Has there ever been an action comedy where the action steamrolled the comedy the way it does in “The Spy Who Dumped Me”? The example that leaps to mind is “Beverly Hills Cop II,” and that was a disaster of misplaced ’80s bullet-spray machismo, a betrayal of the mouthy spark Eddie Murphy brought to the original. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is no debacle, but it’s an over-the-top and weirdly combustible entertainment, a movie that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a light comedy caper or a top-heavy exercise in B-movie mega-violence.
Audrey (Mila Kunis), a Los Angeles organic-market cashier with lank brown hair and an attitude to match, and Morgan (Kate McKinnon), her righteous feminist BFF, wind up in the middle of a high ballistic espionage caper after it turns out that Audrey’s absentee boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), is a cutthroat operative working for the CIA. Before the story gets rolling, we see him in action, busting through walls and dispatching continental goons and leaping out a window onto a truck in a single take worthy of Tom Cruise at his most stunt-happy. This could almost be the prelude to a Jason Statham movie, and the audience thinks, “Okay, they must be trying to get us in the mood.”
Once Drew is shot to death in front of Audrey, she and Morgan attempt to carry out his mission by taking the package he was carrying and flying off to Vienna to deliver it to his contact at a café. We still think the movie is setting us up for a romp: the female version of a Will Ferrell buddy farce, or maybe a cousin to law-enforcement comedies like “Spy” or “The Heat.” Not that “The Spy Who Dumped Me” needed to follow those formulas — it has every right to be its own thing.
But what a thing! The laugh lines arrive on cue, yet most of the time they don’t fully register as comedy (more like filler), because the picture is so bent on being an extravaganza of straight-faced mayhem. That Vienna café, for instance, explodes into a bloody free-for-all (machine guns, daggers, crashing bodies), and the key sign of what we’re in for occurs at the brutal payoff, when a man gets his head plunged into a pot of fondue — and it is not, repeat not, a joke. It’s just a cool way of killing someone. (It would actually have been funnier if Jason Statham had done it.)
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” has knife fights and car chases, double crosses and betrayals, a Euro-trotting structure that takes our heroines from Vienna to Paris to Prague to Berlin, a suavely good-looking agent (Sam Heughan) who may or may not be on their side, a Russian assassin (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s like an android gymnast with invisible eyebrows, a Cirque du Soleil climax that features Morgan on a trapeze, and more jibber-jabber than you can stand about a flash drive that contains Information That Will Save Countless Lives. There are a dozen gun blasts for every laugh, yet taken on its own terms the movie is far from incompetent — if mid-period “Die Hard” is your standard. It’s difficult to have much investment in anything we’re seeing, but at least one dimension of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is fully alive, and that’s Kate McKinnon’s twinkle-of-killer-attitude performance. There are moments she salvages the movie.
The proverbial danger for any “Saturday Night Live” performer who tries to make it on the big screen is that they’ll come off as too sketchy and lightweight, too mired in overly familiar late-night personality tics. Yet McKinnon, in “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” breaks out of the warmed-over “SNL”-shtick ghetto. She plays Morgan as a post-#MeToo renegade, and there’s nothing harmless or cute about her comic attack. With her fiercely popping eyes and hungry grin and bone-dry sarcastic delivery, McKinnon is like Bette Davis channeling Fran Lebowitz. When she’s introduced to Wendy (Gillian Anderson), a major domo of MI6, she says, “You’re the boss, and you have not sacrificed one ounce of femininity.” McKinnon knows how to play a line like that so that it cuts in two directions at once: She means it, but she’s also sending up her own look at this! bitches can truly have it all boosterism. Her sarcastic sincerity is a tonic that stings.
Brandishing an attitude like that, and with the right vehicle, Kate McKinnon could rule in the movies. But “The Spy Who Dumped Me” isn’t that vehicle. It’s a new sort of sister-power action concoction, and the director and co-writer, Susanna Fogel, shows an undeniable audacity in refusing to make the comedy too goofy-girly-coy. Yet “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is so freighted with heavy-duty generic set pieces that it never establishes the kind of free-air zone in which the laughs could take wing.
At one point, our heroines land in an apartment that they think is a safe haven, but their host, played by the always delectable Fred Melamed, turns out to be an enemy spy. Yet he’s an absurdly debonair one. When he gazes at Morgan with a raised eyebrow and asks, “Are you a lover of Balzac?,” she replies, “Less and less, with every experience.” I would have traded the entire overbuilt thriller-package apparatus of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” for half a dozen jokes that insanely old-school corny-funny.