And so we go back to 1991, where haggard spy Nathan Muir (Redford) is retiring from The Agency, but wouldn't ya know it -- that very day, his old protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has gotten captured on a mission in Eastern China. And Tom is going to be executed -- when? In 24 hours, of course. And the CIA isn't going to save him. In fact, they're trying to paint him as a crazy renegade unaffiliated with the U.S.
If you manage to swallow this rather sizable pill of a plot, you'll probably be able to eke a pretty good time out of Spy Game, which packs a fair amount of spills and chills in spite of Tony Scott's ridiculously bad direction.
Most of Spy Game plays out not in the field but in a conference room, where an Agency committee has convened, we slowly learn, to perfect its smear campaign against Bishop, whose sanctioned presence in China would threaten trade relations with the country. His mentor Muir is brought in to help build the case -- but, equally slowly, we learn that Muir is undermining them with every passing hour. He has a trick up his sleeve, but what? Perhaps if we journey back to 1975 and trace the relationship between Old Spy and Young Spy we'll be able to piece it all together.
Well, it's not that tough. The movie's script (courtesy of Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island) and David Arata (Brokedown Palace)) is simplistic to the point of eye-rolling boredom. The opening scene, wherein Bishop is captured, is one of the least thrilling introductions to an action film ever put on celluloid. Scott (Crimson Tide) is reduced to intercutting shock zooms with slow motion in order to try and make it thrilling, unsuccessfully. To build "suspense," he relies on an ill-conceived title card conceit to continually warn us that Bishop's execution is only hours away!
While the scare tactics backfire and Spy Game borders on getting silly, the movie ultimately redeems itself through the cocky antics of Pitt and the even cockier antics of Redford, who plays perfectly the role of spook. (Redford fans may recall a similar performance in Sneakers, where his mysterious hacker -- curiously, named Bishop -- also kept turning the tables on the suits.) And while the first half hour of Spy Game had me yawning, the last half of the film picks up considerably, when our fellas find themselves in a shitstorm flashback to Beirut, all while Muir's plot all comes together in the present. The late-breaking action more than makes up for the weakness at the get-go, which might explain why my initially giggling audience ended up loudly applauding the finale.
Unfortunately, I never got what I wanted out of Spy Game, and that's the game part of things. The only real moments of levity (Muir's one-liners aside) are during Bishop's training, a flashback sequence that comprises five minutes of screen time. How to work a room, how to manipulate strangers, how to build a bomb out of a jar of pickles -- these are the things we want the spy guys to teach us! I could care less about the cryptically veiled father figure/prodigal son thematics Scott tries to work into the film, never quite succeeding at it. His structure ends up no different than any "retiring cop" drama, though we are fortunately reprieved from the party and cake.
Overall, Spy Game earns my barely-recommended mark, and oddly enough I think it's the set design that puts the otherwise mediocre film over the hump. Whether Bishop is driving a clunker through a cobblestoned Berlin or dodging bullets in a war-torn Lebanon, we're there. A notable sequence features one terrorist driving an explosives-loaded truck into a building -- the shades of 9/11 are uncanny as the structure collapses in an all-too-vibrant fireball.
I don't know if most viewers are ready for such realism, but if the hyper-real explosions don't grab you, maybe the depth of Redford's wrinkles will.
Spy Game gets the deluxe treatment on its collector's edition DVD, featuring 10 hours of material, including a Matrix-style behind-the-scenes feature that lets you jump to extra footage in the context of the film. Two commentary tracks provide extra insight, but the alternate/deleted scenes are throwaways -- the "alternate ending" isn't really alternate, it's just longer. I guess "longer ending" doesn't sell quite as well.... Spy Game is also the first Universal disc to feature its new "Total Axess" DVD-ROM features, which give even more extras to PC users.
Spyin' and suppin'.
Run time: 126 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 21st November 2001
Box Office USA: $62.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $143M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Metropolitan Filmexport, Toho-Towa, Beacon Communications, Kalima Productions GmbH & Co. KG, Red Wagon Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Fresh: 87 Rotten: 45
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Robert Redford as Nathan D. Muir, Brad Pitt as Tom Bishop, Catherine McCormack as Elizabeth Hadley, Stephen Dillane as Charles Harker, Larry Bryggman as Troy Folger, Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Gladys Jennip, Matthew Marsh as Dr. William Byars, Todd Boyce as Robert Aiken, Michael Paul Chan as Vincent Vy Ngo, Garrick Hagon as CIA Director Cy Wilson, Andrew Grainger as Andrew Unger
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