Almost from the very start, the James Bond films have been affectionately lampooned by comics and satirists. In the 1967 version of Casino Royale, David Niven played an absurdly suave and unflappable older Bond, and Our Man Flint (1965) starred James Coburn as a preposterously competent international spy and ladies' man. The problem, of course, is that the actual Bond films are often sillier than the spoofs, and you have to go pretty broad to stand any chance of getting a few laughs.
n this regard Paul Feig's Spy cannot be faulted, because it sails over the top early and often as it tells the unlikely but amusing story of a novice female agent. After a very Bond-like opening complete with bombastic animated credits, we watch a suave, tuxedo-wearing international secret agent called Bradley Fine (Jude Law) punch, kick and shoot his way through an enemy base in eastern Europe, helped by a warm and helpful voice in his earpiece.
This belongs to Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), his desk-bound partner, who has grown weary of watching Bradley kick ass across the globe while she languishes obscurely in a soulless Langley CIA office.
Susan also has the hots for Bradley, but he toys with her affections and takes her devotion for granted. She's worried when he cuts corners in tracking down Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the ruthless daughter of a Hungarian criminal, and is devastated when Rayna turns the tables on Bradley and shoots him dead.
A nuclear warhead is on the loose, and Rayna is ready to sell it to the highest bidder. She's also managed to blow the covers of all the CIA's top field agents, so if she's to be stopped a complete unknown will have to be used.
Enter Susan, whose offer to step into the breach is initially pooh-poohed by her haughty boss (Allison Janney): she's clumsy and frumpy and hasn't fired a gun in anger for years. But when Susan's thrown into the breach in Paris, Rome and Budapest, sporting a series of outlandish disguises, she proves more resourceful than anyone could have expected.
There's a strong British element to Spy's supporting cast: Jude Law was once considered for the role of the real Bond, and can play arrogant rakes in his sleep. He's perfectly fine as the annoyingly self-satisfied Bradley, but Miranda Hart seems ill at ease and out of place playing Susan's chatty work buddy, Nancy. Her comedy tends to rely on a very English awkwardness that has not been accommodated by Feig's script, and she doesn't get on too well with the few jokes she's given.
Jason Statham, on the other hand, is to be applauded for his bravery in enthusiastically taking the rise out of his tight-lipped hard-man image. He is Rick Ford, a ludicrously touchy and hysterical CIA man who's always resigning in a hump and is way too keen to resort to violence.
Like Cato in the Inspector Clouseau films, Rick keeps turning up when you least require him, to get in the way and make things worse, and Statham has great fun playing a pantomime stooge instead of a killer.
Sometimes Paul Feig's film tries a bit too hard to be funny, but it has an old-fashioned charm that compensates for its occasional crudities. Mr Feig understands Melissa McCarthy's comic talent very well, and knows that it has sometimes been misused. He directed her in Bridesmaids and The Heat, and here presents her with a well-written role that isn't merely comic.
In Spy McCarthy isn't just the butt of the jokes, she's a kind of hero, and spends much of her time reacting imperiously to other people's nonsense.
She's very good, and so is her Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne, who yet again displays her natural flair for comedy playing a spoilt and very possibly psychopathic heiress. The film works best when they're together, and is pretty enjoyable overall.