It is strange that "Spy Game" should be as thrilling as it is, considering most of its action takes place in flashbacks and memories. Even the stuff that happens "now" is set 10 years ago.And yet, there it is, a satisfying and entertaining spy movie where the good guys are the men out in the trenches and the bad guys are the Ivory Tower bureaucrats.
The story at hand is that somewhat-rogue CIA agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been captured in China and will be executed tomorrow at 8 a.m. unless the U.S. gets him out. The U.S., however, is in the midst of major trade negotiations with China and doesn't want to rock the boat; besides, Tom was acting on his own when he was arrested, without orders from the CIA.
"The CIA is looking for a reason to let the Chinese kill Tom Bishop." So says Tom's mentor, trainer and father figure, about-to-retire Nathan Muir (Robert Redford). He's called in to a meeting with top CIA officials to give background on Tom, and that's when we start flashing back.
Nathan is an old-school spy who says all you really need for any case is a "stick of gum, a pocketknife and a suitcase," who knows to never get close to an informant, who has learned through his years at the CIA how to outsmart the CIA.
Tom is headstrong and emotional, and it was his attachment to an informant (Catherine McCormack) that got him in trouble in the first place.
Nathan wants Tom to follow in his footsteps, while at the same time keeping him from becoming the no-face secret agent he has become. For the mentor/protege dynamic, the casting couldn't be better: Watch "The Sting" and you'll see how much your young Robert Redford looks like your current Brad Pitt. How better to symbolize Tom's slowly "becoming" Nathan than by choosing actors who look like opposite-aged versions of each other?
Redford is intense and fascinating as a man slowly realizing his own employer is the one not to be trusted. Pitt doesn't have as much to do as the deeply conflicted Tom, but Tom and Nathan's relationship is strongly established and Pitt proves he can hold his own against Hollywood legends.
The fast-cut editing and technological gadgetry recall director Tony Scott's previous film, "Enemy of the State," which also cast a dim view on government. (A pack of Morley cigarettes here is a sly reference to another anti-government bastion, "The X-Files," where Morley was the Cigarette Smoking Man's brand of choice.)No new ground is broken in the genre of espionage films, but Nathan Muir would probably agree that sometimes the old ways are the best ways.