Sharp-shoot­ing women pick off the bad guys

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Stephen Romei

Spy (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease from May 21

Paul Feig’s is an en­ter­tain­ing Hol­ly­wood ac­tion com­edy shot mainly in Bu­dapest (which also stands in for Paris and Rome) — but the main at­trac­tion, for this re­viewer at least, is Aus­tralian: the daz­zling Rose Byrne as an icy, in­sanely coiffed vil­lain whose lethal snob­bery is hi­lar­i­ous if you can turn a blind eye to the high body count.

Byrne is one of three lead­ing fe­male char­ac­ters in a genre typ­i­cally dom­i­nated by men. The spy of the ti­tle is Melissa McCarthy’s CIA agent Su­san Cooper. Her side­kick, a ner­vous Nel­lie col­league named Nancy, is played by English ac­tor and co­me­dian Mi­randa Hart.

The film opens in more mas­cu­line tra­di­tion: a James Bond-like agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), is in Bul­garia, try­ing to re­trieve a nu­clear de­vice from an in­ter­na­tional arms dealer. He despatches lots of hench­men with aplomb and comes face to face with his quarry. Then he sneezes, and shoots the man in the head.

At this point we dis­cover he has been guided through this der­ring-do by a voice in his ear­piece, that of the desk-bound Su­san back at CIA head­quar­ters. She’d also like to nib­ble on that finely turned ear, but what chance that? Fine flees but comes to grief at the im­pec­ca­bly man­i­cured hands of Rayna Boy­anov (Byrne), aris­to­cratic daugh­ter of the dead arms dealer.

Rayna, all high heels, short skirts and zero em­pa­thy, has a list of ev­ery CIA field op­er­a­tive. She wants the nuke and she wants re­venge. When anony­mous Su­san vol­un­teers for the mission to foil Rayna, her CIA boss (played by an­other woman, the re­li­ably acer­bic Al­li­son Jan­ney) re­luc­tantly agrees, over the protes­ta­tions of su­per-ma­cho agent Rick Ford (Ja­son Statham, hav­ing loads of fun send­ing him­self up). A hand­some ter­ror­ist (Bobby Can­navale) who also wants the bomb — so he can blow up Man­hat­tan — com­pletes the pic­ture.

Feig, who di­rected McCarthy and Byrne in the 2011 hit Brides­maids, has to walk a del­i­cate line be­tween mock­ing how the world sees a woman such as Su­san (late 30s, over­weight, un­at­tached) and re­in­forc­ing that prej­u­dice. There is a run­ning joke about her cover iden­ti­ties and dis­guises, all de­signed to make her look, as she puts it, “like some­one’s ho­mo­pho­bic aunt”. And the scene where the Q fig­ure sup­plies her with her se­cret agent gad­gets is very funny.

To Feig’s credit he never for­gets this as­pect of the story, even as Su­san finds her spy mojo and starts kick­ing ass across the con­ti­nent. Even so, the sec­ond half of the film does be­come a bit of a cliched shoot-’em-up with a “twist” you can see com­ing with­out leav­ing the card ta­ble at Monaco. In that sense, Spy is the ac­tion movie Feig says he has al­ways wanted to make.

In the pro­duc­tion notes the direc­tor says he has read that women make bet­ter spies than men “be­cause they’re gen­er­ally bet­ter at read­ing phys­i­cal cues, gain­ing trust and us­ing in­tu­ition. This is Su­san Cooper. She doesn’t rely on brawn”. Well, tell that to the bloke she im­pales on a spike and then vom­its on.

There are a few un­nec­es­sary mo­ments such as that, as well as some crude sex­ual jokes that jar. But McCarthy brings a re­deem­ing emo­tional sub­tlety to the role of Su­san, es­pe­cially in her scenes with the beau­ti­ful Rayna (McCarthy and Byrne had few scenes to­gether in Brides­maids; here there’s a real fizz be­tween them). Rayna’s hu­mour is cool, cruel and frag­ile: siz­ing up Su­san’s out­fit she of­fers some­thing like a com­pli­ment: “The mo­ment I saw you stand­ing there in that abor­tion of a dress ... as if to say: ‘ This is what I’ve got, world. It’s hideous, but it’s mine.’ ”

Byrne also shows a slap­stick side in a scene on an out-of-con­trol air­craft. In a neat bit of cast­ing, Mitch Silpa, Flight At­ten­dant Steve in Brides­maids, reprises that role here, with more men­ace. Byrne’s Hol­ly­wood ca­reer has taken off since she starred op­po­site Glenn Close in the 2007-12 TV drama Dam­ages, and it’s ter­rific to see her re­ceiv­ing the recog­ni­tion she de­serves.

Feig has said he is in­ter­ested in mak­ing films that em­power women. Be­tween Brides­maids and Spy he made the hit-and-miss cop film The Heat, with McCarthy and San­dra Bul­lock. I’m not sure he quite pulls it off with this new film — there has to be more to fe­male em­pow­er­ment than shoot­ing men, even evil ones — but it whets the ap­petite for his next project, an allfe­male Ghost­busters due next year.

Rose Byrne, left, and Melissa McCarthy in Paul Feig’s ac­tion com­edy Spy

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