People have been making spy film parodies for almost as long as they have been making spy films. As early as 1951, Paramount cast Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy as both a sophisticated international spy and the bumbling stand-up comedian who happened to resemble him. Right from the start, this cinematic formula proved so incredibly successful that it began to have an influence on the source material and so many conventional spy films and TV series of the 1960s went out of their way to incorporate the kinds of sight gags and deconstructive energies that had once been used to mock the genre from the outside. Indeed, the only tangible difference between The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart is that Don Adams seemed to realise that his character was a self-important fool while Robert Vaughn did not. By the 1980s, the conventional spy film was so far beyond parody that Roger Moore was allowed to turn James Bond into the straight middle-aged equivalent of high camp while films such as Spies Like Us and True Lies functioned as both conventional action films and satirical comedies without even a trace of tonal dissonance.
The public’s growing inability to tell the difference between films about spies and films taking the piss out of spies also served to deprive espionage satires of their political edge. Despite realising that it was impossible to satirise a genre that had progressed beyond parody some twenty-five years previously, many filmmakers went down the path of producing broader and broader satires of a genre that no longer existed as anything other than a comic punching bag for hacks like Mike Myers or the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer partnership that would eventually wind up creating such cinematic monstrosities as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.
Though it is hard to think of a more degraded cinematic genre, the spy movie parody has nonetheless managed to produce a number of truly classic and devastatingly pointed films: Often imitated but rarely understood, Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe depicts the intelligence services as a bunch of self-important and unaccountable bureaucrats who spend all their time chasing their own tails in an effort to commandeer more power and funding from a political class that lacks the courage to recognise their pointlessness. Equally brutal is Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which depicts the French secret service as a bunch of racist thugs who use the trappings of state power to legitimise a playboy lifestyle that takes them from one sun-drenched swimming pool to another as women and members of marginalised groups look on in anger and disgust. Though Paul Feig’s Spy does not approach the savagery of either of these two films, it is an action/comedy that does action very well and a comedy with real satirical bite. Ostensibly a satire of Bourne-era spy films, Spy is best understood as an exploration of the Halo Effect and the idea that physically attractive people are anything other than a bunch of incompetent narcissists benefiting from society’s libidinous good will.
The film opens with Jude Law’s devastatingly attractive CIA agent Bradley Fine sneaking into a party at the home of a supervillain with a suitcase nuke. Fine dazzles his way past some female guests and sneaks into the villain’s office only to sneeze and accidentally blow the man’s brains out mid-monologue. Fine immediately begins apologising to his CIA handler who reminds him that she left his allergy medication in his jacket pocket. Fine is bashful… he didn’t even think to check and now the only man who knows the location of the stolen nuke is lying dead at his feet.
The relationship between Fine and his CIA handler Susan Cooper is absolutely brilliant as while Fine is the one who actually shoots people, it is Cooper who reads the situations and provides him with real-time tactical advice via his ear piece. This taken with Fine’s inability to take his own medication suggests that while the handsome white guy may get all the credit for his successful missions, he would be dead from his own stupidity were it not for the short, fat and supremely competent woman who tells him what to do.
The woman in question is played by Melissa McCarthy, the great discovery of Feig’s hugely successful Bridesmaids. At the time of its release, Bridesmaids was positioned both as an answer to the bromantic comedies of Judd Apatow and an excuse to revisit the old misogynistic saw about whether or not women are capable of being funny. While I have no interest in addressing such a profoundly stupid question, it is interesting to note that Hollywood tends to react quite badly to women who try to be professionally funny. When McCarthy followed Bridesmaids by making a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists gave her an award for Woman Most in Need of a New Agent. The Heat went on to gross over $200 Million from a $42 Million budget and it put Melissa McCarthy on the same bill as an actress who is not only one of the best-paid women in Hollywood but also the star and producer of the Miss Congeniality films that have themselves grossed over $300 Million. Why did Melissa McCarthy need to fire her agent? Because she took the opportunity to work with a man who understood her and a woman who has made a considerable fortune by starring in her own comedies. But what does McCarthy know? She’s just the chubby side-kick!
When Fine returns to the CIA, he takes Cooper out to lunch in order to give her a horrendous ‘thank you’ present. Supremely awkward, this lunch allows us to gain considerable insight into the pair’s working relationship as it portrays Cooper as a woman who is head-over-heels in love with a narcissistic sociopath who is more than happy to exploit her feelings for personal gain. A later scene further unpacks the unbalanced nature of the Cooper/Fine working relationship as it reveals that Cooper qualified to work as a field agent only to have her male mentor systematically undermine her confidence and channel her skills into a supporting role that allowed him to look good and so rise up through the agency’s pecking order. The agency’s female director even goes so far as to call this practice ‘sniping’ and explains that it is quite a common occurrence.
