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Roguish Agent: Brad Pitt plays the best-looking spy since Mata Hari in 'Spy Game.'

Uninspyred

Listless 'Spy Game' wanders all over the map

By Richard von Busack

BRAD PITT, as agent Tom "The" Bishop, awaits death in a Chinese prison. He'll die at exactly 8am at the hands of the punctual savages, unless his former CIA control, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), can engineer a heroic plan to bust him out. And Muir himself has only 24 hours until retirement. So Pitt's in the jug, being knocked around by evil Maoists, and Redford's stuck at a table, being faced down in all-day debriefings. A little smile plays on Muir's face as he endures impertinent questions thrown at him by a team of character actors handpicked for homeliness to make the weather-beaten-beyond-recognition Redford look boyish again. In Spy Game, you have a recipe for a stalemated movie, despite any delusions of action the commercials might give. All the spying is in the flashbacks.

There are three episodes in the script by Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island) and David Arata. We revisit the leads as fellow warriors in Vietnam, right before the fall. Later, we join them in Berlin during the Cold War. Lastly, they team up in Beirut during the worst of the fighting. In these three locales, we witness the recruiting, the training and, finally, the betrayal of the young agent by the older professional. The Beirut segment is of most interest, thanks to the locations (although the Berlin sequence has Charlotte Rampling, who turns up unbilled in a too-brief bit as a lady spy). In Beirut, Pitt recruits an "asset"--an aid worker at a refugee camp. The soon-to-be-used woman is Elizabeth (Catherine McCormack), a Londoner with an unlikely backstory. A certain kind of beauty can be called "remote"; to judge by McCormack's acting, she's practically in Tierra del Fuego.

Muir urges Tom to seduce her more quickly: "Twice the sex and half the foreplay," he orders. No doubt this is a personal motto for director Tony Scott, one of the most elephantine hard-chargers (Top Gun, et al) of the 1980s. All the tricks in the bag are used here: filters, swooping cameras, helicopter worship, pixilated fast-forward and zooming--more gingerbread than a bakery. Occasionally, the film stops dead in its tracks to freeze-frame to remind us that we're still on the clock ("2:10pm"). It's a service for anyone doubting that the movie will have to end eventually.

Spy Game is meant to be of the school of John le Carré. The soundtrack is loaded up with honorable schoolboys, keening baroque choir music. Photographer Daniel Mindel does his best to coat everything in "realistic" oily gray light. Still, le Carré's work is scrupulous about history and politics. By contrast, check one sample line in Spy Game: "Hanoi had just fallen," says a reminiscing Muir, mistaking it for Saigon in 1975. We visit a Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp, full of bloody amputees, but there's no sense of who they are or what might have chased them there (vampires? masked wrestlers?). Mostly, we see that the business of being CIA means mixing it up with cowardly, unreliable foreigners, some of whom selfishly put their open-air fish market right where Brad was trying to drive his car. You could get a clearer picture of the world of espionage from Harriet the Spy.


Spy Game (R; 127 min.), directed by Tony Scott, written by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, photographed by Daniel Mindell and starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, plays at selected theaters.

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From the November 28-December 5, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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