sequence, we see Susan expertly guide the preening Agent Fine through one perilous scenario after another as he infiltrates a fancy dinner party at the lakeside home of notorious arms dealer Boyanov (Raad Rawi).
Fine has been sent to retrieve an alarmingly compact nuclear bomb, but ends up bungling the assignment at the last minute. Susan may be blind in her sweet, decidedly-more-than-just-professional devotion to Fine, but she’s not stupid and, as we later discover, isn’t necessarily as meek or inexperienced as everyone assumes.
When Fine’s mission takes a lethal turn and the identities of the Agency’s top operatives are compromised, Susan volunteers to finish what her partner started, following Boyanov’s daughter, Rayna (McCarthy’s “Bridesmaids” star, Rose Byrne), to Paris on an assignment that’s strictly “track and report.”
Susan’s illusions of cool spy names, sexy gadgets and slinky disguises are shattered when her boss (Allison Janney) forces her to embody a series of frumpy, new identities — housewives, cat ladies and Mary Kay saleswomen, instead of vixens with enigmatic names like Amber Valentine.
It takes awhile for mild-mannered Susan to hit her stride as a spy, and it takes the movie awhile to find its comedic stride as well. If I have one complaint about Feig’s films, it’s that they always seem to last a good half-hour too long, the humor decreasing in proportion to the running time.
I also wish there weren’t so many gags in “Spy” that revolve around McCarthy or other women being groped. And is it just me or are the obligatory projectile vomiting and penis jokes getting stale?
McCarthy is always right on target, though. Few comedians bother to work this hard, and manage to make it look this fun. She’s especially entertaining when one of the script’s more outrageous plot twists gives her the opportunity to trade quick-witted, foul-mouthed barbs with Byrne’s pampered villainess, who has the hair of a Disney princess and the vocabulary of a bitter, old hag.
When it comes to parodying Bond and other cloak-and-dagger classics, Feig goes all out, from a cheesy 007-style animated opening credits sequence that could almost be the real thing, to a moped chase through the streets of Budapest, to an impressively choreographed kitchen knife fight. McCarthy gets to do all the things James Bond does, albeit with a lot less grace.
The director contrives to pair her with many unlikely but amusing co-stars, including Peter Serafinowicz as a lecherous Italian contact, and Jason Statham, sending up his tough-guy reputation as a grizzled veteran agent who’s a bit off his rocker.
Best of all is a generous appearance by cheery, inhumanly tall British comedian Miranda Hart (she plays Chummy on the BBC’s “Call the Midwife”).
In her American film debut, Hart cheekily steals scenes as Susan’s awkward but loyal office mate. Here’s hoping we see more of her on the big screen.
Perhaps in “Spy 2”?