The trailer for "Spy Game", which became available in theaters early last Fall, was a fine example of how to do a trailer for an action picture right. An electrifying two-and-a-half film in itself, the piece built up nicely with some action and humor, then turned intense, boosted by Harry Gregson-Williams' pulse-pounding electronic-rock soundtrack. Increasing in rhythm and ferocity, the tension is relieved at the end with a laugh. Of course, the question was whether the film itself, a somewhat techno-happy spy thriller starring Pitt and Redford, would be as good as the preview.
In the hands of many aside from director Tony Scott, I would think not. Yet, with Scott in command, we are delivered a high-gloss political thriller that doesn't have that much character development (some character touches are instead brought by the two leads), but it's slick, efficent, well-acted and well-crafted. It's not the director's best picture, but it's certainly still one that I felt positively about.
The film stars Robert Redford as CIA Operative Nathan Muir, an older gentleman who, as the film opens, is entering his last day on the job. He arrives to find out that fellow agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been captured in an operation in China. Muir was the one who trained Bishop, so he's called in to discuss the younger man's history on the job. Meanwhile, the remaining hours to save Bishop are ticking away and the orginization wants to hang him out to dry.
The main body of the picture revolves around flashbacks to how the Redford and Pitt characters met in Vietnam, worked together in Beirut and eventually went their own ways. There are a few very intense (including one that is disturbing) sequences during the flashbacks, but what surprised me was how effectively Scott was able to gain tension from the present day (well, 1991, in the film) sequences around a confrence table. While not edge-of-your-seat thrilling, this chess game of sorts is well-played and gains interest - obviously, Muir's character has a plan, but the film nicely keeps the audience guessing about what the details are until the end.
Certainly, Robert Redford has proven himself to be an immensely skilled actor over the years, but Brad Pitt - in my opinion - has become a noticably improved actor with surprising quickness over the past few years. While he was never terrible, I didn't think he was a very interesting actor either in his first few roles. Now, with several terrific recent performances ("Fight Club", sharply comedic in "The Mexican", smart and funny in "Ocean's Eleven"), Pitt has really become a far more engaging actor. "Spy Game" isn't his most impressive performance - it's really not that major a character - but Redford and Pitt are very good together and their scenes in the flashbacks are highly entertaining. Redford's character recieves the main focus and does an exceptional job quickly creating character details and presenting the audience with the character's underlying complexity. Some of the supporting performances, such as Catherine McCormack as Bishop's love interest, are fine, but not particularly well-defined characters. The relationship between the Pitt and McCormack characters is a bit barely there, as well.
Certainly, Scott has often been accused of turning pictures into hyperactively edited and visually overstylized pieces of work. While "Spy Game" does have moments where it could have calmed down the visual sense, Scott's visual style is a bit more restrained here than in "Enemy of the State". Daniel Mindel's cinematography is crisp and intense, while production design is impressively realized and Harry Gregson-Williams' score really adds emotion and power when called upon to do so.
Is "Spy Game" good? I personally thought so. Do I think that it could have been improved with some additional background information on the characters and some additional touches to the supporting roles? Sure. In the end though, I found myself satisfied and entertained.
VIDEO: "Spy Game" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on this edition. As per usual for a movie by either Tony or Ridley Scott, the cinematography (courtesy of Daniel Mindel, Scott's cinematographer on "Enemy Of the State") of "Spy Game" is crisp, gorgeous and the locations visually impressive. Certainly, beautiful films can occasionally not be presented at their best on some DVD releases - this certainly is not one of those cases. In fact, I would consider Universal's presentation here to be nearly reference quality.
Sharpness and detail are remarkable throughout. The picture appeared wonderfully crisp, smooth and well-defined throughout, never looking the slightest bit soft or hazy, even in low-light situations. The picture was nearly flawless; very slight edge enhancement was apparent once or twice, but hardly proved to be a distraction. Pixelation was not seen at all and most pleasantly, the print used was almost flawless - aside from a few specks in a couple of scenes, the print was completely clean.
Colors throughout the film looked fantastic, appearing well-rendered, vivid and free of smearing or any other faults. Black level remained strong throughout and flesh-tones looked accurate and natural. This is wonderful work from Universal and I hope that more presentations like "Spy Game", "Fast and the Furious" and "K-Pax" are coming in the future.
SOUND: "Spy Game" is presented by Universal in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. While this is not as "action-heavy" as "Crimson Tide" or "Enemy Of The State", this is still most certainly a top-notch sound production. I found Harry Gregson-Williams' score immensely likable, as it smoothly moved from elegant and haunting to intense and exciting, similar (although not quite as successful) to how Hans Zimmer's score fueled "Crimson Tide" so well. When the listening space isn't filled with the sounds of action, Gregson-Williams' score gains terrific presence, richly delivered by both the fronts and surrounds.
