“Spy Game,” directed by Tony Scott (“Crimson Tide,” “Enemy of the State”), has one major flaw the majority of the film feels like an explanation, not a story. The opening scene shows Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) as a doctor working in the Su Chou Prison in China. But then we learn he is an American spy when he is caught, beaten and set to be executed the following day. Meanwhile, at CIA headquarters in Washington D.C., Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), an extremely talented agent, is ready to call his career quits and retire to the warm and sunny beaches of the Bahamas. This little introduction is very engaging, but then up until the very end, the audience may find itself waiting through the numerous flashbacks that are used to explain the entire plot.
Suddenly under CIA scrutiny, Muir realizes that his cohorts suspect his past involvement with Bishop and its connection to Bishop”s current plight. His capture also occurs at the most inopportune time, because the Republican administration is ready to secure foreign negotiations with China after the Cold War, and an act of espionage would just not look good, to say the least. After realizing there is a crucial link between Muir and Bishop, Muir”s knowledge of the event and his following decision to postpone his retirement, build virtually all of the suspense for the entire film.
When the supposedly suspenseful and action-packed scenes explaining Muir”s past discovery and training of Bishop pale in comparison to Muir”s handling of the event back at headquarters, one finds that regardless of the importance of their past, it is more exciting to watch Redford cleverly dodge accusations and scrutiny from his co-workers. Redford plays his part excellently, however, and Muir”s wit and cunning never fail to impress viewers. Pitt plays his part well too, but unlike Redford, his character is not explored in depth.
Despite great acting and a good premise, the entire set-up of the plot seems a bit loose and disjointed. The series of flashbacks explaining Bishop”s work as a spy and his past completion of the various operations given by Muir involving rescue attempts in Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Lebanese occupation in Beirut eventually lead up to Bishop”s encounter with Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a first aid worker at the Beirut camp.
By this time, when you are trying to make sense of the events thus far, sometimes with little background information (i.e. you might feel lost if you don”t know about Lebanon), you realize these events will inevitably somehow lead up to Bishop”s capture in China. With this in mind, along with a saturation of historical events, you may simply lose interest the only redeeming aspect being Muir”s decisions and adeptness back at home.
It”s too bad the majority of the film befuddles viewers in all these past events when the heart of the story lies in Muir”s decision to save Bishop. One may be left wanting to see more of Bishop in his current state, not in all his past experiences.
Also, Muir”s motivation to postpone retirement for one last operation to save his old student is not as convincing as it could be, thus weakening the persuasiveness of their friendship. The ending pulls everything together, but perhaps not in the most effective way.