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Spy Game

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Spy Game

Starring: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt
Director: Tony Scott
Rated: R
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: November 2001
Genres: Action, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Omid Djalili, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

In the pilot episode of "NewsRadio," the criminally under-appreciated TV sitcom, billionaire Jimmy James tells an associate that he is about to leave his radio station to travel to the site of one of his construction projects. Asked if he is going there to put together some mega-deal, he replies, "No, I just like to look at the big trucks."

That basically covers me and the plot machinations of "Spy Game." Between the primary storyline and the various flashbacks, there are countless schemes, moves and counter-moves, alliances and double-crosses that accomplish wonders. I couldn't explain the details to save my life, but that doesn't matter, because simply watching it all play out is good enough for me. I just like to look at the big trucks.

It helps that the labyrinthine story mechanics occur in exotic locales, with edgy cinematography creating a "you are there" feel while deceptively gentle music slowly ratchets up the tension level. A parade of outstanding supporting actors helps to complete a cinematic experience that works as an espionage thriller, a character study and a hellish travelogue.

Oh yeah – Robert Redford and Brad Pitt aren't bad either. Sharing the screen for the first time (although they worked together before when Redford directed Pitt in "A River Runs Through It"), the two blonde matinee idols – one rugged with facial features cracked by time, the other still looking smooth, beautiful and vaguely unfinished – each compliment the skills of the other.

Pitt plays young CIA operative Tom Bishop, smart as a whip and a quick study, but often the victim of his own passion and defiant will. As always, Pitt finds a way to convey all the emotions of his character while still appearing to underplay his role. He is a gifted artist and the film provides him an ample forum for his considerable talents, but make no mistake; this is Robert Redford's movie. As veteran secret agent Nathan Muir, he gives perhaps the slyest performance of his career, projecting both the piss and vinegar of Butch Cassidy and the stoicism of the Sundance Kid.

The story begins in 1991, Muir's last day before retiring from the agency. Of course, no one in the history of film has ever enjoyed a quiet final day on the job, as Muir learns when upper management informs him that Bishop, his former protégé, is being held in a Chinese prison, where he is scheduled for execution within 24 hours.

Trying to decide what, if anything, to do about Bishop, a roomful of CIA brass grill Muir on his relationship with Bishop, triggering a series of flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the movie. Muir starts by relaying the details of their first meeting, in Vietnam during the war. As Bishop is recruited and trained, the narrative moves to West Berlin and on to Beirut, where the relationship between Bishop and a female activist (Catherine McCormack) threatens to destroy the men's friendship.

As the conversation/interrogation continues, Muir furtively contacts his soon-to-be ex-secretary Gladys (the always-wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste), working out his own plans in case the official decision on Bishop fails to jibe with his.

Throughout the film, certain questions come up again and again. Can ideals, friendships and romances survive lives of constant deception? How many human souls is it acceptable to sacrifice in order to eliminate a villain? When an agent adopts the techniques of terrorists to battle terrorism, is he still one of the good guys?

In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, the questions are all the more vital. Be prepared to squirm, particularly during a scene where an Arab, apparently in league with the CIA, makes a suicide run to blow up a building. A year or two ago, his actions might have drawn applause, but now…

Lest any of this sound dry, let me assure you it is not. "Spy Game" droops a bit in the middle, but not due to moral debating. Although director Tony Scott ("Tip Gun, "True Romance") loses his footing momentarily, he soon regains his balance while continuing to juggle taut action with moral conundrums.

Incidentally, Scott plays out one of the oldest movie clichés in the book during an old-school action segment. As any veteran filmgoer knows, if a food cart, flower cart or pane of glass appears on the street, its imminent destruction by a person or vehicle traveling at high speed is assured. Suffice to say that the cliché lives on here.

Ah, but such a lapse is easily forgiven (and good for a laugh) in a film as rewarding as "Spy Game." Perhaps during a future viewing I'll figure out the logistics of some of the plot lines. In the meantime, I'll be content to mull over the ideas, savor the acting of Brad Pitt and (especially) Robert Redford, and just look at the big trucks.

Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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