Rated R - Running Time: 2:07 - Released 11/21/01

Spy Game marks the second time this fall (after October's The Last Castle) that we see Hollywood bigshot Robert Redford headlining a major feature release without producing or directing it. Perhaps Redford, tired of qualified reviews for his beautiful but overindulgent productions like The Horse Whisperer and The Legend Of Bagger Vance, has decided to get back to his roots. Or maybe he just needs some quick cash to make a boat payment. Whatever his reasons, he shows he can still hold his own in front of the camera, as long as his character doesn't have to show any significant emotion, and his co-star Brad Pitt is no less effective. Directed by Tony Scott, whose credits include such military/government-related thrillers as Top Gun (1986), Crimson Tide (1995), and Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Game follows a similar formula, relating the ins and outs of international espionage while maintaining tension with the urgency of a ticking clock.

The film, written by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, begins with an exciting attempted prison rescue in China, in which CIA agent Tom Bishop (Pitt) is caught trying to spring an unnamed prisoner. Nabbed at the last minute, he is dragged back in and given his very own cell, where he can immediately begin enjoying the amenities associated with the facility's most deluxe accomodations, such as regular beatings and a sentence of execution. Unfortunately, the film seldom reaches this same level of intensity during its over-2-hour running time. The real story involves retiring agent Nathan Muir (Redford), who taught Tom the game but parted ways with him after a bitter disagreement. Soon after Nathan hears that his ex-partner is scheduled to die in 24 hours, he finds himself being questioned, on his last day, about Tom's history by a round table of coffee-swilling bureaucrats while the hours and minutes until the planned execution tick away. It seems that, as the U.S. is in the middle of a strained trade negotiation with China, Nathan's superiors are planning to let Tom go down to avoid a political incident. After all, you've gotta have your priorities in order.

As Nathan begins relating the history of his partnership with Tom, we see a series of flashbacks which span many years and take us from Vietnam to Berlin to Beirut and elsewhere. We learn of their original meeting, their early relationship, and the many operations in which they worked together as partners. We also learn of their differing opinions on how to play the "game," and the role a woman named Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack) plays in the current situation. The relaxed pace of the flashbacks, forced by Nathan's intentional nonchalance, counterpoints the urgency of the impending deadline, the remaining time of which is often displayed on the screen. Under director Scott's guidance, Redford translates this pressure-building dichotomy to the screen, appearing unflappable to his boss (Larry Bryggman) and a suspicious investigator (Stephen Dillane), while feverishly attempting to arrange a last-minute rescue with the help of his ever-faithful secretary (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). But sometimes the two parallel timelines seem to work at cross-purposes, clouding the pace.

Meanwhile, Chinese prison inmate Pitt (who, in an interesting sidebar, is banned from entering China because of his role in 1997's Seven Years in Tibet), plays his character with intense charm, from his spy-related adventures of years past to his current getting-the-crap-beaten-out-of-him predicament. He and Redford, whose last project together was Redford's 1992 paean to fly-fishing, A River Runs Through It, seem at ease together. Furthermore, Scott's choices of music, from classic pop tunes like Dire Straits's "Brothers In Arms" and Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" to the original score of Harry Gregson-Williams, add a palpable atmosphere to this gripping tale. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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