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 the spy-like 'Ocean's Eleven' and 'Italian Job' flicks, 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 may have been a bit too early for its own good. While it is 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 that 'Spy Game' lacks a strong villain -- any central villain would do, really. The best Bond flicks always had 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 twists, it is at least worth catching for spy flick fans.
Universal presents 'Spy Game' in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and 1080p/VC-1 video, and it looks quite good, excellent even. Visually, the film is a bit all over the place with a variety of different visual tricks used, including pumped up contrast, oversaturated colors and black & white sequences, it looks far more consistent and solid than I expected.
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 are 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 white 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. Lastly, some reviewers complained of edge enhancement on the previous D-VHS release of 'Spy Game,' but I did not find it a problem here -- the transfer looked quite smooth to me, again even in spite of the aforementioned surrealistic visual effects.
Universal also offers up a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track for 'Spy Game' (the DTS option on the standard DVD has been dropped here), though I was not quite as overwhelmed by the track as I had hoped. Though the film is filled with plenty of action, its sound design takes on a more intimate, spy-thriller approach, which would have been fine if this mix was more enveloping.
My biggest gripe is that outside of the typically bombastic action scenes, the movie strives to be all moody and sinister, but the mix is largely front heavy. I would have liked more ambiance and creative deployment of atmospheric sounds to the rear channels, but it just doesn't happen. Same with the score, which is all but buried in the mix. Granted, during the action bits there are the usual active surrounds, with nice imaging and some effective uses of the entire 360-degree soundfield, but it is far from consistent.
Otherwise, technically this is a very strong soundtrack. Dynamic range is excellent, with a wide mid-range, sterling highs and strong low bass. The actual quality of the recording -- the cleanliness of the studio-created effects, the foley, the ADR -- is as top-notch as any big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. I was also glad that dialogue is near-perfect in its balance with the music and effects, so the spoken word is never overpowered. I still longed for more immersion, but this is certainly a fine presentation nonetheless.
'Spy Game' came loaded with extras on standard DVD, and Universal has ported them all over for the HD DVD release. There is certainly an abundance of content there, though how some of it is presented requires a bit too much of a secret agent-like ability on the part of the viewer to be totally effective.
The big marketing point of the original DVD was the "Clandestine Ops" branching feature, which allowed you to access special making-of vignettes while watching the movie. After activating the function, simply wait for the little "Classified File" icon to appear, and voila, you're taken to a short (one to two minute) making-of vignette, before being returned back to the main feature. Unfortunately, while this feature was the best standard DVD could offer, HD DVD easily trumps it with its interactive video commentary abilities. So it is shame that even on this next-gen format we are forced to do all this remote juggling for what is essentially very little content. Worse, there is no way to access the info without sitting through the whole movie and click-click-clicking. Personally, I just find it tiresome and time-consuming, so I really wish Universal would have coughed up the dough to create a brand-new "Instant Access" feature for 'Spy Game' as they did on the recent 'The Bourne Supremacy' HD DVD.
Unfortunately, the only other video-based, making-of content is the ultra-short, two-minute "Script-to-Storyboard" featurette, with director Tony Scott explaining how the process works. Rather rudimentary, and it feels even more lacking given the fact that there is no stand-alone making-of doc on the disc.
Up next are two audio commentaries, the first with Scott and the second with producers Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham. I kinda felt they would have worked better edited into a single track, as both are quite technical with much cross-over in terms of production stories and casting details. However, Scott is quite personable on his own, and his track is obviously the better choice -- I'm not a huge fan of his movies, but he is nonetheless engaging. He also offers some interesting perspective on how 9/11 affected his film's release, which sadly, with recent events, is just as pertinent. Otherwise, this is best left for diehard fans only.
Rounding out the video-based extras are nine Deleted & Alternate Scenes, including an alternate ending. Scott offers optional commentary on all, though none particularly thrilled me, even the rejiggered ending, which is just as confusing as the final version. The quality of the scenes is also only fair, with all presented in 480i video from what looks like a splotchy, non-anamorphic master.
Last but not least, we have five pages of text called "Requirements to Be a CIA Operative," which is interesting if you plan on a career in spying (unfortunately, DVD reviewing is apparently not a highly sought-after qualification). Also included is the film's theatrical trailer presented 480i and windowboxed to 1.85:1, and a short promo spot for the film's soundtrack CD.
I found 'Spy Game' to be a perfectly enjoyable Hollywood spectacle, 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. But if you're a fan of the film, Universal has put together another very solid disc -- nice transfer, good soundtrack and plenty of extras. No, it doesn't push the HD DVD format in any new directions, but it is still well worth considering as an upgrade over the standard DVD release.