Spy [2015]

I’ve got to make a little confession before I can post anything substantive on this. I went to see it because it looked like it had a majority-female cast, rather than because I was particularly intrigued by the publicity or any of the reviews. It’s kind of a patronising starting point, expecting a film to be mediocre-at-best, but willing to pay GPB11-ish on the off chance that a solid box-office return for a film starring an overweight woman in her mid 40s might encourage the nascent trend to continue. Who knows, if enough “genre” films starring women make enough money at the box office, we could see something like gender equality outside of the “weepy melodrama”. Obviously this Armageddon-ish scenario is still a way off.

The other bit of house-keeping is that this film is one of Hollywood’s classic doppleganger films, following closely on the heels of Kingsman: The Secret Service, in much the same way as within a few months we had Deep Impact and Armageddon, or the re-launching of James Bond in Goldeneye at the same moment in time as bringing Mission Impossible back from the dead. Hollywood loves its like synchronicities, so I personally can’t read Spy without thinking about Kingsman. This is mostly bad for Kingsman.

The first question about any comedy is fundamental – does it make you laugh? I yet again had what is an irritating experience at a comedy in a UK cinema, being that I was conscious quite often that I was the only one laughing. It seemed like for the audience as a whole it comfortably passed Kermode’s “6 laugh” test, but for me it was easily double that. In fact, Jason Statham probably got 6 laughs by himself.

The first question about any spy story is more complex, about the melange of trust, plotting, execution of heist story components, villainous charisma, style, geo-politics, commentary… The simple answer to that complex question is that this film does do the core spy story from the Hannay/Bond school of dashing all over the place chasing after this and that, offing minions and generally spreading mayhem.

In a more general summary, the film moves along at a good pace, doesn’t over-play its hand in terms of any plot particulars, and wastes the bare minimum on any kind of exposition. If that means that the plot does feel a little generic, it also means it’s the whole focus of the drama, compared to Kingsman which tries to mesh a world-spanning conspiracy with an extended training montage.

Beyond the shallow and obvious, we can ask whether it tells us anything new. Comedy operates by finding odd incongruities and discontinuities and pointing them out. The weird juxtaposition of elements is the basis of humour. With a “genre” comedy, the question is always whether the humour is operating on the basic level of ordinary comedy or whether it’s telling us something deeper – does the word “satire” ring a bell? This is an area where, say, 22 Jump Street functions pretty well by continually meta-textually commenting on itself, but where, say, Death by Murder doesn’t, because it sacrifices all genre functionality while making the attempt. The biggest ploy Spy makes in this regard could easily be summarised as “what if women were actual characters instead of trophies and sideshows”? What’s different about a female-centric comedic CIA?

Spy comprehensively out-performs similar spy-out-of-water films like I Spy [2002], Johnny English [2003] and Get Smart [2008]. It’s better than classics like Casino Royale [1963] and Top Secret [1984]. But what made  Austin Powers [1998] virtually the king of the genre was its incisive and sharp critique of genre conventions. Austin Powers far more successfully executed a Bond-esque spy caper while highlighting the many many problematic aspects of the genre, from its retrograde gender politics to the fate of nameless minions, to the insecurity of the so-called hero of the story. As the series went along there were serious mis-steps in a rapid downhill slide, but it started on a high. Spy just doesn’t seem as smart or as durable – it scores palpable hits on all the misogynist weak spots of the genre without challenging the global genre structures.

In other words, when the spy is a female instead of a male, the story functions identically, but there is a change in the surface dressing. That surface dressing addresses gender political questions, and skewers the weakness in your Bond-esque testosterone-fest, but I kept hoping it would go further in addressing the basic imbalances and iniquities of the intelligence “system”. Grading this film, it gets an A, tantalisingly close to that coveted A+.

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One Response to Spy [2015]

  1. Pingback: Snapshots of 2015’s Films & Television | My One Contribution To The Internet

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