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.
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.