Wednesday, November 21, 2001

“Spy Game” fakes a certain amount of gamesmanship while pretending to sustain an espionage melodrama that requires four major shifts of scene over the course of 16 years. The ostensible “present” is 1991, when a retiring CIA officer named Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) spends his last day at Langley arranging the covert rescue of a former protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), imprisoned in China and threatened with death in a matter of hours.

The first of three extended flashbacks, all originating as recollections in Muir’s mind while he’s deceiving associates during his very busy getaway day, depict the recruitment of Bishop, an Army sniper, on the eve of the American abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975.

About five years later, the younger man becomes a favorite apprentice agent for Muir in Berlin, a prep course that seems to conclude on a frenzied and disgraceful note.

Another five-year jump finds the colleagues in Beirut, where estrangement ensues over Bishop’s infatuation with a radical do-gooder, Liz Hadley (Catherine McCormack), and a harebrained assassination scheme is trumped by a terrorist suicide bombing.

Overcomplicated, backtracking narrative certainly is not the forte of director Tony Scott, whose trademarks are flashily dynamic imagery and chronic impatience.

His last project was the deliriously strenuous and scatterbrained espionage thriller “Enemy of the State,” in which a rogue CIA apparatus, composed largely of technonerds, harassed Will Smith with up-close and personal surveillance, defying the capabilities of even our swellest satellites.

Evidently determined to shame the agency from another angle, Mr. Scott trusts his bad judgment to idolatry. The movie degenerates into a celebration of Robert Redford’s putatively peerless cleverness while Muir quixotically rescues Bishop by long-distance machinations.

The rescue, of course, cannot be urged or arranged in a straightforward manner. Muir must abuse the trust of his Langley colleagues and superiors on the spur of the moment.

That’s OK in the book of Mr. Scott and screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, because movies never outgrow the myth that mavericks are always justified in beating the system.

Moreover, they have taken the simple-minded precaution of inserting a nemesis in the woodpile: Stephen Dillane as an effete and supercilious bureaucrat named Charles Harker, who seems to have been watching too many Kevin Spacey movies.

Whenever Mr. Redford outwits or outsnobs him, we clearly are meant to feel a warm and smug satisfaction. The flashbacks reveal that Muir pretty much washed his hands of Bishop after their Beirut misadventures.

Knowing that Mr. Redford showcased Mr. Pitt effectively in “A River Runs Through It” a decade ago, however, it’s not surprising that one of his characters would show a soft spot for the kid when the chips are down.

Let’s also brush aside the bemusing element of jealousy when Miss McCormack’s character enters the picture and seems to weaken the prevailing mentor-protege bond between Muir and Bishop.

Curiously, that bond is not unlike the deal Mr. Redford had going with Michelle Pfeiffer in a movie titled “Up Close and Personal.” Except, of course, that the mentor and protegee in that case also became lovers.

The most curious aspect of the way Muir’s redemption is played out, strictly as a movie spectacle, is that it leaves scant time to give any credit to the commandos who must actually rescue poor Tom and poor Liz from brutal captivity in a Chinese prison.

Mr. Scott has spent so much time on his flashbacks that he leaves none to document the heroism of the Navy personnel who get the job done acting on unauthorized and forged orders from Muir, working the phones to furtive perfection back in Langley.

Mr. Scott seems oblivious to the possibility that any of the rescuers might be risking their lives. If an aging Hollywood icon gives marching orders, the military obviously needs to salute smartly and complete its mission in a matter of seconds.

There’s too much back story and not enough sense of the present-tense jeopardy that supposedly confronts the Pitt and McCormack characters in China.

A lot of the movie seems to be playing catch-up, first with the Vietnam War and then with John LeCarre’s spy novels and then with the 1997 thriller “Red Corner,” which dealt exclusively with a crisis in China.

“Spy Game” could pass as an eye-opener only with people who overlooked major trends in international intrigue in the past generation.

Perhaps movie history will be kind and regard it as an official valedictory vehicle for Robert Redford, who symbolically rides into the sunset by driving away from Langley.

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