Spy Game (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #87

It’s not how you play the game.
It’s how the game plays you.

Country: USA, Germany, Japan & France
Language: English, German, Arabic, French & Cantonese
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 21st November 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd November 2001
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Robert Redford (The Sting, All is Lost)
Brad Pitt (Twelve Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven)
Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, 28 Weeks Later)
Stephen Dillane (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Hours)

Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire)

Michael Frost Beckner (Sniper, To Appomattox)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Children of Men)

Story by
Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island, Prince Valiant)

The Story
When a retiring CIA agent’s one-time protégé is captured by the Chinese, he recalls their years training and working together, while battling internal agency politics to free his former friend.

Our Heroes
Nathan Muir is on the cusp of retirement, a former CIA field agent who’s now desk-bound and disregarded by his superiors. Previously, he recruited sniper Tom Bishop into the agency, training him to be a spy with Muir’s own values — which Bishop didn’t necessarily share, and his reaction against has ultimately led him into the hands of the Chinese. But how? Well, that’s what flashbacks are for.

Our Villains
Lots of Johnny Foreigners — but also some factions within the CIA itself…

Best Supporting Character
One of the CIA agents handling Bishop’s capture, and so attempting to handle Muir, is his oleaginous colleague Charles Harker. He’s played by the always-excellent Stephen “Stannis Baratheon” Dillane, who is perfectly snide in the role.

Memorable Quote
Bishop: “You don’t just trade these people like they’re baseball cards! It’s not a fucking game!”
Muir: “Oh, yes it is. It’s exactly what it is. And it’s no kid’s game either. This is a whole other game. And it’s serious and it’s dangerous. And it’s not one you want to lose.”

Memorable Scene
After an asset is killed, Bishop confronts Muir on a rooftop about the morals of what they do and why they do it. See also: Memorable Quote; Making of.

Technical Wizardry
The cinematography and editing haven’t yet reached the crazed heights Tony Scott would later display in Man on Fire and Domino, but it’s not without its affects. The flashbacks occur in a few different eras, so Scott decided to give each period a distinct look to remind the viewer of that time. For example, Vietnam is desaturated to a “strange sepia green”, while the colours in Beirut are heightened to mimic news clips from 1985. Conversely, Scott found the talky scenes within the CIA to be the “most challenging part of the movie” — without all his usual tricks, he had to rely on the quality of his actors to bring the scenes to life.

Making of
For the Berlin rooftop confrontation between Muir and Bishop, Tony Scott asked for more money to rent a helicopter. The producers refused — not unreasonably, when you consider it’s a dialogue scene. But Scott believed it was important and so rented the helicopter with his own money. Robert Redford was reportedly baffled by Scott’s use of a helicopter to film such an intimate conversation, but when he saw the final result he was impressed by how dynamic it made the scene.

What the Critics Said
“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. […] 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.” — Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“I have seen it three times now, and I still don’t have a full grasp of all the phone calls and cutaways and violent edits. This aspect, rather than being a distraction, is one of the film’s virtues. The idea is that Redford’s Nathan Muir is so smart that he is hoodwinking the CIA. Part of the game that the movie plays is that we the viewers are given just enough of a hint that we can appreciate his cleverness, but even we aren’t intended to fully ‘get it’. Tony Scott’s hectic, pulse-pounding visual style is largely responsible for this mesmerizing and confusing effect. Similar to (but far superior to) Guy Ritchie’s penchant for seemingly random visual tampering, Scott hits more often than he misses in Spy Game” — Ian Kay, Taking a Look


Spy Game is not normally considered the pinnacle in the careers of anyone involved, but there’s something about it that really works for me. In part it’s the chemistry between Redford and Pitt, a pair of actors who look like they could be father and son and exude a similar level of connection. The dual timeline structure keeps things rattling along, with Redford entertainingly running rings round the CIA in the present, while the flashbacks consider “the greater good” — how far should they go, and is it ever worth it? Possibly such questions weren’t appreciated on the film’s immediately-after-9/11 initial release, but they’ve since become more relevant than ever.

That’s no moon… it’s #88.

7 thoughts on “Spy Game (2001)

  1. Interesting choice. I saw it once, many years ago back when it came out on DVD. Can’t say it made any lasting impression on me but this review makes me wonder if its one I should check out again. I’d forgotten it was a Tony Scott film too, which is a bad oversight on my part. Theres something wrong when a major director makes a film and then you clear forget about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • As with so many of these, I haven’t actually watched it for years, but something about it just clicked for me, I guess.

      That said, I watched the trailer while preparing this and it gave me a massive rush of nostalgia, so who knows, maybe I just liked the advert…


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