It takes an enormous amount of patience and willpower to sit through the entirety of "Spy Game," an insipidly paced espionage thriller that never really goes anywhere. Directed by Tony Scott (1998's "Enemy of the State
"), whose filming would lead one to believe he has schizophrenia, the camera quickly spins and jumps around the characters and surroundings despite there not being even one exciting sequence of note. This filmmaking decision, of course, is nothing but a halfhearted, failed attempt to direct the viewers' attention away from the shallowness of the story.
Set in 1991, CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is only hours away from retirement when word comes that his longtime protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured by the Chinese government while on his latest mission in Beijing, and will be executed in 24 hours. As the CIA debates whether or not to distance themselves from Bishop so as to not affect their current trade talks, Nathan refuses to allow a man whom he has had such a memorable past with die, and begins planning a rescue. In between the plotting and negotiations, Nathan relays his checkered relationship with Tom to the CIA heads.
"Spy Game" is stubbornly reliant on flashbacks that have no bearing or point to the central premise. Full 15 to 30-minute sections are dedicated to these scenes, set primarily in 1975-'76 during the Vietnam War and '85-'86 in West Germany, to the point where director Scott and screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata (1999's "Brokedown Palace
") don't know when to stop. Used to set up the camaraderie that forms between Nathan and Tom, there is never a true sense of friendship, nor are they developed into anything more than two-dimensional characters at the disposal of the needlessly time-shifting screenplay. And although the film spans 16 years, Nathan and Tom look the same at all times, never appearing to age in the least. I would love to get hold of their age-defying secrets.
Robert Redford (2001's "The Last Castle
") and Brad Pitt (2001's "The Mexican
"), two actors of usually surmountable talent, are not provided the chance to do anything interesting with their roles of Nathan Muir and Tom Bishop. The picture asks us to get involved in the fate of Tom, but it never gives a reason for why we should care about him. He is not particularly likable or charming, and he is devoid of a distinct personality. The same goes for Nathan, who is on hand to do little more than set up each of the flashbacks.
Also making appearances are Catherine McCormack (2001's "The Tailor of Panama"), as international aid worker Elizabeth Hadley, who starts a rocky romance with Tom in the West Germany flashback, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (2000's "The Cell
"), singlehandedly the best thing about the film, as Nathan's trusting secretary, Gladys. Jean-Baptiste steals scenes from Redford, quite a notable feat, and provides the sort of passion and depth, in a small role, that Pitt and Redford themselves are curiously lacking.
With lightning-speed editing by Geraint Huw Reynold and Christian Wagner, director Scott hopes to fool the viewer into thinking that something suspenseful is occurring when there never actually is. The film is desperate in its aim to supply divertive entertainment when, in actuality, it is a crushing bore that lacks even a hint of cursory enjoyment.
Since Nathan and Tom's relationship is so strenuously depicted, one would expect the proceedings to lead up to an eventual reunion between the two stars, but it never arrives. "Spy Game" is a surprising waste of time that leaves you feeling cheated, unsatisfied, and mindboggled to what exactly the point of it all was.
©2001 by Dustin Putman