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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I'm looking now at an article by Robert D. Kaplan in the December 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, a study of one Samuel Huffington. From the looks of the guy (he resembles Bob Balaban as that nerdy-looking actor appears in "Gosford Park"), you'd never know that this mild-mannered fellow has ferociously strong opinions about Islam and the West and what separates the way Americans think from the way many in the Eastern Hemisphere look at the world. Among his views (see p. 70 of that magazine), "The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West in conflict with civilizations--notably, Islam and the Chinese. Coincidentally, Tony Scott;s espionage thriller, "Spy Game," deals exactly with America's engagements during the past few decades with the Muslim world and with China--throwing in Vietnam as well. But as much as Scott's incredibly fast-paced, no-let-up drama deals with international politics at its limits, the story by Michael Frost Beckner who co-wrote the screenplay with David Arata is a road-and-buddy movie. Specifically, "Spy Game" deals with how the camaraderie between a pair of C.I.A. operatives overrides even matters of the national the professional friendship between Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), in his last day of work, preparing to retire to the Bahamas, takes the hard way out in order to save the life of a younger man, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt).

"Spy Game," which happily does not really have a great deal of character development to get in the way of its frantic pace and highly plotted histrionics, begins in 1991 in the Langley, Virginia offices of the C.I.A. (actually filmed in London's Shepperton Studios) as Nathan Muir is about to turn in his cloak and dagger and retire to the Caribbean. When he learns that Tom Bishop is in serious trouble in China's Su Chou prison, about to be executed for his attempt to sneak a woman prisoner out of a compound, he snaps into action. As Muir is being debriefed by a few of his colleagues, including Troy Folger (Larry Bryggman) and Charles Harker (Stephen Dillane), we become aware that these stereotypically bureaucratic types and Muir have had histories of rivalry. As determined to outwit these men as he is to frustrate the Chinese plan to liquidate a former agent, Muir must fight an uphill battle, since the C.I.A. wants officially to write Bishop off as dead rather than risk the collapse of sensitive trade talks between the White House and Beijing.

The major part of the film takes place far from Langley, Virginia as photographer Dan Mindel takes us to Casablanca, Ouarzazarte, Budapest and Oxford to stand in for Berlin, Vietnam and Beirut--the third-world exteriors of Morocco portraying an area far removed from the suburban lives of the people of areas like Bethesda and Arlington. Apparently seeking to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for flashbacks, all sharply edited by Christian Wagner with the pulsating music of Harry Gregson-Williams, "Spy Game" gives us more than enough background to convince us that friendship trumps global discretion. While Tony Scott shows how Muir uses everyone from his secretary Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to his broker in London and his contacts in Hong Kong in an intricate plan to free his best pal, Scott's real agenda is to trot the globe to give us in our seats the vicarious thrills of going to Cold-War tension spots from Berlin to Vietnam to China to Lebanon. Those of us who lived through those years and now see how Middle-Eastern terrorism is giving the United States a taste of what Israelis have lived through during their entire history as a nation will appreciate that periods of peace are few and far between as, most notably, rival groups fight on Beirut streets and the United States must occasionally side with evil forces--most notably with a suicide bomber whose mission coincides with our own interests.

Two matinee idols, one who is probably the icon of middle- aged woman while the other is a sex symbol to the younger set, display credible chemistry as they meet and plan missions in hostile territories. Robert Redford is not the fish out of water that he turned out to be in "The Last Castle," as his extra years of acting experience prove to be challenging for the youthful Brad Pitt. (Pitt, who looks like something out of "Fight Club" after the Chinese get through with him, is still better looking, I dare say, than most thirty-something performers today.)

The film has a car chase that, yes, plunges through a local street market overturning goodies; there's a glorious explosion, the better to do away with a slimeball who continues to plot terrorism. What's terrific about the picture is the way it rivets our attention, feeding us large fragments of information while at the same time never taking away its principal focus on the bond between two men who share combat--both played by Hollywood's golden boys.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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