Spy, directed by Paul Feig and starring Melissa McCarthy, is probably the best secret agent spoof since Austin Powers.
The Emmy-winning star of Mike & Molly plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who works behind a desk and, through an earpiece, guides slick 007-type Bradley Fine (Jude Law, offering up an excellent parody of Jude Law) through his high-stakes field missions. He gets all the glory, while Cooper — who harbors an unrequited crush on Fine — is tasked with firing his gardener and picking up his dry cleaning.
In reality, she's an incredibly gifted agent herself, both physically and intellectually qualified for the job. But the desk is what she knows. It's safe and familiar. (We learn that Cooper's mother's favorite sayings tellingly include "Well-behaved women often make history" and "Just blend in, let someone else win!")
But when Fine is killed in action by Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who is genuinely a revelation as a giant-haired, homicidal mean girl), Cooper steps up. She knows everything about the case, but no one knows anything about her. She might as well be invisible; the agency she works for certainly treats her that way.
Spy plays institutional sexism for laughs, to great effect. The spy gadgets that — in a different movie, for a different hero — might be concealed within a cigarette lighter, a briefcase, or a natty bowler hat are customized for Susan Cooper to resemble a rape whistle, antifungal spray, stool softener, a jumbo pack of hemorrhoid wipes, and, in a stroke of gonzo brilliance, a Beaches watch.
While Fine gets to assume sexy cover identities like executive and race car driver, Cooper is forced to don a cat sweater and a gray wig to embody Penny Morgan, a divorced Iowa housewife with a formidable porcelain doll collection.
"Maybe I should be married to one of the dolls, just to make it sadder," Cooper gripes.
She's assigned only to track and report on her targets, but Cooper ultimately goes rogue. In the field, Cooper transforms into the confident, capable badass with a filthy mouth who, really, she always was. Importantly, this metamorphosis takes place without a male catalyst — there's no need for a Henry Higgins, or whatever the hell Freddie Prinze, Jr.'s name in She's All That was — but on the strength of Cooper's drive and instincts alone. She also ditches her frumpy CIA-assigned threads to get glammed out in a sleek black dress. It is an all-too-rare treat to see a movie acknowledge the objective truth that Melissa McCarthy is gorgeous.
Whether she's wielding knives, guns, or even her phone, McCarthy proves to be a bona fide action hero. Watching her kill the hell out of a bunch of people is a pleasure. The Bridesmaids MVP's gift for insult comedy is also on display here, especially in the film's latter half: Cooper tells Rayna she's dressed like a "slutty dolphin trainer," and threatens to insert her fists into two of a Boyanov henchman's orifices until they meet in the middle, playing "[his] heart like a fucking accordion." From her, this is poetry.
Beyond his wildly talented leading lady, Feig recruited an almost unbelievably stacked cast. Jason Statham turns in a tour de force performance as Rick Ford, a brazen, wonderfully stupid agent who brags that he's immune 179 types of poison. (He knows, because he's ingested them all.) I'm sorry, Jason Statham, but we're going to need you to only do comedy from now on. Welcome to your new career.
Other supporting players worth mentioning are Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, and Peter Serafinowicz as Aldo, an amorous-to-the-point-of-borderline-sexual-assault CIA cooperative in Rome.
Out in theaters today, Spy is by no means a perfect movie. The first act is slow, the script's super-high joke density generates a few clunkers (wait, why was the CIA basement cartoonishly infested with vermin?), and the fight scenes don't feel particularly novel in their direction. I'm pretty sure the following sequence happens at least three times: someone we like is about to get shot by someone we don't like, but then, just in the nick of time, an unseen third party shoots the person we don't like. Phew!
But I will be disappointed, and surprised, if Spy doesn't get a sequel. If this is what we can expect from Feig and McCarthy's highly anticipated Ghostbusters reboot, then, well, holy shit.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.