Tony Scott's Spy Game opens with one of those enjoyably implausible preludes we're used to seeing in the James Bond series: It's 1991, and American CIA agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is attempting to free a female captive (Catherine McCormack) from a Chinese prison. How will he accomplish this task? Why, by masquerading as a doctor called in to give vaccinations to the inmates, feigning fatal electrocution after touching a wired prison fence - which results in the momentary shut-down of the prison's electrical power, including its surveillance cameras - lying "dead" on a hospital gurney, fleeing the scene when no one's looking, scrambling down ratty corridors in search of the captive, bribing a mentally defunct witness with a piece of gum, and accompanying the prisoner back to the "dead" man's gurney, where prison guards will unknowingly escort the duo to an ambulance and then to freedom. And what trips up the plan? The gum.
All this occurs before the opening title card hits the screen, and the scene delivers a true adrenalin rush; the escape attempt might be wildly illogical - the whole plan, of course, revolves around Bishop not being killed during his electrocution, and based on the obvious pain and relief he feels upon regaining consciousness, it doesn't seem like his resurrection was any sort of sure thing - but the sequence really moves, and it also gives you insight into Tom's character, as a person willing to risk death, at least on this mission, to save another. As a director, Tony Scott is a highly competent hack, but this film's introductory scene is good enough to suggest that Spy Game will be a class-act thriller, viscerally exciting and emotionally satisfying.
It doesn't quite happen. Though several of the movie's spy sequences are briskly edited and entertaining on an individual level, they're all tangential to the film's actual plot, which revolves around Bishop's mentor, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), trying to rescue his protégé from his subsequent imprisonment. It must be said that the script, by Michael Frost, is rather artfully designed; Muir has 24 hours to save Bishop and the woman he tried to release, but must do so within the confines of CIA headquarters, all the while being grilled by his superiors about Muir's involvement in the original rescue mission. (Stephen Dillane plays the shiftiest and most odious of Muir's bosses, probably because Gary Oldman was busy.) He can only help to free Bishop through a series of clandestine phone calls and faxes, and it's here that your implausibility meter starts to go into overdrive.
For the success of Muir's plot requires that his superiors at the CIA (a) know absolutely nothing about him personally and (b) believe every word he says. Now, I've never been employed by the CIA, but I'm guessing that there's no way Muir's bosses wouldn't know whether or not he was married, let alone that they'd allow frequent phone interruptions by his "wife" in the midst of their top-secret conferences. (Muir's "wife" being his noble assistant, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who does the legwork during Muir's interrogation.) And if they suspected him of any wrongdoing in the Bishop matter, there's no way they'd let him wander through CIA headquarters unescorted, allowing him to stealthily steal files and cover his tracks; he'd have an armed guard on him at all times. Plus, there's the matter of Muir's believability. It's fair to assume that his seniority and moral fortitude would lend his tales some credence with his superiors, but - and I'm gonna get smacked for this one - when Redford speaks, I don't believe a word out of his mouth. He's simply too blithe a presence - Redford has always been better in comedy than drama - and while he has charm to spare, he has no authority; his portrayal is Redford's usual bag of tricks, with its weightless line readings and gee-whiz grins, and everything he does and says feels fraudulent (some laughingly call this a Star Performance).
Spy Game's flashback sequences, where Redford and Pitt get to interact (their characters initially meet in Vietnam circa 1975, though neither, unsurprisingly, appears to age a day in sixteen years) and engage in some CIA trickery, are slightly more fun to watch, yet you never feel any chemistry between the men - their relationship should be crucial to the plot - nor do you feel anything between Pitt and McCormack; they seem to fall for each other because they're the only Caucasians in the area. By the film's halfway point, you're almost grateful for Tony Scott's de-personalized style; because the movie is all but devoid of human interaction, Scott's whooshing camera and fractured editing are all this work has left to offer. Spy Game isn't terrible by any means, but especially after its terrific opening, it's a real letdown; a completely mechanical-yet-proficient spy thriller is one thing, but one that threatens to be more and fails is another.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
The worst thing about the wartime action pic Behind Enemy Lines is that, given the current national climate, we're probably going to see a lot more movies just like it. Loosely based on the war-related rescue of Scott O'Grady in 1995, the film centers on Navy flier Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), trapped in Bosnia after his plane was shot down, who must use his wits and radio communication with his superiors (led by Gene Hackman) to remain hidden from the enemy and return home safely. By "wits" I really mean luck; though aiming for realism, this is another wartime fantasy in which barrages of enemy fire are masterfully outmaneuvered, allies pop up in the strangest of places, and one man can make an evil empire look like a cadre of fools.
I guess there's an audience for this sort of thing, particularly now, but I just can't separate the film's earnest, gung-ho flag-waving from the crappiness of its presentation. Though a couple of scenes have some tension - there's a nifty one, seen through an infrared camera, that has Burnett hiding in a pile of corpses - Behind Enemy Lines lays on the melodrama to the nth degree, complete with the villainous military officer (Joaquin de Almeida) covertly working against the Americans, and John Moore's schizophrenic direction makes the film look like a cross between Saving Private Ryan and Top Gun, a queasy combo if there ever was one. (The moviemakers want you to cheer while bemoaning the horrors of war.) Somewhat shockingly, Owen Wilson's natural loopiness gives his character some shadings, but he's the only element of this numbingly high-tech-yet-retro piece that isn't completely formulaic. We're certainly, and sadly, due for more empty-headed, kicking-foreign-ass flicks, but they'll have to work to wind up more inept than Behind Enemy Lines.