Go to Homepage   Spy Game: Old-Fashioned Manipulation

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Universal Studios (DVD), ASIN B00005JKBC

This slickly produced, if curiously old fashioned spy yarn begins in 1991, when the legacy of the Cold War still loomed large. One-time star marksman and idealistic CIA agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) languishes semi-conscious in a Chinese prison, with only twenty-four hours to live. The news of his imprisonment breaks on the eve of his mentor's retirement. A charismatic, old-school secret agent, Nathan Muir's attachment to his headstrong protégé becomes apparent through a series of tense conversations with a sepulchral committee, seeking to set up Bishop as a scapegoat for a scandal of their own. Nathan (Robert Redford) soon sets in motion an elaborate plan to rescue Tom, unraveling the machinations of his superiors, whilst attempting to mask his own intentions.

dvd: spy game A long history of drops, cons, fixers and double agents unfolds via flashbacks intimately filmed in cool, muted colors offset by a stirring score. This is spying in the Graham Greene tradition, relying on human contact and manipulation, rather than gadgetry and car chases. It soon transpires that the plot fronted by Bishop's imprisonment began long before either man so much as set foot in China -- when Tom falls for the charms of an English aid worker with a hidden agenda (Catherine McCormack), while working in Beirut.

The movie features the requisite traitorous Arabs, Germans and Russians -- all three villains of choice for gung-ho action flicks through the decades. Fortunately for the viewer, Spy Game doesn't even attempt to navigate the whys and wherefores of espionage. Instead it delivers a human drama in the guise of an action thriller. Both leads give creditable performances, Redford consistently outdoing his fresher-faced co-star, to give Spy Game gravitas and credibility.

Unafraid to wield the mega-watt pulling power of its stars, the film-makers draw celebrity spotters and the more ambivalent viewer into to a taut drama on the perils of attempting to influence others while keeping them at a distance -- as well as the dangers of internal CIA politics. Spy Game's collection of acting talent struggles to shine through undeveloped smaller roles. As Muir's world-weary, tough-talking PA Gladys, Marianne Jean Baptiste recalls Without A Trace's Vivian Johnson. Charlotte Rampling's memorable turn as an elegant and vaguely dangerous German journalist adds further interest.

Much as I'd like to see Iranian Omid Djalili, actor of choice for sweaty, sleazy foreigners, in a role that doesn't epitomize Hollywood's lazy attitude towards the East, there's much to enjoy here. Potentially a mere star vehicle, Spy Game surpasses these unpromising beginnings and works surprisingly well as an intrigue that may not stand up to scrutiny.

Maysa M. Hattab

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