The film's action sequences, even the milder ones, do not miss opportunities to envelop the viewer in the middle of the situation. Ambient sounds of the streets are often crisply heard and even in the office sequences, other sounds inside the building are distinctly presented around the viewer. The major action scenes - and there are some big, very tense ones - present sound in a realistic and very convincing manner, agressively employing the surrounds. Strong low bass is also present at times. Audio quality was very, very good, as the score sounded warm and dynamic, while dialogue came through clearly and crisply, as did sound effects.
MENUS: A stylish animated main menu opens the DVD experience, but there's also fine transitions between the main and sub-menus as well as nice film-themed (although static) sub-menus.
Commentaries: Two full-length audio commentaries are included, one from director Tony Scott and the other from producers Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham. Scott's commentary is a bit low-key, but extremely interesting. Scott has now done several Very Big pictures and this commentary track provides an in-depth discussion of the kind of elements that have to be orchestrated to pull together a film of such major size. Scott organizes his comments well and keeps the discussion moving, providing good insight and technical details into the process of working with actors and crafting such a major production. Scott's comments about working with Redford are particularly interesting, as Scott was worried that his fast-paced style would clash with the sensibilities of Redford, who is, of course, a director himself with a very different way. This is an excellent commentary that I found very informative and very in-depth. A few of Scott's recent films have definitely not been Special Editions; hopefully, those studios will eventually go back and provide Scott commentaries.
The Wick and Abraham commentary is not quite as interesting, but I did like getting their perspective on the producing process. Some of the comments here also deal with Redford, as the two producers talk about the fact that they have to be very well-prepared when dealing with the older actor, who certainly knows by this point when things are not going right on the set. Other topics of conversations include some light humor from the two about the film as they remark about the fact that they're finding themselves explaining the plot, production difficulties and how much they enjoyed working with Redford as well as the rest of the cast. There's one moment where they state that they feel like they need to "badmouth somebody", which is quite amusing. Browsing through both of these commentaries, I thought they were both excellent; Scott's provides more in-depth talk about the complexities of making a picture this big while the producers provide a solid overview of their role and the overall film.
Clandestine Ops: This is another one of those "click the logo" features. In this case, we are shown a small logo at the bottom of the screen - when clicked upon, we get to see some small behind-the-scenes clips where Scott and crew discuss details about how the scene was accomplished. Certainly, those who are fans of the picture will probably enjoy this ability to quickly access this material.
Deleted/Extended Sequences: This section provides 5 deleted scenes and 4 (one of which is an alternate ending) extended sequences. All have optional commentary from director Tony Scott.
Script-To-Storyboard Discussion: Scott, who has a background as a painter, discusses the storyboarding process that he goes through on a film like this one and how it prepares him well for the day's work ahead. This does show a few brief script-to-storyboard comparisons from this picture, but mainly just offers Scott's chat about how storyboarding is an essential element of his work.
CIA Acceptance Requirements: This text section provides a checklist of elements that are required for acceptance into the CIA.
Theatrical Trailer: The film's trailer - which I liked so much - in 1.85:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
Universal Showcase: The trailer for the Doug Liman ("Go")/Matt Damon thriller "Bourne Identity". The trailer is in 2.0 audio and somewhat different than the previous trailers I've seen for the picture.
DVD-ROM: Universal has attempted to try something new with the DVD-ROM portion of "Spy Game", creating a web-portal that includes (from the press release):
- The Spy Game World Premiere - An exciting look at the starry, red carpet event in Los Angeles
- An Additional Exclusive Interview with Redford and Pitt
- Choosing the Right Director - An interview with producers Marc Abraham and Douglas Wick
- "The Toughest Scene" - Director Tony Scott shares his insight on the most difficult scene
- Tony Scott Directing Brad Pitt - Behind-the-scenes footage
- CIA training - Tony Scott shares some fascinating information from his research
- Operatives and Assets - The actors discuss their characters
- Working with Redford - Candid remarks from the director
Additional stills, text and the screenplay with notes are among the other features offered in this "Total Axess" area. Although I'd seemingly had difficultly getting these features to work, it turns out that they won't "go live" until the DVD's release date of 4-9-02.
Also: Cast/crew bios, production notes.
Final Thoughts: Tony Scott still hasn't reached the remarkable tension and suspense that he created with "Crimson Tide", but I still certainly liked "Spy Game". The political thriller doesn't build characters that well, but the performances were certainly enjoyable enough to carry my interest. Universal's DVD edition provides superb audio/video quality and a lot of great, informative extras. Recommended.
The Film ***