There isn't much game per say in Tony Scott's new espionage thriller "Spy Game" (IMDb listing). Straightforwardly told, and with enough tech-babble/conspiracy theories to keep the Tom Clancy fans happy, "Spy Game" only suffers from the lack of any invitation for the audience to join in on the fun.
Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is a hotshot CIA operative who has gone rogue in China to help rescue a friend out of prison. Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is his mentor and estranged friend. When Nathan learns of Tom's arrest, the elder agent is sent to CIA headquarters to help explain his long and turbulent past with the mysterious younger apprentice (which we see in flashbacks). Soon, Nathan learns of the CIA's less than honorable plans for Tom, and is forced to decide what his true feelings are for his student, and how he can help Tom when he is thousands of miles away.
What makes "Spy Game" as memorable as it only slightly is would be the return of the legend, Robert Redford. Also seen in last month's sadly overlooked "The Last Castle," Redford gives another stately performance as the elder soldier who has a hard time comprehending the impulsiveness of youth. Redford is a class act throughout the picture, using his years of experience to his advantage, and wisely choosing to act as a counterpoint to Pitt's occasional explosive energy. It's delightful to see a superstar acting like a superstar for a change. Redford's charisma shines through "Spy Game," and he raises the level of the film with just a casual glance at danger.
For Brad Pitt, the results are less extraordinary. In "Spy Game," Pitt returns to his strictly-for-hire acting posture and attitude. Rarely seen, yet easy to spot, Pitt is the worst actor when it comes to hiding his boredom with a role, or even a film. With other 2001 roles in "Snatch" or "The Mexican," Pitt is alive and full of mischievousness. He is game to play with the dialog and direction, allowing himself a little fun in the role. But in bigger-budgeted films like "Meet Joe Black" and "Spy Game," Pitt cannot hide his contempt. He goes dead in the eyes, and limits his words to a grunt or two. Pitt's Tom Bishop is not a fully-fleshed role, and nowhere near the extravagantly bizarre characters Pitt usually plays. Bishop is more of an action movie cliche role. The young hunk who can kick ass and romance the ladies. Pitt tries to find the layers of personality in the role, but under Scott's considerable thumb, he is held back from achieving anything that resonates. Pitt, hanging on to the only color his part is allowed--a fleeting romance with a relief worker (Catherine McCormack)--looks bored and angry in "Spy Game." His scenes with Redford are dynamite, but there just isn't enough of that to challenge this talented actor.
And that very coldness from Pitt is what keeps "Spy Game" from ever being able to draw in the audience. Tony Scott has never been one to hold on to a human element is his films, so the lack of a spark in "Spy Game" comes as really no surprise. Scott always seems like the rich cousin who has a spectacular train set, yet never allows you to touch it. You can only watch as he plays with all his toys, wearing a maniacal grin on his lips the whole time. Scott has made some great films in his career ("Crimson Tide," "True Romance"), but has yet to make anything you can give yourself over to. He gets lost in his own style to such a degree that it becomes a form of cinematic masturbation.
The trademarks of a Tony Scott film are all here: the impossibly lit CIA headquarters, the helicopter fly-bys, the hazy, widescreen photography, and the inevitable abuse of explosions. What Scott tries to work new into the fold is the aforementioned romantic subplot. Yet, as he proved in his 1990 film "Revenge," he is far too impatient a filmmaker to allow time for a natural and inviting emotional relationship to grow. Instead he has Pitt and McCormack meeting, then jumping right into bed. The romantic relationship between the two acts is an important component of the climax, but Scott fumbles it from the very beginning.
Like Scott's bombastic 1998 thriller "Enemy Of The State," "Spy Game" doesn't bore, nor is it technically a bad film. It's just another Tony Scott picture that is all sheen, fire and shadows, but sorely lacks a soul.
Filmfodder Grade: C+