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‘Spy’ Film Review by Van Roberts

“Unaccompanied Minors” director Paul Feig has been grooming plus-sized actress Melissa McCarthy for the big time since he cast her as the loquacious, scene-stealing, puppy-napper in “Bridesmaids.”  Meantime, when she isn’t co-starring in her prime-time CBS-TV hit series “Mike & Molly,” McCarthy has been landing bigger and better roles in movies.  She was hilarious in “Identity Thief” (2013) with Jason Bateman, and she held her own with superstar Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” (2013), Feig’s uproarious yarn about two mismatched cops.  In both “Identify Thief” and “The Heat,” McCarthy proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had USDA approved comedic chops.  Nevertheless, she wound up playing second fiddle to established stars like “Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis has been doing.  Indeed, McCarthy amounts to the female equivalent to Galifianakis.  Although it was a stab at stardom, “Tammy” (2014) found McCarthy confining herself to a similar Galifianakis role, except her name appeared above the title.  If anybody doubted the stout star’s ability to shuffle off her comedic coil and play things straight, they need only observe her in the superlative Bill Murray art-house comedy “St. Vincent” where she displayed admirable restraint and shined all the brighter for her discretion.  Now, in Feig’s sixth film “Spy,” McCarthy has finally arrived.  Watching “Spy” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) is like watching the evolution of cinematic comedy.  If this audacious but formulaic espionage spoof doesn’t solidify McCarthy’s status as the first fat lady of laughter, nothing will.  (Think about it.  Has Hollywood ever given a big gal a shot at superstardom?)  Now, she is the whole show, neither the sidekick nor the scene stealer!  “Spy” represents the zenith of McCarthy’s career as a leading lady.  Mind you, she is still a big gal, but from now on she will be THE BIG GAL, and everybody else will be strumming second fiddle to her.

As deskbound, forty-something, CIA analyst Susan Cooper, McCarthy toils tirelessly without recognition from a vermin-infested basement in Langley, Virginia.  This is one of Feig’s running jokes that will keep you chortling throughout this lively 122-minute farce.  First, bats flap into the basement, and then second, mice show up to scale breasts. Meantime, Susan makes it possible for top field agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law of “Cold Mountain”), to survive perils galore.  In a snappy opening shoot’em up sequence set in faraway Bulgaria, the debonair Fine, decked out to the nines like a dapper James Bond, dodges an army of gunmen while he searches for a dastardly desperado who has stolen a tactical nuclear warhead.  Cooper serves as Fine’s liaison.  Communicating via satellite link by means of high-tech surveillance equipment consisting of an earpiece and a tiny contact lens camera that Fine wears in his eye, Susan provides him with death-defying reconnaissance.  She alerts him about where his adversaries lurk, charts evasion routes out of tight spots, and feeds him on the spot information about anything he encounters during a mission.  Together, nobody can thwart them.  Not surprisingly, Susan has a crush on her handsome colleague, and he doesn’t play with her affections when he returns from his missions. Eventually, Bradley confronts his chief adversary, Eastern European arms dealer Tihomir Boyanov (Raad Rawi of “Traitor”), and holds the garrulous gangster at gunpoint.  The wily Boyanov refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the nuke and calls Bradley’s bluff when our hero threatens to shoot him after a ten count.  Unfortunately for Boyanov, Bradley suffers from a bout of hay fever, sneezes suddenly, and accidentally shoots Tihomir in the skull.  This is just one of several surprises that may catch you off guard in this entertaining, above-average, thriller parody.  Later, Bradley renews his hunt to locate the nuke, and he pursues Boyanov’s haughty daughter Rayna (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”), but she gets the drop on him.  Naturally, Susan watches in horror when Rayna murders Bradley in cold blood.

