Spy Game (2001)

D: Tony Scott
S: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt

Bland espionage drama which aspires to a skeptical, adult tone but is marred by relentlessly superficial direction by Tony Scott. The story concerns the recruitment of a CIA agent (Brad Pitt) by a seasoned field operative (Robert Redford). When Pitt (Fight Club) is captured during a mission in China in the early 1990s, Redford, on his last day on the job, is summoned to provide a background check for his superiors. The film alternates between flashbacks which document Pitt's induction and eventual rebellion and Redford's efforts to save him from the post cold-war CIA bureaucracy. There is, of course, a love interest involved, namely an aid worker (Catherine McCormack) for whom Pitt falls and who puts his views on what is important in life into perspective.

The film goes through the motions in terms of character and basic story, but there is no weight to any of it. A lack of trust in the material is evident from the outset, with an unnecessarily convoluted expositional structure and a hyperactive camera undermining any attempt to take the dramatic action seriously. Scott seems eager to move towards the hi-octane thrill-machine style employed so effectively in Enemy of the State, while Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata's screenplay is trying to wring some authentic political frissons out of Beckner's story. There are moments of pause amid the hurlyburly, and the presence of Redford lends it an aura of gravitas (or would if he had a smattering of his old credibility), but Spy Game is very weak on thematic and political levels.

In spite of a whistle stop tour of celebrity American foreign policy hot zones and a generally critical attitude towards the operations of the CIA (qualified as it is by commercial and ideological necessity), the film is unable to delve beneath the surface detail. Scott, fascinated as ever by desaturated widescreen and rapid-fire editing, seems uncertain about what to do with reflective dialogue exchanges on ethics or with the ideological complexity of his central character's decision to stand by his unruly charge against company ruling (his superiors are tying to sell Pitt out, Redford, abandoned by the younger man some years before, refuses to let them and so stalls for time by telling his life story). He concentrates instead on mounting set pieces such as the opening mission in China, combat action in Vietnam, scenes with defectors in East Berlin in the 1970s, and warzone pyrotechnics on the streets of 1980s Beruit.

With such relatively live raw material and a figure like Redford in the lead, one might have expected at least the presence of a coherent ideological critique. Unfortunately the film chooses to bow-and-scrape while opening old wounds, framing its criticism of the CIA with a focus on its lack of direction in the post cold-war years. Petty bureaucrat Stephen Dillane is the film's real villain. Redford, in spite of obvious callousness in the character, becomes a cuddly symbol of the good old days whose devotion to Pitt is an unlikely retread of the old military ethos of "never leave a man behind". One would presume that a character of this kind in this position would be slow to stick his neck out, especially following his years of lectures on the subject. Ultimately, Spy Game has less political conviction than Enemy of the State, which is saying something, yet elements of the screenplay invite a more serious appraisal of what it seems to be trying to say.

Distraction is always the order of the day with Tony Scott anyway, and on that level Spy Game offers the usual visual pleasures. The film has the look and feel of a well produced music video and is appropriately scored in a Hans Zimmeresque style by Harry Grigson-Williams. There are unexpected pleasures in the brief appearances of David Hemmings and, more particularly, Charlotte Rampling, and the location work is all very pretty. The script is not without its flaws, the most obvious being that we have seen it all before, the next most damning being that the characters are not all that interesting anyway; so it is probably a mercy of sorts that Scott seems happy to provide whirling helicopter shots and dizzying steadicam whenever he sees an opportunity to enliven an otherwise static scene.

Redford is no asset to the film despite expectation. As in The Last Castle, there is a queasy sense that the actor has lost something behind the camera which is visible in his face and body language on screen: a sense of commitment perhaps. Pitt is adequate to the task of portraying the young man who becomes hardened by experience, but there is simply not enough in the script to give his transformation any credibility. The scenes between the two lack spark, and Scott seems to be unable to find any way to draw out the remarkable physical resemblances between them to add depth to the visualisation of character and theme.

Spy Game is ultimately an undemanding but not especially entertaining time filler which will doubtless draw punters on the strength of its stars. It ultimately falls short on all counts though, neither providing much nourishment or pleasure.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.