Not long after, Fine is apparently killed by Rose Byrne’s Rayna Boranov, the surviving daughter of the opening scene’s supervillain who uses the link between field agent and support agent to inform the CIA that she now has possession of the suitcase nuke as well as the real names of all the agency’s top field agents. Desperate for revenge as well as a chance to prove herself, Cooper volunteers to go into the field to help locate Rayna and the Italian playboy-cum-arms dealer who is helping her to sell off the nuclear weapon.
At first glance, Spy resembles a film about a woman paying her professional dues and proving to her superiors that she is capable of doing the job she wants. This theme is manifest in the way that the other field agents are opposed to the idea of a support agent who looks like Cooper going into the field. The primary voice of institutional doubt is Fine’s fellow field agent Ford, played by Jason Statham as a pillar of bluster who insists that a woman like Cooper would not be capable of enduring the hardships that are commonplace in the lives of field agents. Given that all of the field agents are incredibly well-dressed and attractive people, it is clear that the institutional resistance is really about how Cooper looks and so the film devotes itself to attacking the idea that social polish and physical attractiveness are in any way guarantees of professional competence.
The agency’s assumption that being hot is the same thing as being good at your job is also evident from the way that it sends Cooper into the field with a limited remit and a cover identity that actively emphasises her lack of conventional good looks. As Cooper complains, Fine would routinely go into the field as a successful business man but she is expected to go under cover as a series of frustrated middle-aged frumps with dorky hobbies and way too many cats. This imagery is particularly striking when considered in the broader context of how American action and comedy films tend to represent women.
Female characters are frequently accorded status depending upon their degree of sexual availability and their willingness to legitimise the identities of male characters. An excellent example of this principle is the difference between the status of the female characters in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and those in his follow-up film Only God Forgives. Both films are ultimately about rudderless simpletons striving to acquire adult identities by engaging in violence on behalf of admired female characters: Drive treats Carey Mulligan’s neighbour as an almost mystical and transformative presence because she is both sexually available to the protagonist and willing to legitimise his desire to be seen as a fully-functioning human being. Conversely, Only God Forgives has Kristen Scott Thomas’ crime lord character fill an almost identical narrative role only to treat her as a villain as she is sexually unavailable by virtue of being the character’s mother and completely unsupportive in that she seems to take great pleasure in questioning her son’s manhood and competence. Both characters effectively goad the male protagonist into acts of horrendous violence and yet only Kristen Scott Thomas’ character is coded as being unsympathetic.
This tendency to view female characters as sympathetic only in so far as they either support or have sex with the male protagonist is also common in American comedies including both The Simpsons and Family Guy where wives are portrayed as highly-sexualised enablers of behaviour that frequently borders on the downright manic. It can also be found in such Judd Apatow-produced films as Get Him to the Greek where Seth Rogen finds himself unhappily married to Elisabeth Moss’s junior doctor who provides neither sex nor emotional support while Russell Brand’s character moons over an ex-wife who was supremely sexually available (to the point of singing about her own arsehole) but proved unwilling to support his desire to get clean and live without drugs.
Spy begins as a film that quite explicitly buys into the misogynistic ontology perpetuated by mainstream American comedy. McCarthy’s Cooper is quite literally the woman who allows Fine to assume the identity of an international spy posing as a sophisticated business man and as such she yearns for the sexual contact that would allow her to become a proper person in the eyes of the world. The CIA’s decision to send her into the field dressed like a sexless hag is a joke that only works if you buy into the idea that Cooper’s goal is to be seen as sexually available by attractive men. This also explains why the only initial sexual interest she receives is from Peter Serafinowicz’s Italian agent Aldo who is so relentlessly sleazy that his interest in Cooper does nothing to legitimise her identity. However, once Cooper makes contact with Byrne’s Rayna, the film begins to transform into something altogether more interesting.
The change is to some extent foreshadowed by the Jason Statham character who keeps popping up and trying to convince Cooper to let him pursue Rayna alone. The interesting thing about Statham’s character is that while he begins the film as a kind of macho gatekeeper, he is slowly revealed as a blustering fantasist who cloaks his incompetence in a tissue of lies that becomes increasingly transparent the more Cooper relaxes into her job as field agent. Come the end of the film, Statham is seen jumping onto a huge phallic powerboat whilst shouting about taking it ‘down the coast’ only for the other characters to wonder how long it will take him to realise that he’s actually on a lake.
Rayna is, without a doubt, one of the finest comic characters to emerge from American cinema in recent history. Daughter to a supervillain, she is beautiful, ruthless and more than a little unhinged. In his book Why We Love Sociopaths, Adam Kotsko argues that the inequalities of our society have allowed sociopaths like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter to emerge as a kind of aspirational figure cum fantasy role-model:
In a society that is breaking down, the no-win situation of someone flagrantly cutting in line repeats itself over and over, on an ever grander scale, until the people who destroyed the world economy walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘bonuses’ and we’re all reduced to the pathetic stance of fuming about how much we hate that asshole – and the asshole also has the help of a worldwide media empire (not to mention an increasingly militarized police force) to shout us down if we gather up the courage to complain.
