The Spies Who Loved Us

Nathan Muir, the wily CIA agent on the verge of retirement in director Tony Scott's thriller "Spy Game," is a part impeccably tailored to Robert Redford's coolly heroic charisma. On the last day of his job in Washington, D.C., Muir gets news that his protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), is being held in a Chinese prison, and will be executed on charges of espionage in 24 hours. (The year is 1991.) We know that the old pro is going to move heaven and earth to rescue his boy, but he's no Rambo--he's not going to bust into China with a machine gun. He'll do it with his brain, his charm and his tradecraft, manning the phones like Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men" as he sets his brilliantly devious plan in motion.

Complicating matters enormously is the fact that his CIA superiors, more concerned with U.S.-Chinese relations than with their rogue op, want to see Bishop dead. Muir, like the loner Redford played in "3 Days of the Condor," is the odd man out in a bureaucratic den of vipers. It's a treat watching Redford wittily run circles around his callow colleagues. It's like watching a golden-oldies medley of Redford's greatest moves.

But while Muir is masterminding his back-door coup, "Spy Game" has other fish to fry. The tale unfolds in flashbacks that reveal the mentor's complex relationship with his hotshot protege. It takes us to Vietnam, where he first meets the daredevil soldier; to Berlin, where he recruits and trains him to be a spy; and to war-torn, terrorist-infested Beirut, where the two have a falling out: Bishop has compromised his cover by falling for a human-rights worker (Catherine McCormack), and Muir demands that he break it off.

Scott is working in the flashy-gritty style of his "Enemy of the State." Dense and gripping, "Spy Game" gives good surface: its evocation of ravaged Beirut is ominously atmospheric. But the "realistic" look invites us to take this thriller more seriously than it deserves. At heart it's a totally conventional display of Hollywood derring-do. The movie wants it both ways: to celebrate its chosen CIA agents while making them anti-establishment at the same time. It bops along so quickly you may not stop to wonder how the by-the-book Muir has evolved into the rule-breaking lone wolf he now is. Redford finesses the flip-flop on personality.

Pitt partners him well--they have a nice playful give and take--but writers Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata shortshrift his character. Redford gets all the good lines. The flimsiest aspect of "Spy Game" is the love story. It's meant to be a turning point in Bishop's life, but it gives off zero heat. Entertaining but farfetched, "Spy Game" might have looked less meretricious a few months back. But the real world has sabotaged its pretense of authenticity. Enjoy it for what it is, a fleet, handsome fantasy of globe-hopping blond demigods.

Spy GameUniversal
Opens Nov. 21