Spy Game

So mind-numbingly banal, “Spy Game” is an insult to anyone who has to suffer through it. One bad choice piled on top of another, “Spy Game” quickly collapses under the weight of a ludicrous screenplay, flat acting and uninspired direction. The film is an exercise in futility, an albatross that sets a new milestone for big budget, big star, big screen disasters.

Extremely old-fashioned, and not in a good, nostalgic way, “Spy Game” is a spy thriller that never thrills. Not once do you feel a sense of urgency. “Spy Game” is so mechanical in its plotting, writing and acting that it becomes impossible to care about. Director Tony Scott (“Crimson Tide”) seals the deal with annoying camera tricks that are designed to pump up the action but only draw attention to how dull the film really is.

“Spy Game” works best if you don’t think about it. The brainless screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata doesn’t just ask that you suspend disbelief, it demands it.

“Spy Game” starts off promising enough, with one of those “Mission: Impossible” style rescue attempts that goes from bad to worse. Posing as an aid relief worker inside a Chinese prison, agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is found out and sentenced to die within 24 hours.

Robert Redford stars as retiring CIA agent Nathan Muir, Bishop’s mentor, whose last day on the job is spent trying to stop Bishop from being executed while out-maneuvering his superiors. Since “Spy Game” begins at the end of the story, the plot is told is flashbacks, a framing device that thoroughly interrupts the flow of suspense. Every time the film gains momentum, we either bounce back to the past, or boomerang back to the present.

The flashbacks show us how Muir found and recruited Bishop, turning the Boy Scout-trained assassin into a full-fledged agent. Their relationship is shown in what amounts to a greatest hits package of spy clichés. As assassination in Vietnam. An assassination in Beirut. Instead of becoming windows into the souls of the characters, these moments become nothing more than glorified set pieces destined to showcase Scott’s ability to blow things up.

Through all of the carnage we learn very little about Muir or Bishop. We’re spoon fed the obvious, but their motivations remain totally alien to us.

Bishop’s heroic rescue falls flat because the writers and director fail to convince us the prize is worth the effort. There’s supposed to be a special connection between Bishop and the prisoner, but nothing in the screenplay or Pitt’s performance make us believe it. That makes the rest of the film a waste of time.

The insults come fast and furious, never letting up. For instance, Bishop is the only white doctor among the Asian relief workers, yet not one questions him. His presence is automatically accepted. The same thing happens in flashbacks when Bishop casually strolls through the war torn streets of Beirut without anyone blinking an eye. He also jumps from roof top to roof top without being detected, even though soldiers fill the street below. It’s so stupid is comical.

Back home, Muir constantly makes a fool of his superiors by always staying one step ahead of them. The writers think they’re being cute and clever, but what they are doing is insulting our intelligence. Do they expect us to believe that a retiring agent, on his last day, would be allowed as much access as Muir gains to help Bishop? He constantly walks into top secret areas without anyone batting an eye. Even when his superiors suspect Muir, they still allow him to roam the building without an escort.

Equally troubling is casting Redford against a younger, carbon copy of himself. I don’t mind the way Redford looks. However, every time he shares the same scene with Pitt, all I kept thinking about was how old Redford looks. Making matters worse, Scott incorporates a number of cinematic tricks to make Redford look younger in the flashbacks. They don’t work. They only emphasis the obvious.

Not like Scott or the writers are overly concerned with nuance. Everything in “Spy Game” is obvious. Even a blind person could see the plot twists coming a mile away.

It’s sad to see Redford wallow through “Spy Game,” especially when you consider that he starred in the far superior CIA thriller “Three Days of the Condor.” In that film, Redford played an agency reader who finds himself on the run from deadly cover-up, forced to use his wits and intelligence to gain the upper hand over his superiors in order to stay alive.

“Spy Game” is a pale imitation, and so is Redford’s performance. His character is too good to be true, an infallible anti-hero who makes cute quips and smiles from ear to ear every time he trumps his boss. It’s a cardboard character played by Redford as such.

Pitt doesn’t fare much better. Bishop is more cliché than character, and Pitt doesn’t seem interested in making him more than that. Pitt reads his lines and hits his mark, but that’s it. When Muir puts his retirement on the line to save Bishop, we wonder why. Since the writers never cared enough to make an emotional connection between the characters, why should the actors, or the audience for that matter.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Muir’s loyal secretary, who would rather quit than have to work for someone else, while Catherine McCormack appears briefly as the subject of Bishop’s affection. These women aren’t characters but plot devices.

Director Scott uses flash cuts, an on-screen clock counting down Bishop’s demise, and jazzy music by Harry Gregson-Williams to create the illusion of suspense, but they’re nothing more than window dressing. Forget dropping bombs on Afghanistan. Just screen “Spy Game.” That should be enough to drive the Taliban out.


SPY LAME Thanksgiving turkey dressed up as an espionage thriller


Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Larry Bryggman, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Hemmings. Directed by Tony Scott. Rated R. 121 Minutes.


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