Thursday 11 June 2015

Spy (2015) - Movie Review

One of the first reviews I wrote for this blog was on 2014’s Tammy. Now, while I can kind of get why other critics didn’t like it (maybe not to the extent that they do, but to a certain degree), I will always give it credit because it was the film that did what The Heat was unable to: It made me like Melissa McCarthy. It got me to better appreciate her sewer-rat mouth sense of humour as contrasted with her meek and rather downplayed side, and also because it didn’t involve nearly as much over-the-top shouting as The Heat did. So, when trailers for this film hit, I… was mostly into it because it featured king of British badassery Jason Statham, but McCarthy’s limp-dicked unicorn line caught my interest as well. So, with this year’s increasingly strong pedigree of action films, will she continue the trend or be the one to break it? This is Spy… and immediate points deducted for quite possibly the most generic film name I’ve ever seen.

The plot: Sarah (Melissa McCarthy) is an analyst for the CIA who works with suave field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When sensitive information is leaked out of the organisation, including the identities of all of their field agents, Sarah steps up to the plate and takes on the mission of obtaining an armed nuke that is in the possession of arms dealer Rayna (Rose Byrne). With her best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) at her side, and rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) in her way, she must prove to herself that she is more than capable of being a spy.

Despite the whole abrasive insult comic shtick being the core reason why people like her so much, it’s largely been my least favourite part of her on-screen persona in previous films… which is what makes it so surprising when how well it works with me here. For the most part, she sticks with the sweet and naïve side of herself that I’ve grown attached to, and then later on in the film she flips that switch and goes full verbal abuse. Said verbal abuse consists of material that I seriously wish I was capable of writing because of how damn funny it is; the Cagney & Lacey bit alone had my jaw on the floor at how descriptively visceral it was. True, a lot of her lines in this form stick to a standard simile structure and the nit-picky side of me wishes for a bit more variety, but even with that in mind the line-o-rama for her and everyone else works really well. The best I can figure about why this worked as well as it did with me is that, when she does engage in some vocal castration, it’s largely a tough front that she puts on as her more innocent persona. I guess I just like it better when she’s just pretending to be this vile than her character just being like that to begin with.

So, McCarthy passes with flying colours but what about the rest of the cast? Thankfully, they manage to keep up with the high bar set up by her and make for some of their best respective work, in comedy at the very least. Rose Byrne has fun as our villain, using posh detachment to damn good effect; Jude Law does well as the straight man/Bond analogue, who acts like he’s extremely bitter about not being cast as 007 and wanted to prove just how well he could pull it off. Peter Serafinowicz is unsettlingly good as the French creeper and reluctant ally Aldo, narrowly avoiding annoying territory in the process. Miranda Hart bounces off of McCarthy very well and makes for a nice buddy dynamic between them. And Jason Statham, as the thinly-veiled action hero parody Rick and main reason I wanted to see this movie, gets the biggest laughs of the film by a considerable margin. His boasts about increasingly ridiculous situations that he’s survived while on assignment are only a few food references short of an Action Bronson album in terms of the ludicrously awesome; trust me, the one shown in the trailer is only the tip of the iceberg. It also makes for some very timely casting on his part, considering his last role was in the astoundingly over-the-top Fast & Furious 7. On top of the actual actors, we also get a brief cameo from 50 Cent that only exists to make fun of him and to see him hurt (As a hip-hop backpacker, I approve) and oddly enough from Ukrainian Eurovision contestant Verka Serduchka.

Moving back on track, not only is the comedy here top notch but the action stands alongside the cream of the year’s crop as well. The red dust that results from every head shot was a little distracting at times, but for the most part it’s full of pistol whipping and cringe-inducing dickstruction that make for damn nice action beats. It engages in the same kind of stylised ultra-violence as current best film of the year contender Kingsman, but it isn’t quite up to the same calibre. Mainly because the whole ‘McCarthy is fat’ thing lingers in some of the action scenes and, quite frankly, anything that makes me think of the mental abortion that is Mike & Molly needs to swept away quickly. Not to say that McCarthy is bad in all her fight scenes though, as her character seems to be the bastard child of Black Widow and Bob from Tekken 6 given how agile her movements are. I get that that is part of the joke, but given how often I see her pulling off this shtick, it can be forgiven that I grow slightly tired of it; of course, that’s not to say that it’s anywhere close enough to ruining any of the action scenes though. Given what else is available in cinemas in terms of action entertainment, it’s kind of shocking how well this stands up alongside the heavy hitters.

While I have Kingsman on the brain, I should point out that that film and Spy seem to be cut from a similar cloth. Kingsman, both its source material and the film itself, is a loving tribute to old school spy flicks like the Bond series, whereas Spy is a loving send-up of those movies. It doesn’t take the same mythos-bolstering approach as Kingsman, but instead takes every chance it has to make fun of how over-the-top the tropes of the genre are, along with pointing out how those same tropes have only gotten even more ridiculous in recent years. Some of the jabs range from the more subtle, like the running gag about the villains killing off their own henchmen for purposely dubious reasons, to the more direct like Sarah’s entire role in the film. Even with how bizarre the film can get, it’s also surprisingly grounded in its admission that the James Bond style spy that goes in alone is pretty unrealistic, with Sarah acting as Bradley’s safety net and without whom he would probably be deader than Die Another Day’s approval rating. There’s probably a bit of subtext about writer/director Paul Feig’s tastes in films to be seen here too, given how the suave gentlemen spy Bradley is intelligent and able to think on his feet, whereas the headstrong action spy Rick may be capable but he is by no means subtle or even competent in some scenarios. Not bad for a film that features not one but two scenes of people being at the bottom of a human pile with a person’s butt right above their heads.

All in all, this is the final stage in terms of my critical relationship with Melissa McCarthy: The Heat got me to acknowledge her, Tammy got me to like her, but this film officially won me over. Her tongue is at its sharpest here and balanced well with her gentler side, backed up by a superb cast whom all pull their respective comedic weights, most of all Statham in a role that steals every scene ever written, fast-paced action and equally fast-paced humour. Not only that, it has a surprisingly deft hand at parody as it pokes fun at spy genre clichés, something that not that many recent films have been able to pull off; or, at least, pull off this well. It looks like this year’s pedigree for action is still going strong.

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