Director Tony Scott applies his usual flashy, stylized and high-voltage craftsmanship to the perfect vehicle here--the story of CIA field agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), on the eve of his retirement to the Bahamas, suddenly saddled with the mystery and Agency angst surrounding a serious situation in 1991 China that could undermine concurrent critical U.S. trade negotiations.
Spy Game is le Carr on steroids, with James Bond-like scene shifts to provocative flashpoint locales. In a return to the CIA setting of his 1975 hit Three Days of the Condor, Redford also does a neat spin on his signature Bob Woodward role in All the President's Men. Like the single-minded Washington Post reporter, Muir is D.C.-based (Langley, Virginia) and dogged in getting to the dirty heart of a highly charged political matter. And Muir is also uncannily skillful at manipulation and bagging the need-to-know information that will unlock the intrigue.
As he packs in his office on his final day, vet Muir learns that rogue agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), whom he recruited in Vietnam and mentored until Bishop burned out, is about to be executed in China for espionage after infiltrating a prison there. The big Agency guns summon Muir to a conference room to tell all he can about Bishop. Although Spy Game kicks off with a fast, furious, but murky sequence depicting Bishop's break-in and capture at the Chinese prison, the film's meaty and significant flashback anecdotes, as recounted by the cagey Muir to his sneaky CIA colleagues, deliver rich depictions of Muir and Bishop doing the nasty spy business.
In 1975, Muir, prowling Vietnam for the Agency, discovers young soldier Bishop and his talent for marksmanship when Bishop is sent on a mission to assassinate a Viet Cong general. A year or so later in Berlin, Muir successfully connives to bring Bishop on board at the CIA as a spy to help develop assets among the East German Communists. As a new recruit, Bishop learns that when striving for the greater good, lives can be cheap and killing a necessity.
In war-torn Beirut in 1985, Muir and Bishop, the latter posing as a photojournalist, are on a mission to have a Cyprus-based terrorist assassinated when he comes into Beirut for a doctor's appointment. While the pair recruit the physician, Bishop meets and beds Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a British aid worker of suspect allegiances. Bishop is witness to success tempered by collateral damage as 74 people are sacrificed in a huge car-bomb explosion that also kills the terrorist leader. With its Middle Eastern locale and terrorist villains, this wrenching sequence packs a wallop in this post-September 11 era.
But there's also plenty of intrigue at Langley as agents secretly rifle through Muir's papers and Muir eyeballs and pockets classified information relating to the Bishop matter. Over the conference table, he parries with a crew of unsavory operatives including the slimy deputy director of operations (Stephen Dillane), so deceitful he couldn't even deliver a convincing weather report. In fact, treachery, double-dealing and cynicism within Langley seem almost as rampant as that in any international tinderbox.
Avoiding clich, screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata deliver a perfectly convincing and captivating script. Just as persuasive are locations like Morocco, Budapest and Vancouver, which stand in for all of the script's locales. Pitt does an un-showy star turn as the younger agent and Redford deserves an Oscar nom for his edgy, subtle performance. A perfect Potter antidote for older, discriminating audiences, Spy Game even serves up a neat ending.