“Desk duty,” according to the longstanding lore of the spy movie, is a punishment—for going rogue, for fumbling a mission, for generally falling down on the job. For Susan Cooper, however, desk duty isn’t retribution. It’s a career. Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a CIA agent whose agent-ing is done in a vermin-infested basement in Langley, is a spy who is treated like a secretary: Competent and cooperative, she Gal Fridays agents in the field to successful missions by way of cameras and earpieces. She hears “I couldn’t have done it without you” a lot. But her success as a secret operative is, for the most part, only vicarious. Susan’s spy name, she informs a fellow desk-bound agent, would be “Meatball Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.”
Susan is also, inconveniently, in love with the field agent she works with most closely, the James Bondian Bradley Fine (Jude Law, doing a passable British person's version of an American accent)—who acknowledges her feelings by variously insulting her, taking advantage of her, flirting with her, demeaning her, and complimenting her. Taking her out to a fancy dinner to express his gratitude for her assistance (“I couldn’t have done it without you”), he gives her a necklace—packaged, to add insult to injury, in a ring-sized jewelry box—whose pendant is a comically large, anthropomorphized cupcake. “I know how much you like cake!” he explains.
Susan is, in other words, the woman many woman struggle against becoming: unsatisfied, accommodating to a fault, in love in a way that is literally hopeless. She is very much not, we are meant to understand, Living Her Best Life. All of this, however, belies the most salient fact about Susan Cooper, CIA agent: She is extremely good at her job. She is smart and resourceful and patient and steady in a crisis. When people tell her they couldn’t do it without her, they mean it. So when Fine is taken out of commission by the Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, doing a passable Australian person's version of a British accent)—and when Rayna reveals that she’s in possession of a nuclear bomb that she has hidden in Europe—Susan volunteers to take Fine’s place in the field. Partly because of the hopelessly-in-love thing, but partly, too, out of the conviction that she’d be just as good away from the desk as behind it.
The CIA’s head spy, Elaine Crocker (the wonderfully deadpan Allison Janney), approves the scheme. Since Rayna has figured out who their current field agents are, they conclude that they need someone “invisible” to track her to the bomb. And Susan, Crocker informs her, dead-panningly, is the most invisible person they can think of.
Much of the comedy in the first half of Spy comes from the insults casually lobbed at Susan—about her appearance, about her demeanor, about her gender. CIA engineers, preparing her for the field, give her new identities, all of them in the “cat lady” vein (one of them: a divorced housewife from Iowa who sells Mary Kay makeup and collects porcelain dolls; another: a single mother of four who is excessively fond of sweatshirts). They provide her not with the tools typical of Hollywood secret-agent badassery—lipstick daggers, collapsible guns—but rather with the stuff of supposedly sad single womanhood: a blow-dart in the guise of a rape whistle, chloroform in the guise of hemorrhoid wipes, poison antidote in the guise of stool softener. The engineers of Langley also give her a night-vision scope housed in a Beaches watch, and a hairstyle reminiscent of the one Vicki Lawrence wore in Mama's Family. This is the stuff of Miss Congeniality, basically, only Susan’s makeover swaps a bandage dress for a sweatshirt festooned with cats. “I look like someone's homophobic aunt!” Cooper complains, legitimately.
So it’s pleasantly jarring when Spy’s real transformation takes place, and when it becomes clear that the change will have very little to do with Susan’s appearance. She uses her time in the field to come into her own—as an agent, but also as a more basic badass. She’s fast with a gun and even faster with a quip. She’ll find a way, if the situation calls for it, to weaponize a cast-iron skillet.
Susan’s job in the field—a traipse around Europe that includes stops in mansions and casinos and nightclubs in Paris, Rome, and Budapest—is to “track and report,” gleaning intel about Rayna but not interacting with her. When things go predictably awry, Susan ends up interacting not just with Rayna, but also with a menagerie of murderers who are working both with and against the arms dealer. She does so with the help of her friend Nancy (Miranda Hart), who takes over as Langley’s designated earpiece whisperer, and of Aldo (“like the shoe store found in American malls!”), an aggressively amorous Italian agent (Peter Serafinowicz). She does so, also, in spite of the appearance and reappearance of Rick Ford (the several-scene-stealing Jason Statham)—a rogue agent who has endured, and survived, pretty much every type of torture (bombs, gun shots, dips into tubs of acid) that the James Bondian canon has to offer, and who, like pretty much everyone else in this fictional CIA, is a fan of insult comedy.
“Are you going to seduce him?” Rick asks a cat-ladified Susan, of a target.
“Why is that so hard to believe?” she shoots back.
“Because,” he replies, “you look like a flute player in a wedding band.”
But while Spy threatens, at first, to become that most boring of things—an extended joke about a fat lady—it transforms that threat the way Susan transforms herself. The takedowns that animate the film are buoyed by sharp, sitcomic writing (“could this hotel be more murdery?” Susan asks of her Paris digs) and by plots that twist with the speed of any good thriller. Just as Susan abruptly evolves, so does the movie’s scope. The insults soon get aimed at people who are more deserving of them: incompetent colleagues, international arms dealers, incompetent international arms dealers, etc.
Spy is also redeemed, more importantly, by the fact that Susan herself is never the butt of any of the comedy here—not really. She is insulted, repeatedly, but the jokes here are ultimately directed not at Susan herself (who doesn’t, after all, get all gooey around a crush? what kind of monster doesn't like cake?). They’re directed instead at a culture that treats someone like her as, in every sense but the most literal one, invisible. Spy isn’t simply a send-up of James Bond and Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne and every other spy who has enjoyed the initials of JB; it also satirizes a society that can so stubbornly refuse to see people for who and what they really are. Spies traffic in covert identities; so, writer/director Paul Feig suggests, do people like Susan Cooper—people whose awesome is obscured by other people’s failures of vision.
Which makes Spy, ultimately, yet another incarnation of the oldest tale there is: the story of a woman who is way more badass than she seems to be. It’s Cinderella and Pretty Woman and The Sound of Music and The Princess Diaries and She’s All That and pretty much every teen movie ever made, only with blow-darts and Lear Jets and vom jokes. But the badassery, importantly, is defined here not by looks or the interest of princes, but by competence. Spy is about women—field agents, support agents, criminals, bosses in every sense of the word—who are very good at their jobs. It is also about men who are not very good at theirs. There's Ford, all swagger and silliness; there’s Fine, simpering and suave and smarmy. Susan, in the field, dispatches with men quickly and easily; it’s the women who put up a fight.
In that, Spy is in league with so many other movies of this summer—Pitch Perfect 2, Mad Max: Fury Road, the recently announced, all-female Ghostbusters (another McCarthy/Feig collaboration)—and of years past (Bridesmaids). These are films that are, like Spy, notably casual in their feminism. Their celebration of female accomplishment and friendship doesn’t announce itself, in spotlit Beyoncé fashion; it just is. These movies ace the Bechdel test. But they do it quietly. They certainly don’t congratulate themselves for it. They suggest, all in all, that the unassuming woman Aldo ends up referring to as “lady super spy Susan Cooper” is at once exceptional and not at all an exception. They suggest that it is possible to be humble and successful at the same time. And they suggest that feminism itself can be that way, too. “I’m not one to toot my own horn,” Cooper says of her super-spying. “But you know what? I'm gonna toot.”