In this lavish nailbiter, Robert Redford plays veteran CIA honcho Nathan Muir, who on the last day before his mandatory retirement learns that his protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), is being held in China and will be executed the next morning. A group of CIA and NSA officials, wondering why Bishop was trying to break someone out of a Chinese prison, summon Muir to their war room; after briefing them on his past relationship with Bishop, Muir realizes that the CIA will do nothing to help, so he manipulates events behind the scenes in an attempt to save his friendís life.
The most impressive thing about Spy Game is its high level of surface complexity. The film goes beyond any James Bond movie in creating a state-of-the-art vision of a sprawling, ungovernable world erupting in incomprehensible conflicts. The screenplay is constructed so that if at any moment nothing exciting is happening, thereís always something exciting to cut away to (if only a close-up of Brad Pitt being beaten to a pulp back in China ). For all the millions they spent polishing every layer of visual detail to a high gloss, however, the filmmakers couldnít be bothered to spell-check their translations of Chinese dialogue: "Go back and finish the innoculations," reads one subtitle.
In flashback, Muir and Bishop globetrot explosively from Vietnam (1975) to Beirut (1985). Their missions not only result in off-screen death for many anonymous people but presumably have large-scale geopolitical implications. About the latter, the film has nothing to say. In a big what-are-we-doing-here scene on a Berlin roof (around which the airborne camera spins with glorious, cynical insouciance), Bishop gets all idealistic about the victims of their machinations, objecting, "You donít just trade these people like baseball cards." Even though heís Brad Pitt, he doesnít have a leg to stand on. Any objection to the CIAís overseas activities is precluded because the film gives us no context for them.
The heart of the film is the mutual fascination and seduction between Muir, the grizzled master manipulator, and Bishop, the talented but headstrong pupil. Director Tony Scott understands that if he canít persuade us this relationship matters, Spy Game is just an empty package. Unfortunately, Pittís supporting role is strictly cliché, and we have to take it on faith that Bishop has gotten under Muirís skin to the point where Muir would fight his superiors to save him. Redford has the better part by far, and he does well with it. Stephen Dillane is good as a patronizing CIA official, and two screen icons of the past, Charlotte Rampling and David Hemmings, have what amount to bit parts: she looks spectacular, he less so.
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA
Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001