Excess dazzle can leave us feeling frazzled

Review: As a buddy film, `Spy Game' would be another fine turn for Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. But the director gets in the way.

November 21, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the cluttered, hyperactive Spy Game, Robert Redford employs the same hilariously enigmatic expressions he used in his hipster youth in movies like The Candidate (1972). And they're even better here, because he does it with supreme knowingness.

As a 30-year CIA man who spends his last 24 hours before retirement trying to rescue a former protege (Brad Pitt) who has gone rogue and been arrested in China, Redford plays the smartest, most righteous man in the agency. He pulls it off with a quick, dry grace.

Letting all his wrinkles and crevices show, he's more naturally elegant than ever, and he orchestrates his few overt con-man moves with a heretofore unsuspected vaudevillian enthusiasm. His fake smiles have an element of joy that comes from his (and the character's) pleasure in performing. His fleeting expressions of sentiment, like the peck on the head he gives to his dedicated secretary (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), are refreshingly spare and light - emotional haiku. And with the music and explosions of many nations drowning out dialogue, this film needs all the lightness it can get.

Spy Game is a buddy movie that sinks under its pretensions. Sure, the Sundance Kid gets to mentor a not-as-Butch sharpshooter, code-named Boy Scout because Pitt's character really did learn marksmanship in the Boy Scouts. And Pitt is blessedly unmannered and more disciplined than usual as the sensitive prodigy.

But the bulk of the movie consists of Redford's sitting around a table of venomous "suits" while orchestrating his own private campaign (mostly by phone) to spring Pitt from the Chinese. The cuts between the bombastic action and the conference room would give us whiplash - that is, if director Tony Scott didn't incessantly jazz up the talking-head scenes, too.

Instead, he gives us vertigo. He uses hop-skip-and-jump cutting; he recomposes frames with computerized zooms and close-ups, and superimposes graphics that show time left on a ticking clock. He demonstrates what a filmmaker can do with digital editing. But the technique backfires in a critical way: It makes us feel we're covering acres when the script barely progresses an inch toward explaining its characters' murky conduct.

The main action is set in 1991. Redford flashes back to his first team-up with Pitt when the lad was soldiering in Vietnam, then his recruitment of Pitt for the agency in Cold War Berlin, and the pivotal operation when their collaboration went sour - in Beirut, 1985 - partly because of Pitt's reckless involvement with a humanitarian aid worker (Catherine McCormack). Each sequence is supposed to illustrate how the guys' relationship deepens and grows more complicated as Redford tries to teach his charge the rules of that dirty yet necessary sport, the spy game.

In the most enjoyable moments, Redford instructs Pitt in basics that should become as reflexive as breathing - like scanning a room, memorizing its contents and sensing when something's off. The veteran's crisp authority and the novice's enthusiasm are invigorating.

But as the flashbacks delve into the root conflict between Redford's icy pragmatism and Pitt's idealism, the movie becomes increasingly wearisome. It skates over whether Redford is stretching the truth when he rationalizes that an East German contact he ordered Pitt to cut loose (against Pitt's wishes) was corrupt.

The spy game here isn't all that difficult to follow, even in the faction-ridden hellhole of Beirut. But its playing-out fails to dramatize whether Redford takes pragmatism too far and Pitt's rebellion against a world of cold collateral damage is justified. Redford goes against his own character - and his reading of that humanitarian-aid worker's character - when he follows his heart and backs up Pitt.

It doesn't help that director Scott and screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata give us only an artificial heart. It's a spiffy, up-to-the-minute mechanical organ - the Jarvik 2000 of escapist cinema - but it can't pump enough blood to keep this movie going for two hours.

Scott is a virtuoso at making his camera fly like a whirlybird or slither through halls like a snake. He wants us to think we're seeing the action the way his characters do. Instead, he swallows them up in a kinetic spectacle. We don't experience the drama from the inside out because everything is on the surface. Redford is the only one who supplies internal life to Spy Game.

Spy Game

Starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt

Directed by Tony Scott

Rated R (adult language, violence)

Released by Universal

Running time 124 minutes

Sun score * * 1/2

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