[Screen It]

(2001) (Robert Redford, Brad Pitt) (R)

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Drama: On his last day on the job, a veteran CIA officer must figure out what's going on and battle both the clock and his associates as he tries to rescue his one-time protégé who's about to be executed in a Chinese prison.
Nathan Muir (ROBERT REDFORD) is a veteran CIA officer who's on his last day on the job. When he gets a call from Hong Kong indicating that a former protégé of his, Tom Bishop (BRAD PITT), is now being held in a Chinese prison set to be executed for espionage, he knows his day will entail a bit more than packing up his belongings with his faithful assistant, Gladys Jennip (MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE).

Asked to pull records on Bishop by one of his associates, Charles Harker (STEPHEN DILLANE), Nathan acts dumb about what's transpired to see what the agency knows and is planning. It seems that they've had some sort of covert operation going on there and plan to sacrifice Tom so that trade negotiations between the U.S. and China aren't stymied.

Accordingly, while Nathan recounts his experience recruiting, training and then working with Tom from the time they met in Vietnam through West Germany and then Beirut where the young spy became involved with Elizabeth Hadley (CATHERINE McCORMACK), a British foreign aid worker with a shady background, he tries to figure out how to arrange for Tom's rescue all while staying at least one step ahead of Barker and their boss, Troy Folger (LARRY BRYGGMAN).

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Unlike the actions and adventures of James Bond and Austin Powers in the films in which they appear, the day-to-day activities of most real life spies are hopefully a bit more covert or at least subdued. Yet, some are probably involved in operations we'd probably rather not know about. The fun of that, however, is that someone you know - a friend, business acquaintance or even a family member - could be a spy working on a case and possibly using you as some part of their overall master plan.

While you may never know, you can always go to the movies to watch them in action and see how it's done. Their latest appearance is in "Spy Game," a generally decently made, intelligent and progressively engaging dramatic thriller where the fun comes from watching the agents at work. Although certainly and quite obviously bringing nothing new to the genre, the spies here don't don disguises, have cool gadgets or engage in over the top, adventurous stunts.

Instead, they use their wits, smarts and cunning - and a little bit of opportunistic luck - to accomplish the task at hand. A "day in the life of" tale regarding one spy - ably played by Robert Redford - who's on his last day at work and ready to retire, the plot stems from him learning that his former protégé - winningly embodied by Brad Pitt - has been captured on a foreign operation and is about to be executed.

Not surprisingly, he then sets out to figure out what's going on and then attempt to rescue his student all while dealing with shady characters and goings-on inside the agency that seem determined to thwart his efforts. Told in one of those initially annoying narrative styles that jumps back and forth between contemporary - in this case, 1991 - and flashback footage covering a number of years, the film takes a while to get going and obviously has somewhat of an episodic feel thanks to that structure.

As the agency asks Redford's character about Pitt's character and their past, we then see various flashback sequences that detail their history together. Although they initially seem to be standalone events, it doesn't take a rocket scientist - or master spy in this case - to figure out that those scenes are all leading up to the reason behind Pitt's character's latest escapade.

Accordingly, the film occasionally strains credibility a bit with both Redford and Pitt not exactly looking sixteen years younger in the scenes set in 1975 Vietnam, while it seems a bit too contrived that all of this transpires on the veteran spy's last day on the job. In addition, the various visual effects that director Tony Scott ("Enemy of the State," "Crimson Tide") uses throughout the film - including suddenly sped up footage as well as sudden freeze frames with the time of day stamped on them (supposedly to ratchet up the suspense from a temporal perspective) are both unnecessary and obtrusive.

It's also really not until the end of the film that the plot - penned by screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner ("Sniper," TV's "The Agency") and David Arata ("Brokedown Palace") - finally clicks and kicks into high gear. Although there are a handful of fun and/or engaging moments before then where characters show their spy-based creativity, the conclusion is the most satisfying as Redford's character finally succeeds with his various ploys. While none of the material is groundbreaking or earth shattering in design or execution, such moments are relatively entertaining and make up for various other problems.

It's the presence of stars Robert Redford ("The Last Castle," "The Sting") and Brad Pitt ("The Mexican," "Snatch"), however, that clearly makes the film easy to watch (with the interesting parallel being that Redford also served as Pitt's mentor of sorts while directing him in "A River Runs Through It"). Despite having that retro aging problem and probably not being quite edgy enough for a spy who has to make tough, life or death situations, Redford is very good in the part. No stranger to the spy genre (he previously appeared in films such as "Three Days of the Condor" and "Sneakers"), Redford is best when plotting and pulling one (and then some) over on his superiors.

Pitt, as usual, delivers an engaging performance as the rogue spy, despite his character not being fleshed out enough to explain or validate everything that occurs. Nevertheless, the talented actor manages to create a compelling character and women of all ages will no doubt swoon over the sight of him and Redford together for the first time on the big screen.

Supporting performances are generally okay with Catherine McCormack ("The Tailor of Panama," "Dangerous Beauty") getting one of the meatier roles as a foreign aid worker with a sordid past, but her part is also underwritten and missing that extra something special to make it and her stand out. Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("The Cell," "Secrets and Lies") gets a smaller role as Nathan's faithful assistant, but is nevertheless good in her limited moments.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dillane ("Firelight," "Welcome to Sarajevo") and Larry Bryggman ("Die Hard: With A Vengeance," "And Justice For All") appear as other CIA officials, and while their characters provide some resistance to the protagonist's efforts, there's nothing particularly exciting or memorable about them or the actors' performances.

Although clearly not the best or most entertaining spy film ever made and despite some problems, this is a fairly decent effort with enough engaging spy-related developments and occasionally crackling dialogue to make it a fairly enjoyable entry in the genre. "Spy Game" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 2001 / Posted November 21, 2001

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