I am a firm believer that comedy lies in the unpredictable, not in the same old genres and narrative concepts being repeated time and time again. Yet the espionage comedy, or “spy spoof”, is a comedy genre that refuses to die, one that’s as old as the genre it is parodying and shows no sign of going away anytime soon. One of the earliest spy parodies only became a parody by accident, after producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman refused to let Ian Fleming’s debut Bond novel Casino Royale become a Sean Connery picture, giving producer Charles K. Feldman no choice but to turn it into a Bond parody so it wouldn’t compete with their official series. Despite being universally derided, it didn’t deter filmmakers from both parodying Bond movies (The Austin Powers series) or spy movies in general, for decades to come. With Bond mania again at fever pitch, following the billion-dollar success of Skyfall and impending billion-dollar success of Spectre, espionage comedies are back in vogue.
Already this year, we’ve had director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. That film was heavily indebted to Roger Moore’s outings as Bond, but didn’t act towards parodying more contemporary spy outings. This reliance on parodying movies that are far from contemporary left many viewers (including me) believing they’d witnessed a movie no different than the type it was claiming to be spoofing. After breathing life into another tired comedy sub-genre with his previous film, the buddy-cop parody The Heat, director Paul Feig is now trying his hand at a spy comedy of his own. With Spy (imaginative title, that) he manages to effortlessly achieve everything that Kingsman didn’t- a movie so funny he doesn’t have to overcompensate with poor attempts at being “subversive”. That the movie manages to subvert expectations of spy movies is just a bonus, as well as extra proof that, despite strictly working in comedies, take out all the laughs and Feig would still remain one of the strongest genre filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
The movie marks the third collaboration between Feig and star Melissa McCarthy. The duo seem to specialise in breathing new life into pre-existing character archetypes, from the “crazy best friend” in Bridesmaids to the “hardened city cop” in The Heat. Here, McCarthy plays the role of Susan Cooper, which breathes new life into the pre-existing expectations of Melissa McCarthy performances- whereas she normally plays crazy, quirky or crazy and quirky characters, here she gets to play a character who evolves from humble origins to embody the craziness the espionage role entails. As the film opens, Susan Cooper is just a desk bound CIA operative who is the voice in the ear to field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who gets to do all the awesome spy stuff whilst she sits by a computer in a rat-infested office. Whilst on a mission in Bulgaria, Fine gets murdered- blaming herself, Cooper suggests she should take over the mission and because this is a film and not real life, the CIA graciously agree. She heads to Europe to track down the bomb the CIA are chasing, all the while being tailed by “old-school” operative Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who has just quit the CIA and is planning to close the case himself, with or without the use of a “Face/Off Machine”.
To overanalyse comedy is to ruin the reason it was funny in the first place. This is why I try to keep my comedy reviews comparatively brief- I neither want to spoil a joke or explain why it is exactly I find something funny. Yet for all his talk as the best director of comic actresses (McCarthy and Rose Byrne, playing the Bulgarian daughter of the suspected terrorist, do get a plethora of funny lines), here the best role is inarguably handed to Jason Statham. Although he hasn’t dabbled in full comedy before, his best movies understand he has a flare for the ridiculous, retaining a straight face under bizarre and hilarious circumstances in a manner that would make Leslie Neilsen proud. Yet ever since the release of the modern masterpiece that is Crank 2: High Voltage, the movies Statham has taken to starring in have, more often than not, proved to be bland- but then again, everything is going to look bland compared to shoving a gun up somebody’s arsehole as a form of torture, bellowing “where’s my strawberry tart?”
Spy is the most fun Statham film in years, because whereas his recent efforts, such as Homefront or Safe, have tried to make him into a respectable action hero, they have failed to recognise his strengths are his self-awareness to the action genre’s silliness, as well as his lack of ego. As I have just pointed out, this is a man who happily shoved a gun up an obese man’s arsehole in the opening minutes of one of his films. Here, Statham plays a very distinctively British character, one that doesn’t really feature extensively in American pop-culture- the bullshitter. For British viewers, the best comparison is to imagine a cross between Jay from The Inbetweeners and Andy McNab; whilst viewing, however, his performance practically defies comparison as it is the first comic performance of the last few years where every single line of dialogue the character says provokes laughter. The movie’s strength is to keep him as a supporting character who appears at regular intervals, as extensive appearances as a main character would overwhelm the film and distract from the main narrative- that being said, it is very hard not to want a spin-off. This is the kind of character Statham should have been playing for years and he plays it like this was the role he was born to do.
With the exception of an opening credits sequence, the movie doesn’t feel like a Bond pastiche so much as a spy spoof as a whole. Yet there are bizarre concessions to British comedy and pop-culture so alien to Hollywood that make it seem like it was intended to be far more of a Bond spoof- annoying sitcom star Miranda Hart (the only bad thing about this movie) makes an out-of-place supporting role, transplanting her usual schtick into a movie whose tone and comedic sensibility don’t require it. Whilst in Paris, there is the most unexpected cameo appearance from Ukraine’s 2007 Eurovision entry Verka Serduchka, a transvestite who dresses like Lady Gaga if she only had the budget to make costumes out of tin foil. I was never expecting to see Verka Serduchka again, except for maybe as an answer on a pub quiz- to see an outdated relic of pop-culture past (and specifically European pop-culture- how an American writer/director encountered Verka Serduchka, I’ll never know) in Spy momentarily gave it an air of kitsch that the movie could otherwise do without. Because, if I’m being honest here, this was one of the better spy movies of recent years- Paul Feig has an innate awareness of genre that ensures he manages to make his movies work as new additions to that genre instead of just lazy parodies.
If you take away the jokes, Spy would still stand as a solid action movie; Paul Feig is a successful director of action, as well as bloody violence- the cartoonish violence that populated Kingsman: The Secret Service is not to be found here, as despite being a funny comedy, it does get visually gruesome at times. Fortunately, the movie does have jokes and plenty of them- I often refuse to call anything “the funniest movie of the year” until the year is over, because I don’t have the foresight to know that anything funnier will come along. I can confirm that nobody will give a more committed and downright funny performance this year than Jason Statham- and that I will be surprised if anything makes me laugh as much as Spy did.