Spy Game

January 28, 2012 13 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

In Spy Game, director Tony Scott will not only take you into the mind of a CIA operative, but also the lifestyle and hardships that come with the job. And as any half-aware viewer will soon learn, this isn’t Scott’s first trial with espionage and intrigue, only his most recent — one in which Robert Redford’s smart mouth and the director’s mastered technique and familiarity with the genre contribute to an entertaining film smarter than the average bear.

When it comes down to that last day on the job, the last thing you’d expect to happen usually does. Veteran spy and CIA officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is on his way out the door and into retirement when his former protΘgΘ, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), stirs up some trouble in China. According to limited reports, Bishop went rogue and was in the middle of a rescue attempt at a Beijing prison until he was captured himself and arrested for espionage, and will be executed in twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, Bishop’s superiors at CIA headquarters are investigating his background, which Muir helps to shed some light on while secretly mounting his own rescue operation to save Bishop — the CIA won’t do it straight out because they’re worried that it will ruin trade talks with China.

If anyone thinks that Robert Redford has lost his touch, they’re sorely mistaken — he brings all his cards to the table in Spy Game and takes the house. Unfortunately, this is both good and bad for his screen mate Pitt. Pitt was rarely was able to feed off of the charisma that Redford was giving, and although they’ve worked together in the past (in 1992’s A River Runs Through It, in which Redford directed and Pitt starred), there is still a lot for Pitt to learn. He has a certain talent for the dark pictures, but when he’s stacked next to the accomplished craftsmen, such as Redford or even Harrison Ford in 1997’s The Devil’s Own, his performances appear average at best.

Opposite him, though, it would appear Redford is making a big screen comeback, and just in time too. After all this time, Redford still brings the same smooth-talking presence to the big screen, and even though he may have lost some of those good looks through the years, he’s still able to capture the audience with his words as he completely submerses himself within the character. The viewer will listen, laugh, and wonder if anyone will ever outsmart him.

In fact, the only person on the set more clever than Redford is director Tony Scott. He brings a new and exciting style to the table, far different than that of his brother Ridley (Gladiator, Hannibal). This Scott was always able to bring excitement to the foreground in such films as Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and Crimson Tide, but for Spy Game he tells it through filtered flashbacks, interesting dolly shots, still photography, and constant titles to keep the viewer interested. The flashbacks’ visual manifestations are comparable to the cinematography in Scott’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, and it’s no surprise, then, that he collaborated with photographer Daniel Mindel both here and there.

Telling the story through flashbacks can become tedious, but Scott made it work. Each sequence was filmed through a different filter. For example, scenes shot in Vietnam had sepia tones, whereas those in Berlin were bluish-gray. This provided a good distinction between the past and present, and also gave an interesting look to the overall picture. Even though these flashbacks are only brief parts of the whole story, Scott, along with his crew, still made sure that Vietnam, Berlin, and Beirut looked as real as possible — a true rarity.

Spy Game is also full of Scott’s calling-card shots — the quick 180-degree pans and still shots (possibly because Scott made a name for himself as a painter before he got into Hollywood). Comparable to Enemy of the State, he likes to start with a middle shot before dollying to a wide shot around the action, and then returns to a closer look on the actors. It not only provides the technologically-driven atmosphere of twenty-first century spycraft, but it also helps to create that upbeat pace which all thrillers strive to attain.

With accomplished names both in front of and behind the camera, the script was the only aspect left up in the air. While Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island) created an intriguing concept, Breckner and co-writer David Arata (Brokedown Palace) failed to develop many of the characters and the prologue sequence, though suspense-filled, began the film awkwardly. But the dialogue was written well and the extensive research into CIA life was played out provocatively onscreen.

Most intriguing is that Spy Game defies the one-liner stupidity the thriller genre has become known for. It offers something new, blending a commanding performance, the touch of an experienced director, and even a bit of the sentimental to bring everything full circle in a story that will leave very few viewers disappointed.

Video: How does it look?

Shown in it’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Spy Game looks amazing! With all of the information packed on this disc, I would have suspected that the image would start to suffer, from my vantage point, that did not seem to be the case. The color palette used is very bleak, with those "bright and shiny outdoors" scenes only appearing only a few times during the film. The colors are very grey and saturated, but with this film it not only works, it makes sense. The fleshtones do appear a bit washed out, but again…that’s how they’re supposed to look. I suppose the downside of this is that it makes Redford appear about ten years older than he actually is, but that’s the way it goes. The level of detail is purely amazing and though this isn’t a "perfect" transfer, it’s the next closest thing. A great-looking visual presentation from Universal.

Audio: How does it sound?

Housing no less than three 5.1 tracks (A Dolby Digital 5.1, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1), Spy Game has got you covered when it comes to sound. What else should we expect from the man who brought us Top Gun? The Dolby Digital and DTS tracks are both very strong indeed, as per usual, the DTS takes the edge when it comes to those discrete surround effects and the Dolby delivers more bang for your buck. Plenty of action, gunfire and explosions are there to keep all of your speakers humming from opening scene to closing. I could go on and on, but trust me when I say that this soundtrack will light up your system!

Supplements: What are the extras?

Ok, sit back and relax because Universal has loaded this disc down with some supplements. Though it’s labeled as a Collector’s Edition, it seems to have as many supplements as their lauded Ultimate Editions. First off, we have not one but two commentary tracks. The first is with Director Tony Scott, who gives a very detailed and precise look at the film. As he does with the storyboard featurette (more on that later), he plans his shots out and has a lot of interesting things to say about the film. Granted, the film is over two hours long, so it’s natural to assume that there will be some breaks in it, but it’s still an interesting commentary nonetheless. The second track is with Producers Mark Abraham and Douglas Wick. Though not as insightful as Scott, their track is interesting as well. Obviously their focus is geared more towards what they are (Producers), but they have some interesting information on the shoot and the movie in general. This brings us to Clandestine OPS. This is essentially a really fancy word for "Pop Up Spy Game". It’s the movie with some interesting facts and something that Universal has done before (Bring it On is what I can recall it from) and that New Line has done with their Infinifilm line of discs. Though interesting, it is a bit tiresome to watch the movie again to learn stuff that you most likely picked up in the commentaries. Still, I applaud their effort and if you like this kind of feature, it’s here for you.

Next up are 9 deleted scenes, but they have been cleverly arranged into actual "Deleted Scenes" and "Alternate Versions of Existing Scenes". They are all presented in a 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, but they can be played all together and with or without commentary by Tony Scott. I found these very interesting, but with the movie already running at 120+ minutes, it’s clear as to why these were left on the cutting room floor. A brief featurette that shows the script to storyboard comparisons is not what I was expecting. Instead Scott narrates how he creates the storyboards the morning before the shoot (as his background is in painting) and then films based upon that. While I’ve never been a fan of these, this was quite interesting and shows exactly how much thought goes into each and every shot. A text-based featurette shows the requirements to enter the CIA. These guys aren’t the goons that some shows and movies make them out to be, as I looked at the list of requirements, I quickly realized that I don’t have "The Right Stuff" to be one of these few and chosen members of our country. Universal is also a big supporter of DVD-ROM extras and this features the Total Axess link which gives you a look at some behind the scenes information about the movie and links to the official website. The Universal Showcase is nothing more than a trailer of "The Bourne Identity" but I seem to remember the same trailer when I saw this movie in the theater, will it ever come out? The original trailer is included and shown in Dolby Digital 5.1 and in 1.90:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, and the standard Production Notes and Cast Bios round out a very packed disc. Like it or not, this is a great disc packed with supplements and with a great picture and sound to boot.

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