Universal // 2001 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // April 9th, 2002
It's not how you play the game. It's how the game plays you.
From Tony Scott, the director of The Last Boy Scout, True Romance and Top Gun, comes Spy Game. In a movie that is as busy as it is loud, Spy Game proves once more that when it comes to the state-of-the-art mindless action movie, nobody does it better than Hollywood. For its DVD debut, Universal has uncorked a powder keg of special edition content, blowing the lid off this CIA based thriller.
Nathan Muir (Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor) has moved along the power lines of our nation's deepest, darkest, and dirtiest secrets for decades in his job with the Central Intelligence Agency and now he is ready to hang it up. A man who has developed his own personal code of conduct in a world of spies and thieves, Muir is one of the final "old school" agents, men who were unafraid of getting their hands dirty rather than be content pushing the buttons of a keyboard. It is indeed his final day, but it's going to be one of the longest of his life. Muir is awakened by the news that his estranged protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt, Fight Club), has been captured by the Chinese government and faces imminent execution. With just 24 hours to save Bishop's life, Muir must quickly assess who is with him and who is against him, all the while reminiscing how things became so strained with Bishop. Using every trick he has learned while trying to play all sides against each other, Muir launches his ambitious plan. Just 24 hours with nothing but his brain and with the weight of the CIA leveled against him. Is this final challenge one that will see him do the right thing by a former friend, or will this house of cards come crashing down, killing Bishop while destroying Muir's life in the process?
Spy Game is the Hollywood equivalent of a great soufflé -- it tastes great, but after a few moments the memory of it begins to fade. After it's done, one can marvel at the expertise that went into its construction but the realization kicks in that it was an empty experience, devoid of substance or content. I'm speaking of Spy Game at this point, not the soufflé. For more on soufflé's, watch Emeril. Tony Scott has built a film that is well made, edited within an inch of its life, yet ultimately succeeds largely because the star power still wielded by Robert Redford. These days Redford's sun-worn face may have more lines on it than a party at Tony Montana's house, but he still has what it takes to take a movie on his shoulders and run with it. It's as if he created his character out of sheer will. One of the greatest of all leading men, Redford does more with a look and a nod than most actors do with several paragraphs of dialogue. The face may be lived in, but Redford uses that to his advantage. In his younger days, I think he was sometimes just too pretty to be believable, but now that age has shown its effects, his true talent is able to be more clearly seen. As an actor he may have not found those redefining roles like his comrade-in-arms Paul Newman has, but with this movie and the recent The Last Castle, Redford seems to be moving into a more comfortable groove. I for one wish Redford would try something really risky and do a romantic comedy with a woman his own age. But I digress.
Robert Redford's star quality is what Spy Game so desperately needs to be effective. As it stands, all the quick cuts in the world can't hide the fact that writers Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata have written characters and not people. These characters exist because the plot of the movie needs them to. It is only through what Redford brings to the table that Nathan Muir seems like a real person, and because he seems to believe in the Tom Bishop character, Brad Pitt is able to seem like a semi-real person as well. This is not to say that the screenplay isn't well constructed and cleverly thought out; it is. The screenplay clearly lays out what it is going after and puts into motion the things it needs to. It is just that as written, every character is so broadly drawn that if not for the presence of Redford each actor would be a blur, a talking head if you will. There is little subtly or subtext involved and the movie never takes on the real question: How can almost 30 years have gone by with the two leads not appearing to have aged a day? Inquiring minds want to know, or at least our editor does. [Editor's Note: It's true...the only thing that changes is their sideburns.] Second question that is never touched on: We are dealing with spies and the games they put into motion. So, does it mean something that the Brad Pitt character is named Bishop, as in a powerful piece in a chess match? See where I'm going? If you do, please write, because I certainly don't.
As a piece of construction, Spy Game is a wonder to behold. From the razor sharp editing care of Christian Wagner (Die Another Day, Face/Off, Bad Boys) to the visually arresting cinematography of Enemy Of The State veteran Daniel Mindal, Spy Game also looks authentic courtesy of brother Ridley Scott's favorite production designer, Norris Spencer (Hannibal, Thelma and Louise.) This is all wrapped up with the music of composer Harry Greggson-Williams (Spy Kids, The Rock), that makes several musical nods to the dean of suspense movie music, Bernard Herrmann.
As I write this, I know that it may appear that I'm waffling in my judgment of Spy Game. Let me sum it up like this: Spy Game is like trying forever to get a date with a beautiful woman/man. You finally find yourself out to dinner with this person and they look great on your arm, but you find they have nothing to say that means anything to you. Like this movie, they look great going through the motions but at the end of the day, it's still just going through the motions.
That said, I'm happy to say Universal has done more than gone through the motions when it comes to putting this movie out on disc. First off, the anamorphic transfer is one of the best images I have seen from Universal in quite some time. Even though there is serious manipulation done by the filmmakers for all of the flashback sequences, the transfer handles it with ease. There is the expected grain associated with any movie shot in scope but all it does is give the image a more film like appearance. Colors appear well saturated without becoming overly so, and edge enhancement is held to a bare minimum. Flesh tones are realistic and blacks are rock solid while also possessing excellent detail. The source material used was also of very high quality with nothing in the way of imperfections visible. This is certainly atop my list for best looking transfer so far in 2002.
If the video is great, then the sound is spectacular. It is a hallmark of both Scott Brothers that their films have great and multilayered soundscapes, with Spy Game being no exception. In what is almost a Universal standard audio package, the disc features both Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS option. After listening to both, not an easy thing for a Universal disc (more on that later), I found the DTS track to have a tighter grip on the sonics with deeper bass and a richer, more natural feel to it. This is a soundtrack that when cranked up can have the neighbors banging on the walls, yet it is also a mix that conveys all the details in a clear and sometimes subtle fashion. Dialogue is never muddled, Foley effects are well mixed, and Greggson-Williams' score never gets lost. All in all, this is pretty close to being a reference quality sound mix.
Now to the goodies. Once more, Universal has come through with a nicely loaded disc. First off there is the feature called "Clandestine Ops." This feature presents icons during the running time of the movie that when activated will take you to a behind-the-scenes feature or other tidbit. If this sounds like New Line's Infinifilm feature, buy yourself an ice cream. Personally, I'm not a big fan of this so called "immersive" style of watching the film. I would rather watch a well made documentary or listen to an informative commentary track. Your mileage may vary. Speaking of commentary tracks, Spy Game features two yack tracks, the first is with director Tony Scott and the other with producers Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham. Of the two tracks, Scott is the one to listen to. Both are on the dry side, but Scott gets across a lot more useful information than do the producers. This begs the question, what kind of Hollywood ego games gets a couple of producers on a commentary track anyway? Next up are a nice selection of deleted scenes and alternate takes with or without optional commentary from Tony Scott. The highlight of these scenes is the backstory that had Redford and Pitt's love interest once being lovers themselves. It certainly made the Redford character much darker, but its exclusion was probably for the best. There is also a brief script-to-storyboard feature that shows why Tony Scott quit his day job as an artist. It's quick and mildly interesting. There is a seemingly intriguing feature for the requirements necessary to be a CIA operative that ends up being a waste of time, while the disc proper is closed out with a trailer. There are several DVD-ROM features that I was unable to access because my laptop is AWOL at the moment. Still, all in all an impressive job by Universal. In fact, all it does is gets me charged up even more to see what they do with the upcoming Ultimate release of Tony's brother Ridley's movie, Legend.
The movie is not the deepest on the video shelves but it is well made, empty-headed action from Hollywood and I'm not going to beat up on it any more. Spy Game is what it is. Rather, I want to take aim at the way Universal programs their discs in regard to the multiple audio options. Now, this is may be something only a DVD reviewer is liable to complain about, but I think it is worth calling attention to. I mentioned there are two audio options for the movie plus two commentary tracks in addition to another 5.1 track, this one in French. Unlike most companies that allow the viewer to switch tracks on the fly, with Universal discs you must stop the disc every time you want to change options and go back to the menu in order to try something else out. To be blunt, it's a pain in the ass. I would hope Universal would someday rethink their authoring. One other problem that I had, which may have just been a test disc flaw, is when watching the movie with either commentary, the discs English close captions are activated and I was unable to deactivate them. I can't imagine that this was intentional but if it was, would someone drop me a line and let me know.
It's Hollywood moviemaking at its most basic. Spy Game is a slick looking but empty package, so is it any wonder that it made a ton of money? I understand that sometimes people simply want to be entertained. God knows in this post-9/11 world, it's secure to look up at the big screen and see a movie icon like Robert Redford doing the right thing. So maybe Spy Game has its place. The movie may have been produced before the concept of what happened to our country could barely be imagined, but the image of a member of "the old school" hopping on his horse for one more ride into the sunset is somehow prophetic and kind of soothing.
As a disc, Universal has stepped up to the plate and produced one of their best looking, sounding, and most feature laden discs in quite some time. This is certainly a case of where the movie is okay to pretty good but the disc rocks. Use that as a barometer of whether or not this disc is a rental or a purchase.
I said it several times during the review and I'll say it again: Spy Game is a beautifully produced and executed film. It moves like a rocket but leaves orbit with nary a trace that it ever was here. It's a fun ride and on that basis, is cleared of all charges. Mr. Redford, it's good to see you in front of the camera once more and maybe it's time for one more team-up with Mr. Newman. Thanks to Universal for a great disc and this case is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Director Tony Scott
* Audio Commentary with Producers Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham
* "Clandestine Ops" Viewing Option
* Deleted Scenes and Alternate Takes Available with Commentary from Director Tony Scott
* Script-to-Storyboard Featurette
* Requirements for CIA Acceptance
* Theatrical Trailer
* DVD-ROM Total Access Features
* Official Site
* Central Intelligence Agency