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Golden Boys

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Perhaps Robert Redford just ought to direct movies and give up his acting career. He won a directing Oscar first time out for Ordinary People, and his next three efforts -- The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show -- were all highly regarded. But after starring in some of the most dearly beloved films of the 1960s (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), '70s (The Sting, All the President's Men) and '80s (The Natural, Out of Africa), Redford's acting career has lacked much distinction for more than a decade. His handsome face and rugged physique are showing the unavoidable signs of age, but that's not the problem. Rather, I suspect the reason may lie in an observation screenwriter William Goldman made about Redford a long time ago, namely that he only chose roles consistent with a predetermined image. He can tolerate characters with flaws, but he wants to play people ultimately sympathetic and usually heroic. Goldman's assessment certainly seems on target in the films Redford has headlined throughout the 1990s: Havana, Sneakers, Up Close and Personal, The Horse Whisperer, this year's The Last Castle and even Indecent Proposal, where he almost begs for redemption. Goldman is also on target about Redford's current Spy Game, which might have worked had the star been willing to play a rat. But he wasn't.

Directed by Tony Scott, Spy Game is the story of the stock Redford character in two different passages of life. Redford plays the older part, Redford clone Brad Pitt plays the younger. They are spies. Redford's Nathan Muir discovers Pitt's Tom Bishop when the latter is an Army sniper in Vietnam. Muir trains Bishop to work as an assassin, and Bishop carries out a daring hit on a Viet Cong general. After the war, Muir recruits Bishop into the CIA where together they manipulate defectors, collaborators and double agents during the Cold War. The Russkies and their allies are damn sorry these handsome devils ever went into the spook business. Then along come the 1980s and trouble in the Middle East. Beirut explodes, and Muir and Bishop get charged with assassinating an Arab warlord. A plot emerges about a doctor, an untraceable poison smeared on a stethoscope, and a girl named Elizabeth.

All of this part of the narrative is told in a series of flashbacks that inform a more immediate plot set in 1991 (for no reason I could detect) on the very day of Muir's retirement. After the Beirut assignment, Bishop and Muir stopped working together, and now Bishop has turned lone wolf and tried to stage an elaborate rescue operation from a Chinese prison without official sanction, much less official cooperation. The rescuee is kept a secret for a long time, and when the identity is finally revealed, our jaws ache before we can stifle the yawn.

This is not to say that Spy Game lacks interest. As the 1991 plot is intercut with the Beirut flashback, we keep watching, intrigued to solve the puzzle of what Bishop has done in China and why, and whether or not Muir will -- or even can -- help him, all the while wondering about the outcome of the Beirut assassination scheme. The various plot resolutions and revelations, however, don't satisfy in the end. We presume the hit-doctor is among the collateral damage in Beirut, but even that isn't adequately clear. And though details of Muir's complicated response to Bishop's plight probably do hang together, the events come at us so quickly they aren't digestible in a single viewing of a film hardly worth seeing twice.

The major problem, however, is that the picture fails to develop its characters in any depth or with any clarity. A scene in Berlin establishes that Bishop is an idealist who somehow manages to be a cold-blooded killer. That may sound like complexity, but here it's simply disconnect. Muir is supposed to be a realist, but he's ultimately as stand-up a romantic as any Western hero who ever rode off into the sunset with The End stretched across his back. And then there is the love affair that breaks out in the Beirut rubble. I might complain that Bishop's involvement with emergency aid worker Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack) is as undercooked as sushi and not quite that warm. But that would distract from the fact that we don't believe a moment of their relationship, and moreover, that we don't care. Casual, even casually fierce, sex probably does break out under the conditions we encounter here. But enduring love is less likely, and nothing we witness between these two people convinces us of the connection this film asserts.

In the end, we get too much focus on Muir at the expense of other scenes that might have made Bishop's side of the story work. On the other hand, in Muir, Redford's carefully and extensively nurtured image is preserved -- even if to the film's distinct disadvantage.

Blond ambition: Ace spy Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) in action with protege Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) in Spy Game.
  • Blond ambition: Ace spy Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) in action with protege Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) in Spy Game.

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