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Tuesday
Aug072018

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Female Bond-ing

On a lark, I paid to see The Spy Who Dumped Me Saturday night. At best, the trailers promised a sufficiently bone-headed action/comedy; at worst the movie looked like a forgettable endurance test. To my great surprise, I really enjoyed the movie, and immediately posted the following on Facebook:

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

The reaction was swift; the judgment definitive. With a few exceptions, my community of friends and colleagues let me know that I'd made a terrible error in judgment--possibly due, per one theory, to some bad marijuana.

Before moving on, I'd like to correct the record, and apologize for leaving out a ">".

Spy movies and spy-movie spoofs are a dime a dozen. Between the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises; the Fast/Furious series (which inexplicably turned street racing criminals into international persons of mystery); and genre send-ups as literal as Spy and as tenuous as Pitch Perfect 3, espionage actioners have become as ubiquitous as comic-book movies. So the prospect of sitting through another one didn't exactly thrill me, despite the presence of the reliably unpredictable, infinitely watchable Kate McKinnon.

Director Susanna Fogel and co-writer David Iserson embrace a lot of conventions while sidestepping others in their story about Audrey, a grocery store clerk whose newly-exed boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), turns out to be an elite CIA operative. Drew's last mission ended disastrously, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Audrey and best friend/aspiring actress, Morgan (McKinnon). They need to deliver a flash drive containing Planet-Threatening SecretsTM to someone in Vienna--all the while being pursued by motorcycle-driving hit-men, Ukrainian assassins doubling as an Olympic gymnastics team, and other CIA agents, who may or not be in league with the hit-men. Or the Russian mob. Or the Chinese mob.

We get high-speed chases and monologuing villains; shoot-outs with faceless thugs and the inevitable Big Double-Cross (not to be confused with the half-dozen "They're Not Who You Thought They Were" revelations). But our protagonists remain recognizably human throughout the film--or as recognizably human as semi-exaggerated comedy characters can be. Audrey knows how to fire a gun, yes, and Morgan's dashed dreams of joining Cirque du Soleil come in handy when fending off a killer disguised as a harlequin Borg during the finale. But there's no elaborate training montage, no trip to Q's gadget shop, no magical transformation from check-out girl to video-game mega-brawler.

Sure, The Spy Who Dumped Me dips greedily into the Spy Movie Cliché Cookie Jar (and often goes back for seconds), but does that criticism hold up when sites like ScreenCrush gush over Christopher McQuarrie's use of "homage" in setting up his Mission: Impossible: Fallout climax? I guess it's my fault for confusing "Easter Eggs" with lazy screenwriting. But I digress.*

Speaking of that Tom Cruise juggernaut series (which, until Fallout had, in my not-so-humble estimation, defied movie-franchise odds by improving with each subsequent entry), the praise surrounding it mostly stems from the fact that Cruise performs all those really dangerous stunts himself--sometimes resulting in physical injury and always resulting in truly spectacular set pieces.

But I'm past the point where stunts are enough to sustain me for two-and-a-half hours. When Tom Cruise pulls a Vic Morrow on set (God forbid), maybe I'll once again emotionally invest in one of his big-screen spectacles--similar to the way Heath Ledger's death added a new degree of urgency to seeing The Dark Knight when it opened. Until then, my days of being impressed by a multi-gazillionaire leaping off of things while supported by the best safety teams money can buy in service of a crummy blockbuster are over--much like this ranting aside.

Audrey and Morgan survive this insane adventure using their innate wits and resourcefulness--not to mention a very strong friendship and more than a smattering of luck. It's only a semi-spoiler to say that they're helped along the way by another CIA operative named Sebastian (Sam Heughan), since his loyalties are as much in question throughout the film as the ultimate fate of that flash drive. This allows our heroes to get in and out of some pretty scary situations without the story losing all credibility, while also giving Audrey some much-needed context regarding her relationship with Drew.

