Spy Game – 2001 – Tony Scott
J: We’re entering into risky territory tonight for both of us. Me because I’ve always rated Spy Game among my favourite films, but perhaps have never watched it critically… Alex because she ‘hates Spy Game’ and always refuses to watch is with me… until this project dictated… Someone is going to walk away with their tail between their legs.
A: I haven’t seen this in… ten years? All I remember is that I loathed it. I don’t even remember why, now, but I’ve been avoiding rewatching it for all these years. And now I’m going in. The things I do. Maybe things will have changed. Maybe there will be tears.
J: Straight into the action … A modern opening.
A: It’s a very blue opening… and Brad Pitt is right there.
J: You know what I’ve just thought, maybe I don’t so much love Tony Scott, as his director of photography … or perhaps he IS a director of photography in the way in which Ridley isn’t
A: Oh noes, Brad Pitt is DOWN… (why do I dislike a Pitt movie?)
J: Actually electrocuted himself … Ballsy. Of course our hero ain’t out, cause, headline actor and good looking rooster.
A: Aaaand now he’s awake again and trawling through the prison, looking for… someone… while the authorities try valiantly to restore the electronics
J: Cover blown, by bubblegum. The pacing in this first sequence is glorious, frantic, constant and then just enough gaps to breath in again.
A: well not just bubble gum, but a very clever Chinese official. The cinematography is frantic but watchable… and then all of a sudden we’re waking up with Robert Redford (heh).
J: OMG Vintage Porsche … seriously, how can you NOT like this film. And as we drive into the CIA at Langley we introduce the driving electronica theme for the film.
A: Signing out tonight, eh, Robert? Yeh… as if that is going to happen… (also I can’t now see him in a role like this and NOT think of Alexander Pierce).
J: A little production note – 35m Kodak Film, Panavision cameras … Classic 1:2.35 Ratio … Without wanting to sound too nostalgic this might have been the golden era for ‘real films’ … I’m not naive to the amazing things possible with CG now but for raw, real storytelling there is nothing better.
A: Someone wants Tom Bishop Pitt’s files ORLY I wonder what is going on, now he’s in the Chinese prison. And I love secretary Gladys (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Good inveigling to get yourself into the know, too, Redford. Although it is mighty uncomfortable to watch you finding the gaps in what you’re allowed to know; never pleasant to be on the outside.
J: His spy craft marvelous to watch from start to finish.
A: omg flashback to ‘Nam. What a movie of its time. Oh, the casual racism… and Pitt trying to look mighty young, and very serious.
J: Nam looks burnt, the chopper has a huge set of shark teeth and a ‘lady’ painted with the name. Not to justify racism in any form, but is it acceptable if it’s culturally correct for the time portrayed in the film?
A: I swear that chopper just keeps getting reused on every film. I understand the use of the racism but it doesn’t make it enjoyable.
J: Fair enough, bit like Deadwood which uses modern cursing to have the impact.
A: I guess so, except with a rather different level of offense.
Turns out J has watched this more times than I realised. How do I know? Because he knows quite a few of the lines…
And even though their position is compromised, Pitt still completes the mission. Well done, son, even if that mission was to assassinate someone. Oh, and look – your spotter is the dude who was in the ambulance with you 16 years later (I’m pretty sure).
J: The cut shots and sequencing of the sniper scene is just exquisite. Like the opening the pacing is just right to keep you on the edge of your seat – then we’re back in the chopper calling the boys lost, but of course they’re not.
A: oh dear. His office is being rummaged and Redford is doing a masterful job of delaying. Meanwhile he’s also listening to their secret conversations and oh my goodness the way he plays them is GOLD. (OK right now I don’t recall why I loathe this film. Was it just to be annoying? SURELY NOT.) I LOVE GLADYS.
J: I adore that this is this the pre digital era where we actually wrote things down. Phone numbers, details, photos and so-on.
A: The use of the time stamps is quite incongruous; I don’t love it – not the existence of them, but the way they’re done. But the torture scene of Pitt? Urgh.
Oh. Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”. Ouch. (And Pitt’s 1976 haircut is appalling.)
J: Every era has the feel just right, the clothes, the lighting and the vibe.
A: In the 70s get-up, Redford is WAY better-looking. Pitt learning trade craft is totes cute.
J: Redford is timeless, he’s looked like this my whole life.
A: Fair call. Those wrinkles have existed since he was about 17. They’re called Character.
J: See now we’re starting to reveal the brilliance which is this film… a careful replay of the Bishop / Muir relationship back story while keeping the present day story squirming all the time.
A: Yes yes the narrative structure is delightful. Spying in the 70s, spying in the 90s…
J: Oftentimes films which jump around like this get tiring or confusing to watch, but each time period is so distinct it’s just bloody marvelous. And now we get to the dark disagreement, the wedge between the buddies.
A: Oh, the betrayal. It stings.
J: And this leads to perhaps my favourite single sequence in any movie, ever… On the roof of the FujiFilm building… Tony Scott had already blown the helicopter budget for the film (true fact apparently), so he brought in one of his own personal collection of 7 … we escalate, and escalate, throw a chair and end with with a circular fly around that still takes my breath away… The shots escalate just like the scene, far, medium, close… but we then we stick close … then we pull way back, and go around and around.
