Jason Statham bided his time. I’d bet hard cash that, since he established his action credentials, he’s been offered umpteen playing against type comedy roles, in the style of Tooth Fairy, The Pacifier and Junior. But The Statham? He said no. Instead, when he took the plunge, he went for a comedy that didn’t rely on such a central gimmick.
The Statham chose wisely.
For writer/director Paul Feig simply gets Statham to play things straight here in his new film, Spy. He plays Rick Ford, a spy who thinks he’s the business, and has the anecdotes to prove it. He’s a disaster area in practice, but doesn’t believe for a second he is. Feig has an enormous amount of fun with this too, writing sweary, punchy dialogue that instantly begins to fill the IMDB Quotes page. There’s not a single one of said lines I want to spoil here. Just that in a comedy with several strong players, it’s Statham who steals it. Heck, he even gets the post-credits sting too. You simply want to seek the man out afterwards and give him a warm, manly handshake.
But then behind the camera, someone else is on fine form too. Paul Feig will have to go a long way to top the TV show Freaks And Geeks, and Spy doesn’t even go anywhere near that territory. Instead though, Feig builds on the sizeable success he’s enjoyed with Bridesmaids and The Heat, and scales up. He’s methodical in getting the structure right of his new film right, too. Spy is a spy comedy, where the spy movie is good, and the broad, gleefully mainstream humour on top is often golden. But it works, to differing degrees, as the spy film itself, and as a comedy.
The heart of the film is Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, a desk-bound agent who’s actually head over heels in love with Jude Law’s Agent Fine. She whispers instructions in Fine’s ear, but finds herself – with help from her deliberately humour-free boss Allison Janney – eventually in the field.
Interestingly, Cooper is played by McCarthy as a character of competence, just one out of her comfort zone. This is not a film of bumbling buffoons, or random pratfalls. For McCarthy, it’s her best performance in a Feig film to date (and that includes her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids). It’s become easy internet practice to slam the work of McCarthy, but I really liked the progression of her performance here. It’s got touches of her excellent work in St Vincent to it at times, as well as the screen-gobbling persona that won her an Oscar nomination in Bridesmaids. It’s a genuinely three dimensional character she’s playing here, one with some really (deliberately) awful outfits.
Furthermore, she leads an ensemble that pretty much fires strongly throughout.
So, Rose Byrne is the villain of the piece, with her caustic put-downs (her one liners aren’t quite Statham vintage, but she comes close) and contained evilness, and occasionally Peter Serafinowicz comes in, gleefully seizes screen time (and McCarthy’s boobs), and disappears again. Jude Law gets to be the suave James Bond character, and the wonderful Allison Janney doesn’t get enough moments, but, as always, pitches things perfectly. Miranda Hart, as Cooper’s colleague and friend, does take time to settle into her first Hollywood role, but as the film gradually gives her more and more interesting things to do, so her performance grows.
Spy fits a lot in, and only occasionally is there the sense that Feig loses the balance between his comedy and advancing the plot. Furthermore, the story beats do tread a familiar path, and it’s not too tricky to join the dots. But still, he has so many trump cards to call on when things dip a little, and it’s rarely long before Spy is motoring again.
Both subverting the spy genre slightly and yet aiming a great big warm hug at its mainstream heart, Spy works, and works well. It’s the kind of comedy that demands a big cinema audience to share the enjoyment with. And for any other stars of action cinema who want to learn a thing or two about crossing genres, not for the first time, watch Statham. It’s worth starting the campaign for Spy 2, just to get more of his Agent Rick Ford back on the screen…
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