“It’s kind of difficult to explain,” CIA operative Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) hedges with a wry smile. It may be the most straightforward piece of information anyone gets from him in the entire film.
Spy Game is full of twisty intrigue, but not many surprises. When Muir, an “old-school” operative on the eve of retirement, sits down for an emergency debriefing by unsmiling fellow agents (suspicious Stephen Dillane, unsuspecting Larry Bryggman) who want to know all about Muir’s former protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) and won’t say why, we know right away that Muir’s going to be about as cooperative as Kevin Spacey being interviewed in The Usual Suspects (which is to say, he’ll give every appearance of being as informative as possible while in fact serving his own interests).
Because Muir is played by aging golden-boy Redford — who can perhaps be killed, but never out-conned (cf. Sneakers; The Sting; Butch Cassidy) — we know that this conference-room game of cat-and-mouse is going to end up with the mouse not only running rings around the cats, but also setting off the mousetraps on the cats’ tails while making off entirely unnoticed with the cheese.
Because Muir’s ex-protégé Bishop is played by golden-boy-in-his-prime Pitt, we know that whatever trouble Bishop is in, and whatever falling-out he may have had with Muir, Muir will come through for him in the end. Anyone who goes to the trouble to get Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in the same movie is not about to have one of them leave the other to the wolves — not in any mainstream Hollywood movie this year.
Because all of this is being orchestrated by high-octane director Tony Scott (Enemy of the State; Crimson Tide), we know that what is essentially a talking-heads story mostly contained to a single building (CIA headquarters in Langley, VA) will be relentlessly punched up with hyperkinetic swooping and spinning cameras, snappy visual effects, and a wailing, throbbing soundtrack (which, depending on your taste, could be a good thing or a bad thing).
We can see it all coming: but it’s still fun to watch. Muir
makes shrewd use of innocent-sounding phone calls, casual impositions
on coworkers, a swiped badge, whatever comes to hand, in order to
covertly orchestrate a special operation of his own right under the
noses of his interrogators, all the while ably abeited by his loyal
secretary (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Redford indulges his anarchical,
anti-establishment sensibilities to his heart’s content in these
scenes, which recall the
Bishop, after a crackling opening scene, spends virtually the whole film (which takes place in a single 24-hour day) being tortured in a Chinese prison awaiting execution. However, unlike Pitt’s last film, The Mexican — in which he and Julia Roberts shared billing but hardly any scenes — Spy Game gives Pitt and Redford plenty of scenes together, through extended flashbacks.
Thus we see Bishop’s first meeting with Muir in Vietnam, his recruitment and training by the elder agent, their operations together in Berlin and Beirut, and their eventual parting of ways. Pitt can’t invest his character with the requisite intelligence, but he’s appropriately charismatic, brooding, and self-possessed. Despite slight changes in hairstyle, neither Bishop nor Muir ever looks any older or younger, whether the scene is set in 1975 or 1991.
Muir gives Bishop hard-boiled warnings such as: “Do not disobey my orders, ever. If you ever go off reservation, I will not come after you.” And: “Put away some money for retirement someplace warm, and don’t touch it for anyone. If it comes down to you or the other guy, send flowers.”
Muir’s cold-blooded spy ethic chills the younger man, who eventually tells him, “I won’t end up like you.” Spy Game toys with questions about the moral ambiguities of the world of espionage, in which people become “assets” and assets become liabilities; but it refrains from serious considerations about what kinds of sacrifices are or aren’t justified under what kinds of circumstances. (These are questions that we find ourselves asking, with greater urgency, in this post-September 11 world.)
Muir and Bishop commit assassinations, leave a man to die, and blow up an apartment building. Bishop’s not happy about much of this; but when Muir interferes in Bishop’s affair with a great-looking “asset” (Catherine McCormack) with a shadowy past, Bishop’s had enough.
Yet in the end Spy Game is as much about the redemption of Muir as the rescue of Bishop, since Muir ends up breaking all his own rules to help the man he trained never to do such a thing. Of course, Muir’s got reason to feel obligated to help Bishop at any cost. What that reason is, is the movie’s single surprise.
This is the kind of movie that represents an engaging evening’s diversion, but makes no impact and leaves no lasting impression. Go see it, if you like this kind of spy-vs-spy stuff. Or rent Sneakers, which is sillier, but more entertaining.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.