Worth A Look: 52.56%
Pretty Bad: 14.1%
Total Crap: 3.85%
4 reviews, 54 user ratings
by Stephen Groenewegen
Spy Game is a slick action thriller, boasting polished turns from Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.In the opening scenes, rogue CIA operative Tom Bishop (Pitt) is caught while trying to release an inmate from a Chinese prison. The man who trained Bishop, Nathan Muir (Redford), is told of Bishop's capture on the morning of his retirement. He knows the US Government has 24 hours to claim Bishop as one of their own - before the Chinese execute him as a common criminal. At a high-level meeting in CIA headquarters, Muir realises the government is leery of Bishop's motives and unwilling to act for fear of jeopardising imminent trade talks with the Chinese. So Muir begins improvising a plan of his own.
"The Spying Game"
The bulk of Spy Game is told in flashback as Muir's superiors question him about Bishop. We see their first meeting, when Bishop was a sharp shooter in Vietnam in 1975, and then follow Muir recruiting and coaching him for the CIA in Berlin in 1976. Their last mission together was in Beirut in 1985, six years prior to the current situation.
Redford and Pitt are too much the movie stars to bother disguising their appearance or making up to look younger during scenes set 15 years in the past. It's initially disconcerting seeing Pitt wielding a rifle in Vietnam, until you remember the film takes place in 1991.
Unusually for an action film, the dynamic between Muir and Bishop is more complex than father-son, buddy-buddy or mentor-student. Muir taught Bishop not to get personally involved with the people he encounters in his work (the "assets"). His focus has always been on the big picture (American interests), at the expense of the small (individual lives). Bishop is an idealist and clashes with Muir in Berlin, but their rift comes in 1985 when Bishop falls for Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), an English aid worker stationed in Beirut. Their uneasy partnership makes you wonder at Muir's concern over Bishop's plight in China, and the risks he takes to help him.
Muir tells Bishop that espionage is an elaborate game. Redford makes Muir a master player; he's a wily fox continually bluffing and outsmarting the CIA honchos. There's a grace and alertness to Redford's performance, which was noticeably absent in The Last Castle (where he slept on his feet most of the movie). There isn't as much to enjoy in Pitt's performance; he gets by on his charisma, but looks like he's straining in the dramatic moments. His best moments are in the smoothly edited montage of Berlin training scenes, where he has a fresh and funny rapport with Redford, almost doing a comic double take when Redford points up at a German apartment block and tells him he has five minutes to infiltrate it, ingratiate himself with a resident and appear on one of the balconies.
The rest of the cast don't get much chance to shine (they're mainly characterless government men), but Charlotte Rampling adds undeniable class to a male-dominated movie during her brief cameo at a Berlin embassy function.
Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State et al) knows how to handle action sequences. At first he won't let the cameras stop moving, and there are distracting freeze frames with times and locations flashing up on screen like we're watching a
video game. He seems intent on dizzying us, but the effect is not impressive - more like he's unsure of what he's doing. Eventually, he relaxes and allows Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata's smart screenplay to draw in the audience. The story is
about the difficulty of telling the good guys from the bad, so it's refreshing to have the facts and characters teased out through the flashbacks and not signalled from the start.
Scott wrings a compelling urgency from the 1991 scenes by keeping Muir confined to CIA headquarters. It's his last day - if he leaves the building, he'll have to surrender his security pass and will be unable to help Bishop. It reminded me of Kevin Costner's desperate attempts to exonerate himself while trapped in CIA headquarters, during the final act of another slick thriller - No Way Out, from 1987.
According to a recent interview in Premiere magazine, Scott "reconceptualised" the bombing of a Beirut building after the 11 September terrorist attacks in America. He and editor Christian Wagner wisely re-cut the scene to make it "more linear than
operatic" (who wants to see innocent people killed in an "operatic" bomb blast anyway?), but seeing bodies dragged from the rubble still packs a hefty emotional punch.Spy Game is snappily edited, nicely shot by Daniel Mindel and has a non-intrusive score by Harry Gregson-Williams. It's engaging and fun; you won't doze in your seat.
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originally posted: 12/15/01 10:58:07