Spy Game

 

Robin Clifford 

Laura Clifford 

Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) has been on the job as a spook for the CIA for 30 years and is a day away from retirement. He learns that his longtime protégé, Tom "Boy Scout" Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been imprisoned in China, but the Agency has declared him a rogue spy and leaves his fate in the hands of the communists. Nathan realizes that it is up to him, and him alone, to save the life of his young friend in director Tony Scott's "Spy Game."

Robin:
Helmer Scott is no stranger to the action/adventure film genre. From "Top Gun" to "Days of Thunder" to "True Romance' (probably my favorite film by Scott) he has always displayed a sure hand in entertaining his demographic audience. His recent psychological thriller, "Enemy of the State," pitted Will Smith and Gene Hackman against the clinically brutal, high-tech power of the CIA in a little-guy-versus-Big-Brother tale. Scott keeps this theme going with "Spy Game."

The story, by Michael Frost Beckner (with the script by Beckner and David Arata), begins with a cholera outbreak in a Chinese jail. One of the doctors sent to inoculate the prison population is Tom Bishop, who you know, right from the start, is up to something and a daring break takes place only to be thwarted at the last second. Bishop, we soon realize, will pay for the outrageous attempt at the hands of his captors.

Flash over to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, where Nathan is getting ready for his last day with the Agency. He is visited by Charlie Harker (Stephen Dillane), a higher-up company functionary who is trying to get information on Bishop without arousing any interest from Muir. But, the veteran operative can smell a rat from a mile away and he insinuates himself into the high level investigation of Tom's dealings. Nathan soon learns that Bishop is considered a rogue agent who was running a private op when he was captured and the CIA has decided to cut the man loose and face the consequences - imminent death. This begins a cat-and-mouse game that pits Muir's longtime tradecraft against the bureaucracy that has turned its back on his friend and protégé. Nathan has only 24 hours to spring his friend from the clutches of his communist captors and quickly starts drawing in his lifelong markers.

While the story of Nathan's efforts to locate and free his friend is the primary focus of "Spy Game," the film is structured around Muir's description, to his Agency overlords, of his first and subsequent meetings with Bishop. Their story begins in Vietnam as the US involvement in that conflict winds down in 1975. Nathan needs a sharp-eyed sniper to take out a high-ranking North Vietnamese general and the company doesn't have an operative close at hand. Muir is forced to enlist Sergeant Tom Bishop for the task. This begins a professional relationship and personal friendship that will continue for many years as Nathan teaches Tom the spy trade. Their paths cross, again and again, in Berlin and, finally, Beirut, where Tom is ordered to assassinate a big time terrorist leader. Bishop finds an "asset," Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), and uses the beautiful humanitarian in the murder plot, only to fall for her. This goes against Agency rules and a rift is created between Nathan and his student. The gist of the tale revolves around Nathan making amends and saving, if he can, his friend.

The structure of "Spy Game," though based in the "present" of 1991 and Nathan's last 24 hours as a CIA spook, is primarily made up with a series of flashbacks of the meetings between him and Tom. As Muir teaches Bishop how to be a top-notch spy, a friendship develops between the two. When the rift between them occurs it is professional only and the loyalty that Nathan feels for his friend cannot and will not be destroyed. This devotion of brothers-at-arms is the meat of the story, while the tradecraft that Nathan uses to save his friend provides the contrast between modern day espionage and the old-fashioned cloak and dagger methods of Muir. The two-plus hour run time is not a problem for "Spy Game." Tony Scott keeps things moving at a brisk and steady pace utilizing the flashback technique to help build the relationships between Nathan and Tom, both platonic and professional. It also lays the groundwork to explain Bishop's renegade raid in China where things are, in the end, neatly wrapped up, if a bit perfunctorily in a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done kind of way.

This is an action, not an actors' film, but this doesn't stop the principles from giving a human face to their characters. Redford, as veteran spy Muir, provides strength and savvy to his role as he calls in all of his career favors to save his friend. His is an old-style John LeCarre kind of spook who knows the importance of his career long associations and how to use them to get the job done. Pitt provides the physical presence required of Tom Bishop, but I prefer the megastar in smaller, supporting roles where he can really shine (see "Snatch" for an example). The rest of the cast fill their acting shoes appropriately with Stephen Dillane doing a solid job as the tight-assed, tight-lipped CIA functionary who poses one obstacle after another to Nathan's plan to save Bishop.

As you would expect with a big-budget Scott film (Tony, and brother Ridley, both have the muscle to get the Hollywood money guys to belly up to the bar and pay the big production and salary bucks a film like "Spy Game" commands), there is money up there on the screen. Cinematographer Dan Mindel does a fine job capturing the ever-changing scenes as the action moves from the war-room atmosphere of CIA headquarters to the greenish tinting of the Vietnam locale, the rooftops and dark streets of Berlin (with Budapest standing in for the German capital) and war-torn Beirut (utilizing Casablanca for the Lebanese city). The daredevil aerial action (led by coordinator and stunt pilot Marc Wolff) is a visual plus for the film. Other techs are right up there, too.

Tony Scott creates a tightly woven tale of friendship in the dark world of spooks and spies. He forgoes the high tech magic that was the cornerstone of CIA activity in "Enemy of the State" and replaces it with old-fashioned espionage legwork personified by Nathan Muir. "Spy Game" is a solid adult alternative to the Potter puff currently storming the theaters. I give it a B+.

Laura:
When retiring CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) discovers his agency is hanging out his protege Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) to die in a Chinese prison he spends his last day pitting his skills against his employer to save his friend in director Tony Scott's "Spy Game."

The delight of Tony Scott's proficient thriller, whose jazzed pace and hi-tech flourishes recall his "Enemy of the State," is the relaxed, on the nose performance by old pro Redford.  While it's also fun to see him paired with the man he made a star in his "A River Runs Through It," Redford and Pitt only appear together in flashbacks.

As the film begins, we witness Bishop's elaborate prison break of an unidentified female go astray.  Nathan Muir's called to provide background info, hopefully damning, on Bishop.  As Muir plays for time, he sketches out his relationship with Bishop, which we see in three extended flashbacks - their meeting in Vietnam where Bishop impresses Muir with his bravery and marksmanship, Bishop's training days in Berlin where he learns the harsh realities of the spy game, and their mutual mission in Beirut where the seeds of Bishop's current situation are sown.  As Muir learns the information he hasn't been deemed needed to know, he begins to take covert actions to undercut the CIA while being dogged by colleague Charles Harker (Stephen Dillane, "Welcome to Sarajevo").

Redford's so good here he makes you wish he'd waited for a weightier vehicle to return to form.  Pitt holds his own, but this is Redford's film all the way.  Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("Secrets and Lies") is fun as Muir's co-conspiratorial secretary Gladys while Dillane makes for a hissable foe.  Larry Bryggman ("Die Hard 3") represents the old school as Muir's boss Troy Folger and Catherine McCormack ("Braveheart") is a believable conflicted love interest for Pitt.  The classy Charlotte Rampling ("Under the Sand") is used all too briefly as a counterspy.

The original screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata delivers the goods, from its present day 1989 cold war setting all the way back to Vietnam.  It turns out to be particularly relevant in today's terrorism aware times, especially in the Beirut sequence where CIA acts for the common good result in the very thing they're fighting.  It's disappointing that the writers feel the need to include cliches like cars crashing into fruit stands and mentors going to extraordinary lengths on retirement day.  The film's tech credits are top notch.

B

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