Spy Game (2001)

Country: United States / United Kingdom
Directed by Tony Scott
Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Larry Bryggman
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams

In the interests of presenting a balanced appraisal of Tony Scott’s career as a film director, it must be said that he has a modicum of talent and has made some entertaining movies – but I find there is a certain sameness to all his films. If you look at some of his recent films, like Domino or Man On Fire, you can clearly see the repetition in the way he presents his films. They are all loud, noisy and violent, and feature stylized editing and use different film stocks to add grain to different scenes. It almost appears to be formula film making. That’s not to say that the films are bad – individually they are quite good – but when you look at his body of work, it’s here that the repetitive patterns emerge. Spy Game though, has something that his other films do not, and that is Robert Redford.

The film opens in Su Chou Prison, and a team of Foreign Aid workers respond to a suspected cholera outbreak. Posing as one of the Aid workers is Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt). While plugging in a portable x-ray machine, Bishop is electrocuted. The other Aid workers spirit him into another room and attempt to revive him, but to no avail. They pronounce him dead and draw a blanket over his head.

The electrocution has blown all the fuses in the prison, and the guards frantically try to return electrical power. Meanwhile, Bishop, whose body has been left on it’s own, slowly begins to return to life. First his colour returns and then he regains consciousness. He wasn’t actually dead. Beforehand, he had taken a drug to only make it appear as though he was dead.
Now free to move around in the dark, Bishop starts searching the cells. The first cell he opens contains a man who has been badly beaten. He is not the person that Bishop is looking for. As a gesture, Bishop hands over a stick of bubble gum and then continues his search. The next cell contains a woman whose face is covered. Bishop takes her arm and takes her back to the gurney in which he had been lying. The gurney has a false bottom, in which the female prisoner hides. On top, Bishop resumes his position as a dead man, and then an accomplice posing as a Aid worker wheels Bishop supposedly dead body to an ambulance for removal from the prison. It looks like the operation is going to be successful, but as the ambulance is at the front gate, one of the guards discovers the Asian prisoner that Bishop gave the gum to. The prisoner is blowing huge bubbles, and the guards twig that something is amiss. They stop the ambulance at the front gate and Bishop is taken into custody. He is immediately convicted as a common criminal and is to be executed on the next day at eight in the morning.

Back in Washington, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is awoken in his bed by the C.I.A.’s Hong Kong section chief, Harry Duncan (David Hemmings). He advices that Bishop has been captured, and that if Muir wants to read about it before his superiors do, he should get into work pretty darn quick.

After thirty years in the field, it is Muir’s last day at the C.I.A. Half of his belongings have been packed and he was hoping for a easy day. But not to be. He races into headquarters, and gleans what information he can about Bishop’s capture. It appears that Bishop has gone rogue. The operation he undertook in China was not approved by the C.I.A., and an embarrassment to the country. The U.S. President is due to visit China in the next few days, and the C.I.A. intend to disavow Bishop and allow him to be executed. This doesn’t sit well with Muir, who recruited and trained Bishop.

Due to the delicate nature of the situation, a task force is set up, and Muir is called in to provide some information and background on Bishop’s motives and methods. As Muir is asked a battery of questions, the film flashes back to 1975 and the last days of the Vietnam War. Muir requires a sniper to carry out a hit on a Laosian General, but the man he has in mind for the job, had been killed in a mortar attack that morning. As a replacement Bishop is selected. Bishop succeeds in the mission and Muir is impressed. Next Muir puts in motion a plan that will see Bishop join the C.I.A. As the task force briefing continues, Muir relates stories about Bishop’s subsequent recruitment in Berlin and then looks at a mission that took place in Beirut.

Maybe I am too old for a film like Spy Game. I hate the way it is put together and the way it is edited. Incidentally the editor happens to be Christian Wagner who also acted as editor of Die Another Day. My opinion on that debacle is stated earlier in that review and verges on abuse, so I won’t revisit that once again. So begs the question, why watch Spy Game? Robert Redford! His scenes where he plays the ‘spy game’ with the task force are mesmerizing. This is not just about acting – it’s about commanding a scene and in particular, conveying ‘experience’. In the film, the new kids on the block in the C.I.A. may have all the latest hi-tech toys – but nothing beats old-fashioned ‘trade craft’. At one point in the film, Muir says ‘…technology gets better all the time and that’s fine, but most of the time all you need is a pocketknife, a stick of gum and a smile.’ And at the risk of making a clumsy analogy, the same applies to the making of this film – the film-makers may have all the latest hi-tech toys – but nothing beats an old fashioned professional plying his craft. You can finesse all around Redford – jumps cuts, fading to black and white, ramped footage, whatever! – it doesn’t matter because Redford is an old school movie star and he knows how to lay down a scene. If you watch this film, don’t pay attention to the MTV stylization – pay attention to Redford and enjoy watching a professional do what he does best.

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