A new writer makes his 10YA debut this week. Everyone, welcome Michael Hodges, who writes about action, genre theory, blending in, standing out, and the problem of Brad Pitt’s prettiness in his review of Spy Game.
My memories of Spy Game are pretty blurry. And I mean that in the best possible way. When first I watched this film, it struck me as a hyperkinetic romp with a bit of a dark heart that always moved too fast for me to see What Was Really Going On. As such, I enjoyed it, but the 13-year-old me was always a little more fascinated with the heart (and frustrated that I didn’t get a nice, long, possibly angst-filled look at it) than I was with all the pretty explosions motion-blurring their way around the film’s periphery.
Watching the film now, I’m not sure exactly what I was smoking. This doesn’t feel at all like the movie I remembered. It’s got a different (much more deliberate) pace, or at least I’ve seen enough blurry-cam and quick-cut action/espionage/thriller/drama films in the decade since to get used to a certain amount of freneticism. It’s got an actual heart. Kind of. As much of a heart as Brad Pitt — here at his least winningly comedic, in that this isn’t a funny movie, or at least it tries very hard not to be — and Robert Redford can defibrillate into some kind of a regular rhythm between flashbacks and shots of Brad Pitt’s Abs being punched in the face.
The issue now is that this heart is familiar, and probably more familiar than Hearts of Darkness, the subject of Community’s latest, I-won’t-say-greatest-but-it’s-pretty-good spoof. Almost every shot in this film now reminds me of another, later, better film: The Bourne Identity. Which does actually have the motion-blurring action that I thought this one has. Except, here, Jason Bourne spends the entire present, almost, sitting in a jail cell, and Robert Redford, playing what is not really but kind of the role played by Brian Cox (if you haven’t watched his version of Fol Chen’s “In Ruins” video, Do It Now) a year later, is pretty much the main character. So much so that he — which is to say, his wavy hair — gets placed above Brad Pitt on the movie poster.
Should we have a section here on the unfairness of every spy movie from the last decade or so getting continually compared to the Bourne series? Let’s do it. But — first —
Plot Summary In The Form Of A Numbered List!
1. Most of us didn’t watch this movie.
2. Doctor Brad Pitt (he has articulable arms!) is treating people in a Chinese prison. Wait for it…he’s actually CIA Agent Brad Pitt, and he’s here to steal a MacGuffin. Well — that didn’t work. Now he’s Gritty Mood-Lighting Prisoner Brad Pitt, and so he shall remain except in the upcoming Exposition Flashbacks.
3. Constraints to add tension: 24-hour countdown to Gritty Mood-Lighting Prisoner Brad Pitt’s execution (paging Kiefer Sutherland…); trade deal that will bring Hundreds O’ Jobs jeopardized if it becomes public that the US was after the MacGuffin; Brad Pitt pulled a Sarah Palin (too soon for weak Going Rogue jokes?); CIA brass wants to let Brad Pitt die, and they call in Robert Redford’s Wavy Hair (henceforth abbreviated RRWH) to give them a reason.
4. RRWH doesn’t cooperate in the government’s dastardly plot to, uh, do nothing and not worsen a potential international incident. Plot twists show that the CIA is powerful (who’d have guessed?).
5. Exposition Flashbacks! Brad Pitt was a sniper in Vietnam. What? How is he possibly that old? There’s no way Brad Pitt is — oh. The movie’s set in 1991, which is irrelevant except that it makes the backstory more convenient. RRWH recruited Brad Pitt for the CIA, then was his handler for several years. Chemistry, mostly from RRWH’s eyes.
6. RRWH forges an order to have Brad Pitt rescued from the Chinese prison where he’s being tortured, then bribes a Chinese official to cut power to the prison. A bunch of SEALs carry out his forged order.
7. Brad Pitt is safe, and RRWH drives away. Credits roll.
So… that happened.
And then, the very next year, The Bourne Identity happened, which is the same camera style (but better), and the same characters (but with a Shyamalanian twist!) (sorry, I just wanted to say Shyamalanian), and now we can’t watch action/espionage/thriller/dramas without having Matt Damon’s furrowed brow and slick martial arts written across all our expectations.