Kotsko views sociopathy as an indifference to human rules born of a fundamental lack of empathy. He suggests that we would normally view such people as pitiful because while they may jump the queue and get away with cheating on their taxes, their lack of morals and empathy should ensure that they will remain isolated figures who will never be able to enjoy the sense of togetherness and belonging that accompany following the rules and fitting in with your social group. The problem with this assessment is that it no longer rings true… while our society may punish some acts of out-and-out sociopathy; it also encourages us to ‘think outside the box’ and to become ruthlessly ambitious. At a time when sociopaths make fortunes and following the rules does not even guarantee that you’ll be able to keep your shitty job, people are naturally going to start fantasising about being able to shut down their sense of empathy and begin making the rules work for them:
We recognize our weakness and patheticness and project its opposite onto our conquerors. If we feel very acutely the force of social pressure, they feel nothing. If we are bound by guilt and obligation, they are completely amoral. And if we don’t have any idea what to do about the situation, they always know exactly what to do. If only I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think – then I would be powerful and free.
While our fantasies about sociopaths may paint them as people who are unrestrained by the unjust and arbitrary rules of human society, the realities of sociopathy often involve a past filled with abuse, a future doomed to shallow relationships and a present filled with violence, isolation and a pathological inability to recognise their own self-destructive behaviour patterns. As the beautiful daughter of a supervillain and inheritor of a vast criminal enterprise, Rayna is violent, ruthless and completely indifferent to the rules governing normal human interaction. However, rather than presenting this as a source of power, Feig presents Rayna as a profoundly troubled individual who is completely incapable of handling her own affairs.
Cooper initially makes contact with Rayna by presenting herself as a naïve middle-aged woman from the mid-west and Rayna unexpectedly warms to her as she reminds her of her mother, a woman viewed as an ugly clown by the people of her local community. Aware that Rayna cannot be allowed to die until she has revealed the location of the nuke, Cooper repeatedly saves her life until even Rayna realises that Cooper is more than a frumpy civilian. At this point, Cooper deliberately blows her cover and claims to be a private detective hired by Rayna’s father prior to his death. Once Cooper assumes this identity, the film becomes a series of glorious set-pieces in which Rayna and Cooper exchange withering insults and horrendous threats of violence as a means of bonding. Here we see Cooper inhabiting a more sustainable and accurate identity: A supremely competent and fully-rounded human being who is affecting sociopathic detachment as a means of passing for a member of a shallow and emotionally dysfunctional demi-monde.
Proving that creativity is not only about knowing when to depart from the canon but also which canon you choose to depart from, Spy is littered with action scenes that pay homage to the puckish tone of Jackie Chan. Despite his unequalled athleticism, Chan always steered clear of playing cool kids in favour of playing the talented ugly kid who somehow always came out on top. This singular power dynamic is beautifully recreated in a scene where Cooper is forced to fight for her life against a lethal assassin. As in Chan’s best films, the assassin wields conventional weapons while Cooper is depends upon improvised weaponry that accentuate the competence buried beneath her ostensibly unprofessional demeanour.
Aside from providing a succession of elegantly-clothed beautiful people who exist only to be defeated or unmasked as bumbling idiots, Spy also manages to steer clear of the sexist pitfalls that plague the action genre. Aside from the gloriously off-kilter friendship between Cooper and Rayna, the film also boasts a very strong friendship between Cooper and her support agent Nancy played by Miranda Hart. Hart is an interesting figure in the gender politics of contemporary comedy as she tends to play enormous mother hens whose supportive natures are ‘tragically’ undermined by their own incompetence and physical unattractiveness. Initially, Hart reprises this role in Spy as a means of providing the Cooper character with a less competent foil but the film gradually eats away at this cliché by allowing Nancy to emerge as a competent agent who manages to sexually dominate Fifty Cent by “straddling” him in the safety of his own helicopter.
By the end of the film, Spy has effected a complete reversal of real-world sexual politics: The beautiful, the incompetent and the masculine are defeated by conventionally unattractive but supremely competent women, forcing the CIA to take a long hard look at its own employment practices. Fine is revealed as a gorgeous empty suit who is easily cast aside while the incompetent Ford and Naldo are left to yearn for the triumphant Cooper.
Aside from its refreshing gender politics, Spy is also a film that argues for competence at a time when social polish and the ability to network have emerged as primary factors in determining whether or not someone will succeed in their chosen career. The film’s vision of the CIA holds a dark mirror up to a society that has broken down the boundaries between the personal and the professional to the point where colleagues are confused with friends and standing in front of someone watching them move their lips because you want to smell their hair is often confused with listening to them talk because they actually have interesting things to say. Much like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocols and… well… pretty much every spy movie made in the last twenty years, Spy reads like an extended defence of progressive hiring practices and of HR departments with the power to ensure that those hiring practices are obeyed. It really shouldn’t be radical to suggest it is a bad idea to hire people on the basis of your desire to either fuck or hang out with them… and yet here we are.