Genres have a set of very tight rules, if they are to be effective. For a spy film, or a spy novel for that matter, the one requirement is that it be suspenseful. We must care, we must fear, we must identify with our protagonist, we must see danger before he or she does. Alfred Hitchcock knew all this very early on; his first British sound features included the brilliant spy films "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes." In each case he gave us the titillation of suspense mixed with a sophisticated wit that enhanced the power of his plots. At the opposite extreme are the complex, carefully layered structures of John LeCarré, for example, in which espionage was treated like a game of chess, with moves and countermoves leading to alternating checks, and human beings dropping like pawns, bishops and queens. The two men's works represent opposite poles of the spy genre, and who is to say which is the better? Both are close to perfect.
Over the years some have learned from the two great spymeisters and some have not. Among those who have not are the screenwriters Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, and director Tony Scott, all of whom collaborated on the new Robert Redford-Brad Pitt film "Spy Game." This is a spy film without a moment's suspense. It contains every possible spy-film cliché but has absolutely no power to intrigue us, to bewitch us into its world, to make us identify with its protagonists. Who we identify with, instead, are the actors - Redford and Pitt - playing their roles as screen icons instead of as their written characters. This is not, I emphasize, the actors' fault. They are given a film structure and a screenplay that a better critic than I would describe as having no there, there. The film is all mechanics and no heart. There's nothing for us to hold onto.
As the film opens Redford, on his last day before retirement from the CIA, is told that his protegé Pitt is a prisoner in China. Redford is called into a meeting with his superiors who want to know what's going on. Most of the rest of the film is a series of flashbacks to when Redford recruited Pitt, and the various adventures they had together over the years. What we in the audience assume - wrongly as it turns out - is that Redford had something to do with Pitt's assignment in China and that he bears responsibility for trying to rescue him. Had Redford in fact put Pitt into China, we could then identify with both of them as they try to work their way out of it - Pitt in prison and Redford in Langley, Virginia. But this is the film's great error. Redford doesn't know any more than we do, and making us wait for him to discover what's going on is stupid screenwriting.
Scott, who's made some very fine films - "Enemy of the State" and "True Romance" come to mind - has a good feel for locations and action. But when everything that happens here is set in a past that we know will not end in the past - that is, Brad Pitt will not die early in the film - there is no hope that he can manufacture suspense out of thin air. And the sequences in the CIA offices become repetitious because neither Redford nor we know more than his inquisitors. It's just a slow grind that sets up the varied flashbacks, to Berlin, to Beirut, and then to the final, completely implausible climax in which Pitt is rescued by a mechanism that has you rolling your eyes in disbelief. We are asked to believe that two US helicopters could fly into mainland China, land in a prison there, take out two Americans, and fly back out to safety, and do it safely and successfully. Please. Give me a break.