Melissa McCarthy’s new vehicle, Spy, is a considerable mess of a film that has trouble grabbing you at first but leaps the ramp in its midst and, gladly, recovers. In the process, though, it fails to clearly tell its story, and that’s a real shame. Because it’s a pretty good story. It’s a shame it got so horribly lost.
The usual spoiler alerts apply. If you read beyond this paragraph, you may find details integral to the plot. I’m not going to offer every detail, just the points that bug me. You have been warned.
Now. Here is the story of Spy, a story the move fails miserably to reveal to its viewers: Susan Cooper (McCarthy) works as a real-time logistics agent for the CIA. This means that her job is to use satellite tools, along with body cams and mics on the agent, to provide instant intelligence for her asset on the ground. It is a job she has been at for a decade.
Cooper feels stuck and dissatisfied with her life. Not to mention, her side of the department is severely underfunded. Despite these obstacles, Cooper is usually able to save the life of field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). He is ambushed and killed in the field, and during this incident they learn that all of their top agents have been compromised. The enemy knows their names.
The agency needs an agent who is not known. Fine’s death and her own ennui drive her to volunteer for the mission. Because of the mission’s urgency (something about an nuclear weapon blah blah blah), Chief Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) opts to put Cooper in the field. And here comes the point of the story where Spy fails.
I mean, it gives you hints. There is one scene where she takes the controls of a private aeroplane and can do so because of some preternatural schematic that drops into her brain, which is shown by a series of embedded graphics, and there is another time when she is eluding capture that we see the same graphics to indicate that she has some sort of instinctual brain compass that allows her to zig when her pursuer has zagged.
As I recall these are the only times the film portrays Susan Cooper’s superpower. And that is the story it fails to tell, what I believe to have been the original pitch of this movie.
Susan Cooper has spent a decade sitting at a user interface, steering skilled espionage workers through often life-and-death obstacles. But she always credits the agent more than herself. Then she goes into the field. And she discovers that all of those years, all of that experience, actually translates into practical skills that are useful in the field. In fact, she discovers a recall of skills and proclivities that she did not know she could access. She has become a sublimely skilled field agent. This realization and its application is the arc of our protagonist’s story. And this movie flubs it.
I mean, to be honest, I’m just speculating about what the writers originally intended. I had to infer the story’s details because it is that under-told in this film. So, I may actually be making this up.
Don’t get me wrong, Spy is worth seeing, if you can make it through the first mucky hour of it. Had it stuck to its story throughout, though, or at least the story I was forced to glean from it, it would have been a more enjoyable time. That and a few nitpicky things as follow:
~ Cooper is partially motivated by a goofy crush on Agent Fine. This is not necessary and I think detracts from Cooper’s character. General ennui and an envy for another field agent, Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin), would be motivation enough for this character. In fact, I’m thinking a friendship between Cooper and Walker might have been more interesting than her friendship with comic relief pal Nancy (Miranda Hart). I dunno.
~ Jason Stratham is wasted here. His Rick Ford is an aggressive blowhard and in truth should have been fired from the Agency long ago because he is not even a good agent. I think Stratham is better as a restrained and often bewildered badass like the one he played in Snatch than he is like this.
~ I am not a prude about language in movies, but really? Really? F F F F F F F F? Really? Too much reliance on the F bomb, folks. Here’s a weird idea. Write some dialogue.
Fortunately, Spy starts weak but finishes strong. McCarthy proves again that she is one of the best physical comics in the biz. But I think that Spy invested too much in trying to utilize that energy rather than focusing on what could have been an interesting story.