Spy Game looks at the history between a highly placed CIA, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) agent and the younger man he recruited, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt).
The Spy Thriller genre is a long time moneymaker for Hollywood. In recent years the genre has split into two basic sub-genres, the slick gadget film like the recent Bond films and the more dialogue heavy film like ‘Three Days of the Condor’. Spy Game is the latest entry to the later category.
Spy Game looks at the history between a highly placed CIA, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) agent and the younger man he recruited, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt). The story is presented in a very interesting manner. There is the main storyline where Bishop is captured by the Chinese government while trying to help a prisoner escape. On the day before his retirement Muir is called in for background on Bishop. Considered a rogue agent. As the questioning proceeds Muir relates how he meet Bishop in Viet Nam when he recruited Bishop as a sniper to the actual recruitment and training of Bishop shortly after the war ended. These flashbacks are a string of vignettes that relate the complex relationship between Muir and Bishop. They follow the careers of the two men and explores the mentor position Muir holds with Bishop. Under the watchful eye of Muir Bishop learns the reality of his chosen life as a CIA operative. He has to develop ‘Assets’ people used for information and then discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. Bishop has one flaw as a spy he genuinely cares about people.
In one assignment he is to bring a defector over from East Germany. He overcomes every obstacle only to be told by Muir at the last minute to abort the operation and leave the defector to be executed by the East Germans. These lessons are difficult for Bishop that not only are most people are expendable but as far as the agency is concerned, so is he. Back in the main story Muir discovers that the agency is about to let Bishop die rather than ruin a trade negotiation between the US and China. Muir mounts an operation of his own, highly illegal, forbidden and right under the very noses of his superiors. It seems that Bishop was helping an asset that he made back in Beirut, a young woman that he had the misfortune of falling in love with. While even Muir did his best to break up the relationship Bishop’s feelings for Elizabeth (Catherine McCormack) are so strong it caused a riff between Bishop and his mentor. Still, Muir can not retire knowing that the very talent Bishop would end his life in such a manner. By cutting between the flashbacks and the current time the story blends the best of action and dialogue drive spy flicks.
Redford wears the role of Muir like a man slipping on a faded pair of jeans. He brings the cool, collected spy to life much in the same way he did in Day of the Condor. While his face shows the lines of age his talent has matured and grown tremendously over the years. The difficulty in a character like Muir is the audience gains no knowledge of the man during Spy Game. Much like his follow agents in the CIA, we are left at the end of Spy Game without a clue as to the background of Muir. Still, the audience can grow to care about this enigmatic character. Only an actor of Redford’s caliber could have pulled this off so well. Redford and Pitt have apparently wanted to work together ever since Pitt stared in Redford’s acclaimed independent film. ‘A River Runs Through It’. In that film Redford was behind the camera. Here we are treated to the two actors sharing the screen. Pitt has always been more than willing to shed the ‘pretty boy’ image for grittier roles. Here he appears more beaten up than he was in ‘Fight Club’. While widely known as a heartthrob this man can act. His presentation of Bishop shows some of the emotional baggage a spy must carry. The operation is everything even if it means selling out someone you have grown close to. McCormack as the love interest Elizabeth is a weak spot in the casting. She seems to drift too much in the role. Without a doubt this is due to the script, which focuses on the relationship between the two men, still, some better scenes for her would have helped.
The audience needed a reason why Bishop would sacrifice everything for her. The way Spy Game shows it their relationship was mostly physical. A few expository scenes between McCormack and Pitt would have added a lot to the flow of the film.
The director of Spy Game, Tony Scott, is no stranger to this genre. He has brought to life such movies as ‘Enemy of the State’, ‘Crimson Tide’, ‘True Romance’ and ‘The Hunger’. Rather than live in the shadow of his well-known director-brother Riddley, this Scott has proven he can captivate an audience. Scott handles the pacing of Spy Game very well. There is a balance achieved between the current day scenes with the action packed flashbacks. Scott’s use of unusual camera angles reminded me of Hitchcock’s camera work in North by Northwest. Visually the movie is gripping. The use of sound is also well done. The choice of music helps audiences get a good feel for the many locations the film utilizes. The pace is maintained by the cutting between past and present. But expound upon what we know about Bishop although as the plot unfolds we remain in the dark about Muir.
The disc is up to today’s professional standards. The audio is presented in both Dolby 5.1 and a booming DTS. The DTS provided a significantly fuller back fill effect and corresponding more complete sound stage. The video transfer is excellent. Don’t mistake the varied video effects used by the director for a poor presentation. Scott uses color wash and tonal push to heighten the effect for the frequent flashback scenes. The extras shine on the disc. There is an excellent director’s commentary where Scott delves into the process used to bring this story to the screen. Universal also launches their new ‘Total Axess’ web interface where you can easily access many additional features available web. This gives you behind the scene views, streaming video and a lot more. With high bandwidth connections becoming more prevalent this was a nature course for a studio to take. In the final analysis Spy Game requires more concentration than some are willing to devote to a film. If you are the type that likes a story that requires more than a causal viewing you will enjoy Spy Game.
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