There's a sinking feeling a few minutes into this film, just after the pulse pounding Chinese prison-break sequence that opens it, when the scene shifts over to CIA headquarters in Washington. It's explained that today is Nathan Muir's (Robert Redford) last day on the job before he heads off to a warm island to spend the rest of his days. A skilled former agent-turned-instructor, Muir just has a few more hours to kill when he gets the call.
How many times have we seen this one played out? And how much do you want to bet the poor sap doesn't make it, perhaps giving his life so that some ace student of his can carry on the battle against evil? Well, here's a hot tip. Don't make that bet. It won't be revealed here whether Muir lives or dies or even if anything close to that overdone scenario takes place. But know this. What you'll see in this tense, action-filled, complex puzzle of a movie is anything but a string of cliches. Neither is it all brand-new. But it sure is well-packaged, and it never lets go of audience interest -- make that audience fascination.
The prison break -- a failed one, mind you -- is actually a break-in, by rogue CIA agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who's trying to get someone out. The whole beginning is a textbook example of how to grab onto and continually enthrall the viewer. Cameras are on the move all over the place (later in the film, they literally fly through the air), and the editing is about as fasted-paced as possible. Fans of director Tony Scott (little brother of Ridley) will pick up on the style right away, especially those with his most recent film, Enemy of the State, still fresh on their minds. And Scott hardly ever slows this one down, even as the central story of Muir's last day spent mostly in a conference room begins to unfold.
The CIA boys who run the place (the film takes place in 1991) are a different breed than Muir. And he's proud of the fact that he still operates the sturdy, old way. They know that he recruited Bishop, and they hope to find out whatever they can about him from his mentor before they make a decision as to whether they should try to rescue him. On any given day they probably would just jump right in and get him, but there are all kinds of problems surrounding an impending presidential visit and trade agreements that could lead, as one of the CIA suits says, to an international flap.
What makes this thing so fascinating is that neither the CIA guys nor the audience really knows what's going on, or what the exact relationship between Muir and Bishop has been over the past decade and a half. The writers and director have sculpted a detailed series of flashbacks that show how the two men initially met in Vietnam. Over the years, in different international situations, they grew to admire and trust one another -- they also found each other utterly mystifying. These sequences -- which also include flashbacks to Berlin and Beirut when things were at their hottest and heaviest -- fit tightly in between returns to the CIA conference room in the present. In these scenes, Muir very slowly gives pieces of information to his bosses but (and no one but Redford could pull this off so well) always has something hidden behind a twinkle in his eye.
One other minor glitch in the flow of the film is something that Scott probably thought would make things more tense. It's explained that Bishop is being treated not as a spy but as a common criminal in his Chinese cell, and that he's going to be executed in 24 hours. In order to reinforce the time limit, Scott continually has a small clock pop up on the screen. It's just not necessary; the film is already overflowing with tension, and this approach takes a little away from it.
But the film features a couple of superb performances from the two leads. They're only seen together in the flashbacks, and most of those scenes are almost criminally short, considering how good they are opposite each other on the screen. But the Beirut segment goes on for a while, taking time to introduce a third character, Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), whose presence complicates not only the two men's working relationship but also adds an unexpected plot shift.
When all of the pieces finally fall together, you'll be able to sit back and catch your breath. And if you peek at your watch, you won't believe two hours have flown by.