Speaking of scary situations, Fogel directs the hell out of The Spy Who Dumped Me's action scenes. This is as much a legit action film as it is a "chick flick", and I can't recall another film recently that cared enough (or was competent enough) to treat both sides of the dichotomy with such care. We've all seen the slow-mo walking-away-from-an-explosion scene, but Fogel gives us a high-angle view of the destruction, trading fireballs for chunks of gray rubble and Drew walking just enough apace of the damage to indicate that he'd messed up his exit plan. There's a mistaken-identity shoot-out in Vienna later on; a tiny-street car chase; and that Cirque thing I hinted at earlier--all handled with the you-are-there intensity of the best modern Bond films and the comic terror of two young women who've suddenly traded swiping right on their phones to swiping right to knock a bike-riding killer into a wall.

My one major critique is Fogel and Iserson's overt injection of feminism into Audrey and Morgan's dialogue. We see that these capable yet vulnerable women are smart, resourceful, and don't need to rely on capital "M" men in order to live successful lives. Their romantic hang-ups are obstacles to overcome, as they would be for someone of any gender, but they don't prohibit the characters in ways unique to the so-called gender war. Yet, there are several scenes in which either Morgan or Audrey complain to themselves or to the men around them about issues that the screenwriters fail to establish as being relevant outside their own heads.

Drew is the lightning rod for these semi-misguided aggressions. When he meets Morgan, for example, immediately after having met and fallen for Audrey, Morgan corners him and gives the "If You Hurt My Best Friend, I'll Kill You" speech. Drew accuses Morgan of being "a bit much", which sends psychic shockwaves through Morgan and becomes a point of heartfelt conversation betwen her and Audrey later in the film.

Maybe because I watched this film from "a guy's" perspective, I had trouble fully grasping Drew's alleged offense. As played by McKinnon, Morgan is a bit much: the whole point of her character is to be the loud, audacious, over-protective best friend. Yet Drew's calling her out on that harsh truth seems to have triggered something deeper, perhaps the unwritten code that prohibits men from using words like "bossy" to describe women--regardless of how a particular woman might demonstrably treat those around her.

For the record, "bossy" men are just as obnoxious as "bossy" women in my estimation, and should either be respectfully called out on their nonsense or ignored completely. See Drew's casual exit from the scene described above as a glowing example.

Later on, Audrey confronts Drew for having left something very important with her during their break-up--effectively using her apartment as a stash-spot while he flies around the world completing missions. Audrey asks if he'd assumed hers would be the perfect hiding place because there was never any danger of her going anywhere. The subtext is, of course, that the guy gets to enjoy freedoms that the woman is denied while she keeps the cave warm in anticipation of his return. Not gonnna touch that one--except to say that, in this particular case, Audrey is correct in her assumption about Drew, and Drew was correct in assuming that Audrey did, in fact, provide the perfect cover.

During the year that they dated, Drew, a government-trained judge of character and behavioral patterns, likely picked up on the fact that check-out-girl Audrey never showed interest in doing anything beyond working at a Trader Joe's knock-off; that she talked about going to Europe but never made plans to actually get on a plane; that she never mentioned changing apartments, moving across town, or even leaving the state. Drew's plan might just as easily be boiled down to keen espionage skills as old-fashioned, sexist underestimation.

Fogel and Iserson offer a fine counterweight to their characters' problematic views of the opposite sex in the form of Gillian Anderson's MI6 head operative, Wendy. Morgan takes a particular liking to her, constantly asking if she and Audrey can become official government spies (regardless of the fact that Wendy works for a different government). Morgan tries the "girl power" move, and is summarily shot down by this no-nonsense leader who realizes that saving people's lives is a nobler goal than embracing an agenda.

Creators can write and shoot whatever they want, and I'm sure there's a strong contingent of moviegoers who are well-served by seeing people like themselves on screen delivering empowering, reinforcing messages in their entertainment. I'm simply suggesting that this film's narrative actually undermines some of those messages, rather than underscoring them.

If, by some miracle, we get a sequel (The Spy Who Dumped Me Again?), I hope that Audrey and Morgan take the meta-lessons learned from this adventure and see their lives as kicking ass, rather than needing asterisks.

*Heh, even I'm not immune from clichés.

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