SPY GAME - HD DVD review

When a movie fails to stick in your mind, there is cause for worry.


When "Spy Game" first arrived to be reviewed, I was a bit excited because I hadn't seen the film and it would be nice to review something that I did not previously watch. After about three minutes into the movie, the realization hit that I had indeed seen the movie at some point in the past. In fact, I owned the original Collector's Edition DVD. Granted, the DVD was stored in an dark corner where it was forgotten, but what does it tell you if you don't recall watching a movie that is less than five years old? I admit I have seen a lot of movies since then, but when a movie fails to stick in your mind, there is cause for worry.

So how was my revisit with the new HD-DVD release? I did find myself quickly remembering pretty much every scene in the film. From the opening moments when Brad Pitt is in the act of a daring rescue from a Chinese prison up until the final drive home from Langley that Robert Redford takes in his Porsche, I remembered it all. I certainly paid attention last time, but somewhere along the way, I stored my memories of watching the Tony Scott picture in a dusty and rarely visited portion of my mind. After watching the picture a second time, I imagine the reason I remembered each little detail was that the film kept my attention, but afterwards, it did not stand out enough for me to wholly remember it.

The film is slickly done and it feels somewhat like a Tom Clancy penned story. But unlike a Tom Clancy movie which features tenseful situations, hi-tech gadgets and globetrotting locales, "Spy Game" takes place mostly in the chair of a conference room table. Robert Redford does bounce around between a few offices and he does place a couple telephone calls, but aside from a couple flashback scenes featuring Brad Pitt, "Spy Game" is a desk drama. Once you are aware of the plot twists and the tricks Redford's character performs, the three or four action sequences that feature Brad Pitt are neither exciting nor spectacles to behold again and again.

From a spy satellite view, "Spy Game" finds Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) getting tossed in a Chinese prison and awaiting execution in twenty-four hours when an attempt to free a female acquaintance fails miserably. His mentor, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is on his last day at the Central Intelligence Agency and ready to retire. Unfortunately, he is called into a conference where the CIA must make a decision on Bishop in order to maintain political peace with China in the face of an upcoming economic summit. The CIA is apparently looking for a reason to let the Chinese execute the spy and Nathan wants to save his protégé and friend. So, they all sit behind a conference table and discuss this for most of the film.

Robert Redford and Brad Pitt are among the only 'names' to be found among the credits. Director Tony Scott is a familiar name to many, but far from being household. This was his follow-up film to the superior "Enemy of the State" and the pre-cursor to the Denzel Washington picture, "Man on Fire." Looking at his other helmed projects, "Top Gun," "Beverly Hills Cop II," "The Last Boy Scout," "True Romance," "Crimson Tide," and "The Fan" were all far more entertaining. The actors are good enough, though Brad Pitt does not have too terribly many long scenes in the movie. He is almost a wasted talent. Redford's character is a slimy sort that is more con man than spy. You find yourself wanting Nathan to help Bishop not because of a friendship, but because you feel Redford owes it to Bishop for being a poor friend. With knowing very little about the character of Bishop and not necessarily liking Nathan, I found myself not completely caring about what happened to the characters. Yet another reason why I had forgotten this picture.

I imagine that somewhere between "Son of Kong" and "SquarePants, SpongeBob" (Dewey decimal system uses last name first), "Spy Game" was neatly tucked away and forgotten because it is simply a forgettable film. "Spy Game" is far from being a lousy movie, but it does not even come close to rising above the countless other spy thrillers released in the past two decades. Any Tom Clancy film, James Bond movie or even half of their clones hold more action, intrigue and entertainment than "Spy Game." You do find yourself wondering how Nathan will free his friend and it is more than enough to keep your interest in the movie. But when the extremely quick climax screeches to a halt, you almost feel cheated and as if you were stuck in a meeting while everybody else was out having fun.


