Spy Game Review

The Film

It’s something of a given than any effective spy or espionage-related thriller needs to open strongly in order to retain an audience’s interest in what might, potentially, be very dry and technical subject matter; perhaps the James Bond films have always cheated in this department, with their spectacular pre-credits sequences, but such openings remain memorable and exciting, for the most part. Therefore, it’s a pleasure to watch the opening ten minutes of Spy Game, which move with precision, tension and intelligence, as it follows the doomed incursion of Tom Bishop (Pitt) into a Chinese high-security jail, on an unspecified but highly dangerous rescue mission. As the scene builds towards a magnificently tense, will-he-get-out-alive, climax, all the portents are good for an intelligent, exciting spy thriller, and Tony Scott’s film certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The plot moves between two time zones. In the first, Nathan Muir (Redford), a veteran CIA operative on his last day at work, is being interrogated by his CIA bosses, led by Charles Harker (Dillane) about his involvement with Bishop, who the agency wish to sever any connections with, given that he is about to be executed following his failed break-in to the jail. In the second, Muir recalls, via flashback, how he came to be involved with Bishop, as the film moves from Vietnam to Beirut, via a segment in Berlin, and how their relationship was put in jeopardy by Elizabeth Hadley (McCormack), a beautiful but morally suspect aid worker. Issues of morality, friendship, honour and loyalty are thus explored, even as the tension slowly mounts.

Although Tony Scott’s work throughout the 1980s and early 1990s was heavily weighted towards glossy, vapid exercises in MTV-stylistics, producing such unexceptional films as Days of Thunder and Beverley Hills Cop 2, he has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance with intelligent, adult thrillers such as Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, the latter of which owed a substantial debt to Coppola’s 70’s classic The Conversation, even down to the casting of Gene Hackman in a very similar role. This enjoyable homage is repeated here to some extent, as the film has numerous references to Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, with Redford’s character not at all dissimilar to the one in the earlier film, albeit a few years down the line. Although it would do the film no favours to start claiming that it is a great work of art- the ending is pure Hollywood, for one thing, and a slight letdown- there’s a welcome ambiguity throughout as to who the ‘real’ villains are, just as the shadowy, sinister picture of espionage painted here owes far more to John le Carre than Bond. Tellingly, the film’s key set piece- the spectacular assassination of a sheikh in the Beirut segment- takes place in such a manner as to invite an audience’s moral engagement with what has been done, as well as sympathy for those involved, rather than simple admiration at the scale of the destruction caused. For a mainstream thriller, that is a very creditable achievement.

In easily his best performance for years- certainly since 1980’s Brubaker, and possibly even since 1976’s All the President’s Men- Redford is excellent as Muir, managing to convey the skull behind the smile at all times of a man who is acting on behalf of what he believes is ‘the bigger picture’, whether his actions are morally justifiable or not. Pitt is surprisingly low-key in a role that feels as if it is building up to some climatic revelation that never quite comes, but his physical resemblance to Redford certainly helps the chemistry between the two, even if cynics might argue that their relationship is a coded gay love affair that turns sour when Bishop meets Hadley. McCormack is rather colourless in a fairly thankless part (she attacked the film repeatedly in production, dismissing it as a ‘boys with toys’ picture), but Dillane is wonderfully slimy as Muir’s CIA nemesis, perfectly conveying the smug certainty of a man who believes he’s always on top of the situation. There are also some nice cameos from Charlotte Rampling and David Hemmings, who presumably were cast to give the film an authentically ‘dated’ feel in places.

Overall, then, this is an enthralling and thoughtful spy thriller, with a fine central performance by Redford that helps sustain the film in the occasional moments where it appears to become too techno-heavy for its own good, and is definitely worth watching, especially in the post 9/11 climate, where its intelligent and pragmatic view of the men defending us is certainly about as relevant as one can imagine One minor quibble, though: whoever told Scott that Oxford looks like China and that London looks like Washington is not, perhaps, the most widely travelled of production designers!!!

The Picture

After a string of excellent transfers, especially their magnificent work on The Fast and the Furious, it comes as little surprise that the picture quality here is very strong. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is required to handle some wildly different film stocks, to denote the different time periods- a conscious artistic choice on Scott’s part, apparently, and one that works extremely well- and does so in a very pleasing fashion, conveying the different moods of each setting very nicely. The only fault here is some occasional, and surprising, print damage; for such a recent film, it’s rather disappointing that a DVD would feature such occasionally noticeable imperfections, and it takes the rating down a notch.

The Sound

An excellent mix is provided in both Dolby and DTS soundtracks; there’s little to choose between them, with the occasional action scenes coming across exceptionally well in both soundtracks, as well as the dialogue and soundtrack being presented with as much clarity as could be wished for. A fine soundtrack, which certainly verges on demo material at times.

The Extras

After too long producing acres of pointless, fluffy extras that nobody in their right minds would seriously want to watch, Universal have gone back to basics here somewhat, and produced a disc that has a few excellent extras, rather than an excessive number of lacklustre ones. The first is a ‘Classified Ops’ feature, which is essentially an adaptation of New Line’s Infinifilm feature; click on an icon during the film, and be taken to an alternate version of the scene, a brief but interesting making-of featurette, or a character’s CIA profile (more interesting than it sounds, actually.) With a welcome absence of redundant clips from the film, this is a far better form of making-of documentary than the usual ‘I play’ nonsense, and it’d be good to see it utilised on more discs. There are also two commentary tracks, one by Scott, and one by the producers. While the producers’ track is fairly dry and self-congratulatory, Scott’s track is excellent, and almost as strong as some of those by his brother Ridley; with few noticeable pauses, he covers the film’s genesis- he mentions, intriguingly, that the film was to be directed by a second-time director who was thought not to have enough experience, so he was brought in: any ideas?- production, and problems faced as a result of 9/11, and mentions the treasurable tit-bit that Stephen Dillane’s performance was modelled on David Frost, of all people!

Other extras are less substantial, and well short of the ’10 hours of extras’ that the box promises, consisting of some alternative versions of scenes, none of which add or subtract anything from the film apart from a more ‘operatic’ version of the central explosion sequence and some good deleted scenes, with a moment of character revelation between Muir and Hadley that arguably would have deepened the central love triangle in the film. There’s an interesting enough- and brief- storyboard to film comparison, with Scott talking about how his background in painting helped him design the ‘look’ of his films- much the same as Ridley, then- and an interesting few pages of text outlining requirements for joining the CIA; suffice it to say, it’s highly unlikely anyone reading this would qualify! The usual round of trailers, production notes and cast bios round out the package, as well as some DVD-ROM extras, none of which are accessible to people who don’t have DVD-ROM capability. A solidly good selection of genuinely interesting material, then, and worth watching for once.


Normally, a film like this would be described as ‘no Oscar winner’, but, after the success of A Beautiful Mind at the awards, such a judgement becomes slightly unfair. A thoroughly well-made piece of entertainment, with a pleasing comeback performance from Robert Redford, is presented on a technically strong disc with interesting extras that, for once, go for quality over quantity. Certainly recommended, but why, oh, why, did they decide Oxford looked like China??

8 out of 10
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