Predictably, Susan’s superior, CIA Deputy Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney of “Juno”), finds herself in a fix because the opposition now knows the identities of her surviving field agents.  This doesn’t deter brash, loudmouth, CIA Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham of “The Transporter” franchise) from demanding Crocker assign him to the case.  Mistakenly, Ford believes the CIA possesses a miracle machine that enables agents to change their faces so Ford can save the day. (Remember the John Woo extravaganza “Face/Off” (1997) where John Travolta & Nicolas Cage swapped mugs?) Livid that he has been lied to about such a bizarre gizmo, Ford threatens to quit the Agency and storms out in a childish tantrum.  As a last resort, a reluctant Crocker decides to deploy Susan as a field operative to shadow Rayna and learn who has the nuke. Susan is dying to play spy, but Crocker saddles her with a variety of uncomplimentary aliases that take advantage of her frumpy figure.  These sidesplitting identities yield some of the biggest laughs in “Spy.” In her first disguise, Susan grumbles that she resembles “someone’s homophobic aunt.”  The CIA refuses to equip her with exotic, James Bond-style gadgets.  Instead, Susan gets a whistle that shoots poison darts, an anti-fungal ointment that shatters locks, and stool softeners designed to counteract the effects of deadly toxins!  Nevertheless, armed with these derisive disguises and gadgets, Susan embarks on a European itinerary that shuttles her from Paris to Rome and finally Budapest. Not only does she manage to locate the wicked Rayna and fool the devious dame into believing her father hired her as a bodyguard, but she also comes to grips with an elusive Al Qaeda-aligned terrorist, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale of “Snakes on a Plane”), who wants to use the bomb to devastate New York City.  Along the way, Susan has to tangle with the unruly Ford.  Ford claims that he is shadowing Susan to shield her from danger, but the reverse occurs with our heroine saving Ford from one debacle after another.  Essentially, Ford makes a colossal clown of himself in one scene after another, and you may have an enema laughing at his foolish blunders.  When Susan isn’t dealing with Ford, she has her hands full with a female double-agent.  The best fight scene in “Spy” has Susan brawling to the death with a female adversary, Kia (Nargis Fakhri) who doesn’t grimace even after our heroine shoves a knife through one of her hands.  Along the way, Susan commandeers a number of vehicles, including a motor scooter, a car, a private jet, and a helicopter so she can preserve civilization from her homicidal foes.

Undoubtedly, brawny action star Jason Statham delivers the second best performance in “Spy.”  Nothing prevents him from ridiculing his own tough guy persona with a heretofore unbelievable sense of go-for-broke abandon.  Statham is shameless as McCarthy’s egotistical counterpart.  Nothing in his cinematic resume will prepare you for Statham’s outlandish antics.  Indeed, this is the farthest afield that the buzz-cut British actor has gone, especially after his terminal villainy in “Furious 7.”  As Susan’s CIA basement colleague Nancy B. Artingstall, British actress Miranda Hart of the “Call the Midwife” television series knows how to steal scenes, too.  Hart proves to be a revelation as a prim and proper lady who has spent too much time sequestered in the same CIA basement as Susan.  Hart figures prominently in the last half-hour as she shows her incredible accuracy with a rifle.  The comedic camaraderie between McCarthy and Hart is something to see.  Hart has a wonderful way of playing her comic scenes in straightforward fashion that makes them frantically funny. Rose Byrne has a field day as the malevolent Rayna, too, and Susan pokes fun at Rayna’s piled-high hair to the point that it, too, constitutes another running gag in “Spy.”

Basically, nobody gives a bad performance in this exhilarating action comedy.  Furthermore, although this is a comedy, writer & director Paul Feig doesn’t pull any punches.  “Spy” lives up to its rowdy R-rating with loads of profane dialogue that will have you in stitches.  At the same time, some characters get their heads blown off in halos of blood, while politically incorrect laughs ensue. For example, our dauntless heroine engages in a no-holds-barred battle with an intimidating brute on a balcony. During the scuffle, she knocks her adversary off balance and sends him plunging from the balcony where they have been swapping blows.  Susan’s ill-fated adversary lands on rebar and ends up with a steel spike sticking up out of his chest.  Dropping a knife that she had wielded earlier in the fray, Susan watches in dread as the blade impales itself in her dead opponent’s chest.  So unsettling is the sight of the dead man’s skewered corpse that our heroine showers him with a torrent of orange vomit!  Feig stages several obstreperous, bullet-riddled action scenes with not only Jude Law gunning down lots of bad guys, but Susan (obviously abetted by a stunt lady) beats the holy crap out of several, thick-shouldered thugs.  At another point, our heroine jabs her finger into a villain’s bullet wound and probes it ruthlessly to bring him around to her way of thinking.  In interviews about “Spy,” Feig claims that he has enjoyed Daniel Craig’s 007 movies and sought to imitate them because he knew he would never get a chance to helm one.  Clearly, the $65 million budgeted “Spy” is the movie that will put McCarthy over the top so she can wave goodbye to second fiddle roles.  Altogether, “Spy” qualifies as a riotous, rip-snorting saga that will have you laughing your anus off, especially the end credits bedroom scene between McCarthy and Statham.

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