I love modern movies where old school veterans play opposite younger actors and, despite the latter being the supposed star, it is normally the former that outclasses them in every respect. Prime examples include Al Pacino, who was far superior to Johnny Depps' titular Donnie Brasco, Gene Hackman shamed Will Smith in Enemy of the State and Paul Newman was far superior to Cruise in The Colour of Money. It's not like the younger men aren't good actors, but in these sort of movies they are often standing in the shadows of their elders. In 2001 Tony Scott added Spy Game to this list of movies. A superior, stylish and intelligent thriller, you could be forgiven for assuming that Brad Pitt's top billing meant he was the star. In truth, however, it's the Sundance Kid himself - Robert Redford - who owns this movie. And boy is it a tremendous movie.
“Technology gets better every day. That's fine. But most of the time all you need is a stick of gum, a pocket knife and a smile.”
It's 1991 and CIA Agent Tom Bishop has been captured by the Chinese whilst conducting an unapproved operation. The CIA are debating whether or not to acknowledge that he is one of theirs (and thus save his life), and to that end they contact Nathan Muir, Bishop's old boss - who is, that very day, retiring from the CIA. Nathan is already one step ahead of them. He knows about Tom, knows that the CIA will be looking to disavow him and knows that he is the only person left to help his old friend. With just 24 hours for the President to claim him, or Tom will be executed, Nathan has to use his wits, cunning and several decades of training to lie, trick and blag his way past all of the high level Intelligence Directors and get his man out.
“Feeling a bit paranoid on your last day?”
“When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain. Before the rain.”
Spy Game is a superior spy thriller. It's a truly intelligent movie that keeps you on your toes without ever trying to complicate things to the point of confusion. The script gives it the edge, with almost every line Redford utters laced with double-meaning and backed up with years of experience. Despite the presence of Pitt (whose character's story is shown in flashbacks as Nathan Muir narrates it to the Intelligence Counsel), this is clearly Redford's baby. Not only does he outsmart everybody in the movie but he also outclasses everybody on screen. With a superb back catalogue of Award Winning performances, he can still pull off some great parts (An Unfinished Life, The Last Castle) but this marks one of his last best lead roles. Sure, Pitt would go on to give more superb performances - like in Fight Club and in Babel, but here he definitely takes a back seat to Redford's veteran spy. The supporting cast members don't get a huge amount of material to shine with, but all do well in their roles, from Catherine McCormack (Braveheart) in a slightly unsympathetic role, to Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) as an aging spy contact who is suspected of treason and the late David Hemmings (the one with the wacky eyebrows from Barbarella) as one of Muir's London Intelligence friends. Despite all the other characters and the various performances offered, Pitt is more important than any of them and even he still stands in Redford's shadow.
“If you go off the reservation, I will not come after you.”
Aside from the cast who fully embody the well-rounded and realistically flawed characters, the intelligent, complex but not over-complicated story and the snappy script (almost as sharp as something that David Mamet would come up with), we also get some superb direction from Tony Scott, who turns what could have been a very talky, monotonous affair into an uber-stylish, frantic, frenetic spy thriller production, with plenty of tension. Add to that the globe-trotting locations - from the States to Vietnam to Berlin to Beirut - and the kick-ass score that perfectly suits and positively augments the narrative, and what you have basically have is one top notch spy thriller. One of the best spy thrillers that I have ever come across. And one of the best performances from an old-school heavyweight actor, Robert Redford, during the twilight of his career. Highly recommended.
“It's not a game.”
“Oh yes it is, that's exactly what it is. And it's no kid's game either. This is a whole other game. And it's serious and it's dangerous. And it's not one you want to lose.”
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