Ridiculous questions about the funniness and bankability of women have clouded exactly what's going on here: Nobody is a better comedic actor right now than Melissa McCarthy.
She's a combustible ball of comic fury rolled up in Chaplinesque sweetness, equally capable of profanity-laced verbal virtuosity as perfectly timed pratfalls. In her latest, the espionage comedy "Spy," McCarthy dons a host of identities, a closet full of wigs and — in order to stay undercover but really just to switch things up — essentially changes her entire performance midway through.
It's a globe-trotting tour of McCarthy's talent, throughout which she's practically always kicking butt. Who was that double-O-what's-his-face, anyway?
"Spy" is the third collaboration between McCarthy and director Paul Feig, who first came together on "Bridesmaids," and followed that up with the very solid buddy comedy "The Heat," with Sandra Bullock. They're soon to embark on a female-led update of "Ghostbusters," too, which is fitting because their partnership is beginning to resemble that of Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman.
Everything they've done, starting with the sensation of "Bridesmaids," has been surrounded with both justified praise and tiresome overemphasis on the female-ness of their enterprise. "Spy," too, is in many ways a great inversion of the Bond world, casting men like Jude Law as the eye candy on the side while the center of the movie is played out between women: McCarthy and Rose Byrne's snobbish, high-couture villain.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a contentedly desk-bound CIA operative accustom to aiding far more elegant and suave field agents like the tuxedo-clad Bradley Fine (Law, a one-time Bond candidate enjoying the brief fantasy of virtually playing the super spy). While Fine pursues supervillains at a Bulgaria casino, she's whispering in his earpiece, monitoring above from a drone and swooning over his out-of-reach glamour.
Cooper, though, is far away in a Langley headquarters cubical, where the immediate concerns are more humdrum: mouse droppings and birthday cakes. Feig lingers perhaps a tad too long in the film's first section, but it's to a purpose: "Spy" is in many ways a workplace comedy about the indignities a capable women must suffer in a male-dominated profession.
When well-to-do arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Byrne) outs all of the CIA's field agents, Cooper volunteers to go undercover. But the big promotion isn't all she dreamed of: When prepared for her covert gig, she's handed no poison-firing Rolex or a souped-up Porsche, but gadgets hidden in fungal spray and hemorrhoid wipes. Her fake identity isn't much more exotic: Carole Jenkins, mother of four.
Once in Europe, Cooper, outfitted as a tourist, is completely out of place in the "Casino Royale"-like realm of elite espionage. It's a world that surely doubles for superficial Hollywood, where those who resemble McCarthy are seldom let under the velvet rope.
At one high-priced dinner, she blurts an order of wine "with the grit of a hummus." An agent shadowing her, Richard Ford (Jason Statham) resents her intrusion, while another, the absurdly passionate Italian agent Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) continually gropes her.
Statham nearly steals the film by playing a parody of his own grave, gonzo persona, popping up occasionally to attempt wildly unsuccessful feats of action stardom. The cast, generally, is likable, rounded out with British comedian Miranda Hart as a fellow desk agent and Bobby Cannavale as a terrorist trying to acquire a nuke.
Cooper, it turns out, is surprisingly gifted in combat (the jokes, thankfully, aren't about her bumbling inadequacy), and she steadily thrives by capitalizing on the underestimations of others. Particularly good is the interplay between McCarthy and Byrne, who deliciously oozes disgust at McCarthy's unrefined Cooper.
"Spy" is the biggest budget for Feig and the action sequences are unexpectedly robust — perhaps too much. While entirely enjoyable, it ought to be a tad funnier; the set pieces clunk it up at times. It's almost as if Feig is actually gunning for Bond territory. But with McCarthy in tow, why not?
"Spy," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R for "language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity." Running time: 122 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP