2 January 2002 | Movie-12
Not just another Tony Scott action film--it's complex, thought-provoking. *** (out of four)
SPY GAME / (2001) *** (out of four)
Tony Scott is known for his big budget, fast-paced, action-packed extravaganzas. His latest film, "Spy Game" is no exception. He takes advantage of a massive budget, but loses sight of human comprehension. It's difficult to grasp his moral when it's awash in a superficial style where individual shots seldom last more than thirty seconds, and where dialogue never exceeds the length of a short paragraph. There's not much time to introduce characters, situations, or even locations-datelines appear on the screen to identify times and places.
Yet, it doesn't just feel as if we are in another movie by Tony Scott-everything feels very real. The danger is real. The characters are real. Many action films are about the action, special effects, and car chase sequences. "Spy Game" does contain those things, but they are in a focused, tight, evocative thriller. This movie is about the characters, not the action. It never forgets that.
"Spy Game" contains a complex structure. We begin in 1991. Veteran CIA officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) prepares for retirement. On his last day, he learns that his one-time protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured in a foreign prison on a charge of espionage and will be executed in 24 hours. Fearing international crisis, the CIA decides it would be too risky to save him. But with a new generation in control of the agency, Nathan is no longer an insider. He must outsmart his own agency in order to save his old friend.
Most of the film plays out in flashbacks as the CIA digests valuable information from Muir. The movie spans from the Vietnam war to the end of the Cold War, with years ranging from 1965 to about 1991 (although the characters don't seem to age much). We learn Nathan chose Tom as a sharpshooter in Vietnam. He trained with Bishop. They formed a close bond, until something came between them-a woman.
The forty-year span in time poses no problem for "Spy Game." The engaging screenplay, by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, focuses on only the necessary characters. The soundtrack, by Harry Gregson-Williams, masterfully captures the various time periods, spicing the scenes with a slick sense of style and intrigue. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel makes the differences in location clear. Christian Wagner's editing gives the movie a frenzied, almost rushed emotion, that puts us right in the middle of the race against time.
Pitt and Redford retain their ground, despite a thick style. Redford creates a character out of nothing. We know little about him at the beginning, and we know little about him at the end. But he somehow gives his character a conscience, human values, and a lot of interest. We care about him because we do not like the black and white CIA operatives. Thus, we care about Pitt's character as well. Pitt gives his character an immature nature. He is in a stereotypical young hotshot role that might have fit him better a few years ago, but he still creates a grave sense of panic and fear.
With a structure like this, we expect subplots to evolve from the flashbacks. There is an intriguing terrorist story. A love story. Themes about betrayal, trust, position, friendship, commitment
but "Spy Game" never slows down and allows us to absorb these important details. By the end, we feel exhilarated, and we know we just watched a very smart, well-crafted film, but the most we can take from it is that it is a very smart, well-crafted film. I think, beneath all the style and surface, there is a little more to the movie than that.