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Jason Statham is a man of many talents. In previous lives, he was a championship diver, martial arts master, and a fashion model before making a seamless transition into acting via a variety of tongue-in-cheek action movies culminating in Statham's inevitable joining of the Fast & Furious family. Spin-off Hobbs & Shaw finds him tussling with fellow bald and hard-man The Rock. Before that, though, Statham took on a comedy heavyweight in the form of Melissa McCarthy.
When Spy writer-director Paul Feig caught Statham in the ludicrously entertaining Crank movies, he knew instantly the tough-as-nails action star could do comedy even if, at the time, it was the furthest thing from his repertoire. Statham's Crank character was in on the joke but the actor still played it straight, which made his portrayal even funnier. For the role of super-spy Rick Ford, a turtleneck aficionado with more than a few tall tales about his illustrious career ("I drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while it was on fire. Not the car, I was on fire") and a sandpaper-rough Cockney accent, Feig only had one man in mind. Statham was the last person anybody else would've considered for the role, and yet it fit him like a perfectly tailored suit (of his own creation, natch).
Ford's refusal to accept newcomer Susan (McCarthy's previously desk-bound agent) as his equal is similar to how Shaw dismisses man mountain Hobbs who, as far as he's concerned, could never blend in the way Shaw can due to, well, looking like The Rock. Still, neither Shaw nor Ford is necessarily a bad guy. They're both smug, self-assured pricks, but it's impossible to hate either because they do get the job done every time – albeit in the most ludicrous manner possible.
Rick Ford is a truly brilliant creation, loaded with bravado but completely clueless once he's lost or, rather, thrown away the job that defines him. In vast contrast to Jude Law's suave Bradley Fine, Ford is rough and impulsive. There's a frequently hilarious juxtaposition between Fine's suited and booted Bond-lite (though the British Law, weirdly, sports an American accent for the role) and Ford's bald, turtleneck-sporting, and foul-mouthed east-ender (listen for how he punctuates each "fuck"). Ford is a bit like Daniel Craig's Bond, only with even less patience. When he appears in a brand new suit out of nowhere, confusing everyone, he deadpans "I fucking made it, didn't I?" as though it makes perfect sense.
Statham's is an intensely controlled performance that bounces perfectly off McCarthy's amiable persona, their relaxed back-and-forth growing sharper as Susan gains the confidence to fight against her detractors. Both play it straight, which gives the jokes room to breathe without any nudge-nudge-wink-wink posturing. McCarthy is, naturally, the looser of the two. Statham's poise as a model and diver serves him well; he's very exact with his timing, spitting out lines at speed but always enunciating (as with the many "F" bombs). Many of his funniest lines were fed to the actor on set by Feig, which gave him seconds to nail them and then deliver them deadpan. His performance is taken to another level when you consider Statham didn't necessarily get to rehearse these moments.
It's worth mentioning, too, that Law, who has considerably more experience in lighter fare, isn't nearly as comfortable doing comedy here. While performing an impression of a crazy cupcake, Law overplays his hand by relying on exaggerated facial contortions. Contrast this with Statham listing all the things he's done that everyone told him he couldn't – "walk through fire, water-ski blindfolded, take up piano at a late age" – without a shred of irony. Hell, the first time we meet Ford, he's trying to force the other agents to admit there's a Face/Off machine somewhere in the building that he's not allowed to use. In less capable hands, these moments would play too broadly, but Statham has the control, honed through years of selling death-defyingly insane stunts and playing gangsters who will do anything for their cut, to keep everything in check. He sells the insanity as the mundane.
Spy is McCarthy's film but, just as her fledgling agent has to prove herself against a disbelieving commanding officer (a take-no-shit Allison Janney), her worried BFF, Nancy, and all manner of bad guys, she also has to shake off Ford at every turn. As the film flits around various European hot-spots, Ford repeatedly shows up to compromise Susan's mission, most memorably appearing out of the darkest corner of her hotel room to brag about speaking in front of Congress as Barack Obama ("In black-face? That's not appropriate...") and, later, sitting behind Susan in a cafe dressed, as Nancy points out, as though he's in Newsies. Ford keeps going on about how stealth he is but, hilariously, the super agent blows his cover at every turn.
In fact, the one time he actually shows up in disguise, it comprises a wholly unconvincing ensemble; bad wig, sunglasses, moccasins, and a shiny seventies-style shirt. On the dance-floor of an exclusive club, Ford moves about erratically, the only time his veneer cracks slightly. Scrambling around with Susan on the floor, his slippery shoes throwing him off balance, the two trade barbs as Ford accuses her of wanting him (a joke that will pay off hugely in the film's final moments, when they end up in bed together). Then, after talking himself up throughout the movie, Ford's big moment sees his coat catching on a doorknob, leading him to fall and knock himself out. Waking up, he asks if he caught the bad guys. Even after embarrassing himself in front of everyone, Ford still believes he's the greatest agent of all time.
There's never even a whisper that he could be a double agent, so committed is Ford to the cause. Although he drives Susan nuts, going so far as to grab on to her legs as she clings to a departing helicopter, while yelling "I've done this before!" and chastising the woman for not wearing coarser pants(!?), Ford means well, as she acknowledges herself. He's not a complete asshole, just a bit of an uptight nerd. When Ford complains that he's watched everyone he's ever loved die in front of him, Susan suggests it's because they're all killing themselves to get away from him. He's a pain in the ass of everyone around him, but Spy kicks into high gear whenever Statham appears onscreen, particularly when he's "hiding" in the background.
In a film in which Peter Serafinowicz plays a pervy maybe-Italian who almost runs away with the whole thing, Statham still manages to be a standout. Maybe it's because the role was such a departure or him, and a massive shock to the system for anybody with even a passing knowledge of his previous work. Even Statham himself acknowledged he wasn't sure he could do it, having turned down every comedy script he'd been offered prior out of fear the material wasn't the right fit. But once Feig assured him he could play it completely straight, as though Spy were a serious espionage thriller, Statham was sold. In fact, it's easy to see a through-line between the 2015 movie and Statham's slotting seamlessly into the F&F universe, where he's also proven to be a scene-stealer.
Rick Ford was a great way for him to hone the action-comedy chops he's putting to use opposite The Rock, et al, encapsulating his essential brawn, brashness, and bravado but still with the requisite edge to tussle with someone like Hobbs or Susan who, as the movie unfolds, starts to snipe back at him, which only spurs Ford on. Fittingly, Ford gets Spy's last big laughs, too, first making a big show of speeding off in a boat to clear his head ("Do you think he knows that's a lake?" asks Nancy), and later rolling over to a disgusted Susan in bed and telling her to shut up 'cause she loved it. In contrast to his arrogant attitude over the rest of the movie, Ford even cuddles up to her, suggesting he might be a big softie underneath it all. Whether Hobbs and Shaw are heading in the same direction remains to be seen, but we live in hope.