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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Spy, Review: Mel iss a delight

Spy, Review: Mel iss a delight

Spy thrillers have spawned spoofs by the dozen, ever since James Bond’s maiden foray, Dr. No. (We can discount the earlier Casino Royale). Almost all of them were done in the farce/slapstick style. Here comes one that is part satire, part tribute, but laced with original entertaining punches. In spite of a protagonist who is a literal heavy-weight, and some off-colour jokes, writer-director Paul Feig succeeds in making the audience root for her, like a regular hero.

Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) infiltrates a cocktail party in Bulgaria, with the remote guidance of Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), who is seated in the CIA basement office in America. He encounters the head honcho Tihomir Boyanov (Raad Rawi) underground and holds him at gun-point. Boyanov is about to sell a nuclear bomb to terrorists. Suddenly Fine's allergies act up and he sneezes, letting off a bullet that kills Boyanov, who had sole access to the bomb.

At CIA Headquarters, Head Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) tells a select group of agents that nobody knows where the bomb is, except Boyanov’s daughter, Reyna (Rose Byrne).

Fine goes after Reyna, but she shoots Fine in the head, and exposes all the agents in the CIA on the camera which is connected to Susan. Cooper discovers a list of numbers from Fine's spy-feed before he got killed. The numbers link them to De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), a businessman long suspected to be linked to terrorists; and who has an office in Paris. Crocker has no idea who to send (as all the agents' covers have been blown), until Cooper volunteers, to the chagrin of agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who walks out in disgust. Crocker then calls Cooper in her office and shows her a video from Cooper's training days. Cooper was the top of her class and was considerably aggressive, but placed herself in the job of analyst, to the advice of Fine, instead of being an active agent. Crocker then gives Cooper, an over-weight, puff-faced, matronly woman, a former teacher, mother of two, and a divorcée, her first ‘identity’, and sends her off to gather her personalised set of gadgets, and head to France.

Paul Feig’s profile on Twitter says “Paul is a guy who wears suits and tries not to screw things up. He also directed Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, & soon, Ghostbusters. On another website, he says, “When I was a student at USC film school, my taste in movies made me sort of the least respected member of my class. While my peers where waxing rhapsodic about Godard and Renoir, I was obsessed with ET, Star Wars, and the Marx Brothers.” There is a lot of the Marx Brothers in Spy, and a lot of James Bond.

Bond’s original Chief was M (Miles Messervy), who was later replaced by a woman Chief, also called M, played by Judi Dench. In Spy, the CIA Chief is a woman. There is a car in focus in several Bond films, an Aston Martin. It is a BMW here. In most Bond films, there is a scene in the weapons/gadgets department, headed by a humourless Q. You will find the same here, though he is, obviously, not called Q. Almost all of Bond’s missions are overseas, shifting from Western bloc countries to Eastern bloc nations. Likewise, Spy takes you from Bulgaria to France to Hungary to Italy. Eve Moneypenny is the Secretary in M’s office who has a massive crush on Bond. Penny Morgan is an alias of Susan Cooper, who is a kind of ‘secretary’ in the CIA headquarters. Bond often pairs with CIA agent Felix Leiter; Cooper’s partner, MI6 agent Aldo (who is gross and eager to bed Susan) is a re-working of Leiter. 

With so much ‘inspiration’, one would have thought that Spy would peter out into a run-of-the-mill spoof. That it doesn’t is largely due to Feig’s script and direction, and a bunch of spirited performances. Yes, the proceedings do tend to turn risqué, but every time that happens, we find a logical reason, mainly the characters’ motivation. The Indian censors have muted a few expletives, ruining at least one longish joke. In a film that has so many American characters, it is surprising to find some of them speaking with British accents. And the remote camera scenes, although well-executed, are a bit overdone. The restaurant name joke is ancient, but the take on wine is funny, as is the 'edible wet hand towel'. Aeroplane, helicopter and car stunts are well designed.

It is hard not to give major credit for the fun to Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, The Heat 2013). Feig worked with her in the FBI drama, The Heat, and, in all probability, wrote Spy with her in mind. A former stand-up comedienne, school cheer-leader and student of the Actors Studio, New York, McCarthy is totally disarming and a delight to watch. Even when she does the action scenes, she never goes over-board. Ready with the appropriate cuss word when angry, she becomes duly coy when the game changes. A real-life fashion designer, she uses her knowledge to don garbs and dresses that fit her, and suit her. Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Artificial Intelligence, Cold Mountain, Sherlock Holmes) appears to have been modelled after a mid-time Bond player, Timothy Dalton. He often stares blankly, turning nonchalant, and suave according to circumstances, even showing foolhardiness and bravura.

Australian actress Rose Byrne (another Bridesmaids carry-over) is slim, deadly and glamorous, an obvious inheritor of the James Bond femme fatale proto-types. Who could have imagined that Jason Statham would play a central role in a James Bond satire, and raise several laughs, as a boastful, conceited, dim-witted CIA agent who would only survive thanks to the presence-of-mind of the very woman he detested (McCarthy)? Bobby Cannavale (American actor, seen recently in Danny Collins, Byrne’s real-life boy-friend) is cast as bad man De Luca, a role that has nothing in common whatsoever with his Danny Collins incarnation, neither does it require the same histrionics. Miranda Hart (a comedy writer and actress, whose BBC 1 sitcom, Miranda, earned her many awards), in her film debut, plays Nancy, Susan’s asthamatic work-place colleague. Often delivering her dialogue in a square-jawed style, she is thin and tall, a kind of Stan Laurel to McCarthy’s Oliver Hardy. It’s good debut, and Miranda has comic talent beyond doubt.

Aldo, the MI6 operative, is played by Peter Serafinowicz, who speaks with an Italian accent almost right through. Some might find his actions and dialogue vulgar, and he is a bit awkward at times. Indian fans who were keen to see what Nargis Fakhri would be doing in Spy will marvel at her competence in the fight she is involved in, but be saddened by the fact that she has no speaking role to talk about, and the fight is all she is asked to put up. (Fakhri is a New York-born model whose parents are Pakistani--late father and Czech--mother, and was a model until 2010, when Indian film director Imtiaz Ali discovered her, and cast her in Rockstar. Subsequently, she acted in two more Indian films, Madras Café and Main Tera Hero).

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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