Plied with borderline-implausible layers of CIA subterfuge and ensconced in director Tony Scott's flashy, superficial visual assault style of ostentatious MTV filmmaking, "Spy Game" is an intrigue-and-action thriller that takes you on a great ride while not really being a great movie.
Like a turbo-charged Tom Clancey adaptation, much of the film takes place inside the hallways, offices and conference rooms of CIA headquarters, circa 1991. But since Scott is a purveyor of short attention span fare, every scene is punched up to a distracting extent with circling cameras, quick edits, black-and-white freeze-frames and other cinematic amphetamines.
However, the picture is grounded by the calm, confident, sly performance of Robert Redford, starring as a veteran spook-wrangler forced to audaciously outfox his own agency to bring a man back alive.
"Spy Game" takes place in the 24 hours after retirement-bound Nathan Muir (Redford) learns that his most talented protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has gone rogue and been captured while trying to break someone out of a Chinese prison. He's going to be executed for espionage the next day, and the U.S. government is ready to let him swing. So on the auspices of providing some first-person background on Bishop, Muir elbows his way into a pow-wow of Agency brass to bide for time and abscond with enough classified intel to put a rescue into play.
Over the course of the marathon meeting, Muir recalls his history with Bishop, narrating a series of flashbacks from the two men's first meeting in Vietnam (where Bishop was an army sniper) to Bishop's 1976 recruitment in Berlin (arranged by Muir) and his first disillusionment with the CIA's Cold War ideals (Muir ordered him to abandon a defector who was killed the next day). Meanwhile, Muir uses every bit of expert artifice at his disposal to manipulate his superiors and co-workers as he concocts a plan on the fly and uses backdoor channels to arrange a mission right under the Agency's nose.
Herein lies another problem with "Spy Game" (besides Scott's techno-soundtrack three-ring circus of frenetic imagery): Muir is single-handedly responsible for so many security breaches in this single day that it makes the Central Intelligence Agency look like a bunch of goombahs wearing blinders.
Yet somehow watching the wheels turn in Redford's head makes it all seem credible. Even though we're not entirely sure what he's up to, we know he has a plan and we know he's risking everything -- his retirement, his nest egg, even his freedom if he gets caught -- to put it in motion.
The picture's longest flashback, set in Beirut in 1985, fills in the rest of the blanks as Bishop meets a beautiful aid worker (Catherine McCormack), who isn't what she seems, and has a hand in an assassination gone wrong that disillusions him for good with the Agency's increasingly deceitful methods.
Possibly the most significant obstacle to "Spy Game" having any real gravity to go with its spy candy sensibilities is that Bishop isn't much more than a plot device. Brad Pitt fleshes out the character's indignant idealism nicely, but Scott never gives us a glimpse of what makes him such an outstanding agent or why Muir feels such loyalty toward him. In the flashbacks he's just being molded in training montages or arguing with Muir's ends-justify-the-means defenses of CIA procedure ("You don't just trade these people like baseball cards!"). In the film's present, he just gets tortured in the shadows of the Chinese prison.
Even with its style over substance, "Spy Game" (conceived by Michael Frost Beckner, creator of the CIA-based TV series "The Agency") is always tense, vital and thrilling. On the Tony Scott scale of high-gloss quality vs. high-gloss crapola, it ranks much closer to "Crimson Tide" than it does empty vessels of cinematic cool like "Enemy of the State," "Top Gun," "Days of Thunder," "The Fan" or "The Last Boy Scout."
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
Also starring: Charlotte Rampling
As with his Formula One documentary Senna, filmmaker Asaf Kapadia cleverly uses archival footage to...
This declining franchise really needed a jolt to the head, but the producers disappointingly opt...
Resisting the temptation to capitalise on the camp value of these characters, Channing Tatum and...
Wacky enough to make us smile but never laugh out loud, this screwball comedy harks...
A relentless onslaught of violent action, this movie is notable mainly because there's a woman...
First-time feature filmmaker John Maclean takes a strikingly original approach to the Western, creating a...
Despite this being a film about Sherlock Holmes, the fact that it's not much of...
Both shameless and shamelessly entertaining, this relentlessly boyish movie carries on exactly as the TV...