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There was a time when CIA operative Nathan Muir and his protege Tom Bishop were inseparable, travelling the world and tasting everything it had to offer... from Vietnam to Berlin to Beirut. In a profession fraught with danger and uncertainty, Muir and Bishop forged an uncommonly close friendship based on mutual respect and affection. But that was years ago. Now, on the brink of his retirement from the agency, Muir learns that Bishop has gone rogue. His one-time protege has been jailed in Beijing on espionage charges after attempting to break a prisoner out of China. Years of bad blood and hurt feelings are washed away in a flood of memories of adventures shared by the two men as Muir takes on his most dangerous - and personal - mission ever.
For more about Spy Game and the Spy Game Blu-ray release, see Spy Game Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on May 14, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Larry Bryggman, Michael Paul Chan
Director: Tony Scott
» See full cast & crew
Spy Game Blu-ray Review
Scott's cerebral CIA thriller struggles to stand out on Blu-ray...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, May 14, 2009
Whether you love his hyperkinetic cinematic experiments or hate his scattershot visual style, it's tough to accuse Tony Scott of playing it safe. After dabbing with clever edits in The Last Boyscout, relying on several garish palette shifts in Crimson Tide, and effortlessly merging story with jarring aesthetics in Enemy of the State, the ever-evolving English director emerged from the '90s with a perfectly-cast espionage thriller that would establish his vision for the next decade: Spy Game. Despite a rather chilly critical reception, the film has only improved with age, rising above Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata's admittedly convoluted screenplay with well-conceived characters, sharp dialogue, an intense game of geopolitical chess, and a pair of wonderfully understated performances from Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
When veteran CIA case officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) learns that one of his former agency recruits -- a skilled but impulsive operative named Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) -- is being held captive in a Chinese prison under threat of execution, he finds himself in a room with several high-ranking intelligence officials compiling information about Bishop's past. However, his superiors have no intention of extracting Bishop. Instead, they're quietly working to disavow his affiliation with the CIA to preserve a budding trade agreement between the US and China. Once Muir discovers their intentions, he begins to manipulate the situation from within using the press, his professional connections, and his own covert training in an effort to orchestrate a rescue operation and save his feisty protege from certain death.
The fact that so many people have associated Spy Game with style-over-substance filmmaking baffles me to no end. If anything, Scott's exploration of loyalty, friendship, and duty sidesteps so many obvious opportunities to engage in the sort of guns-n-spolisions nonsense genre fans are accustomed to that any such barbs should be taken with a grain of salt. That's not to say the film is a dull, chatty bore -- quite the contrary -- but it also isn't a rote exercise in flash or sizzle. How often does Scott's camera simply focus on expressive faces in a conference room? How often does it pause to allow each actor to craft a convincing human being? How often are fundamentals like story cohesion and character motivation prioritized over distracting visual trickery? For anyone undeterred by Scott's deft use of frenetic photography, the answer to all three questions is clear: the filmmakers go out of their way to develop and legitimize every event, relationship, and CIA agent that graces the screen.
Spy Game succeeds by transforming arguments into battlefields, secret phone calls into precision strikes, and calculated lies into ballistic missiles. It's an exceedingly cerebral spy thriller that wields disinformation as others might wield bullets; a fast-paced character study that offers a measured game of chess in place of more familiar genre conventions. Is that to suggest it's perfect? Definitely not. For every heated exchange and intriguing dissection of trust and integrity the director tosses on the screen, a tangential idea or subplot inadvertently muddles the otherwise concise narrative. Whereas Man on Fire proved Scott could exhibit flawless control over story and character, Spy Game shows that he can be occasionally overwhelmed by his own dense twists and turns. Thankfully, both Pitt and Redford establish such a magnetic presence that it's easy to endure most of the film's distractions to focus on the subtleties of Bishop and Muir's complex student-mentor relationship.
Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that the critics who scoff at Spy Game are the same people that take every opportunity afforded them to rant about the director's eclectic aesthetics. While I'm certainly no Scott apologist (as evidenced by my reviews of Domino and True Romance) -- and while the phenomenally-powerful Man on Fire still stands in my mind as his finest, most impeccable film to date -- Spy Game is nevertheless a strong entry in an enthralling filmmaker's uneven canon. Ignore everything you've heard and give it a shot... you just might like what you find.
Spy Game Blu-ray, Video Quality
Unfortunately, it appears that Universal has simply repurposed the same problematic 1080p/VC-1 transfer that appeared on the 2006 HD DVD edition of Spy Game (itself a port of an old, troubled transfer minted for the 2002 Collector's Edition DVD). It's a cinch to overlook the fallout of Scott's directorial choices -- inconsistent grain fields, crushed blacks, rampant noise, and occasionally overblown contrast levels -- but there are too many technical issues on hand to excuse the quality of the image altogether. Mild digital scrubbing has reduced the film's intrusive grain, but stripped objects of their finest textures. Likewise, artificial sharpening has been used to refine many of Scott's soft shots, but it occasionally produces garish, unnatural close-ups and hazy long shots haunted by thick edge halos. Furthermore, a general softness prevails in some sequences that could probably be resolved if the studio started from scratch with the original print. Add to that the series of minor scratches, nicks, and flecks that litter the picture and you have a transfer that requires a conscious effort to enjoy.
To its credit, the image boasts a strong palette, healthy skintones, and attractive, unwavering contrast. Blacks are also incredibly inky, depth is convincing, and overall clarity is passable in most scenes. In the end, Spy Game's Blu-ray transfer spits out an average high definition presentation. However, the film would have been better served had the studio started from scratch with a fresh restoration.
Spy Game Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Spy Game features an at-times rousing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that wrangles Scott's shifting style and non-linear storytelling with cool efficiency. While a few lines sound a tad muffled in the mix, dialogue is generally crisp and well-prioritized (regardless of whether it's being whispered in a hushed conference room or shouted over the roar of a gunfight). Rear speaker support is impressive as well: distant conversations, shuffling paperwork, and creaking chairs pepper a glass room with natural ambience, while the hum of car engines and the chatter of nearby crowds grant Berlin streets and Lebanese cityscapes a sense of authenticity. Precise directionality enhances the soundfield, slick pans create smooth channel transitions, and reliable low-end tones bless explosions and car chases with weight and presence. A trio of earthy thooms were weaker than I expected, but each instance struck me as an individual mishap in the original sound design rather than a technical deficiency in the lossless track. Ultimately, even though a complete overhaul might have ironed out a few minor kinks, Spy Game's lossless debut sounds great.
Spy Game Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Arriving with the same solid, standard definition supplemental package as its DVD and HD DVD counterparts, the Blu-ray edition of Spy Game includes a decent (albeit dated) collection of special features that offer a relatively revealing glimpse into the production.
Spy Game Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I can't wrap my head around all the mediocre reviews Spy Game has received over the years: its brisk pacing, engrossing performances, and clever twists and turns make it one of the more engaging CIA thrillers in recent memory. While its first Blu-ray incarnation is unequivocally hit-or-miss -- a problematic video transfer and a dated batch of supplements pull the release down -- an overall boost in quality (compared to the DVD) and the inclusion of a noteworthy DTS-HD Master Audio track redeems the disc quite a bit. All things considered, you shouldn't shrug off Spy Game based on what you've heard about the film, what you think of Scott, or the fact that the transfer is a recycled dud... this affordable release is still worth your consideration.
Spy Game: Other Editions
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