A: OK, this is a glorious scene in terms of cinematography. It’s also heartbreaking in terms of the relationship breakdown. Redford the hard ass, Pitt the idealistic one (who still needs a haircut, but I like the leather jacket). The music is a great part of this film, doing really great hits with the tension and pacing.
J: Just as the 70s story escalates and gets ugly, so does the modern story. Brilliant storytelling. Oh and Redford/Muir has just figured it out … now we have to explain who the girl is… next.
A: You young jackass, Harker, not paying attention to Muir’s stories and rolling your eyes… you are a Bad Spy.
J: So I’ve watched this film a lot of times, but the music is really sticking out this time – It’s a huge part of the pacing and mood.
A: 30 seconds before handing in his CIA credentials, Muir discovers that Tom Bishop’s arrest has been discredited because Bishop allegedly died more than a year ago. Back into the nest of vipers we go… and I STILL love Gladys. She is distinctly under-rated by everyone except Muir, I think, given she’s not been locked down.
J: And now the crux of the film – Elizabeth Hadley.
A: This is such straightforward “back in the day” narration… it’s remarkable that it works so well.
J: Suddenly Pitt looks ‘cooler’ – perhaps I’m biased by the Leica M3 / Nikon FM2 and photojournalist cover plus those glasses.
A: His hair is still shocking. And Pitt’s driver in Beirut was in Gladiator, too – I recognise him as the prison warden in The Mummy: Omad Djalili.
J: And we introduce her musical theme – just hold onto that. It will be back later. Also ‘Operation Dinner Out’ … Hold that thought.
A: Naw these two. Such a cute bromance. Pitt went to such effort to find out Redford’s birthday!
J: And now the most cringe worthy scene in the whole film. Perhaps uncomfortable is a more fair description.
A: Nathan is a right prick to Elizabeth. It is no wonder to me that he has had four wives. Theoretically I can understand the necessity of protecting the mission, but it’s done in such a determinedly cold, arrogant manner.
J: Yup, four wives…. Back to Elizabeth, she does intense, bit disheveled very well. The film resists making her ‘beautiful’ all the time. (Think Michael Bay, Huntington-Whiteley Transformers III but not)
And now the climax for the historical story leads the modern story. Notice how long we’ve stayed ‘under’ this time.
A: Huh yes this has been an inordinate amount of time in 1986 Beirut.
J: Doesn’t feel that long though …
A: well no, it feels like this is the main story.
J: It’s the point of convergence in a way. It’s all details with Tony Scott.
A: the reason for everything that’s happening in the contemporary frame of the film, yes. It is indeed a narrative style that doesn’t have a right to work as well as it does.
J: Hold. Your. Breath.
A: Oh. Oh dear. The back up got a little bit enthusiastic? There wasn’t supposed to be such a big kaboom. And the doctor appears to be dead… and I guess Bishop feels betrayed…
J: The debrief – ‘Glasses vs Glasses’.
A: And then they both take OFF the glasses when they confront one another, and the bromance is over. Break. Up.
J: Glasses. Back. On. Part Ways.
A: And he’s split up from Elizabeth, too. Muir’s world has ended.
Meanwhile in the real timeline Muir is burning all his assets. And swapping coastline pictures in confidential files. Using all his money to bribe one Chinese official? Seems extreme.
A: The characters think that they’ve got Muir cornered; the audience is pretty sure that Muir is playing them, but we’re not sure; it’s a nice set up.
J: No, we’re sure.
A: No, we’re not sure that Muir is entirely above board. We know he’s a good spy.
And then we’re reminded that Muir is a right prick when he reveals that he’s the one that got Hadley snatched by the Chinese.
And then pennies begin to rain from the sky, as Muir speaks to the navy commander whose name we’ve seen previously as being near the Chinese coast and the phrase “Dinner Out” is used to signal commencement of an op.
J: Present day redemption.
A: Redemption for whom?
J: The penultimate scene between the helicopters leaves a lump in my throat every time, and I’ve seen it a lot of times. Meanwhile Muir guns his beautiful Porsche into the metaphorical sunset. Her theme. Dinner Out. Suddenly the whole film makes sense.
A: Look, I understand we’re meant to be pleased that Pitt gets out, blah blah ain’t love grand, but this is close to a Vertical Limit scenario for me. At least none of the marines/commandos/ whoever get killed, but it’s a massive use of resources to get two people out of a prison. Yes their situation is appalling, but I’m unconvinced of the necessity.
J: It’s a film! Vertical Limit doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same review. Meanwhile the goons at the CIA are realising the misdirection … four wives … Ha! An incident in China! Ha!
A: Meanwhile, yes Harker, you are a Bad Spy. I understand it’s a film but I will not turn off my brain. It’s fun to watch but it’s also completely ridiculous in the end. I would have preferred a much less flashy rescue, as being far more appropriate to their styles.
J: And we finish where we started. Well, who eats their hat then?
A: I really appreciate the cinematography and the 70s spycraft in particular. The music is excellent and I adore Redford – it’s far more his film than Pitt’s. This will never be a favourite film though, mostly for the last bit because it just makes me impatient. Better than I remembered by far, but I think this is what annoyed me in the first place.
J: Tough crowd tonight, still in my top 3 of all time. Best of the ‘Great Scott’ project for me so far.