John LeCarre, meet James Bond.
James Bond is a man of action, and in his movies, plot lines are secondary to the action. LeCarre’s spies are about manipulation and psychology. They’re good at setting up elaborate double operations, while questioning the morality of what they do. LeCarre brings depth, detail and deception to the spy genre.
Spy Game puts these two spirits together in a Hollywood shaker. The resulting drink is not subtle enough to become a favorite recipe, but it’s an effective mix, bold and tasty, suitable for everyday consumption.
Pawn Takes Bishop
R for language, violence
Robert Redford is Nathan Muir, a grizzled veteran of the CIA. It’s his last day on the job (really), and he finds out that Tom Bishop is in trouble. Bishop (Brad Pitt) was caught in China when a rescue operation went bad.
The CIA is trying to figure out what Bishop was doing, and they need his mentor Muir to brief them on Bishop. Muir, meanwhile, is trying to figure out exactly what the CIA does and doesn’t know, and why they seem so willing to let Bishop be executed. Muir is careful not to reveal too much, even to his colleagues within the CIA, which is an interesting topic unto itself.
The film is structured as a series of flashbacks. We know what has happened, but we don’t know why. The “why” gets answered throughout the movie, each scene revealing a piece of the puzzle. It’s much more satisfying than a linear telling of the same story would have been. Credit screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner (and possibly co-screenwriter David Arata) with a smart, gripping story. If only they deserved praise for their dialogue, which too often sounds like bad cop-movie banter.
Director and Jerry Bruckheimer alumnus Tony Scott works with the material well to deliver lots of tension and drama. He borrows techniques from Three Kings and his own Enemy of the State (he uses the same cinematographer, Daniel Mindel) to keep the movie visually stimulating.
If there’s a problem with the direction, it’s that the movie is too stimulating. The rock soundtrack is incessant, and scenes of simple dialogue and exposition are imbued with an energy they don’t really need. These tricks may keep the audience’s heart rate high, but it’s not really called for in serious moviemaking.
So Spy Game is too Hollywood. So what? It’s good at what it does. It has very good tension and drama, and more brains than your average Hollywood spy thriller. In fact, there is an interesting plot point I missed during the movie, which adds depth and motivation to the characters that I had already accepted, even without the plot point.
Robert Redford is still a commanding presence, although his role in Spy Game isn’t as meaty as in The Last Castle. Brad Pitt, a talented and versatile actor, is watchable as always, although he is underused as the young spy under Muir’s wing. Catherine McCormack rounds out the cast as The Girl, more a plot device than a character.
Fans of John LeCarre and Ian Fleming’s James Bond will all find something to like in Spy Game. Neither camp will be 100% satisfied, but Spy Game should quench just about any thirst.