One of the chief proponents of the style-over-substance school of filmmaking, Tony Scott's movies are consistently slick and flashy but vary wildly in quality depending entirely on the script he happens to be working from. The director himself cares more about the technical aspects of the production and usually seems to have little personal investment in things like character or story. Pair him up with the right screenplay and you can get a gem like True Romance. Just as often, unfortunately, he'll wind up helming glossy but hollow studio formula drivel like Revenge or Days of Thunder. Falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are pictures like his 2001 espionage caper Spy Game, an obvious vanity project for its two lead stars, but one with a decent script and surprising entertainment value.
Brad Pitt and Robert Redford reunite for the first time since A River Runs Through It, though this couldn't possibly be a more radically divergent type of movie. Nonetheless, the film effectively plays up the uncanny resemblance and father/son dynamic between the two men. Pitt here plays Tom Bishop, a rogue CIA spook who disobeys orders by staging a prison rescue operation, only to get captured by the Chinese government. Redford is Nathan Muir, his mentor, preparing for retirement until brought in for a debriefing on all of Bishop's past activities. The movie employs a flashback structure as Muir fills in his superiors (pointedly, all his juniors) on the details of Bishop's recruitment and training, and the chain of events that led to the current situation. As this unfolds, the older man quickly realizes that the Agency is more interested in plausible deniability than in recovering their operative, and slyly begins setting in motion an intricate plan to make his last day on the job count.
The movie's story is, I'm sure, wildly implausible, and its simplistic Spy vs. Spy scenario seems pretty naïve in light of the real world events that have happened since 2001. Still, for a Hollywood depiction of espionage fantasy it works pretty well. The script is smartly structured, with interesting characters and good dialogue. Refreshing is its dismissive attitude toward the technology and gadgetry that have bogged down the James Bond franchise and its imitators, in favor of old-fashioned intelligence gathering. A lot of time is spent explaining how an agent establishes "assets" in various locales that he can use for his own ends without giving away information of his own. Much of the movie is set in the Middle East during the 1980s, and it's a little shocking how much of its politics are still relevant.
The two leads capably command the screen with their movie star glamour, even though Pitt was simply not old enough to convincingly span the time frame that the movie requires him to. Tony Scott's jittery camerawork and editing are put to good effect building tension and suspense. Spy Game may ultimately be just a superficial entertainment, but it's certainly stylish and enjoyable while it lasts.
The HD DVD:
Spy Game debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Spy Game HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The transfer used here is clearly recycled from the 2002 DVD release. In many scenes, it offers fairly impressive High Definition video with a sharp image and good colors. Fine object detail is often very satisfying. You can make out every wrinkle on Redford's face in perfect clarity. The texture of his tweed jacket and the stubble on Pitt's face are also well defined. Black levels are solid and contrasts accurately rendered to lend the picture a nice sense of depth. Scott's "steely" visual style is well represented, keeping in mind that the director uses a number of stylistic tricks that at times intentionally degrade the image. Most of the flashbacks use heavy color filters, for example, and the Vietnam scenes in particular are highly filtered with reduced detail. Some of the scenes inside the CIA conference room also vary in focus from shot to shot. One shot of an actor will be in perfect focus, but the cutaway to the next actor will be gauzily soft. This was a decision made during the production, not a video transfer flaw. The movie's photography has a mild presence of film grain, but it's adequately compressed and doesn't look like video noise.
On the downside, the film elements exhibit a disappointing amount of dirt and specks that stand out even more clearly in HD than they did on the DVD. The transfer also suffers from edge enhancement artifacts. The halos are usually minor and not distracting in most scenes, but are occasionally thick and ugly (the rooftop argument between Pitt and Redford is one of the worst offenders). Had the movie been remastered for this release, these problems probably could have been eliminated. As it stands, the picture quality is mostly good but decidedly falls short of greatness.
The Spy Game HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. You should expect a Tony Scott action movie to be loud, bassy, and aggressive. Helicopters frequently pan through all the speakers in the room, and the throbbing music sounds pretty good. Dialogue is clear even during the most aurally chaotic scenes. I was disappointed in the fidelity of the mix, however. Explosions are plenty rumbly but sound dull. Sound effects didn't have quite the crackle and crispness I was expecting. It's an adequate soundtrack, just not among the best available on disc.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks - Spanish DD+ 5.1 or French DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
Most of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Missing from the DVD are some cast & crew bios, production notes, and the remaining DVD-Rom material including some additional behind-the-scenes footage. None are significant losses.
- Audio Commentary by Director Tony Scott - This track is a little dry and frequently repetitive, but relatively interesting. Scott talks a lot about working with the cast, especially comparing notes with Redford, whose own directorial style is the polar opposite of Scott's.
- Audio Commentary by Producers Marc Abraham and Douglas Wick - A more animated discussion, this track focuses on the background of the script and the logistics of the production.
- Clandestine Ops - This is one of those "Follow the White Rabbit" type of features where an icon will appear on screen at various points during the movie. By pressing the Enter button on your remote, you'll be taken to a short production featurette about the scene you were just watching, or some text pages relating to the characters. The amount of material found here is very sparse, and it is not worth watching the whole movie through just for this feature. You can, however, choose to run both the Clandestine Ops and an audio commentary simultaneously, which is a more productive way to view the movie.
- Deleted Scenes (6 min.) – Five short sequences are available with optional commentary from Tony Scott. Some of the footage is interesting, but none was necessary for the movie.
- Alternate Versions of Existing Scenes (14 min.) – Four scenes are presented, again with optional commentary from Scott. Some of these contain only small changes from the final cut of the movie.
- Script to Storyboard Process (3 min.) – Tony Scott discusses his visualization process, which involves very crude storyboard sketches.
- Theatrical Trailer - This is a rather cheesy trailer, but it does contain a lot of deleted footage not in the movie or in the disc's other deleted scenes section.
- Spy Game Soundtrack (30 sec.) – A worthless ad for the soundtrack CD. This feature (if you can call it that) was previously found in the DVD's ROM section.
- Requirements for CIA Acceptance - A brief text document containing a profile of what the Agency is looking for in new recruits. The material reads like it was probably copied directly from the CIA's public web site.
Spy Game is an entertaining movie, and this HD DVD edition offers some reasonably nice if flawed High Definition video. Recommended.
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