There’s been something very strange about Brad Pitt’s choice of roles over the past few years: one of Hollywood’s handsomest guys has selected parts that persistently show him being brutalized and beaten up. It all started with 1999’s “Fight Game,” and continued into last year’s “Snatch,” in both of which he got badly clobbered in the ring. Even in a comedy like “The Mexican,” he was poorly treated–at the hands of a woman, no less, as well as of thugs. And now, in Tony Scott’s new film, he plays a CIA operative who’s captured by the Chinese and viciously tortured in scenes that are not only quite graphic, but are interspersed throughout the picture. One has to admire Pitt’s dedication to getting away from a pretty-boy image, but the way he’s gone about it has become so repetitive that it almost seems there’s a touch of masochism involved, too.
That aside, “Spy Game” is a good, solid, middle-of-the-road secret-agent yarn, almost gleefully old-fashioned in narrative and tone. If you take away the fancy-schmantz camerawork in which Scott excels (lots of roving, circular pans at almost supersonic speed, along with sharp edits and scads of fast-moving closeups), the picture might have been made decades ago. You may even feel a touch of Greene or Le Carre (slicked up and Americanized, of course) in the sense of disillusionment and regret that the characters feel in going about their necessary, but grim and often depressing, business. Of course at the close, as any contemporary Hollywood action flick demands, there’s a spirit-lifting twist which, when coupled with a rah-rah burst of action, will send the audience out content with the outcome, however implausible it might be. But then, you could hardly imagine Robert Redford playing George Smiley–and you probably wouldn’t want to see him try.
The script is a marriage of a Cold War thriller and a buddy movie, with a bit of the old rebel-against-authority motif added for good measure. The plot spans the period 1975-1991, although it starts in the latter year and fills in the background throughout flashbacks. We begin with Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) attempting unsuccessfully to break an unseen captive out of a brutal Chinese prison. As a result, Bishop is trussed up and bloodied in an attempt to get him to reveal the secrets behind his mission. Cut to the U.S., where we meet dapper Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), a maverick CIA operative beginning his last day on the job before retirement. He gets a heads-up call about Bishop’s plight from Harry Duncan (David Hemmings), an old friend at the Hong Kong embassy (Muir was Bishop’s mentor), but when he’s called in to confer with his superior Troy Folger (Larry Bryggman) and a supercilious bureaucrat named Harker (Stephen Dillane), it quickly becomes apparent that Bishop was acting on his own, without agency approval, and that for political reasons the inclination is to refuse to admit his affiliation and instead allow him to be executed–in 24 hours, the Chinese have declared. Over the course of the next day, Muir recalls for the assembled bigwigs the course of his dealings with Bishop. In elaborate flashbacks he describes their meeting in Vietnam in 1975, when the young sharpshooter was picked to kill a Communist general; his later recruitment and training of Bishop, as well as their initial jobs together in still-divided Berlin; and a final assignment in Beirut in 1985, when Bishop posed as a photographer to arrange the assassination of a local warlord. The latter job was their last together, though, since it involved Muir’s interference in a romance between Bishop and Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a British activist working as a nurse in a Palestinian refugee camp. Their differences, Muir explains, led the men to split up.
While relating all this past history, however, Muir is also engaged in a slick plot secretly to use agency resources–as well as his own–to spring Bishop from captivity, whatever the government might decide. Part of the fun of “Spy Game” lies in watching the canny old pro outwit his supposed superiors while pretending to do their bidding–an operation which involves his quick-witted secretary Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) as well as Duncan and some U.S. military forces stationed off the China coast.
If you analyze “Spy Game” too closely, its various parts don’t mesh particularly well. The flashback sequences, with their air of gloomy Cold War seediness, are beautifully realized from a purely technical standpoint, but they’re rather jarring beside the almost familial banter between Muir and Bishop (their virtual father-son connection accentuated by their physical similarities) or the almost comic cat-and-mouse game that Muir plays at Langley with the clearly overmatched Harker. (The latter character is never made convincingly American, moreover, by the resolutely British Dillane.) Still, each of the flashbacks is impressively staged in its own right, and the Langley business is an enjoyable throwback to the rebel-with-a-cause movies of the sixties and seventies, though it’s given a more modern, cynical spin. Redford seems to be having a fine time playing an unflappable guy who’s part company man, part lovable rogue, part disillusioned outsider, and all competence, and though he’s a little sleepy, as usual, he still connects. Pitt’s character isn’t nearly as layered, but his natural charisma carries him over the rough spots; it’s a pity there are no sparks between him and McCormack, which makes their supposedly passionate encounter a distinct letdown. Jean-Baptiste is artfully cantankerous as Muir’s secretary, but while Dillane succeeds in exuding the appropriate degree of sinister ineptitude, as mentioned he is never credibly American, and Bryggman is all too persuasively spineless as Folger. Some of the lesser players make strong, if brief impressions, but some do so for the wrong reason: Hemmings, for instance, appears unhealthily puffed-up as Duncan. It’s difficult to believe that a few short decades ago he was quite as handsome as Pitt is now; Terence Stamp has certainly aged better (just see “The Limey”).
Although it’s possible to find fault with “Spy Game,” it moves well, sports a couple of effective star turns, and, despite some unevenness in tone, captures enough of the spirit of past films (and novels) about clandestine government activity to work far better than the vast majority of today’s action pictures. This “Game” may not result in an absolute victory, but it’s certainly a respectable try.