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4 June 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:11pm

In Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, the Moneypennies trump the Bonds

These back-room frumps whisper instructions into the earpieces of tuxedo-wearing spies out on the casino floors, or save them from pursuers by launching strategic missile attacks at a moment’s notice.

By Ryan Gilbey

Spy (15)
dir: Paul Feig

There isn’t room to slip a croupier’s chip between the James Bond films and the movies that purport to send them up. Parody would have a hard time attaching itself to any series in which the hero uses crocodiles as stepping stones (Live and Let Die) or masquerades dubiously as Japanese (You Only Live Twice) but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying to paint funny faces on a franchise that was half daft to begin with.

Now that Austin Powers and Johnny English have been quietly retired, the field looks clear for Susan Cooper, the CIA agent played by Melissa McCarthy in Spy. The picture hinges on an original idea, proposing that the real power might lie not so much with the Bonds of this world but with the Moneypennies. These back-room frumps whisper instructions into the earpieces of tuxedo-wearing spies out on the casino floors, or save them from pursuers by launching strategic missile attacks at a moment’s notice. Job done, they go for drinks after work and fail repeatedly to attract the bartender’s attention.

When the identities of a team of secret agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to leave the desk job behind and track down the villain responsible for endangering the lives of her colleagues, including the debonair Bradley Fine (Jude Law). One of her undercover identities demands that she wear slacks, a perm wig and a shocking-pink windcheater. The rest aren’t so glamorous.

But a Melissa McCarthy vehicle that didn’t put its star through the wringer, aesthetically speaking, would be unlikely to find much favour. It isn’t that she sacrifices her dignity, though defecating in a sink in Bridesmaids, her 2011 breakthrough hit, brought her closer than most. Her journey, which must be restaged with minor variations each time she plays a new character, is predicated upon triumph in the teeth of humiliation. She can come within a hair of outright collapse and no further.

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Identity Thief, in which she played a garish white-trash criminal, represented a convincing revenge on behalf of the female, working-class, Pilates-averse characters suppressed by mainstream culture. The 2013 cop comedy The Heat, where her coarseness doubled as an ongoing rebuke to the delicate refinement of her co-star, ­Sandra Bullock, was the most effective harnessing yet of McCarthy’s brashness for comic purposes. Like Bridesmaids and The Heat, Spy was directed by Paul Feig, a film-maker perfectly attuned to her mix of the fragile and the galumphing. (She’s like a demure bulldozer.) It is Feig who will also direct her in the forthcoming all-female reworking of Ghostbusters.

No surprise, then, that the power in Spy is held by women. Susan’s boss Elaine (Allison Janney) is both dangerous and eccentric, like a pair of crinkle-cut scissors. The baddie is a snippy Bulgarian arms dealer, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), with whom Susan develops a rapport. (“Have you ever been on a private jet?” sniffs Rayna. “No,” Susan shrugs, “but I got upgraded once to Premium Economy.”)

The only person cut from the same cloth as Susan is her co-worker Nancy, played by Miranda Hart in a miraculous transfer of her own fingers-and-thumbs TV persona. There is always the risk that she and McCarthy will cancel one another out competing to fall over the same props, but in fact they generate a mutually beneficial comic chemistry. Any pursuit of romance and career glory comes a distant second and third to maintaining their friendship.

The trailer for Spy.

Spy is awfully funny, mostly at the expense of its men. Just as Susan is rendered doubly ridiculous next to Rayna, so Bradley’s glamour leaves the scowling tough guy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who claims to have once driven off a motorway and on to a train while on fire, feeling distinctly unappreciated.

There is also an Italian secret agent (Peter Serafinowicz) with dismal patter (“I’m Aldo! Like the shoe store found in American malls!”) and a Q-style gadgets wizard (Michael McDonald) whose heart isn’t in it (“I’d have to turn the printer back on and I don’t really want to . . .”).

Most encouraging is the film’s female bias, which clears the air after the last attempt by the same studio (20th Century Fox) to put a comic spin on Bond. That was Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman, which couldn’t even imagine a world where women had agency, let alone one that permitted them to become secret agents.