Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Spy" Review: A Ho-Hum Beginning Is Salvaged By A Surprisingly Hysterical Second Half


2015 has become the year that saw the revival the spy/espionage spoof genre. Between this year's earlier release Kingsman: The Secret Service (which is admittedly more action than spoof) and now the new Melissa McCarthy starring vehicle Spy, those looking for something a bit more light hearted in their spy films are having a great year so far. With that statement I may have let the cat out of the bag already in regards to my overall feelings towards Spy, but the film is far from perfect even if it does work better than it really should have. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 57 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: June 5, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Rose Byrne, Jason Statham
Likes: Melissa McCarthy, spy movies
Neutral:  Bridesmaids, The Heat
Hates: Identity Thief
Who you gonna call?: Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy will join forces yet again for the new Ghostbusters movie.


After the accidental killing of a known terrorist who has a nuclear bomb secretly stashed away somewhere, the U.S. government needs to send in a specialist to track the deceased bad guy's daughter Reina (Rose Byrne) in hopes that she may lead them to the location of the bomb. The problem though is that after a security leak Reina knows the identities of all the active agents in the field and if anyone gets too close she has threatened to detonate the bomb. That's when the head of the C.I.A. (Alison Janney ) promotes Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a sort of female version of Jack Ryan whose primary job is behind a desk, who has the knowledge needed to track Reina but lacks the skills needed to survive in the field.

This promotion doesn't go unnoticed though as all the more qualified spies have a hard time wrapping their head's around the idea that the homely Susan is going to do their job for them. This news is even harder to swallow for the agency's loose cannon spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham) who refuses to step down and let her take point. In protest over Susan's sudden rise in the ranks (and slightly because he was tricked into thinking the agency really had a Face-Off machine) Rick quits the agency and decides to go rogue as Susan preps to enter the field for the first time. Soon, after being equipped with all the necessary gear (such as a poison antidote disguised as laxative) Susan is tracking Reina in hopes of finding the bomb and saving the day. Of course you know that nothing goes as planned and just about everything that could go wrong does.


Now normally that set up is about as fresh as a 3 day old pair of worn underwear, but director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids/The Heat) pulls not one but dozens of rabbits out of his hat as he smartly navigates away from the easy jokes such as relying on the gender or figure of his lead and instead takes the road less traveled by creating interesting and (more importantly) believable characters (well, perhaps not Statham) which helps us forget that we have seen this exact same story play out countless other times before and focus on the jokes which take a while to kick in but eventually pick up their pace. The key to this magic Feig wields is obviously his casting choices whom all bring a unique charm and wit to each of their characters even if they aren't all equally successful in regards to execution.

Melissa McCarthy has been box office gold ever since Paul Feig cast her in Bridesmaids and her career took off like a rocket. Despite my own personal displeasure with that particular film and others that looked to capitalize on McCarthy's newfound fame (Identity Thief was exceptionally bland), there was always this thought in the back of my head that McCarthy just hadn't found the right material yet. She is a naturally gifted comedic actor and has always been a scene stealer (she was one of the only bright spots in Bridesmaids) so it was only a matter of time that her talents met with a script that knew what to do with them. While Spy isn't her muse, it easily stands as her best film to date.


As Susan Cooper (or any of the increasingly ridiculous undercover names she receives over the course of the film) Melissa McCarthy has finally found a character that isn't funny because she is rude, crude or heavily reliant on jokes pertaining to her waist size. This is a character that was written as a smart, tough and intermittently sweet and lovable person who could have been played by anyone, but none would shine as brightly as she does in the part. McCarthy brings her stable of comedic gifts such as her perfect timing of insults and astonishing physical comedic talents to the role which helps define Cooper as the type of female role model that is missing from a lot of action comedies these days. She earns her respect by doing her job and doing it better than most of her peers.

Her supporting cast is a fairly solid lineup with only a couple casting decisions that fell flat. Alison Janney may have the thankless role as the humorless boss but she finds a few moments to shine with her trademark deadpan line delivery, "I almost posted that to youtube!". Jude Law is probably given the least to work with as he is basically the handsome guy that McCarthy is supposed to fawn over which isn't nearly as successful as it should have been with Law coming off more as an ass than somebody we want to see McCarthy end up with. McCarthy's friend/assistant played by Miranda Hart is supposed to be going for this whole shut-in-meets-the-world vibe but she never really lets loose like we expect and ultimately feels like an afterthought.


