The introduction of Will Smith’s Lance Sterling in Spies in Disguise wouldn’t be out of place in a Tamil film. He is fighting a villain who looks eerily like Cyborg from the DC universe giving his big villainous speech. A piece of rousing, foot-tapping music is playing in the background while he is making his entry and exit from the stupendous scene. He is also spouting catchphrases (or as we call them here, punchlines) as well as going all Kingsman (or Rajni/Vijay/Ajith...you get the drift) on the multitudes of the main villain’s henchmen. I think if Hollywood ever made masala films, Will Smith and Tom Cruise would definitely be superstars of the genre.
The plot here is wafer-thin as is usual for these films — following the typical protagonist’s journey from hero to zero to hero again. Lance Sterling is the cynosure of all eyes, the best spy agent in the world. But the villain manages to outsmart Sterling and turns him into a scapegoat. The vain, pompous Sterling now has to get help from the only person he trusts: Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a prodigious talent who works in the gadget department but is treated like an outcast, even by his own peers. However, in true animation film style, there comes a catch — Sterling is transformed into a pigeon during this whole sojourn.
Make no mistake, I have nothing against masala films. When done well, they entertain like very few genre films do. And Spies in Disguise is one such. Though it takes a lot of inspiration from spy films across the years, especially the more popular ones, it has such fine writing across the board and is so self-aware, that I enjoyed it a lot.
The humour ranges from silly puns such as Beckett naming himself “Bond. Hydrogen Bond” to some wonderful slapstick comedy after Sterling turns into a pigeon and talks about being able to see both his butt and Beckett’s face thanks to his newly gifted 360-degree vision. Every scene accentuates the natures of both Sterling and Beckett — be it the former drinking from a self-made ‘World’s Best Spy’ cup or the latter’s love for Korean love dramas. This writing brings out the contrast really beautifully and what ensues is some of the best comedy Will Smith has been a part of since Hancock (another movie where Smith plays a vain world-saving superhero).
But what is a masala film if it doesn’t have an overt message? Spies in Disguise doesn’t disappoint there either. Smith’s Sterling believes that “when the bad guys hit you, you hit ‘em back. You have to fight fire with fire.” But Holland pushes back saying, “When we fight fire with fire, we all get burnt.” While this might be a bit jarring, given recent political happenings in this country and around the world, I can’t help but think that this empathy is what is needed to bridge the gap today. The theatre I watched was more than half full of children, and this film, as family-friendly as it comes these days, has its heart in the right place. Maybe Beckett is not wrong after all. Glitter does make people happy and when people are happy, they don’t fight.
Movie: Spies in Disguise
Director: Troy Quane, Nick Bruno
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones