Sharp-shooting women pick off the bad guys
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