A vehicle for two glamour boys though it is, “Spy Game” serves up a judicious blend of showy action, political intrigue, ticking-clock suspense and intramural CIA one-upsmanship for mainstream entertainment. Globe-trotting like the most fondly remembered espionage thrillers of old, this selective survey of agency activities from the mid-’70s through the early ’90s as seen through a mentor-protege relationship has been machine-tooled to a fare-thee-well by director Tony Scott and his team. Snazzy filmmaking, topical relevance of CIA and Middle Eastern issues and star pairing, which produces Robert Redford’s most engaging performance in years, should spur solid biz Stateside and perhaps better overseas.
Among other things, this Universal release plays like a companion piece to Redford’s 1975 starrer “Three Days of the Condor,” in which he played a low-level CIA man who knew too much. This time out, the now more rugged-looking thesp plays 30-year agency vet Nathan Muir who, on the day in 1991 that he’s hanging up his spurs, learns that his former recruit and partner Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is in big trouble in China, with just a day to live before being executed for having been caught trying to sneak someone out of the country.
With a presidential visit to Beijing scheduled in a week, the CIA, anxious to avoid embarrassing publicity, appears ready to sacrifice Bishop for his rogue operation. Or so it seems to Muir, who gets to spend his final day on the job being grilled by superiors about his relationship with their wayward agent. One might think that, after so long on the job, Muir would be a secure member of the old boys’ network but, no, to the younger execs he’s suspiciously old school, and a bit impudent to boot.
Much of the film’s fun, in fact, lies in the myriad ways Muir outwits his questioners, who are just looking for reasons to wash their hands of Bishop. As Muir tells his helpful assistant Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Noah knew to build the ark before it rained, and much of Muir’s success, both in the field and the office, comes from his well-learned practice of keeping one step ahead of everyone else.
The brightly written interrogation sessions trigger the yarn’s three increasingly potent flashbacks. Initial flashback recounts how Muir, in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1975, engaged sharp-shooting soldier Bishop to assassinate a Vietcong officer. In West Berlin the following year, Muir is seen officially recruiting the California kid for the CIA; as Muir expected, Bishop quickly proves himself a natural, his resourceful spontaneity being perfect for the job.
It’s in Berlin, however, that the younger man learns of the often-tragic human consequences of the spy game. Furious over having been ordered at the last second to abandon a man he was trying to bring over from the East, and thereby condemning him to certain death, Bishop gets a stern lecture from Muir about real politik and the greater good.
As Muir tells the tale of his friend, intricate games are being played at agency h.q.; agents ransack Muir’s office for files he might have hidden, Muir sneaks into colleagues’ quarters to make secret overseas calls about Bishop’s status and uses subterfuge to obtain classified documents and photographs. This is high-stakes office politics, made increasingly amusing as he stays well past normal hours applying his masterly manipulative skills to this emergency at a time when he should be off celebrating his retirement.
Third and most significant flashback lands the action in 1985 Beirut, where Muir and Bishop are re-teamed to take out a major sponsor of terrorism. Interlude is very absorbing strictly on its own terms as it deftly illustrates the setting up of the hit — deciding how it will be done, making the critical contacts, maintaining surveillance of the target as he arrives via speedboat from Cyprus and then lurks around town. Also strongly evoked are the refugee camps and medical centers where Bishop meets Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a British do-gooder aid worker of whom Muir is immediately suspicious.
And then there are the inevitable eerie echoes of more recent events, as the episode’s climactic action involves a suicide bomber and a building that completely collapses upon detonation. Sequence is powerful and sobering, but very acceptable and appropriate in context. Dramatically, the incident, coupled with Muir’s exposure of Elizabeth’s true affiliations and background, sends Bishop off the deep end, finishing the relationship between the two men.
Unlike “Condor,” which reflected the fashionably anti-establishment paranoia of the period, the script by Michael Frost Beckner, creator of the hot-button TV series “The Agency,” and David Arata (“Brokedown Palace”) is not fundamentally anti-CIA per se; Muir, whose point of view defines the picture’s stance, has dedicated his entire life to the agency for a reason, one he feels adamant about. On the other hand, no one knows the “game” better than Muir; he never relinquishes his right to think for himself and does so when the agency is up to no good, as in the case of Bishop. Resolution to the framing 1991 story is effected by a gesture of rule-breaking independence driven by an impulse that underlines Muir’s dedication to loyalty and additionally suggests that the battle-hardened veteran might be a closet romantic at heart.
Redford’s role seems tailor-made for him in the way that many of his major starring parts of the ’70s and ’80s were designed to maximize his assets. As such, his Muir is smart, skeptical, a bit of a smart-ass at times, competent without being a show-off, and off-handedly attractive. Despite having hit his mid-60s, Redford’s star luster is undiminished, and with his hair and sideburns appearing somewhat longer, he actually looks younger in the ’70s-set flashbacks.
With considerably less screen time and no depth written into his character, Pitt can’t take Bishop beyond one dimension and so must settle for making him look brash, dashing and increasingly burdened by the gravity of his work. A potentially profitable area the script entirely neglects is Muir’s personal interest in Bishop: Does he see a young version of himself in kid, is he trying to shape him in his own image, and what does he think about the fact that they look so much alike?
Supporting actors are mainly cast for their faces and the attitudes they can quickly convey. Most crucially, given their significant time on-camera, Stephen Dillane, as Muir’s chief agency adversary, and Larry Bryggman, as a more sympathetic inquisitor, register extremely well.
Scott employs considerable directorial sleight-of-hand to convey a great deal of information in highly economical ways, keeps things moving at a pace that doesn’t let down for a moment, and uses his diverse locations in resourceful ways: Morocco stands in for Beirut as well as Vietnam, Budapest doubles for ’80s-era Berlin, and a pharmaceutical company near London completely convinces as the CIA. Contributions by production designer Norris Spencer, editor Christian Wagner and lenser Dan Mindel are tops, and the driving score by Harry Gregson-Williams effectively mixes in choral and classical motifs when appropriate.