Not Quite James Bond


The spy genre of films (and TV) has been going on long enough that there have been plenty of parodies along the way. The James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time. films set the template – the suave secret agent, the cool gadgets, the action, the romance, the opening titles set to a specific kind of theme song – and the films that have come since (even in the 1960s when Bond was king) have used those conventions to play around and find their own path. Some played it straight. More used the conventions for comedy.

Released in 2015, Paul Feig’s Spy isn’t exactly a fresh take on the genre. In fact, one could argue that many of the trappings that the film parodies were already mocked far better in the Austin Powers films. The first one of those, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, was such a good parody that the actual James Bond series had to reboot and reinvent itself to try and get away from all of its tropes. To do anything less would have been to play to type and feel like a parody of itself.

What Spy does is look at the world of James Bond from an outsider’s perspective. It tries to say, “what if an ordinary person had to step into the shoes of Bond and become a secret agent on their own.” It’s an interesting concept, and one that can lead to a few moments of humor. The issue with Spy, no matter how funny it can be in places, is that it can’t ever fully commit to its own bit. It can’t just say, “this woman at the center of the film is an average woman.” It still has to make her great at her job, a well trained agent, and almost a super spy. It undercuts itself at every turn, making what could have been a pretty funny inversion of the genre just another play in the same tropes (only with a lot more cussing and a whole lot of dick).

The film opens with Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) acting as overwatch for super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law sporting a very bland American accent). Fine is on the case searching out a briefcase nuke that has been advertised on the black market. He heads to the house of Fine heads to the estate of Tihomir Boyanov, infamous arms dealer, and holds the man at gunpoint to get the nuke. Unfortunately, an accidental sneeze causes Fine to shoot his gun, killing Boyanov, and he had to flee without the nuke or any information on it. Cooper helps him escape, and at least the agent is saved once again thanks to her efforts.

After, though, Fine has to head back out to find and collect the nuke. At the estate of Boyanov’s daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne), Fine is seemingly captured and killed, and Rayna states (into the cam Fine has on him) that she knows the identities of all the other agents, so they all needed to back off. Covers blown, this forces CIA head Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) to look for an alternative solution. That’s when Susan volunteers to go out in the field. She’s a trained agent, even if she’d spent the last ten years at a desk, and could handle the assignment. Crocker eventually agrees and, suddenly, Susan is out in the field, taking on the assignment that got Fine killed.

In theory this setup is great. I like the idea of Susan, who is played pretty well by McCarthy, being thrust into a world she’s only ever seen from behind her desk. Seeing operations is one thing, actually performing them is something else. Humor could be derived naturally just from her reacting to these things going on around her that she has no training for, or from her stumbling into a solution that shouldn’t work or happens because of her bumbling. It’s like Austin Powers, managing to be the best secret agent despite him basically being a giant idiot. If he could do it, Susan could too.

The issue, though, is that Susan isn’t an idiot, nor is she an untrained desk jockey. The movie goes out of its way to tell us (with only a little showing) that she’s fantastic as a field agent. She was top of her class in the academy. She kicked all kinds of ass in the simulators. She can do anything, but instead she took a desk job because Fine convinced her to. She’s not just your average person, she’s a super spy waiting to happen. Because of that, the movie never fully commits to its own bit, it never goes the bumbling route and, instead, actually has her act as a solid, capable agent. The movie doesn’t know what it’s doing with her character.

Because of that, then, it goes in on the cheapest jokes about Susan it can find. She’s an overweight woman in her 40s so all of her covers are sad women. She’s a Mary Kay saleswoman with 13 cats, or a secretary who is divorced and has hemorrhoids. Yes, the joke is that no one would pay attention to her because she’s who she is, but the film is filled with jokes that punch down at Susan (and people like Susan) despite her character absolutely not deserving it at all. Everyone mocks her, time and again, even as she proves to be the best field agent in the CIA.

There’s also the fact that the movie is just too damn long. I watched the unrated cut for this review, which added in a few extra raunchy jokes that certainly go on far longer than they needed to (even if some of them were funny). Even the rated edition, though, is 120 minutes long. Two hours is a long time for what should be a light and breezy comedy (compare that to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which was a svelte 89 minutes), and the movie absolutely strains with all that time given over to it. The film goes through two major shakeups of its story, plus a late plot twist, all of which amounts to the film feeling less like a cohesive plot than a ramshackle series of skits stretched past their breaking point. Many of the scenes are funny, yes, but the film also drags heavily in places because it feels like Feig liked every cut and every scene and couldn’t edit anything out.

My god could they have done some editing, though. As I noted, most of the jokes go on too long, and even many of the establishing scenes drag when they could have been pared back. The entire last act basically devolves into Susan and Rayna saying fuck at each other over and over again, or Susan and Jason Statham’s Rick Ford saying fuck at each other. The movie really does think having characters bicker and cuss endlessly is hilarious, and while it is funny for a time, the movie beats that dead horse far past the point where it’s amusing.

There are solid parts of the movie that work, and that mostly comes from the cast. McCarthy is, of course, great in this vehicle that was written for her. She deadpans her way through so much of the film, reacting to the silliness around her (and the cruel jokes against her), making the material work. Despite Statham’s character getting far more time than he needed (becoming tedious in the process), there’s a lot of material from Ford that works, and Statham is clearly having a blast in the role. Byrne is great, too, being a bitchy vamp and having the best time. This was clearly a fun movie to film for the cast, and that comes across on the screen.

Still, this movie needed editing. It needed someone to go through and tell Feig, “yes, we know you like all this stuff but it’s repetitive and redundant. Cut it back.” More time in the editing booth could have helped, as would editing out scenes that show Susan as a super spy. A different edit of this film would really tighten everything up and make the whole thing work. Spy is close to a good movie, with many bits that are uproariously funny. As a whole product, though, the film falls a little short.