The CIA has a term for when covert operations spawn unintended consequences: blowback.
There's plenty of blowback in the plot of "Spy Game," a thriller that revolves around the CIA's global meddlings. Director Tony Scott ensures that there are also plenty of scenes in which both stars, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, get their flaxen hair blown back while the Rayban-wearing pair strut handsomely around the world, conducting international espionage.
("Zoolander" isn't the only movie, then, in which spies look like supermodels. Mugshots of Aldrich Ames reveal that, in real life, few secret agents could defect to a Hollywood talent agency.)
It's a botched operation with possible international ramifications that hurtles "Spy Game" into third gear even before the opening credits have finished. It's 1991, and Pitt's character, Tom Bishop, infiltrates a Chinese prison in the guise of a doctor to spring someone free.
But when Bishop is captured, the CIA is left in an embarrassing position just three days before the president of the United States is due to meet the Chinese for a trade summit. Worse, the CIA wasn't behind the operation, making it suspect that its agent is working for someone else. With the Chinese intent on executing Bishop in 24 hours, the intelligence agency opts to hang him out to dry.
All of which means that Bishop's old boss and mentor, Nathan Muir (Redford), isn't going to be able to spend those 24 hours packing away his office on his retirement day. Muir soon finds himself in an operations room, where he's questioned by his superiors so they can find out more about Bishop.
When Muir gets wind of the CIA's intentions to let Bishop die, he ingeniously tries to outwit his CIA colleagues as he works his own contacts so that he can liberate his jailed protégé. He stalls for time by recalling how he recruited and groomed Bishop.
It's at this juncture that "Spy Game," hitherto a stylish thriller in the true tradition of Tony Scott - director of the excellent "Crimson Tide" and "Enemy of the State" - skewers itself.
The lengthy flashbacks that accompany Muir's stories of various operations he and Bishop were involved in, though marginally interesting, serve to deflate the tension of the central story. A clock periodically reminds the audience how much time Bishop has left before he is to be executed, but the sense of urgency dissipates every time Muir's tale steers the story to Vietnam or Berlin or Beirut. It's when the story periodically returns to Langley headquarters in Virginia that the film takes off again, as Muir races around to fax machines trying to cover the tracks of a counteroperation he seeks to launch.
Indeed, the film belongs to Redford, whose movie star-charm is always engaging. Pitt fares less well because there's little in the script to give his character interesting dimensions.
"Spy Game" is a decent thriller, but it's about as memorable as an Aldrich Ames mugshot.