For their third collaboration, Spy, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy have found a groove to match the latter’s ferocity. As CIA desk jockey Susan Cooper, McCarthy could have easily been the flailing sad sack she played support to in Bridesmaids (okay) or The Heat (better), and played herself in last year’s inert road trip comedy, Tammy. Trace elements are there: Cooper’s unrequited infatuation with operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law, whose resemblance to Connery’s 007 is uncanny); putdowns from superiors and rude service from a bartender (who gives preferential treatment to a glamorous agent); an expressed desire to be more than a voice in someone’s earpiece. Given her chance out in the field, after agents become compromised by an arms dealer (Rose Byrne) looking to sell a nuke, she’s given a series of frumpy, unflattering cover identities. She’s initially awkward, too, blundering through a posh, Roman casino before stumbling on her target. Enemies and allies (Jason Statham as an inept rogue agent, always as funny as McCarthy) are equally incredulous of the woman before them.
Cooper never falters, though. She shoulders these upsets, throwing in some sarcastic barbs worthy of Bill Murray when she can, constantly aware of the job at hand. Why wallow in self-pity when WMDs are in enemy hands? The film’s best, non-Statham bits play off this hyper-competence with how she and others view her. When cornered by a knife-wielding flunky, she falls to the ground. Dressed as a housewife, and holding an unloaded gun, she appears helpless in the moment. Cooper seizes on her enemy’s certainty, breaks his ankle, then unleashes a beating which leaves him dazed and tumbling over a rail to his death. Stunned by her first kill, Cooper vomits on the man’s corpse.
From there on, she becomes incrementally more confident; any mistakes she powers through. J.J. Perry’s stunt choreography–shot with clarity by Feig and edited briskly by Mellissa Bretherton and Brent White–builds around McCarthy’s heft: she tackles and judo throws assailants who underestimate her. When protecting Statham while undercover, she feigns clumsiness, blocking guards with her frame and knocking them over. In the presence of an assassin aware of her determination, she grabs dishes and pans to block incoming knife attacks. Like Paul Walker in Furious 7, she looks great replicating close-quarters panic. The suggestion throughout Spy is Cooper was already at this level, but operating in a stifled work environment. She can’t be contained, though. Won’t be. It’s a hopeful sign McCarthy can and will only get better, more audacious.