Spy Game

"If it comes down to you or them, send flowers."

Putting Tony Scott behind the camera is tantamount to giving the reins of a multi-million dollar production to an extremely excitable 7 year-old film prodigy. He’s like a giddy little kid; his work is fast-paced and expertly crafted, yes, but one does wish he would take an occasional breath and let the audience do the same. To be fair, his explosion-in-the-editing-room stylistics can be extremely effective: witness the almost unreasonably exciting Will Smith conspiracy actioner Enemy of the State that he helmed a couple of years back. Now, we’re faced with Spy Game, a CIA thriller that doesn’t work nearly that well, though the two films are uncannily similar in style. What went wrong?

Well, for one thing, the movie is a step up for Scott in terms of plot complexity. Ordinarily, I would applaud such a career move; unfortunately, a convoluted story line means that a director has to compensate accordingly. Spy Game begins with the capture and imprisonment of Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), a CIA operative working on a renegade assignment in China. He is apprehended when trying to sneak someone — a girl, predictably — out of a high-security prison. We find out that back on the homefront his CIA bosses want to hang him out to dry; sacrifice him so as not to jeopardize Chinese-American trade relations.

The movie then goes into a series of extended flashbacks, as retiring agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) remembers the story of Bishop’s training and subsequent globe-hopping missions. Now it seems that Nathan is the only man willing to stand up to his superiors and try to save Bishop from what is almost certain death at the hands of Chinese inquisitors. It doesn’t look good.

From the very beginning, Scott is in full-force, with whooshing cameras, elaborate slow-motion and showy cinematic sleight-of-hand flying at the audience non-stop. I like his style; it can transform what would be an ordinary action movie into a dazzling one. The problem? Spy Game isn’t really an action movie. It’s a political thriller. There are some fairly swift action sequences, but a lot of it is talk, talk and more talk. The most important plot developments take place during conversation, not chase scenes or fights. This is a wonderful thing for a Hollywood movie, but it doesn’t slow Scott down one iota. It may not be an action movie, but he sure thinks that it is.

So all of his gee-whiz technical wizardry is reduced to just that: empty technical wizardry. There is nothing holding it together. Imagine a version of, say, You Can Count On Me where the camera spins around the conversationalists at the speed of a frightened gazelle before allowing them to say a word, or suddenly going to black and white for no discernible reason whatsoever. I’m exaggerating, yes — this is a far cry from You Can Count On Me no matter which way you slice it — but you get the idea. To insert dynamic cinematography, you usually need something remotely dynamic to be happening on screen, otherwise it will be mostly for naught. Oliver Stone has made a career out of this.

The film’s tagline screamed “It’s not how you play the game, it’s how the game plays you.” But the plot isn’t nearly that interesting. I would have liked to see a real movie about the deceptive workings of the CIA, but that’s not what we get here. Redford’s character asks an intriguing rhetorical question towards the end of the movie, something to the effect of “do you remember when we could tell the good guys from the bad guys?” That’s about as juicy as it gets. What we get instead is a non-intriguing story of international intrigue, and an uninvolving plotline about Brad Pitt’s boring personal conflicts.

Spy Game managed to keep me awake for its 126 minutes, but not much else. Redford is good, and Pitt is passable. I got a sick sort of satisfaction from watching Tony Scott tie himself into a knot trying to impress us with his cinematic circus act. He needs to find a suitable project or get a cup of decaf coffee. Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing Secrets & Lies, directed by Tony Scott.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log


Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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