International Men of History

As if post-September 11 revelations of the CIA's ineptitude were just advance PR, the flashy espionage thriller Spy Game casts a wistful eye on the agency's '70s and '80s heyday, when assassinations and international incidents were mere lunch-hour errands (or so every third issue of The New Yorker would have us believe). Happily, beneath the film's nostalgic veneer and tooth-rattling visual and aural effects lies a mature ambiguity that's unusual for a holiday blockbuster—and all but unheard of in a Tony Scott movie.

Robert Redford plays retiring op Nathan Muir, whose last day on the job in 1991 co-incides with the capture of erstwhile protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) in a Chinese prison during an attempt to spring a mysterious prisoner. Muir, pointedly of the CIA's "old school," uses a career's worth of accumulated tricks to try and rescue Tom before he's executed the next morning, all without setting foot outside the Company's headquarters. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, and Pitt has little to do besides look fetching in the largely told-in-flashback story, but there's no small pleasure in watching Muir outwit the skittish, new-school agency higher-ups who are willing to let Bishop die. It helps that Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata's screenplay is so canny (there's a nice dig at free-trade toadyism early on) and that Redford seems to be having the time of his life. Lively cameos from David Hemmings and Charlotte Rampling are an added treat.

Disregarding a few requisite plot holes, Spy Game's biggest drawback is timing. While it inadvertently comments on the colossal intelligence gap preceding the WTC and Pentagon attacks, a long sequence in Beirut with a climactic suicide bombing leaves a bad aftertaste; Scott's vacuous, anything-for-a-thrill style makes it all the more excruciating. Still, the portrayal of Muir, Bishop, and their employers as significantly less than moral beacons makes the film surprisingly demanding as a whole. Rather than requiring us to take its desperate heroes and their dubious redemption entirely at face value, Spy Game slips in a refreshing dose of uncertainty with its cinematic jolts.

Desperate hours: Pitt and Redford in Spy Game
photo: Keith Hamshere
Desperate hours: Pitt and Redford in Spy Game

Details

Spy Game
Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata
Universal

Black Knight
Directed by Gil Junger
Written by Darryl J. Quarles and Peter Gaulke & Gerry Swallow
Twentieth Century Fox


Speaking of desperation, how badly was Fox in need of a hit for "Martin Lawrence Costume Drama" to sound like a winning pitch? By the end of Gil Junger's paint-by-numbers cliché-fest, Black Knight, that's precisely what we get. Lawrence plays Jamal Walker, an underachieving South Central L.A. theme-park flunky who's reformed, as so many of us are, by time travel to medieval England. Once transported, Jamal rides, jousts, and even whups ass in a castletop sword fight with Rufus Sewell glower-alike Vincent Regan. The film's threadbare fish-out-of-water scenario runs dry long before the duel, and unwisely replaces Lawrence's sputtering ghetto blowhard persona with dull, macho sincerity. Game support from Marsha Thomason, Kevin Conway, and a hair-extensioned Tom Wilkinson—surely the least selective straight-man in Hollywood—helps some, but Black Knight is suited only for unwitting under-twelvers (though even they may not outlast the midpoint evaporation of Lawrence's shtick). Love him or hate him, the comic's strength lies in his irredeemable hucksterism; watching him play a conventional goody-goody is a little like hearing W.C. Fields deliver a temperance lecture.

 
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