Spy Game

Spy Game (2001)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Steven Dillard
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Deleted Scenes, Behind-the-Scenes, Storyboards, CIA Requirements, Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Cast & Crew

Paranoia and double-crosses have always been staples of espionage films. We’ve all seen spy movies where a character gets duped by someone that they could trust — typically someone who turned out to be the enemy. Well, what if you were a spy and it turned out that you couldn’t trust the people who are supposed to be on your side? That’s the central conceit of the new thriller "Spy Game", which shows that camaraderie and distrust go hand-in-hand in the world of secret agents.

Robert Redford stars in "Spy Game" as CIA veteran Nathan Muir. It’s Nathan’s last day on the job and he’s looking forward to easing into retirement. But, as he is going into work, he learns that an old colleague named Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China on charges of spying, and is to be executed. When Nathan arrives at CIA headquarters, he is intercepted by the sinister Harker (Stephen Dillane) and ordered to attend an emergency meeting. Once there, Nathan is asked to give as much information about Bishop as possible, as the CIA is trying to find a way to rescue him without creating an international incident or leaking the story to the press. Determined to keep himself from becoming involved in a sticky situation on his last day, Muir is reluctant to share too many details, making the meeting resemble a trial.

Through flashbacks, Muir begins by describing how he met Bishop in Vietnam and recruited him for the CIA. From there, the pair had operations in Berlin and Beirut. Through these memories, we see how Muir took Bishop under his wing and trained him to be a good agent. But, as with any individuals who work together under extreme circumstances, there was friction between the two as well. While Harker is convinced that Muir is hiding something, the others in the meeting sort through Nathan’s stories, trying to find a way to save Bishop’s life. Meanwhile, the reminiscing reminds Muir that loyalty and honor are virtues which run very deep.

In the film, Muir teaches Bishop how to be cold, distant, and unemotional, never letting oneself get involved with others. "Spy Game" had this same effect on me. While I admired the story, I found the film to be uninvolving and off-putting. The film gives us plenty of time to get to know Redford’s character, but Pitt’s character is only shown in flashbacks, that is, Muir’s memories, so we really never get to know him that well. This, combined with the sterile style which director Tony Scott uses at times makes the movie hard to latch onto. It wasn’t until the last five minutes that I felt any sort of suspense. As a thriller, "Spy Game" falls short.

For me, "Spy Game" succeeded far better as a Kafkaesque nightmare. Here we have Nathan Muir, a highly-respected CIA agent, who’s being called to the carpet on his last day of work. The meeting includes colleagues and old friends of Nathan’s, and he suddenly realizes that he can’t trust any of them. As an operative, Nathan was given the power to do many morally questionable things, and now, years later, several of those events are being dissected, as if Nathan will now be punished for doing what he was told. When these scenes are juxtaposed with the flashbacks, we see that Nathan felt more at home in the field, in hostile foreign countries, than he does in his own office in Washington, DC. After watching "Spy Game", it will seem trivial that you worry your boss might catch you playing solitaire at work.

While "Spy Game" is a definite mixture of highs and lows (for example, why is Harker evil?), the film is ultimately very watchable thanks to its cast. Redford is very good as Nathan Muir. His weathered face gives the believable presence of a man who is world-weary and has witnessed many atrocities. Yet, his playful nature shows that he is always ready for a game or a fight. Brad Pitt fans may be disappointed that he is in the film all that much, but he does deliver a fine performance. Here we have a passionate man who must be emotionless at times, and Pitt’s hangdog expression drives home that dichotomy. Catherine McCormack is good as Pitt’s liaison/love-interest, and the ever-dependable Larry Bryggman is very good as a CIA executive. Also, eagle-eyed viewers will spot David Hemmings from Argento’s "Deep Red" as Muir’s Hong Kong contact.

"Spy Game" sneaks onto DVD from Universal Home Video as part of their "Collector’s Edition" series. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. (Be aware that a separate <$PS,full frame> version is also available.) The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a minute amount of grain at times. (And this is probably due to a technical trick ordered by director Tony Scott.) The look of the film changes constantly, as Scott has chosen to shoot the main story (the CIA meeting) and the flashback in varying styles. The CIA meeting shows true and natural colors. The Vietnam scenes have been digitally altered so that the browns and dark greens dominate the picture. In Berlin, thing are very dark. This transfer handles all of these different styles very well, so the thematic qualities of the film don’t create any technical difficulties. There is some minor edge enhancement noticeable in some shots, but otherwise this is a fairly solid transfer.

This DVD features two quality audio tracks. Both the <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 and the <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 tracks are quite impressive. "Spy Game" is a film, which has a nice mixture of dialogue scenes, followed by action pieces which feature explosions and helicopters. Both tracks handle all of these sounds quite well, with both delivering clear dialogue and a nice bass response. With the DTS track, the recording volume is a bit higher, and there is more depth and layering to the audio. While the stereo separation and screen-to-speaker sound placement is good on both tracks, neither are exceptional in this department. Both tracks are good, with the DTS coming out on top.

Being a "Collector’s Edition", the "Spy Game" DVD sports a number of special features. First up are a pair of audio commentaries. The first one features director Tony Scott. While Scott has some interesting things to say about the film and the production, many of his comments aren’t scene specific and there are some silent passages. It seems that whenever you would really like to here about the scene at hand, Scott is talking about something else. The second commentary, with producers Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham is an improvement as this pair speak at length about the production of the film, the cast, and the challenge of shooting in multiple locations. Both commentaries provide good information about the film, but the producer’s talk is simply more dynamic.

Instead of having a typical "behind the scenes" featurette, Universal has decided to hide the "making-of" features within the film. By using an option called "Clandestine Ops", the viewer will notice icons in the lower left-hand corner of the screen during specific points in the film. By pressing the select/enter button the remote, the viewer will now be treated to behind-the-scenes footage concerning a specific scene or a factoid about a character. While this is a clever option (similar to New Line’s Infinifilm), one wouldn’t want to use it while watching the film the first time, as it interrupts the narrative flow. But, how many people will be willing to sit through the film again simply to find these hidden icons, as there’s no other way to access them. There are some interesting tidbits here, but this feature will be mainly utilized by those who simply loved this movie.

Next, we have a series and alternate scenes, which can be viewed with or without commentary from director Tony Scott. There are five deleted scenes, only one of which, a meeting between Redford and McCormack is really interesting. (Actually, this scene would have helped the film.) Next, there are four alternate versions of existing scenes, which aren’t very different from their counterparts in the finished film. This includes the alternate ending, which is mentioned in the publicity materials and on the DVD, which is basically exactly the same as the ending in the film. Following this, there is a three-minute segment in which Scott describes his pre-production method and explains how he uses storyboards. This includes some side-by-side storyboard to film comparisons. The extras are rounded out by the theatrical trailer for "Spy Game", production notes, and cast & crew info.

"Spy Game" attempts to put a new spin on the espionage film and winds up with mixed results. Some of the movie is cold and distant, while the scenes in which Redford’s character is scrutinized are suspenseful. Either way, this DVD is a winner, as it offers a solid transfer and gives the viewer the choice of two fine audio tracks. Not all of the extras are winners, but they do give a plethora of information about the film. I hope that you’ve memorized this review, as it will self-destruct in five seconds.