Spy Game (review)

Trust No One

Robert Redford is getting real crinkly. It’s kinda sad. Not sad like, say, the dilapidated Woody Allen who wobbled through The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, still trying to pretend he’s a young stud, but sad in that we can only imagine that Redford — who here finally settles into the role of the wise old man, the voice of reason and morality appropriate to his years — would rather still be the young stud, out jumping off cliffs and snookering gangsters out of their ill-gotten dough.

The man of physical action in Spy Game — the one who shoots the guns and gets the girl and blows stuff up and gets punched a lot — goes to Redford’s handsome young doppelganger, Brad Pitt. But clever Redford (The Last Castle, The Horse Whisperer) still managed to snag the best role here, that of the wise old man, the voice of reason and morality… who plays everyone around him like they were on his own personal chess board. His Nathan Muir, a CIA agent on the verge of retirement, spends Spy Game shuttling between his office and a conference room at HQ, but his action is going on in his head, and it’s all we can do to keep up with him.
Deep-cover CIA agent Tom Bishop (Pitt: The Mexican, Snatch), whom Nathan raised up from a pup, has been arrested by the Chinese on suspicion of espionage, and he’ll be executed in 24 hours unless Nathan can rearrange world politics to his advantage in that brief time. (The U.S. government is happy to let Tom face the firing squad — owning up to Tom’s very existence could threaten Sino-American relations, at a delicate point to start with.) We’re already with Nathan on this one, because his straight-backed colleagues have asked him to “be a team player,” so we know to cheer him as The Iconoclast. (How these rogues manage to survive to retirement is seldom discussed in films about the CIA.) But as the day’s events unfold and Nathan digs out old files, calls friends in Hong Kong and London, and dictates CNN’s programming for the day, we begin to wonder just how much of a rogue Nathan actually is. We start off the film smugly assured that, this being Nathan’s last day before retirement, with him planning to move to the islands and, although specific information in this regard is not provided, having almost certainly having purchased a boat to spend his retirement tooling around on… well, Nathan, now too old for this shit, is doomed to be killed, as invariably happens to law enforcement types on their last day before retirement. But Nathan not only escapes such a trite and ignominious fate, he makes us wonder how much of anything we expect from him is likely to come to pass. Can we call this a Shaggy Brad story?

Spy Game is a Tony Scott film, so you know there’ll be lots of cell phones whipped out and hot faxing action, glowing green blips on CRTs and false-color satellite photos, guys in dark suits sitting around conference tables and insidious government conspiracies afoot. Scott (Enemy of the State, Days of Thunder) loves his techno porn, and he loves a camera that cannot stay still, like an 8-year-old on a sugar high: he flies and zooms and fast forwards, and does it all to a hard techno beat that ratchets up the visceral excitement even more. This is dazzling, first-rate Hollywood popcorn fluff. It thinks it’s got more substance than it actually does, but Redford’s performance is like one big wink: he’s in on the joke, too.

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