What is it about spy thrillers that continues to so enchant Hollywood and audiences? You'd think forty-plus years of James Bond thrillers and countless spy spoofs would have dulled our appetite for gadgets, guns, and world domination, but with the recent success of the Jason Bourne series and good old 007 himself, the genre seems to be as hot as ever. 'Spy Game' was released during somewhat of a lull in the cycle way back in 2001, before all those films hit it big at the box office, and so it may have been a bit too early for its own good. While it's not the best example of the genre, it is a good-looking movie with two very attractive stars in Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, so there are certainly far worse ways to spend two hours.
As 'Spy Game' begins, it is 1991 and the Cold War is ending. CIA operative Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is on the verge of retirement, but his last case is about to be his most challenging ever after he finds out that his protege Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China for espionage. No stranger to the machinations of the CIA's top echelon, Muir will have to use all of his years of experience and deep connections (not to mention his irreverent wit) in order to find a way to free Bishop. Recounting the tale through flashbacks, Muir recalls how he recruited and trained the young rookie, then a sergeant in Vietnam, their turbulent times together as operatives, and ultimately the woman who would threaten their friendship.
'Spy Game' falls somewhat between two stools. On one hand, it seems to want to be a top-notch thriller up there with the best of James Bond, while on the other it wants to expand the often restrictive conventions of the genre and humanize its caricatures. Redford infuses Muir with complex shades of reflection, regret, and bittersweet emotion -- a far cry from the roguish assassin-type character that usually anchors a spy movie. Though Pitt's younger, hungrier Bishop bears more than a passing resemblance to Jason Bourne, he is really a secondary character, a pupil to Muir. Surely, the filmmakers thought the pairing of Redford and Pitt would work like gangbusters -- and sometimes, it does -- but the two stories oddly deflate each other. By the end of 'Spy Game,' I still wasn't sure what kind of movie I was supposed to be watching -- is this a fun thriller, a big action film, or a meditative character study?
Also problematic is the fact that 'Spy Game' lacks a strong villain -- any central villain would do, really. The best Bond flicks always have a larger than life antagonist, and though we didn't need Pitt suspended above a volcano or Redford in danger of being fed to sharks, there is no real sense of consistent tension in 'Spy Game.' I also never believed the love triangle aspect of the plot. Now, Catherine McCormack, as Elizabeth Hadley, is a fine actress, but as the woman who supposedly could come between Redford and Pitt, she just doesn't seem to generate the heat required to make the consequences believable. In order for me to believe that Muir and Bishop would both risk everything to be with her, I had to believe at least one of them would.
For director Tony Scott, 'Spy Game' at first glance appears to have been just another chance to show off his hyper-stylized, fast-paced visual style. However -- at least by Scott's standards -- he downplays the flash somewhat. Of course, we still get the zippy camera moves, needless high-angle crane shots and pumped-up lighting. But he also admirably focuses just as much on the characters by at least giving Redford and Pitt a chance to act amid all the razzmatazz. Of course, this is not a chamber piece, but I'll give Scott props for at least trying to infuse what could have been a completely run-of-the-mill, nondescript spy thriller with at least some depth and emotion. I can't say that I will remember 'Spy Game' five years from now (or even five minutes), but with Redford and Pitt on board, and a fairly suspenseful third-act twist, it's at least worth catching for spy flick fans.
Universal offers 'Spy Game' in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, encoded in 1080p/VC-1 video (2.39:1). The previous HD DVD release looked quite good -- even spectacular in spots -- and this Blu-ray offers nothing different.
Visually, the film is a bit all over the place, with a variety of different tricks used. The source print is in very fine shape, and is more or less pristine. However, some of you nitpickers out there may notice the occasional speckle and dropout -- for example, in Robert Redford's first scene in the movie, I noticed about three or four quick white specks. Hardly severe, but still they're there. Otherwise, blacks are excellent and contrast strong on the more naturalistic scenes. However, director Tony Scott frequently uses a bleached-out technique on certain sequences, such as a couple of combat flashbacks and black & white transitions between scenes, and here and there whites are blown out, which sometimes gives the picture a flatter, less detailed look.
Also getting a workout is color saturation. Again, the processed combat scenes are the most unrealistic -- almost sepia toned -- but despite the digital tweaking, detail is still quite strong, with even minute facial details, such as skin pores, readily visible. The image also boasts a great deal of depth and definitely looks like high def for the majority of the film's runtime. Some reviewers complained of edge enhancement on the previous D-VHS release of 'Spy Game,' but I did not find it a problem here, or with the previous HD DVD. The transfer looks quite smooth to me.
We get an improvement here over the plain Dolby Digital-Plus track found on the HD DVD, with a full-blown DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) offered. The film is filled with plenty of action, its sound design takes on a more intimate, spy-thriller approach, which delivers a better sense of envelopment in DTS-MA.
Outside of the typically bombastic action scenes, the movie strives to be all moody and sinister, but the mix is largely front heavy. Subtle ambiance is slightly increased on the DTS-MA, with frequent instances of more attenuated location sounds, and better score bleed (it's now not so buried in the mix). Surrounds are far more active during action scenes, with noticeable discrete effects, strong imaging and an overall impressive fullness in the rear channels.
Dynamic range remains excellent, with a wide mid-range, full highs, and a punchy subwoofer. The actual quality of the recording is uber-Hollywood, with great cleanliness of the studio-created effects and looped-in dialogue. Only some of the quietest words are sometimes too low in the mix; otherwise, all elements are properly balance.
'Spy Game' repeats its extras on Blu-ray, so fans won't notice anything new versus the previous HD DVD and standard DVD versions.
I found 'Spy Game' to be a perfectly enjoyable Hollywood action thriller, long on style and good-looking actors if short on substance. It is hardly the best or most entertaining spy thriller out there, and probably too serious for its own good. This Blu-ray is quite solid, however, with good video and high-res audio, though the extras are kinda lame. A decent purchase for fans, and a rental for everyone else.