In an extended flashback halfway through Spy Game, Brad Pitt unwittingly becomes a time traveler. He’s playing Tom Bishop, a young CIA operative working undercover as a photojournalist in Beirut circa 1985, under the supervision of his mentor Nathan Muir (Robert Redford). Through most of the Beirut scenes, Bishop wears a San Diego Padres baseball cap as part of his ensemble, a navy blue number with white-and-orange lettering. But he couldn’t have acquired that hat without a quick jaunt to the future. The Padres didn’t abandon their brown-and-orange Taco Bell employee motif until 1991—the navy blue design simply didn’t exist in 1985.
It’s a niggling detail—the kind only likely to be spotted by a lifelong Padres fan—but it’s the kind of thing you’re not surprised to find in a film directed by Tony Scott. The younger, less-talented brother of Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator), Tony defined the Jerry Bruckheimer gloss-over-substance style with Top Gun and Days of Thunder while the Michael Bays, Dominic Senas and Simon Wests of the world were still filming 8mm toy car explosions in their mothers’ backyards. “The look” of a Tony Scott film has always been its driving force, and little things like consistencies of time and place aren’t about to get in the way. This is, after all, a director whose overhead shots of San Francisco’s 3Com Park for the 1996 baseball thriller The Fan were obviously shot during a 49ers football game.
Spy Game brings a few intriguing ideas to the table about post-Cold War international relations and espionage, cruising along smoothly on the charisma of its stars whenever the Tony Scott filmmaking Sledge-o-Matic isn’t assaulting your common sense. The framing story is set in 1991, where Redford’s veteran spy Muir is packing his CIA office for retirement. That’s before he learns that his protégé Bishop is in hot water in China, having been arrested for espionage and sentenced to be executed the next morning. Delicate Sino-American trade negotiations make Bishop a pawn the government could be willing to sacrifice, unless Muir can convince his superiors otherwise—or simply work his connections to get Bishop out himself.
The bulk of Spy Game unfolds in flashback, detailing Muir’s recruitment and training of Bishop as a covert operative. Writer Michael Frost Beckner (also creator of the CIA-set TV series The Agency) knows his dirty tricks—there’s a snappy montage of Muir testing Bishop’s ability to extract information and evaluate threats—but he also sets up the relationship between the characters effectively. Redford and Pitt click in their scenes together, with Muir’s chilly pragmatism playing off Bishop’s less practical, more compassionate morality. As Spy Game starts exploring the ethics of ends justifying the means, it slowly develops a timely creepiness, as we begin to see those justifications applied to cozying up to the people we know in our hearts are bad guys.
Such are the finer points of Spy Game’s worldview, if you can spot them through Scott’s haze of cinematic pyrotechnics. Though for once he decides to eschew his beloved orange-filtered shots of sun streaming through window blinds, he still crafts a film as though no one will watch unless he smacks them in the head every four seconds. A countdown clock to Bishop’s execution time doesn’t just appear on screen—it slams into the screen in a dramatic freeze-frame at regular intervals, once with the actual execution time added for the benefit of those who weren’t paying attention the first time. Harry Gregson-Williams’ grinding, screeching electric guitar score cranks up to ear-splitting volume. A meeting between Muir and Bishop seems to take place on a rooftop for no better reason than it allows Scott to use a helicopter for panoramic coverage, and dammit, he’s going to use that helicopter.
Everything the critical establishment has come to loathe about blitzkrieg Bruckheimer blockbusters like Armageddon, Gone in Sixty Seconds and Con Air, Tony Scott did first, and continues to do to this day. Spy Game was filmed in several international locations, but because of the way Scott shoots a film, you wonder why they bothered to go anywhere. Any given conversation between Redford and Pitt involves an up-the-nostril close-up of the speaker, an instantaneous cut to the person he’s speaking to, another cut to the speaker, and so on at least half a dozen times in the space of a single sentence. No single image gets the chance to be more than a flicker on the retina. The scene might as well have been shot in a warehouse in New Jersey.
What Tony Scott loves about filmmaking is what he can do to your pulse. His films are edited to move quickly even when nothing is happening, so you always feel as though there’s excitement just around the corner. And while he can blow things up with the best of them, he’s helpless when his themes or characters are expected to make an impression. If there’s any chemistry between Redford and Pitt—or between Pitt and Catherine McCormack as the aid worker he romances—it’s because the actors are working their tails off not to be buried under several metric tons of “atmosphere.”
Spy Game’s biggest surprise in this time of heightened sensitivity may be a scene in which a suicide bombing mission levels a building. There’s nothing particularly gratuitous about the scene, but it makes a more uncomfortable impression because the man in charge of the film generally isn’t thinking beyond what looks good. Any thought-provoking notions Spy Game might have to offer disappear behind images of Tony Scott and his production designer planning a scene around a color scheme. And if that scheme requires a navy blue hat that wouldn’t exist for another six years, so be it.
Spy Game (R) HH Directed by Tony Scott. Starring Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and Catherine McCormack.