Then you have quite possibly the three other actors whom along with McCarthy make the film such a delight. Starting with Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), a fellow spy who assists Susan from time to time, his sexual advances towards McCarthy are hysterically out of place and not in good taste but carry a certain ignorant sweetness which helps us forgive his vulgar sensibilities. As for Jason Statham, he is so dialed up with his performance that the first few times you see him he comes off as more annoying than funny, but as the film goes on and his tall tales become more ludicrous (the best being how his left arm got ripped off and he reattached it using only his right arm), like an unfunny joke that gets told repeatedly until you are forced to laugh at just how relentlessly stupid it is, Statham's over the top performance and willingness to make an ass out of himself eventually make the character work which earns at least a couple of big laughs near the end.

But if McCarthy had one costar that helped the film become more than just another silly spy comedy romp it has to be Rose Byrne as Reina. Turning in yet another inspired comedic performance, this chameleon of comedy has crafted one of the more unique villains in any film in a long time. If Samuel L. Jackson's villain in Kingsman was the ultimate nerd turned super villain, Rose Byrne's villain is the ultimate poor little rich girl turned super villain. Her ineptitude towards running a terrorist organization is only matched by the pure comedy gold on display whenever she and Susan square off against one another which often results in the two of them ready to kill the other.


If there were one major flaw with Spy it would have to be with its rather weak opening scenes where we see Susan sitting behind a desk giving instructions to spies on assignment and how long it takes to get her from there to the field where the funny stuff starts to happen. Early scenes try to drop in a few laughs here and there such as a bat infestation at the agency and a very forgetful scene between McCarthy and her friend at a bar discussing how all the hot chicks have it easy in the spy business. None of that illicits even a grin as laughs are in drastic short supply as a result. The saving grace though is when McCarthy and Byrne finally meet half way through the film.

Any film where the first 40 minutes or so is a complete bore would need a stellar second half to make up for the slow build and Spy miraculously delivers on that front. When McCarthy and Byrne's characters bump into one another for the first time the film finally feels inspired to provide us with some of the best comedic situations and interactions of any other film released this year. It cannot be stressed enough how much this all weighs on the fantastic chemistry between both McCarthy and Byrne who play off one another like the skilled masters of their craft that they are.


Another key element to making the later half of the film work so well is in how it flips the script and ceases being a spy movie for a brief moment. This occurs when Byrne hires McCarthy on as a body guard. Why does Byrne need a bodyguard? Well, aside from being the leader of a terrorist organization she seems to have a long line of assassins comprised mostly of former employees whom she has wronged in one way or another (the best being an airplane pilot who just wants her to remember his name, which under gunpoint she still can't do). Things get even better when McCarthy confronts Byrne's former bodyguard and how she verbally abuses him to the point of making him cry and then continues to ridicule his crying.

Those scenes and that entire set up was so inspired that while watching the film I found myself wishing the entire film was just about Melissa McCarthy being Rose Byrne's bodyguard. Their on-screen chemistry with one another is that good, as evidenced by McCarthy's constant verbal attacks towards Byrne's ridiculous hair which becomes the punch line for the film's biggest running gag and the funniest jokes in the entire film, the best of which has to be McCarthy threatening to shave Byrne's head while she is sleeping. If the spy angle of the film seems old and dated to you, at least give the film a chance if for nothing else than watching these two go at it.


Unfortunately the actual final act of the film isn't up to the high standards of that hysterically outrageous middle section, but it at least keeps things fun and breezy with plenty of jokes aimed squarely at the spy genre itself, some decent action and Jason Statham proving once again that nobody can look like such a perfect ass and do it with as much style as him. Spy is a fun and entertaining movie that provides Melissa McCarthy with a starring vehicle worthy of her comedic talents and further proves why she is one of today's biggest stars.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

While it starts out a big too slow and sluggish for its own good, Spy quickly picks up the pace near the middle and starts throwing out jokes like they are going out of style. Between Melissa McCarthy's fun and energetic performance, some really great gags directed at the spy genre (loved the opening credits homage to James Bond) and another great supporting turn by Rose Byrne as the big haired villainess, Spy is a good time at the movies that should be had by all.

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