Spy Game

Movie Information

Genre: Thriller
Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, David Hemmings
Rated: R

It’s a pure pleasure of a popcorn movie that could very easily have opted to slide by on the strength of teaming sex-symbol movie stars of different eras: Redford and Pitt. Instead, the film goes the extra distance to be a first-rate vehicle for the duo. Looked at as anything much more than entertainment, it comes across as a kind of Tailor of Panama Lite — cynical, but not that cynical; bitter, but not biting. This is basically an old-fashioned spy yarn — not so much James Bond as Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain). In other words, it talks and thinks more than it relies on big action set-pieces and gimmicks. It doesn’t all work. I’m sorry, but keeping him in medium shot, giving him sideburns and shooting the scenes on a different film stock with more limited tonal range just don’t make Robert Redford look the requisite 16 years younger for the earlier flashback scenes to be believable. But the film is never less than enjoyable, and while its flashback centerpiece of a spy caper in Beirut goes on longer than necessary, scarcely any of the picture’s 127 minutes are dull. The screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner is just right for this type of deliberately convoluted and complex thriller. On his last day with the C.I.A., agent Nathan Muir (Redford) learns that his protege Tom Bishop (Pitt) has been captured by the Chinese on espionage charges. Naturally — and not without reason — suspicious of the agency’s higher-ups, Muir worms his way into the situation, filling in background information on his old student and deftly double-crossing the agency as it tries to double-cross Bishop. That very much is the game of the title and Muir plays it that way, but at great cost and with full knowledge that the stakes are high. Cleverly structured over a 24-hour period, the film moves back and forth between the flashbacks that reveal just what led Bishop to his current predicament and why. It’s the sort of script and concept that — unlike many films — actually tends to benefit from Tony Scott’s sometimes gimmicky style (possibly because it seems like a 21st-century upgrade of Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File and that suits the film). What often seems hollow and fussy in other Scott films here seems apt and sometimes surprisingly elegant. Scott isn’t a great filmmaker, but here he and his material are a good match. The approach to the story is also a bit daring for a star vehicle, since the necessities of the plot keep Pitt offscreen for a good part of the film (it’s much more Redford’s show than Pitt’s) and keep the scenes involving both stars to a minimum. This ran the risk of being disappointing — especially to Pitt fans — but it’s really quite shrewd on a number of levels. Pitt’s character is outwardly the more emotionally driven of the two, making him less suited to the more intellectual challenges that face Redford at the agency. Then too, Redford, the more seasoned actor, is better able to hold this type of scene together on charm and charisma. It’s much more his devotion to the somewhat hot-headed Pitt that makes us care about the younger man’s fate than anything about Pitt himself. But by far the shrewdest aspect of this approach lies in the fact that duo are such a dynamic and natural screen team that their limited scenes together stand out as highlights. They satisfy without saturating. In an unshowy way, the scenes demonstrate the fact that they’re a good team, that the actors both know it, that the film knows it, and that they don’t have to beat us over the head to prove it. It’s the gratifying self-assurance of consummate professionals. The script is witty and clever. All the performances are first-class. Spy Game may never make anybody’s Ten Best list, but the more you look at it, the more you find to admire in its sheer entertainment.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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