In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in October’s double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
The only way 2001’s Spy Game would cross anyone’s mind now would be if Jimmy Fallon chose to make viral mincemeat out of it. You know the flavor: Wacky late-night shenanigans with “BRAD PITT, EVERYBODY!” to promote a new movie by way of some dumbass game where the actor has to recall his characters’ names in past films. Pitt would assuredly get Spy Game wrong. So would his Spy Game co-star, Robert Redford, if someone tricked the 85-year-old into similar foolishness. Viewers would laugh at Pitt’s exasperated banter and Fallon’s sycophantic tittering. But they wouldn’t remember the movie either. This incident would not make headlines. Headlines don’t care about movies like Spy Game. Not anymore.
They used to, though. In its time, Tony Scott’s film felt like a major marquee matchup — a meeting of matinee idols from disparate eras who had previously collaborated (Pitt starring in the Redford-directed A River Runs Through It) but never on screen. It felt like a version of Heat on which both sides of date night could agree. Unfortunately, the result was as generic a generational thriller as the last time Pitt tried it, with Harrison Ford, in 1997’s The Devil’s Own. There is often more to Scott’s films than meet the eye, captivated as it is by his signature audiovisual-mescaline style — a sense of knowing hesitation in heroism rather than sheer celebration of day-saving as in Crimson Tide or Unstoppable or the sleek condemnation and critique a la Enemy of the State or The Fan. But Spy Game, with its flimsy structure and who-cares development of characters, is the sort of two-hour static squawk by which Scott’s detractors define his limitations. Soporific? No Scott movie is directed quietly enough for that.
Spy Game is the film for which Pitt passed on the part of Jason Bourne and for which producers declined to give Scott money for a helicopter to shoot a rooftop scene. Life, full of choices. Scott, of course, rented the bird with his own money, so damnit, there could be a moment where Pitt tosses a chair right the hell off a tall building in Berlin. He also wound up buying a building in Morocco just so producers could blow it up in the third act. Too soon in November 2001? That’s actually one of few shrewd things in Spy Game; its present-day is 1991, so it’s not further consigned to a cultural scrap-heap by dating itself or evoking memories best left entombed.
Redford is said to have done Spy Game because it was, pinkies up now, “a thinking man’s action film.” Pitt said he did it “basically because Bob was aboard.” Such intimate levels of investment are readily apparent in the old-shoe simplicity Redford and Pitt recognize amid this easy payday. Scott and company call it a companion piece to Redford’s iconic Three Days of the Condor, a marketing hook that worked well for Scott before. But Spy Game is hardly to Condor what the Gene Hackman-starring Enemy was to The Conversation. This is not a spiritual sequel. This is not spiritual at all, despite Scott apologists contorting themselves to concoct poetry from this — wishcasting something of a metaphysical story about memory and fractured purpose. The most Scott thing in it? Pitt hands a piece of gum to keep a clearly dying Chinese prisoner happy and quiet so he can complete his mission, the ultimate American bandage.
Beyond that, Spy Game is classic rock and smoke, hilariously burning off Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” before Pitt has become Redford’s protege for covert CIA operations. Indeed, the only thing I recalled about Spy Game (beyond its director, cast and basic plot) before this revisit was that Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” played over the closing-credits scroll. It shows up in-movie, too, as Redford and Pitt are in-country during the Vietnam War. Most of Spy Game plays out in flashback, Redford narrating the highlights of his relationship with Pitt to a room full of flunkies and functionaries who seek a way to just let the young buck die after he’s arrested in present-day China on an unsanctioned mission and sentenced to death in 24 hours. Redford opens his collar, cakes on a bit more foundation, slaps on some sideburns. Throw in a little Walsh and you’ve got yourself a ’70s stew going. Ditch the sideburns and toss in the glasses. Whammo, the 1980s! Amid Pitt’s time-slipped love story with Cathering McCormack and superfluous scrapes for Pitt and Redford to solve and survive, Scott occasionally drops a frozen, frame-filling, black-and-white, time-stamped closeup of the time at which Pitt is going to be executed.
There is also much blustering on that Berlin rooftop about the seriousness of spycraft. “It’s not a game!,” Pitt shouts after being forced to burn an asset as part of Redford’s larger gameboard vision. “Oh, yes, it is,” Redford spits back, cuing those in the crowd who love to utter a movie’s title aloud as it’s referenced. “That’s exactly what it is. It’s not a children’s game, either! It’s serious, it’s dangerous and it’s not a game you wanna lose!” Plenty of spy cinema has been successfully smuggled across a shared border of pragmatism and melodrama, but Spy Game constantly gets caught at both checkpoints — not so much because it’s more emotional intrigue and intimacy than armaments and explosions, but because it’s relentlessly indifferent. There’s never a sense that the codes Pitt and Redford either burnish or bristle against are built like stilt homes in sand. It’s … just a way to create a two-hour movie with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. All craft and no conviction, all costume and no design, simultaneously aimless and rushed to a point that its outcome is never less than plainly and predictably predetermined with zero surprises.
That anonymized approach has left Spy Game largely unremembered 20 years on for good reason — a vague whisper on the lips of someone digging through a DVD clearance bin. It wasn’t just Tony Scott, either. His brother Ridley made a similarly farty and bloated spy movie seven years later with Body of Lies. The next time Leonardo DiCaprio or Russell Crowe find themselves game-facing it with Fallon, they won’t remember that movie, either.