starring Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane
screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata
directed by Tony Scott
by Walter Chaw The defining moment of Spy Game, Tony Scott's latest exercise in stylistic excess, occurs at about the midway point. Playing CIA spymaster Nathan Muir, Robert Redford debriefs his best agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) atop a building in Cold War Berlin. After a tense exchange, an enraged Bishop throws his chair off the barren, windswept rooftop. The problem with the scene is neither the preposterous screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata to which it belongs, nor Scott's infatuation with the panoramic aerial shot, nor the way that Harry Gregson-Williams's ubiquitous score threatens here and at every other moment to rupture your eardrums. It's not even in the ridiculously out-of-place imagistic Xerox of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders's melancholy ode to love and Berlin.
No, the problem with the scene is that after Bishop pitches his chair off, he pulls up the spare chair and sits down to finish conversing with Muir. This tells us that Spy Game is a film far more interested in pictures than it is coherence. It looks cool to have Redford and Pitt in flowing black trenchcoats perched above Berlin like Wenders's lovelorn seraphim, and cooler still to have Pitt hurl a chair into the void, but it doesn't make sense that they would be meeting there (what could be more conspicuous to binoculars and hidden cameras than Redford and Pitt sitting at a table for two on a roof?), and if we accept that they're meeting there, why would one of them bring an extra seat? In case, I suppose, one of them does exactly what one of them does.
Bishop is a headstrong young agent recruited by Muir in a washed-washed-out flashback to "The 'Nam" circa 1975. Muir apparently sees something of his own inner beefcake rebel in cocky pup Bishop, and in a series of equally over-processed looking-backs, we follow the pair jet-setting Le Carré-style in East Berlin, Beirut, and China. Of course a woman comes between them (a British aid-worker (Catharine McCormack)), and on Muir's last day at The Agency, Bishop gets himself in a mess of trouble that requires one last intervention from his estranged mentor, natch.
That Bishop's girlfriend would be held in a Chinese men's prison is implausible, as is Bishop's ability to raise the support on his own for a costly guerilla rescue of a glorified Red Cross nurse. I was surprised to learn that Chinese maximum-security prisons are as porous as a colander, and I was trebly surprised that American special forces units knew automatically where in that same penitentiary a pair of Yanks were being secretly interrogated. So little time is spent on character development that it's hard to discern the motivations behind any of these spies and their games; what we're left with is a film that feels as dry and mechanical as its hysterical editing and throbbing soundtrack tries to convince us it's not.
Spy Game is too loud. It's an aural intrusion dangerous for epileptics, the celluloid equivalent of someone screaming into your ear while flashing a strobe light in your face. It's so smitten with its big-budgeted garishness that it neglects to give the relatively able trio of Redford, Pitt, and McCormack much to do beyond wide-eyed gesticulations and squinty-eyed consideration--each burlesquely over-played, one suspects, to be heard above the din. Spy Game is a pretty neat trailer that somehow manages not to give away its major plot points over the course of 130 feverish minutes. It's not a bad night at the movies, but there's more noise here than thrills and chills.
by Bill Chambers (Note: This review refers to the widescreen Collector's Edition of Spy Game--a pan-and-scan version is being sold separately.) Spy Game is the first Tony Scott film to be done right by DVD, and that's more cause for heartbreak than for celebration: His better works languish on the format often with inferior video and audio and either minimally supplemented or not at all. (I was even disappointed by the recent Beverly Hills Cop II disc, whose technical presentation was of LaserDisc calibre.) But we're here to talk about Spy Game, arguably the finest-looking DVD ever to come out of Universal.
The high-contrast, silky-smooth 2.35:1 anamorphic image raises the bar, to be sure, even in the boardroom scenes, which are punctuated by seamless splashes of colour. I need my jaw reset from it hanging in awe. Honouring the brilliant transfer is an intense 5.1 mix in Dolby Digital and DTS options that sounds during the Vietnam sequence(s) (chapter 4) as you had hoped Forrest Gump would on DVD. Bass is truly bone-rattling and the dizzying helicopter pursuits are sure to tickle (home) theatregoers. A/B comparisons between the Dolby and DTS tracks actually yield few qualitative differences.
While viewing Spy Game in "Clandestine Ops" mode, two kinds of icons will appear intermittently. Clicking on the file folder will lead you, white rabbit-style, to a pertinent making-of featurette or a biography for a character that has just been introduced; the CIA symbol, on the other hand, redirects you to an alternate edit of the scene you're watching. If you prefer to do things the easy way, the Bonus Materials sub-menu allows you to access all of the five deleted or four alternate scenes (whose rough condition is a real letdown after Spy Game proper) with optional commentary from Tony Scott to boot. In an alternate ending, the climactic escape is set to an affecting Jose Carreras aria that holds personal resonance for Scott, as it was a piece beloved by his late mother.
Moving on, Scott summarizes his fairly involved method of making a shot list in "Script-to-Storyboard Process Featuring the Director" (3 mins.), and "Requirements for CIA Acceptance" is a silly page containing about six lines of text. Spy Game's theatrical trailer (in DD 5.1), production notes, cast and filmmaker bios/filmos, a "Universal Showcase" preview for the upcoming The Bourne Identity, and the DVD Newsletter round out the odds and ends. There are also two screen-specific, feature-length commentaries, the first by Scott, the second producers Marc Abraham and Douglas Wick. Although Scott tends to be as engaging an orator as his brother Ridley (which is to say, quite--Ridley's Alien commentary remains a personal favourite), both yakkers are handily summarized by the preferable "Clandestine Ops" function. Aside: Due to the DTS stream, audio cannot be toggled on the fly; compounding this nuisance, you're returned to the beginning of Spy Game every time you switch commentaries from the bonus menu.
Spy Game is the first Universal DVD accessorized with Total Axess, a gimmick that enables ROM users access to web-based extras. The folks at Universal are probably going to kill me, but I couldn't get it to work; it's possible that, as the disc doesn't street for another two weeks, operations have yet to be finalized. It's also possible that I am a complete and utter dope--I ain't a spy for good reason. Originally published: March 28, 2002.