After a botched spy mission in China in which Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who may or may not be a rogue agent, attempted to rescue someone from a prison, the CIA decide to hold a meeting to figure out if and/or how they’re going to rescue him, given that he’s going to be tortured and executed in the next 24 hours. To help with the situation, they call in Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), who is meant to retire at the end of the day. Muir and Bishop go back, and Muir’s task is to explain to everyone else how Bishop might have gotten himself into this situation.
What this amounts to is a storytelling technique. Muir gets to recount more than a couple of tales regarding Bishop. The first time they met, how Muir recruited Bishop as a spy and not just a military lackey, a mission or two that both of them were a part of, etc. In present day, which is 1991, we also get to watch Muir attempt to figure out if there’s an ulterior motive to this conference. Given that it’s a spy film and that high-ranking executives are almost always evil (in the movies, that is), what do you think?
So, we’ve got a couple of things going on here. The first essentially amounts to a clever and exciting way of delivering back story. Mixed with exposition, we actually get to see some entertaining spy missions set in exotic locations. It permits us an inside look into these two characters and their relationship to one another. The second part of the film is Muir’s attempt to discover what’s really going on and perhaps rescue his friend, even if that does happen to be against what the CIA wants.
This works as an effective technique. We are given the thrills that we want at present moment while also having character depth built for the future, meaning that Muir’s quest in the present day is more important and powerful. Sure, there isn’t a whole lot of suspense in these flashbacks — everything has to work out, to some degree, for the characters to still be alive and have present-day predicaments — but they’re entertaining enough in their own right and doubling as back story doesn’t hurt.
Problematically, the scenes happening in present day also aren’t all that intense. There’s rarely a moment in the film where you don’t think everything’s going to work out for the best. Part of the problem, I think, is that the two leads are built up as so much smarter than everyone in the room. Even Bishop, who makes a mistake and therefore gets captured, seems to hold all the answers. Muir figures things out too fast and seems to know what everyone’s thinking at all times. If these characters were professional wrestlers, they’d be the kind that is unable to “sell” being hurt.
That’s not to say that Spy Game isn’t entertaining, because it most certainly is. It just isn’t all that suspenseful, which hurts it but not to the point of being unwatchable. The stars keep it afloat. Watching Robert Redford work is almost always enjoyable, and watching him take apart his colleagues is a joy. Brad Pitt is confident and charismatic, which is somehow more than his character needed to be effective.
I suppose I should let you know that Spy Game isn’t really an action film. There’s a shootout or two, but this is a movie more concerned with double-crosses and backroom dealings than car chases. To some, that’s probably preferable, but I know others are going to be disappointed in the lack of traditional action scenes. For them, the film has been edited with a rapid-fire pace, some interesting cinematography choices, and a score which often threatens to overtake the dialogue. It is a Tony Scott film, after all.
Mixed in with what I might call an over-compensatory editing style is a plot that occasionally becomes too convoluted for its own good. The main plot and flashbacks are fine but when we get to the subplots of politics, society, and an unbelievable romance — which winds up being one of Bishop’s prime motivations — the film loses its focus and becomes a little too much to follow. They don’t add much more than confusion, and we’d have an even tighter film if they were toned down or removed completely.
Is Spy Game worth seeing? Sure. It’s mostly entertaining, contains a good leading performance from Robert Redford, and has Tony Scott’s signature style attached to it — for better or for worse. It has a good approach to storytelling that I found very effective, and it’s been edited down so that there’s never a dull moment. It needed to remove or tone down some of its convoluted, confusing and unnecessary subplots, as well as make its characters seem less infallible than they are, but for the most part this is an enjoyable movie.