Melissa McCarthy doesn’t just adopt guises to fool the bad guys in “Spy.” Part of what makes the action comedy such a loopy blast is the identity shifts she pulls on the audience.
With posters for the movie showing her raging and roaring, her cat-lady flair not exactly blending with the espionage cool of Jude Law and their costars, it’s easy to assume that we’re in for more of McCarthy’s brassy persona. Director Paul Feig made good use of it in their previous teamings on “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” so why not?
Turns out we do get a bit of this, but the character is sweetly sympathetic — less “Tammy” than “Mike & Molly” — and the laughs and chaos are all the more infectious for it.
The movie’s opener feels like a bit of playful misdirection in its own right. Law’s tuxedoed CIA operative Bradley Fine is posing as a partygoer at a Bulgarian heavy’s posh retreat, and the intrigue is pure, sleek Bond spoof. Well, Bond with a dash of Chloe-from-“24” thrown in, as mousy Susan Cooper (McCarthy) feeds him remote assistance — and some flustered flirting — through his earpiece. It seems like we’re being given something to tide us over between the 007 riffing we recently caught in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and our next serving of the real thing in the upcoming Daniel Craig outing, “Spectre.” Heck, Law was once even said to be up for the iconic role himself.
Then Fine’s mission goes not-so-suavely awry, while Susan’s basement office runs into an amusingly recurring pest problem, and we realize: Yeah, this isn’t Bond. It’s broader. Fallout from the snafu leaves Susan and Fine’s witheringly funny boss (Allison Janney) stumped about what agent she can dispatch to recover a black-market nuke. Seems that glamorously, haughtily villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) has a bead on the entire CIA. Fine isn’t an option. Neither is the agency’s profanely macho legend in his own mind, Rick Ford (Jason Statham, gamely expanding on the comedic streak he’s flashed in vehicles like “Crank”). When Susan volunteers, hoping to break out of her humdrum life, boss lady decides that her inconspicuousness just might be the answer.
Soon McCarthy’s nervous newbie is off to Paris, Rome, and Budapest. But far from jet-setting, she’s suffering the indignity of cover identities that always involve bad wigs and luckless relationship histories, and she’s traveling premium economy at best. (Feig’s hilarious, throwaway dialogue goof on the Ritz-Carlton name is typical of the script’s crackle, which leaves you wondering why he doesn’t write his own projects more often. It gives us hope to hear he’s penning the widely publicized, all-girl “Ghostbusters” reboot that he and McCarthy are prepping.) Susan gets an earpiece sidekick of her own, but it’s her equally dowdy workplace gal pal, Nancy (Miranda Hart of PBS’s “Call the Midwife,” in a breakout role). And the counterpart she’s assigned from the agency’s cosmopolitan European operative pool? Cartoonishly inappropriate Italiano letch Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz, “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Ah, the glitz of the spy game.
What’s also funny: Susan’s can-do pluckiness and simultaneous squeamishness about violence frequently lend the fighting and gunplay real energy, where the sequences might otherwise just feel like rote genre requisites. Successful as “The Heat” was, it’s a movie that sticks with us far more as comedy than as action comedy. Here, Susan’s first bad-guy takedown is jarringly over-the-top brutality that pushes her to an equally graphic reaction, rather than playing as one more casualty that barely registers.
Brassy Melissa surfaces eventually, as Susan decides that acting tough is her best play for getting through an especially dicey part of the mission. But it’s at this point, when McCarthy and Feig give us more of what we’d been primed for, that the movie starts to drag a little. The exchanges aren’t as consistently sharp, and the physicality feels routine. When Susan launches a foul-mouthed rant at Rayna and the villainess coolly rejoins, “Take it down a notch,” it’s good advice. It works riotously well for McCarthy everywhere else.
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.