Paul Feig’s latest movie gives Melissa McCarthy her best and realest character since Bridemaids.

Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper in Spy.

Photo courtesy Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy have already proven they know how to make beautiful music together. In Feig’s Bridesmaids, McCarthy made an impression amid a cast of offbeat comediennes in the small but pivotal role of the groom’s etiquette-challenged sister. Her character was always uncouth, frequently bizarre, and sometimes downright gross. Yet she remained essentially, and unmistakably, a warm and decent person throughout, worthy of the audience’s love (and the lust of the sweetly pervy air marshal played by McCarthy’s real-life husband, comic Ben Falcone). 

But since Bridesmaids, not all McCarthy’s films have found that sweet spot. McCarthy’s next movie with Feig, The Heat, a buddy-cop comedy that paired her with Sandra Bullock, was less skillful at harnessing that quality of basic goodness that flows from McCarthy’s screen presence as if from a tap. Oh, she had some inspired flights of improvisation as a Boston street cop with anger issues, as did Bullock, playing a prim federal agent. But The Heat never quite decided who McCarthy’s character was: One minute the audience was being urged to pity her loneliness, the next to laugh merrily at her rageful tirades. And the bland Identity Thief, an awkward vehicle co-starring Jason Bateman and directed by Seth Gordon, presented McCarthy as an outlandish grifter, then softened her ragged edges—not to mention subjecting her to a humiliating eleventh-hour makeover.

The third McCarthy-Feig collaboration, Spy—a raunchy and surprisingly gory parody of James Bond–style espionage adventures—puts McCarthy in the solo starring position for the first time. Though she has many collaborators, nemeses, and romantic interests—some of whom switch from one status to another as the movie goes on—McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, a CIA paper-pusher–turned–spy, is the sole heroine of the movie. Its success rests on not only the skill of her performance—we all know Melissa McCarthy can bring the funny—but on the dramatic integrity of her character. Spy is by no means as good an all-around movie as Bridesmaids, but thanks to Feig’s adroit screenplay, it sometimes reaches that film’s satisfying wholeness of characterization.

Susan Cooper is a loyal CIA bureaucrat. Though she’s snidely referred to as a “lunch lady” by one male colleague, Susan is actually a certified agent, working a desk job at headquarters as the indispensable in-ear advisor of the suave globe-trotting field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Susan has a crush on Bradley that she does a woefully bad job of hiding, but he seems oblivious, though he clearly values her as a colleague. Propelled by a combination of unrequited love and professional ambition, Susan volunteers for a dangerous international mission involving a rogue nuke on the black market.

What makes the mission dangerous is the complex network of bad guys facing Susan, and Spy offers a multiplicity of juicy comic villains. In addition to Bridesmaids’ Rose Byrne as the spoiled daughter of a deceased Bulgarian arms dealer, there’s Bobby Cannavale as an amoral Euro-terrorist and—in the movie’s most noteworthy supporting performance—Jason Statham as the buffoonish Rick Ford, an arrogant fellow agent who quits his job in a huff when Susan is given the plum assignment he coveted. Pretty soon everyone’s cover is blown as Rick trails Susan from Paris to Rome to Budapest, Hungary, popping up in various bad disguises to brag of his past spying exploits. (In one extended monologue, he describes such macho triumphs as reattaching his own severed arm using only the remaining arm.)

Rick’s macabre account of his own injury is hilarious, but there are a lot of scenes of people getting hurt in Spy that aren’t so fun. For a lightweight genre pastiche, this movie contains a lot of pretty explicit gore: fight scenes replete with the sight and sound of bones being wrenched from their sockets; a man impaled on a yardlong piece of reinforcing steel bar; another man who drinks a poison that dissolves the flesh of his throat. There’s also an ongoing subplot featuring Peter Serafinowicz as Aldo, an Italian agent obsessed with trying to cop a feel of Susan’s ample “bosoms,” or whatever else he can get a handful of, even in moments of extreme peril. The Aldo-Susan relationship may feel borderline offensive to some viewers, but it didn’t bother me and often made me laugh, whether because of the Labrador-like guilelessness of Aldo’s incessant pawing or the weary matter of factness with which Susan rebuffs it.

Not to give too much away about who does what with whom, but Spy treats sexual intrigue among its characters in an unorthodox way that I really appreciated—there’s not just one potential romantic partner for McCarthy’s character but several offered up at different points in the movie. Also unorthodox in a Hollywood film (though thankfully growing slowly less so) is the warm treatment of female friendship. Susan’s most important relationship may be with her work buddy Nancy (the wonderful Miranda Hart), a colleague back at CIA headquarters who’s now serving as the in-ear advisor for her in the field. By the time the delirious final action sequence arrives (Helicopter chases! Briefcases of diamonds! Statham in a speedboat!), Susan has not only proven wrong the boss (Allison Janney) who once doubted her crime-stopping prowess but also become an object of erotic interest to several other characters in addition to Aldo the horndog. Spy lampoons sexism without abandoning sex—a tough tone for a comedy to strike but one that Feig and McCarthy manage to accomplish with both a sense of justice and a sense of humor.

If you see Spy, stay through the end credits for two reasons. First of all because they’re delightful credits, which plot out a variety of ridiculous future missions and undercover personas for the once-meek, now-empowered Susan. And secondly because there’s a tiny scene at the very end, apparently an outtake, that provides a subversive twist, hints (subtly, for once!) at the possibility of a sequel, and also shows McCarthy making one of her fellow actors, and then herself, laugh so hard they break character and ruin the shot. It’s endearing to see McCarthy’s co-star cracking up at the actress’s comic brilliance—after all, we’ve just spent two hours doing the same.