Is that fair to Spy Game, which, it should be pointed out, is a perfectly serviceable and even occasionally enjoyable genre exercise? Well…I’m going to go with yes. We’ll go all reader response on this mother-shut-your-mouth for a moment. The context is different now, and that changes the way the film works. The text is inextricable from the context not just of its origin, but of its audience. The deconstruction is inextricable from not only the text, but also the self.
We can’t watch Spy Game now without knowing that Brad Pitt is going to go on to make the leather-and-Angelina-Jolie explosion that is Mr. and Mrs. Smith; that Tony Scott (the director, who I probably should have mentioned earlier, but, hey, he’s all over this thing) is making this movie between two of my favorite films in Enemy of the State and Man on Fire, and, later, the highly enjoyable if occasionally nauseating fever dream that is Domino; that Robert Redford is going on to make, uh, he made something else notable, after this, right? Right?
I got nothing. Point stands, though: the fact that another film with this film’s exact same style and basically the same characters came out the next year and did it bigger, better, and more popular rewrites our expectations for this film and the way we experience it, the same way that (as Jessica Campbell pointed out far more eloquently just the other day) we can’t watch the first film in a franchise without reading all the later films in that franchise back into it.
Because they’re part of it. And Bourne is now a part of every spy movie. So is Mission: Impossible, but that was before this film, so, cool, whatever, we expect that.
Time is a weird thing, is what I guess this is getting to. It doesn’t flow just one way (ask any photon), and we don’t experience it as some sort of linear progression.
So… how do we evaluate Spy Game, in the end?
One option: Spy Game is a serviceable, reasonably enjoyable CIA drama. It’s got a couple of explosions, and it’s got a pretty good performance by Robert Redford. You should watch it for those things, or if you’re trying to complete your Tony Scott collectible matched set (and what a sad, bizarre, queso-dip-and-sweatpants kind of life you must lead if you’re working on that set).
Another option: Spy Game is a serviceable, reasonably enjoyable CIA drama. You should watch it if you’re okay with watching one film while another, better, film is playing in your brain, or if you really, really love the genre. Otherwise, just take a couple of looks at still shots, read the tagline, and then move onwards.
Not that there’s anything wrong with queso dip and/or sweatpants. I don’t permit either of them in my house, but if they make you happy, go for it; I was using them as a symbol of a certain kind of lifestyle that I would associate with habitual consumers of Tony Scott.
My reaction the first time I see Brad Pitt: “Oh, look, Brad Pitt. I don’t think he’s aged at all in the last decade.”
Issue: Brad Pitt’s too pretty to make his initial doctor cover believable, even within a genre that expects pretty people to be literally fucking everywhere. Read that as you will.
Issue: Brad Pitt’s too pretty (in this world full of less-pretty people) to make *any* cover believable. You want to be forgettable? Don’t look like Brad Pitt. This is an ongoing pet peeve of mine. Spies aren’t pretty, aren’t glamorous, and they sure as hell don’t get flattering camera angles or their own theme music. If the point is to blend in, to be forgettable, to not draw attention, then…
Speaking from a logical perspective (and this is something that didn’t bother me until I rewatched the movie this time) – how the heck is the government the bad guy here? They didn’t sell Brad Pitt out.
While we’re talking about Hearts of Darkness: Please, please, please don’t cancel Community! I identify far too strongly with Abed, and that show met me at a very strange time in my life. I’m not sure that my fragile ego could handle my psychic doppelganger’s disappearance.
Sorry for the xkcd jokes. Wait…no, I’m not.
The MacGuffin was a British woman. There’s some sort of love subplot between her and Brad Pitt. You can probably get some sense of how much I was into that plot when I was younger. It seems even less important now. Pitt and Redford have better chemistry than Pitt and MacGuffin ever do, and that’s not just the slash fiction that I’m sure is floating around out there talking.
Brad Pitt’s character is named Tony Bishop. Robert Redford’s character is named Muir. Neither of these things is important. They’re Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and shall be referred to as such.