|Riveting and exciting for almost all of its 126 minutes, Spy Game is a film that stands out in its genre as a movie that takes chances and succeeds more often than not. As a spy adventure film, intrigue and excitement seem to be a necessity and this film has both essentials in spades. At first glance, the flashback structure of the narrative seems to go against allowing for a fast pace. For much of the film, CIA veteran "Nathan Muir," played by Robert Redford, speaks to a group of CIA investigators about his teaching of "Tom Bishop," Brad Pitt’s character, a man who recently led an unauthorized raid into an Asian prison and his now scheduled to be executed for being a spy.|
The ticking clock begins counting down the seconds almost immediately and the story is off to a running start without a second of delay despite those forays into flashback territory. Through a well-written screenplay, the audience is treated to a story that unfolds at the same time as several character introductions. The screenplay doesn’t introduce its characters for half an hour before getting into the meat of the story. The action is intense from the first scene, much to the film’s benefit, because the running time of two hours plus might have seemed too long if the energy and intensity of the film was ever less than it was.
Redford’s performance contains all the elegance and strength one expects from the venerated actor plus a welcome amount of levity, considering the dark nature of much of the film. As many of the scenes take place in the war-torn cities of various international hot spots, the wry sense of humor present in the film make the story a more rounded one. Taking one’s self too seriously can make a character less believable, because humor exists even in the harshest conditions. Redford has the practiced style of someone more at home in front of the camera than just about anyone else in the film industry.
And as one of the more underrated actors in today’s cinema, Brad Pitt displays his talent for assuming complex and varied roles as the renegade spy on a mission that has nothing to do with United States security and seemingly abandoned by his own government for his actions. With Bishop’s impending execution, the necessity of the film to cover ground quickly seems thrown to the wind with a good half of the film taking place in flashbacks that occur a decade and a half in the past. But the intensity in those flashbacks is just as fervent as what takes place in the present.
The use of flashbacks in a story that so obviously needs to take place with a great deal of speed seems like a bad move at face value, but director Tony Scott and his editor, Christian Wagner, do the impossible and make it work. Flashbacks are often thought to be an evasion of proper character development in a script, but as they constitute such a large piece of the film, one could easily think of them as a parallel story running at the same time as the one in the present. Of course, the flashbacks are probably so intriguing because of the elegant narration by Redford.
As a film where much of the action takes place in cities devastated by war, the coarse realism present in those scenes does much to add an air of authenticity to the uneasy relationship between Redford and Pitt’s characters. This awkwardness between the characters is one of the best portions of the storyline in the film, as it makes Redford’s job of saving Pitt that much more difficult. And coming into the Game at a rather late moment, supporting actress Catherine McCormack makes a fine dramatic impression as "Elizabeth Hadley," Bishop’s love interest. Looking at first to be completely at odds with the rough environment, McCormack settles into her role well and it is unfortunate only that she was not on the screen more.
Much of Spy Game rebuffs the established rules of filmmaking in the spy genre (its laissez-faire use of flashbacks a complete 180 degrees from the norm). It also throws caution to the wind by allowing its running time to exceed what is typically considered the time limit for feature films (two hours). And that the film can still grip an audience and make the destinies of its characters so important is a testament to Tony Scott’s interpretation of the complex material. This is not a simple film or a rehashing of techniques already seen a dozen times on screens before. It is a mesmerizing story of survival and rescue, performed by an excellent cast under the guidance of an excellent director.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.