The pitch for this one must have seemed sensational: "It's called Spy Game, right, and it's about this old spy who recounts, via flashbacks, how he mentored this young spy, only now the young spy is captured and about to be killed, so the old spy spends his last day with the CIA trying to save him. Both spies have pretty blond hair, and in the flashbacks they go to foreign places where stuff keeps blowing up. Ideally, the plot should unfold like a butchered miniseries stuck on fast-forward..."
Granted, it's tough to get worked up about a thriller in which the CIA's most heinous crime is being annoying and the only thing at stake is Brad Pitt's life, but Spy Game, though incredibly scattershot, is not without its kicks. The top draw is Robert Redford, in fine form as senior operative Nathan Muir, no hoarse whisperer but rather a spry and vital presence. Here he's steeped in director Tony Scott's encyclopedia of swoops, slo-mos, undercranks, reverse dolly counter-zooms, polychromatic tints and whip pans, and an enjoyable kineticism arises. No one will confuse this slick ride with Three Days of the Condor--consider it a kissing cousin to Scott's Enemy of the State--but it works as a groovy coda to Redford's CIA misadventures.
It's 1991 in Langley, Virginia, and Muir and his shrewd assistant Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are packing up for his imminent retirement. A journalist friend in Hong Kong tips Muir that his former protégé, Tom Bishop (Pitt), has been imprisoned in Su Chou, where he'll be executed in 24 hours unless Muir exploits several impossible coincidences while issuing glib comments to his uptight, soon-to-be-former colleagues. As he's being grilled about Bishop by his supervisor, Troy Folger (Larry Bryggman), and the department's chief irritant, Charles Harker (Stephen Dillane), Muir selectively and strategically spills his beans.
The adventure begins in Danang, circa 1975, where Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" is posited as the great harmonizer of the Vietnam conflict. During this rockin' but cinematically redundant segment, Muir meets Bishop--a young sniper from California--and takes him under his wing, recounting that the lad "starts out trying to find out what he's made of and ends up not liking the view." However, the elder spy soon alters that view, coaching the talented Bishop in the tricks of the trade, from Berlin to Beirut (though the credits cite Budapest and Morocco). Thus, a mentorship is born.
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Of course, there's nothing like a dubious woman to screw up covert male bonding, so here we get Catherine McCormack--fresh from partying all over Pierce Brosnan in this year's otherwise plodding spy flick, The Tailor of Panama--as a nurse in Beruit named Elizabeth, for whom Bishop vaguely falls. Coldly British and totally removed from her element (as McCormack was in Tailor), Elizabeth's simultaneous charity work and dalliances with enemy spies confuse and compromise Bishop, and it's she who ultimately lands him in a dank cell in China, having his modelesque mug pummeled. Chicks these days.
Spy Game is a mess, but it's a rousing mess, with ample humor and action to satisfy the discerning dullard within. What's hard to believe is that Scott is the same man who delivered the Goth-eroticism of The Hunger or the cheek of True Romance, as here he toes the line of parody and frequently bounds right on over. The script by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata is mercifully light on silly espionage patois, but its incredible manipulations and leaps of logic are exacerbated--not masked--by Scott's pyrotechnics, right down to the laughably awful freeze-frame segues with crashes of thunder suggesting dramatic tension. This is also a "niner" movie, adhering to Roger Ebert's theory that any coordinates called out by a character must include the term "niner," simply because it sounds cool.
When it rises above its goofiness, however, there's pleasure to be had in Spy Game's slammin' globetrotting, with Bishop slamming his Lada through East Berlin's dark streets or crashing into a wheelbarrow of sardines in Beirut. The atmosphere is rich and textured, down to the local music (although Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" belongs nowhere in 1976). With director of photography Daniel Mindel and editor Christian Wagner, Scott blithely cuts jarring angles on a dime or sends us soaring over treacherous terrain. So what if it sometimes looks like a jeans commercial?
Peel away the bombast, and Spy Game strives to show us trust, compassion, survival and especially a long-reigning Hollywood golden boy passing the baton to his successor. In the upcoming Ocean's 11, Pitt struggles in vain to make a clunker seem fun, but here, amid the flash and noise, he seems genuinely touched by the best parts of Redford's legacy. This lends the project a soul, if you're willing to dig for it.