Ah-h, yes-s… there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned spy thriller to get the heart pumping. Back in those good old Cold War days of the 1950s through the early ’80s, it seemed like there were plenty of spy movies around… films usually pitting the good guys (anyone stealing state secrets on behalf of the forces of Democracy and Freedom) against the bad guys (any one of the old Communist Bloc countries… especially the Soviet Union.)
In the past few years it seems like there are fewer spy movies being made… the obligatory James Bond movie that comes out about one every two years, the Bourne Trilogy, and last year’s Body of Lies come to mind…
Recently I received from Netflix the DVD version of Spy Game, an espionage thriller set in the early 1990s, right around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe. Starring Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, and Steven Dillane, and directed by Tony Scott, Spy Game is the story of how a young and impetuous Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent named Tom Bishop (Pitt), acting in disobedience to his orders, manages to get himself caught red-handed in an act of espionage against Communist China, and of how the CIA reacts to the knowledge of Bishop’s capture and impending execution.
There! I have now given you a complete synopsis of Spy Game. Because that’s just about how simple and straightforward the film’s storyline is. At the outset, we find a beaten and bloodied Bishop languishing in a hellhole Chinese prison. Meanwhile, back at “Company” headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the CIA brass is busily scratching its collective head trying to figure out what to do about the situation. They decide to consult the guy who originally recruited and mentored Bishop, retiring CIA field supervisor Nathan Muir (Robert Redford). The question before them: Do they disavow Bishop and let the Chinese government deal him at it sees fit? Or do they make an attempt to rescue him…?
There are things good and bad to say about Spy Game – in about equal measure. The overall quality of the acting, the film’s premise, and the cinematography are all pretty good. Not Oscar caliber, mind you, but certainly good enough to keep viewers entertained for the film’s two-plus hours running time.
Robert Redford, always the consummate professional in every film in which he appears, turns in another solid performance as Nathan Muir. His character is, in turn, tough, compassionate, sagacious… and a cold-blooded – nay, shall I say bloodless – CIA field supervisor, a man capable of ordering the death of another human being without so much as the blink of an eye. At the same time, Redford imbues Nathan Muir with a marvelous sense of dry humor that allows him to seem, on the surface, at least, totally “human.”
Brad Pitt is excellent as the hot-headed, unpredictable Tom Bishop. I have to confess that whenever I see Brad Pitt in a film, I’m always surprised at how good an actor he is. He certainly “delivers the goods” as Tom Bishop in Spy Game! As he does in all his films, Pitt shows a considerable range in his acting, and makes his character seem totally believable.
The scenes between Redford and Pitt are excellent. From the very first scene in which these two excellent actors appear together, there exists a tension that’s almost palpable. Redford, the wise old pro, demanding absolute obedience from his protégé, and Pitt, the “young Turk,” bridling and chafing under Redford’s tutelage.
Other actors in Spy Game don’t fare quite as well as do Redford and Pitt. Catherine McCormack turns in a barely credible performance as Elizabeth Hadley; Stephen Dillane is scarcely tolerable as Nathan Muir’s supervisor and bête noir Charles Harker; and Larry Bryggman, with his chronic “deer-in-the-headlights” stare in every scene in which he appears, is even worse as CIA Director Troy Folger.
The story line in Spy Game is a kind of mixed bag. The film’s basic premise is very good… and has the potential to fascinate audiences. It’s a tale of how a young man, at odds with the world, suddenly finds himself recruited by the CIA; how he’s trained to play the “Spy Game;” and how his human weakness leads him so far astray that he ends up in mortal danger.
Spy Game’s story line, so full of potential – on paper at least – falls down badly in its execution. For some reason, screen writers Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata opted to tell their story through a series of flashbacks that are long-winded, frequently disjointed, and, more often than not, confusing. Think about this for a moment: one of our protagonists, Tom Bishop, is locked in a Chinese maximum security prison, practically disavowed by his own government, and only hours away from being executed by his captors. The people responsible for saving him from certain death are spending their time sitting around a conference table inside CIA headquarters reminiscing about how Bishop became a CIA agent in the first place. It just doesn’t make any sense! There’s almost no sense of urgency to make a decision either to abandon or rescue Bishop, and that robs the film of most of its tension.
There are other less important but very distracting problems with Spy Game. One of its earliest distractions – one that robs the film of a lot of credibility from the very outset – is the preponderance of highly advanced electronic equipment at CIA Headquarters. So highly advanced, in fact, that some of it wasn’t even developed until well after the film’s 1991 time frame. A small error, to be sure, but hey, Tony Scott… if you want to give your film an air of authenticity, you gotta pay attention to these kinds of detail.
MY VERDICT: Spy Game is an OK spy drama… neither really good nor really bad. It boasts excellent performances from Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, but not much else. The story line is filled with potential, but fails to convey the kind of tight cohesiveness necessary for a world-class spy thriller.
Previously published at Epinions.com