If you're looking for a rave review of "Spy Game," don't talk to its co-star, Brad Pitt. While shooting the film last winter, Pitt told Details magazine that he was embarrassed by the dialogue he had to recite in his role as the hot-headed protégé of an older, more manipulative CIA officer (Robert Redford).
"I like playing a soldier," Pitt clarified. "It's like being 7 years old again. But listen to these lines: 'Target in sight. Do we still have the go? Repeat, do we still have the go?' Being a grown man, I feel silly."
What is this world coming to when Brad Pitt actually knows what he's talking about? Spy Game is indeed an energetic but immature espionage caper, one that hurtles forward with the inelegant enthusiasm of a kindergartner playing dress-up in his father's best suit.
Pitt's character is named Tom Bishop, but his nickname -- "Boy Scout" -- is an early clue that this will be a movie with a terminal case of kung-fu grip. In the heart-stopping action sequence that opens the film, the idealistic foreign operative is captured by hostile forces while trying to liberate a prisoner from a Chinese jail in 1991. The agency is terrified: Bishop's incarceration and impending execution threaten the developing fraternity between America and the People's Republic.
The CIA bigwigs pin their hopes on Bishop's mentor, Nathan Muir (Redford), a 30-year veteran of the agency who is the reliably portentous "one day away" from retiring to the Bahamas. (Perhaps he will move in next door to Danny Glover's character from the Lethal Weapon movies.) Muir is not asked to mastermind a rescue attempt, but to verbally recap the working relationship between himself and Bishop, which began when the latter was a wet-behind-the-ears sharpshooter in Vietnam. The flashbacks that ensue show a not-perceptibly-younger Muir training Bishop in the fine art of international intrigue.
As Muir spills his history lesson, he realizes that the agency is pumping him for information it can use to cut Bishop loose, thus forestalling an international incident. To save the Boy Scout's life, he may have to employ drastic measures and defy official secrecy. As one of the CIA men warns, "We need the press on this one like we need a third tit."
Stop snickering, Mr. Pitt.
Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State) deserves credit for maintaining the immediacy of a film that's structured around a middle-aged man sitting in a chair and telling war stories. That we never once yearn for the yarn-spinning to stop and Bishop's fate be decided says much about Scott's ability to keep a motion picture moving. Unfortunately, he never knows when enough is enough. Even if the subject of a shot is utterly innocuous, the camera zooms and circles incessantly, threatening to crash into a building or at least knock over a telephone. The cumulative effect is like viewing the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0 from a seat on the Mad Hatter's Tea Party ride at Disney's Magic Kingdom. At other times, the picture freezes on Muir's anguished face, the color drains to black-and-white, and superimposed numerals appear to remind us how much time has run out. This technique suggests that Scott's later years may be well spent directing aspirin commercials.
Neither Redford nor Pitt gives an especially bad performance, but the material is no invitation to shine. Bishop suffers from an improbable lack of self-preservation skills that marks him as inutterably stupid. As for Redford, he just isn't the mentor type. The pairing of these two matinee idols was meant to recall the interplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Redford now in the senior position. What we have instead is the Sundance Kid cozying up to an older, craggier Sundance Kid.
As partial redemption for its shameless histrionics, Spy Game exhibits a commendable distrust of U.S. foreign policy. From Muir's assertion early in the story that Bishop is being sacrificed to preserve commercial interests, the film remains skeptical of the agency's methods and objectives. It's not social activism, exactly, but compared to the jingoistic pap that will define the next few years of our moviegoing lives, it's practically the Little Red Book.