Universal // 2001 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // June 5th, 2009
It's not how you play the game, it's how the game plays you.
Director Tony Scott's (Crimson Tide) 2001 espionage thriller finally hits home in high definition. This is secret agents writ real; no gadgets, kung fu, or high speed chases in exotic locales. It's a twisting journey through the world of international espionage with a leading man who makes it a journey worth taking.
It's 1991, and CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford, The Sting) is preparing for his final day on the job. A phone call from a liaison in Hong Kong informs him that one of his former agents, "The Boy Scout," is in some kind of trouble. Turns out the "Boy Scout" is one Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt, Fight Club), and he's been busted for espionage after attempting to infiltrate a prison in Su Chou, China disguised as an aid worker. It's a sensitive time for the administration, with the President scheduled to appear in China to discuss trade agreements in less than a week. The CIA is tasked with either claiming Bishop as one of their own, thus causing a potential diplomatic ripple, or letting the Chinese execute him after 24 hours. Adding to the fiasco, Bishop had vanished from Hong Kong and was on a rogue operation, acting entirely without orders. Muir, being the man who recruited and trained Tom Bishop, manages to swindle his way onto the hastily assembled task force and, while recounting his experiences with Bishop to the powers that be, is secretly putting his own plans into motion in the hopes he can save his former protégé's life.
Spy Game is one of those films that came and went with little fanfare. It made a modest profit in theatres before all involved moved on, and lived a relatively short shelf life on home video. This Blu-ray release feels like little more than a customary catalog dump on Universal's part, and I highly doubt Spy Game will see any sort of popular resurgence. That's not to say it doesn't deserve it. This film, first and foremost, is the kind of Cold War potboiler we'd have seen in the '60s or '70s to counter the over-the-top mayhem of Sean Connery's Bond. It's more The Ipcress File or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold than Dr. No or Mission: Impossible. As such, despite being billed as an action film, our leads don't really do a whole lot of fighting. Spy Game is about navigating that most tenuous of mazes: international espionage. What it lacks in gunfights and explosions, it makes up for in intrigue.
A good chunk of the film is told in flashback; first in Vietnam, where Muir uses Bishop as a sniper, and then in West Germany at the height of the Cold War, where Muir actually recruits and begins training his young agent. The Vietnam scene isn't particularly convincing, but the scenes in Germany are fantastic, probably the high point of the flick. It's here we get a view into the world of how these agents operate, a view that's supposedly based more on fact than fiction. As Bishop learns the ropes and both men begin working in the field together, Muir's old school approach clashes with Bishop's more moral convictions and the pair go their separate ways. While the flashbacks are necessary to fill in the backstory -- and make for quite the engaging watch -- it's actually the scenes at Langley, in the bowels of CIA Headquarters, I find the most interesting.
Muir is a pro and the way he connives and manipulates his peers and superiors is nothing short of mesmerizing. This is a spy who's old school, a master of his craft, and just watching him work in true to life fashion is entertaining as hell. Robert Redford was a perfect choice for Muir. His leading man charm is still completely intact at 65 years old, while his charisma and delivery do a fantastic job of selling the role. Brad Pitt is given relatively little to do, compared to Redford. Sure he's featured a fair bit, being a lynchpin in the story and all, but his presence is mainly felt in flashback, with Redford remaining in the driver's seat for most of the picture. Brad does a solid job, but he doesn't sell his role as well as Redford does. A few of the more confrontational scenes between the two feel a little more forced than they should. Meanwhile, the supporting cast ranges from solid to great, particularly Stephen Dillane's CIA boss man, who appears to be constantly nursing a migraine, as he attempts to untangle the situation Bishop's rogue operation has brought down on him.
Universal has done a fantastic job with the audio and visual presentation. Spy Game looks as though it could have been made two weeks ago. Fine details are razor sharp, colors are bright and clear, no discernable artifacts, dirt or errors in picture, and very little grain is seen. The DTS HD Master Audio track is also near perfect, roaring to life when it has to, and handling the quiet moments perfectly.
Spy Game is not without its flaws. Tony Scott is generally a tight action director and, like his big brother, has a unique visual flair. Spy Game saw Scott employing more colored filters and high energy MTV style cuts that, while making the film feel much more kinetic, also added an air of chaos. Scott would later push this even further in Man on Fire, and then completely beyond the breaking point in Domino. If overcranking, undercranking, crazy color filters and shaky cams aren't your thing, perhaps you should pass on this particular film. It never comes close to Scott's follow-up efforts in terms of visual craziness, but it remains a pretty solid example of the music video style of filmmaking.
Coinciding with the erratically fast visuals is a script that also moves along at breakneck speed. If you aren't paying attention, you could very quickly find yourself lost in a barrage of name dropping, sprawling twists, and double crosses. Time shifts rapidly over the span of about 16 years, and the faces of our leading men don't really age all that much, making it a harder to keep track of all the comings and goings. The film relies heavily on captions during scene transitions to keep the viewer up to speed as to where we are, and what year it is. An overabundance of captions tends to annoy the crap out of me, but without them, Spy Game would be incomprehensible. That is not to say the script is weak. Quite the contrary. I actually consider it to be one of the finest films in the spy genre, but it's a convoluted story which can get muddied in a damn hurry, if you happen to miss a beat or two.
Universal has brought zero effort forward in terms of extras. All we get is content imported from the old DVD and even chunks of that are missing. It's not a deal breaker for me, but be prepared to snore through a brief featurette about storyboards before checking out a selection of deleted and alternate scenes. BD-Live is included, but all you get there is a smattering of Universal trailers. I'd be disappointed, but the old commentary track from Tony Scott is included. It's a decent listen and that's really all you need in terms of behind-the-scenes material.
Though flawed, Spy Game is an overlooked gem that remains thoroughly entertaining, thanks to a sharp, twisting narrative and two great leads. Universal's Blu-ray treatment is top notch and makes for an awesome viewing experience.
No cell can hold this one. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes