Spy Game (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"Hello, Peter Bogdanovich? Bob Redford here. Say, you're not wearing MY face, by any chance, are you."

Spy Game centers on the relationship between Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), a jaded CIA agent on the verge of retirement, and Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), a young idealist recruited by Redford in 'nam, 16 years earlier.

Pitt is now (1991) sitting in a Chinese prison, awaiting execution within 24 hours. The CIA fully intends to hang him out to dry, because they don't want the nature of his mission to be known, thus endangering delicate trade talks. Redford thinks this is a moral outrage, so he schemes to get Pitt rescued while he feigns co-operation with the CIA interrogators. Redford also has a complex personal reason why he feels responsible for Pitt's incarceration.

To tell you the truth, the interrogation is simply a clumsy plot device to develop the characters in flashback. Since the CIA has already made up its mind about Pitt, nothing that Redford would reveal could have any bearing on the execution. They could just as easily have held the interviews after Pitt's death, or even not at all. After all, why would the CIA care about getting the historical facts when they were just planning to lie about Pitt's involvement in China.

But then there would have been no movie, and no ever-ticking 24 hour clock.

You see, the ticking clock is the stylistic device which frames the film, accompanied by the usual clickety-clickety typing noises as the numbers appear on the screen. This shows us the exact time Redford has left in which to use his contacts and cut his own personal deal with the corrupt elements in the Chinese government, thus freeing the Pittmeister for an eighth year in Tibet. As the time winds down, the pacing seems get more and more frenzied. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that anything actually happens. It simply means that the director uses more cuts, shorter cuts, and more energetic techno-music to convey the sense of urgency. Not to mention that those ubiquitous typing noises start to come closer together, as someone were now typing those numbers much faster than previously. The entire film plays out like a Devo video in fast-, ever faster, -forward.

It's always a pleasure to acknowledge a special contribution from someone, and the editor (Christian Wagner) did a yeoman's job here, putting together hundreds of cuts and computer graphic overlays in an intelligible fashion, doing it all in such a way as to create atmospheric effects without disrupting the flow of the narrative.


female: none at all

male: a brief look at the side of Brad Pitt's butt

The plot itself is completely predictable and every twist is telegraphed, even in the flashbacks. For example, the idealistic Pitt disobeys a direct order from Redford in order to get an agent across the Wall safely and complete a mission, in the process risking his own life rather than letting the unfortunate man die without a chance. Well, if you watch these films regularly, you just know that the CIA already knew that the guy was a double agent selling information to the Russians, and they were only smuggling the guy across so they could dispose of him in their own way, but they didn't tell this to Pitt. Therefore, Pitt risked his own life in an attempt to save a guy marked for death by both sides. This was how he learned he should never disobey a direct order, because the field agents never have all the facts necessary to evaluate such matters accurately. Salute and obey, son.

Oh, I know I'm getting too picky with these plot details, but if it was just a matter of Redford paying a few hundred grand to a couple of sleazy guys, why didn't the CIA quietly do that in the first place? Isn't that the kind of thing they are good at? And surely a trained field agent is worth at least that.

I did enjoy the complete lack of an attempt to make Redford look younger in flashbacks. In fact, I thought Redford looked even older in the flashbacks to Vietnam than he did in the "present", but he did have longer sideburns to convey that all important "feel" of the period. In fact, he had longer sideburns than General Burnside himself. When Rip Van Winkle woke from his famous extended nap, his sideburns were probably shorter than Redford's were in the Vietnam flashbacks. I'm sure it must have been the typical U.S. Government standard in the Nixon/Ford years. I remember that Bob Haldeman and John Dean always had that same look, and even Nixon himself was quite the hip dude there for a while. I quite liked Nixon and Kissinger with the bell-bottoms and the Sonny Bono sideburns, although I always thought their love beads were a little insincere.

Pitt and Redford also have flashbacks to a Middle East crisis in which they were the only blond guys wandering through the bombed-out neighborhoods of Beirut. Good cover, eh?

Hey, kids! Can you spot the CIA agent in this picture?

Nah, he's probably just some 7-Eleven guy looking for some bottom-feeder land prices in expectation of the coming post-rubble convenience store boom. One thing about running c-stores in Beirut - you don't have to keep changing all those pesky window signs. In fact, there's not even much sense in putting up the windows.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Commentary by director Tony Scott

  • Production notes

  • Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary

  • Feature Commentary with Producers

  • Behind-the-Scenes in the filmmaking process

  • Interactive Script-to-Storyboard process featuring the Director

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35

No, wait, of course they were CIA, because they drove a taxi and/or a big black limo through a bazaar and knocked over several pushcarts. That's a sure sign that there are movie CIA guys in the Middle East. I have a Lebanese lawyer friend who manages to make a good living from five guys who push their fish carts in front of every CIA vehicle, just for the lavish insurance settlements.

In Lebanon they don't call this "ambulance chasing", but rather "trolling".

No wonder those guys hate America. They must be really ticked off about all those push carts and bazaar tables. I say we should just patch things up with them and buy them all new fish carts, not as the final solution, but as the first step to a just and lasting peace. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: a major disappointment. Made for $92 million, it grossed only $62 million domestically.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Slick enough Hollywood international espionage game of cat and mouse and doublecross, although it seemed to me that everything was obvious and telegraphed.

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