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."
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 counterzooms, polychromatic tints, and whip pans, and an enjoyable kineticism arises. No one will confuse this slick ride with Three Days of the Condor, 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 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.
Screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, based on a story by Beckner. Rated R.
The adventure begins in Danang, circa 1975, where 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." But the elder spy soon alters that view, coaching the talented Bishop in the tricks of the trade. Thus, a mentorship is born.
Of course, there's nothing like a dubious woman to screw up covert male bonding, so here we get Catherine McCormack as a nurse in Beirut named Elizabeth for whom Bishop vaguely falls. Coldly British and totally removed from her element, 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.
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Spy Game is a mess, but it's a rousing mess, with ample humor and action to satisfy the discerning dullard within. 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. 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.