Spy thrillers age quickly. Geopolitical situations and technology move on apace, making such films (and books for that matter) feel outdated almost immediately after they are released. Some resist this successfully by embracing the nostalgia of their time and place, like 007, or by introducing new film-making styles - like the often-imitated action sequences of Bourne.
Spy Game by Tony Scott is a standalone spy thriller that successfully negotiates the pitfalls of the genre to feel fresh and enjoyable twenty years after it was made.
CIA case officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford, in fine form) is retiring but when his former protegee Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is arrested in China for espionage, he is pulled in to brief his superiors on Bishop’s history with the agency. With a key US-China trade deal hanging in the balance, Muir comes to the conclusion that the CIA are not going to claim Bishop and are instead going to allow a foreign government to execute him as a common criminal. Muir has to uses his old-school spy skills within the walls of CIA Headquarters to influence events on the other side of the world and try to save his friend.
This set up is engaging enough - with character actors Larry Bryggman, Stephen Dillane and David Hemmings going toe to toe with Redford in both the narrative and delivery. Pitt’s initial capture while infiltrating a Chinese prison, however, really helps the audience hit the ground running. Pitt and Redford also share a sequence of flashbacks nestled into the background Muir is detailing to his superiors: Pitt’s recruitment in Vietnam, his training as a spy in East Germany at the height of the Cold War and setting up a CIA-sponsored assassination of a terrorist financier in Beirut during the mid-1980s. This Russian doll structure is a great strength of Scott’s film. The flashbacks are exciting mini spy stories set inside an agency power play that in turn takes place within the diplomatic nightmare created by Pitt’s arrest – and all the while we wait to discover the reason he broke into a prison in the first place.
In fairness (as with most spy films) it is a bit of a sausage-fest. There are no Bond girls here, however. Catherine McCormack, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Charlotte Rampling all do well to make significant impressions with limited screen time. Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata’s script is full of pace and their dialogue gives the actors a good deal to work with. Scott’s films of the 90s and early noughties demonstrate strong cinematic storytelling and visual flair: Spy Game is no exception. Pitt is handsome, charismatic and watchable - as usual - but this is really Robert Redford’s film and it is his veteran charm and warm gravitas that makes the experience so enjoyable.