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"If I'm gonna get caught in a shitstorm, I wanna know what direction the wind is kicking."1

Mentor-pupil relationships have long been the substance of crowd-pleasing films. Rocky, The Karate Kid, Dead Poets Society, and Finding Forrester are among the many movies made within the past 25 years that have milked this narrative device for all its worth. Of course, many of these films -- Rocky and Karate Kid excepted -- lack an adrenaline rush. Enter Spy Game, the latest from director Tony Scott who, like his elder brother has a pronounced flair for the visual. In true holiday spirit, here's a cornucopia of action, drama, and liberal doses of comedy that actually GASP! satisfies.

Robert Redford, working in familiar territory here (see: Three Days of the Condor, Sneakers), is Nathan Muir, a weatherbeaten CIA operative just hours from retirement. Muir is a man who's served his government for decades, bearing witness to the politics and bullshit that come with the territory, with cheap scotch as his panacea. This very day, he gets a call from the agency, alerting him to a developing situation in China, involving his former pupil, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt, spending a great deal of time beaten and bruised.)

In front of an emergency meeting of agency brass, Muir tells of his beginnings with Bishop, a story that serves as the crux of the film. We see Muir in Vietnam, recruiting this fresh-faced supermarket stockboy from San Diego. We follow the lad on a dangerous kill, where he proves his mettle on the battlefront. We're transported to East Germany, where the Wall looms over the populace, and Bishop is thrust into a job that he's linguistically incapable of performing. Here, Muir successfully recruits him as an op, training and molding him into a bold and convincing agent (one task involving a balcony provides one of the film's funnier moments.)We fast forward to mid-80s Beirut, where civil war is the order of the day. In the midst of the chaos, Bishop finds romance in Elizabeth, a British aide worker with a giving heart and a checkered past. Meanwhile in the present, Bishop's life hangs by a delicate thread, leaving his old pal Muir to perform a series of machinations to save his life.

The obvious draw here is the union of Redford and Pitt; pairing two generations of Tinseltown playboys obviously does wonders for the drool factor, if you're into that. Fortunately, both are solid, especially in a dizzying scene atop a tall industrial building2 where Redford explains the rules of the game to Pitt.

And while on the subject of dizzying scenes -- between the freeze-frames, flash-editing, and juxtaposition of sound and image, there's no doubt that one of the Scotts helmed this picture. The refreshing absence of evil incarnate and a screenplay restrained in the number of murder-death-kills keep the onscreen action from reaching overkill status. The score by Hans Zimmer understudy Harry Gregson-Williams is...well, it's Hans Zimmerish, and that's not a bad thing.

Couple all of this with a genuinely riveting third act and a conclusion that more than satiates the most commercial audience and you have a worthy alternative to that little wizard.

1: I have probably mangled this quote beyond repair. Or not. 2: there's blatant product-placement in this scene as well. wake up and smell the commercialism

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