Spy Game

Spy Game (2001)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Steven Dillane, Catherine McCormack
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Deleted Scenes, Behind-the-Scenes, Storyboards, CIA Requirements, Theatrical Trailer

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 thriller "Spy Game", which shows that camaraderie and distrust go hand-in-hand in the world of secret agents. The film has now been prepared for HD-DVD and I was eager to take a look at this intriguing film by director Tony Scott.

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 figure out what to do 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 seems on a personal vendetta against Muir, the others in the meeting sort through Nathan's stories, trying to find a way to cut loose all of the agencies ties from Bishop under the pretense of trying 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 few minutes that I felt any sort of suspense, so as a thriller, "Spy Game" falls a bit 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, where is Harker's animosity stemming from?), ultimately the film is very watchable and enjoyable 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 isn't 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.

Offering up a 1080p high definition transfer "Spy Game" looks wonderful on this HD-DVD. With an incredible level of detail and sharpness the image is virtually without flaw. A hint of grain is evident in a handful of shots, but it seems more of an artistic decision by the director than a shortcoming of the film or the transfer.
The look of the film changes constantly, as Scott has chosen to shoot the main story (the CIA meeting) and the flashback sequences 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, giving it an almost sepia tone. In Berlin, things are very dark, while the Chinese segments are virtually monochromatic black and white almost and the Beirut scenes are a light sandy brown. This transfer handles all of these different styles very effectively and without any problems, so the thematic qualities of the film don't create any technical difficulties. Overall, this is a top notch transfer that helps make the film even more tangible, bringing the visuals to life in front of your eyes with incredible clarity. Again, the level of sharpness and detail is remarkable.

The disc contains 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks in English, French and Spanish, and they nicely get to show off their capabilities as the film offers a good mix of challenging scenarii. From a dialogue scene the film will suddenly jump to a hard-hitting action scene with helicopters and machine gun fire, or from a quiet scene to an explosion, etc. Despite these incredible jumps the track's dynamics are very well balanced and dialogue is always understandable. You never have the sense that you need to grab the remote control to turn the audio up or down, speaking for the balance of this tough mix. Surround integration has been handled extremely well and thanks to the increased bitrate of the Dolby Digital Plus tracks you get the same clarity and channel separation that was found only on the DVD's DTS track previously.

Pretty much all of the supplement's from the movie's Collector's Edition DVD have been carried over to this HD-DVD version, all presented in 480p standard definition. First up is 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 these two speak at length about the actual 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 on your remote control, 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, 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 an alternate ending, 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" and a text featurette outlining what it takes to become a CIA operative.

"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 HD-DVD is a winner, as it clearly improves on the DVD version visually and sonically, while also offering up all of the same extras. I hope that you've memorized this review, as it will self-destruct in five seconds.