The tiniest things can take you out of a movie, and often the spell-breakers have more to do with you than with the movie. So I confess the following quirk: In general, if there’s a sequence in an English-language film spoken in another language with subtitles, and a word in one of the subtitles is misspelled, it’s hard for me to believe anything else that movie tells me. Spy Game commits this sin against teachers everywhere within the first ten minutes (the word in question, in case you wondered, is “inoculations” — or, according to the film, “innoculations”).
But then it’s a measure of how uninvolving a movie is that something so minuscule and silly can register so jarringly. Spy Game is of a breed I’m not terribly enamored of — the big Hollywood intrigue thriller — but I went to it hoping for some electric byplay between Robert Redford, the Brad Pitt of his day, and Brad Pitt, the Robert Redford of his day (the two, of course, have bonded cinematically before — Redford behind the camera and Pitt in front, for A River Runs Through It). Unfortunately, they get only a handful of scenes together, none of which play off the old-lion-passing-the-torch-to-the-young-cub subtext we expect. Once Redford and Pitt signed on, couldn’t the screenwriters (Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata) have had some fun with the meeting of past and present icons?
Redford is Nathan Muir, the sort of cynical CIA veteran who has a half-torched flag hanging in his office. In 1975, in the twilight of the Vietnam War, Nathan took a promising soldier — Tom Bishop (Pitt) — under his wing, instructing him in the art of espionage. We see this, and other past dealings between the mentor and his protege, in flashbacks; the heart of the story unfolds in 1991, when Tom has been captured in China after a botched attempt to free a prisoner. The movie thus spans sixteen years of experience, but despite the cinematographer’s best efforts, Tom looks the same age in 1991 as he does in 1975, and, rather embarrassingly for Redford despite some obvious makeup, so does Nathan.
Flashback structures like this one are nearly impossible to bring off, because Tom, for us, exists almost entirely in the past. Nathan keeps launching into anecdotes while sitting in CIA meetings (the agency wants to leave Tom in China to be executed, not wanting to risk America’s fragile trade relations with that country); some of the stories may be fudged — Nathan doesn’t trust the CIA personnel as far as he can throw them, and may be tossing in or leaving out details meant to confuse them — but after a while you stop caring what’s true and what isn’t. The movie is essentially a long meeting, allowing Redford to hold forth, grin cynically at what’s become of his agency, and coast on his matinee-idol charisma. Pitt fares even less well — wasn’t he supposed to be yearning to stop doing this sort of Hollywood fluff? Spy Game regresses him back to 1997 and the days of The Devil’s Own.
Director Tony Scott strains to keep things moving — boy, does he ever. At several points he gives us a black-and-white freeze frame reminding us of the deadline to save Tom from execution; it’s a bad, laughable idea, and will look as goofy twenty years from now as similar flourishes in ’70s movies look today. But Scott, a marginally talented hack who’s managed to avoid wrecking a couple of good scripts (True Romance and Crimson Tide), can’t shoo away the feeling that we’re spending two hours waiting for the movie to get started. We get tired action bits in the flashbacks, and then we keep going back to Nathan playing tired cat-and-mouse games with CIA fools. By-the-numbers scripts like this are what Hollywood should be inoculating itself against — excuse me, “innoculating.”