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Spy Game

The thinking man's action movie

Not long ago, in a Hollywood not too far away, heroes flexed their muscles, assembled elite reconnaissance squads, crashed through windows, and displayed a tenacity for accomplishing feats in which the odds were slim to none. But luckily in Tony Scott's new film Spy Game the Age of Brawn has given way to the Age of Wit and a new hero has emerged — a thinking persons type of hero.

Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is a CIA operative par excellence who is one shift shy of retirement. Nathan takes great pleasure in assessing a situation, much the same way chess aficionados huddle around a chess match, so when his former recruit and mentee Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is arrested in China on espionage charges and sentenced to execution within twenty-four hours, Nathan gleefully intercedes to buy Bishop some time. Unfortunately, the CIA needs a scapegoat to cover its tracks in China and wish to use Nathan's information on Bishop to help secure Bishop as a patsy. When pressed by his secretary Gladys as to what their plans are, Nathan smiles coyly and asks "When did Noah build the ark?" and responds "before the rain. . ." and thereafter Nathan begins to bob and weave, gathering scraps of information and putting pieces together as to how to get Bishop out of prison without putting himself on the line.

Redford plays Nathan Muir with charm and sincerity, much the way you would expect him to. Being a CIA operative, however, Redford must play both gentleman and shampster. Redford personifies this role during several briefings that his character Nathan is called to attend. Nathan's colleagues listen intently as he briefs them on Bishop but at the same time it's almost as if he wants to wink at them while he strings them along. And it's not as if his colleagues are complete dupes, they're also back stabbing cretins who are suspicious of everyone's motives causing the briefing room to resemble a chess match.

If the briefing room is a chess match, then the field is the chessboard. About a good ¾ of the film is Nathan's recollection of how he met and trained Bishop on assignments in Vietnam, Germany and Beirut. On the field, the chemistry between Redford and Pitt help give a broader dimension to their characters. It's not so much a father-son relationship as it is a conflict of ideals occurring on the field. Bishop doesn't like to know the names of his targets and takes his assignments as jobs. Nathan, on the other hand, scours every aspect of an individual and assignments for him are games. Pitt plays Bishop not as a young recruit following the footsteps of his mentor, but as an individual seeking his own path.

Spy Games uses the same conventions found in the Usual Suspects (narration), The Pledge (man who can't retire) and even Memento (searching for the facts) and the redundancy police will draw fire, but much like its predecessors, it will thrill the thinking audiences.


Spy Game
Rated R
2 hours 2 minutes

Robert Redford
Brad Pitt
Catherine McCormack
Stephen Dillane
Larry Bryggman