The way we were

Male bonding and espionage span the decades.

SPY GAME

directed by Tony Scott with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt opens Nov. 21 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, and others

DURING THE LAST Bush administration, we meet CIA agent Nathan Muir, who's still driving a Porsche 911 dating from the Nixon years. No wonder he's one day from retirement, packing up a messy office that represents "all this history," as a younger superior sneers. Indeed, his tweed jacket and retro eyeglasses immediately signal that Muir (Robert Redford) is a man out of time now that the Cold War's over.

Equally out of step with the cynical era, several time zones removed, is his idealistic former prot駩, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), whom we see in a tense pre-credit Chinese prison rescue mission gone bad—leading to his own imprisonment and death sentence. In Spy Game's heavily flashback-dependent plot, we learn how the young spy once disregarded Muir's advice—don't get emotionally involved with the "assets," or people, you're using—with fatal consequences. All this tedious exposition comes within Game's 1991 framing story as Muir undergoes an endless CIA debriefing on Bishop (a "rogue," he's branded). Though estranged for six years from his old student-assassin, Muir gradually reconsiders his old avowals not to save Bishop's renegade ass.

Taking a cue from Traffic, Tony Scott renders Game's different episodes and periods in color-coded, film-stock-manipulated hues. Thus we see the two men meet in 1975 Vietnam (sepia), assume a mentor-pupil relationship in 1976 West Germany (smoky gray), then come to a crisis in 1985 Beirut (yellow-brown). Poor Bishop awaits death back in China (inky black), while Muir prowls the corridors of CIA HQ (cool blue).

The effect is like watching five different abridged movies clumsily woven together (Scott is no Soderbergh). Game attempts to create urgency with a 24-hour execution countdown, but the picture is fundamentally a yakfest with lots of paperwork, self-important cell phone calls, and vital faxes. Like Kevin Spacey's interrogation in The Usual Suspects, Muir is stalling for time, outwitting his questioners with feigned ignorance, and spinning an enjoyable diversionary yarn.

WE'D ENJOY IT more, however, if Redford and Pitt shared more screen time together. Game is at its best as a love story between two spooks, as Muir woos and recruits Bishop to the agency. ("He was a natural," Muir recalls fondly.) The inevitable third leg of a romantic triangle is Bishop's Beirut love interest, played by Braveheart's Catherine McCormack. Muir, meanwhile, has only his secretary, Secrets and Lies' Marianne Jean-Baptiste, for female companionship. The movie's very much a guy thing in this regard, appropriate to the director of Top Gun and Crimson Tide but stripped of the earlier certainties of Scott's martial rectitude.

Instead, like his Enemy of the State, Game becomes a paranoid study of the system gone bad, as once-faithful Muir belatedly recognizes. "All this was about something, wasn't it?" he implores his boss. Not anymore. The teacher's disillusionment follows his acolyte's. For the elder, loyalty is his undoing; for the younger, it's love, but both men find themselves outmoded by the new world order.

Such global economic imperatives packaged Pitt and Redford together, of course, but Game's script doesn't support its marketing. Not half so smart or naughty as The Tailor of Panama, the movie wants to have it both ways—both glorifying and indicting our Cold War intelligence apparatus. Redford's likable, iconic presence recalls All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor (particularly with the aviator sunglasses), only now he's on the establishment side. Pitt, a sneaky comic actor when so unleashed, here feels constrained by his square, rebellious role. (Scott over-photographs his big rooftop protest speech with ridiculous swirling helicopter grandiloquence.)

Basically a nostalgia picture, Game might've worked better by focusing on just one story and period—probably the '70s, when Redford and Scott feel most at home. (Surprisingly, Pitt looks right, too, with his shag haircut and vintage ski parka.) Scott piles on visual razzle-dazzle to obscure a talky, expository core, but the movie's just mother-daughter matinee material with hunky bigenerational casting. (Both leads keep their shirts on, ladies.) Game's finally like one of those ill-chosen duets—e.g. Bing Crosby and David Bowie—where the stodgy old song material prohibits any new musical direction. Appropriately, our heroes end up on the move—Muir triumphantly driving, Bishop bloodied but flying—without any idea where they're headed.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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