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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001
When men were men -- and spies were spies
By KAORI SHOJI
It's the season for gifts and what better gift to a beat-up, old film reviewer than a movie with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in it. I mean, thank God, it's not a plaid muffler and gloves -- this is a gift, OK? Here, let me kneel at the altar of Blockbuster Cinemas and give thanks. Let me donate my entire review fee to the A.B.P.O (Association for Brad Pitt Over-Exposure). See what happens when the editors decide to toss a little Christmas spirit my way with a film like "Spy Game" -- a serenely stupid grin at memory flashes of Brad and Robert in the same frame, instead of a probing, critical review.
"Spy Game" is director Tony Scott's latest and as already mentioned, it stars Pitt and Redford, and who cares about the rest of the cast? Actually, there were some very talented people in there, but we'll ignore them for now. The point is: "Spy Game" is a hell of a spy movie, even though it doesn't offer the usual perks of car chases, nifty gadgets, agents hanging off a cliff with one finger as icebergs float beneath in a choppy Arctic sea, etc. In fact it's probably Tony Scott at his most sober (after all, this is the creator of "Beverly Hills Cop 2" and "Top Gun") -- calculating, probably, that the two lead actors will be more than enough to carry the film. Wonderfully shrewd of him.
The film opens on CIA agent Nathan Muir's (Redford) last day at work before formal retirement. He is awakened at dawn by an urgent call from Hong Kong that informs him of a disaster in China's Suzhou province -- his protege Tom Bishop (Pitt) has been imprisoned by the Chinese military on charges of espionage. By the time Nathan clocks in at the office, a meeting is already under way among the top brass of the agency, and snide bureaucrat-type Harker (Stephen Dillane) is snooping around his desk, demanding Bishop's personal files.
Nathan is too much of an old hand to let this rile him, and within 15 minutes he has already given the important documents to assistant Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to destroy and ingratiated himself into the circle of CIA bigwigs assigned to deal with Bishop. Nathan is then informed that the Chinese will execute Bishop in 24 hours, and the agency isn't interested in saving him. Bishop was not on official operation, his espionage objective remains a mystery, and the U.S. President is scheduled to open trade talks with China that week. Therefore, Bishop must be squashed like a bug.
In the meantime, Nathan is asked to brief everyone about the Bishop's maverick. This is all told in flashback form and through it, the special mentor-apprentice relationship between the two becomes clear. The last time the two met was four years ago when Bishop had told his boss: "I don't want to end up like you," and renounced the cold and heartless world of international espionage.
"Spy Game" is set in 1991, zigzagging through Nathan's memories to 1975 in Vietnam, where he first saw Bishop and pegged him as a "natural." Scott re-creates CIA activities of the 16 years that closed the Cold War and shows how so much of it was less than glamorous. The work was gathering and passing on information, its difficulties enhanced by the absence of e-mail and mobile phones.
Bishop nearly loses his life because he couldn't get to a telephone in time. In an especially jarring sequence, a suicide bomber crashes a truck full of explosives into a civilian building in Beirut, which Nathan later describes thus: "We didn't know our friends were going to overdo it on the ammo."
As for the ladies, Scott has significantly curbed this aspect of spy movies but shows remarkable taste in doing so. Charlotte Rampling makes a brief but effective appearance as the treacherous wife of the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, and Catherine McCormack (who surprisingly resembles a young Rampling) plays Bishop's love object in Beirut.
It is when Nathan and Bishop get close to the women that things go wrong -- as long as they're tossing down Scotch in a Euro bar and talking business, everything is under control and running smoothly. Bishop eventually rebels against this equation and Nathan does, too, in the very last hours before retirement.
The rest of the movie is really about basking in the joy of sitting in the dark with two gorgeous guys right there in front of you. And don't you dare bring popcorn.