After digging out my original Universal "Collector's Edition" release on standard definition DVD, I can confirm that HD-DVD is a nice upgrade over the older DVD. The film is once again presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ration that preserves its original theatrical presentation. "Spy Game" is not a film you would consider to be a visually stunning picture, but it looks quite good on HD-DVD and once again shows that Universal is on the ball with their high definition transfers. Detail is strong throughout, except for a few scenes where artistic decisions where made. For instance, the initial scene where the two main characters meet in Vietnam is highly contrasted and oversaturated to help convey the feeling of a different era and to help hide the actors aged faces and have them appear younger. Drumming out the technical jargon, black levels are solid, contrast is good, source materials are quite clean and aside from the portions of the picture that are only ‘marred' by the filmmakers' decisions, this is a stunning HD-DVD.


Universal has upped the ante with a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 multi-channel surround mix. This replaces the older Dolby Digital mix and the DTS 5.1 track of the original disc. The new mix is an improvement over the older offerings, but appears only marginally improved over the DTS selection. Bass is heavy during the film's sparse action sequences and during these moments, all six speakers are utilized. The film's theatrical score by Harry Gregson-Williams is nicely presented, though licensed selections are much more memorable. Vocals are clear and since the majority of the picture takes place around a large conference table, vocals are quite important. The HD-DVD release of "Spy Game" does upgrade the original release, but it is not stand out when compared to many of the other action films released on the format. It feels a bit confined, but a lot of this is due to film's content.


Even the theatrical trailer makes its way from the original Collector's Edition to the new HD-DVD! A lot of kudos are sent Universal's way for continually filling their HD-DVDs with solid supplements that help make the decision to upgrade from standard definition to high definition an easier choice. It also maintains that HD-DVD is a decent bargain when compared to that ‘other' format. "Spy Game" has an attractive list of features that now feel dated, but it is nice to see they have made the trip to the new generation.

The Clandestine Ops interactive feature is retained with the same usage as the original release. This feature which is billed as "A unique viewing experience that puts you in control" simply puts an icon on screen and by pressing the "OK" button on the remote, you are taken to a short making of clip about the current scene. When compared to the video commentary tracks on "Constantine" or "The Bourne Supremacy," this method of interactivity now feels quite ‘old school.' There are some nice little bits to be found during the "Clandestine Ops" and it keeps you involved as you attempt to press the button in the necessary allotted timeframe, but after getting a taste of what HD-DVD can do, you are left yearning for more.

Going in box art order, the Alternate versions and deleted scenes with director's commentary – including an alternate ending! is next. There are eight deleted scenes and one alternate ending that are selectable through the menu system. The alternate ending is a retelling of the events in the film's released version. It is not a huge departure from what was sent to theaters, but it is worth checking out. The deleted scenes do add a bit of depth to the story, but they are perfectly comfortable on the cutting room floor. The director's commentary track gives reasons for their being removed and provide commentary on what is going on in them. Four tracks are fresh scenes, while four others are simply longer versions of scenes already in the film.

The Script-to-storyboard featurette takes a look at Tony Scott's hand-drawn storyboards and how they translate to the final film. This little featurette runs for only two minutes. A Feature commentary with director Tony Scott is the first of two audio commentaries. Tony Scott is a good listen and is very personable. He offers up a lot of details on the filmmaking and why he made many of the decisions he did. The second track, the Feature commentary with the producers finds Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham discussing their experience in making the film. Again, a nicely detailed commentary, but the duo sticks to the details and this makes for a bit of a dry experience. The Requirements for CIA acceptance are simply text pages about the Central Intelligence Agency and their requirements of getting into the agency. Finally, the theatrical trailer is included. It is nice to see them making their way over after the initial batches of HD-DVD snubbed the beloved little features.

Closing Comments

I actually could not remember that I had ever watched "Spy Game" or even owned the original DVD. However, my memory was quick to recover and "Spy Game" became quite familiar. The picture is forgettable, but can be engaging while viewing. It is hindered by not being anything special and having a lot of nothing happen onscreen. Much of the film is spent around a conference room table. The flashbacks are fun, but short. You never get any warm and fuzzy feelings about the main characters and you end up not really caring on what happens to either of them. The HD-DVD release is a noticeable upgrade in video presentation and the soundtrack is not as dynamic in its improvement, but is better. All of the supplements from the original release meander over to the new disc. If you are a fan of "Spy Game," it is certainly a worthwhile investment. However, for the rest of us, it is a rental at best. If you want your HD Brad Pitt fill, go for "Troy" instead.


Film Value