There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
With its high-speed pans, last-day-in-the-life structure, and thumping ethno-techno score, Tony Scott’s Spy Game is amusingly friskyless Top Spook than The Spy Who Came in From MTV. Underneath the flash, though, is a familiar spy- and/or cop-flick stratagem: glorying in the power of the Man while pretending to subvert it.
After a Chinese-prison prologue, the story begins with a wake-up call. On his last day as a CIA agent, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) learns that ex-protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested during a rogue exercise in China and faces execution in 24 hours. Muir rushes west through Georgetown (he’s so hip he lives downtown) to CIA headquarters, where he finds that his superiorsnotably cold-hearted bureaucrat Charles Harker (Stephen Dillane)are looking for reasons to let Bishop’s captors kill him. The Chinese are about to sign a new trade agreement, so the agency intends to surrender Bishop’s life in exchange for what Muir contemptuously calls “microchips, toaster ovens.”
Bobbing and weaving through the CIA complex with a lot more bad-boy attitude than one would expect from an agency lifer, Muir undermines his bosses while beginning to devise a plan to rescue Bishop, assisted by the sort of loyal secretary who would be a menace to a real spy shop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). His machinations are interrupted by situation-room conclaves in which Muir briefs the brass on Bishop’s career. These in turn lead to hyped-up flashbacks to Vietnam, where Muir first recruited former Boy Scout Bishop as an assassin, and subsequent tours of duty in Cold War Berlin and civil-war Beirut. It’s in the latter that Bishop meets the love of his life, Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a British aid worker with an unusual background that makes herin Muir’s eyes, at leasta liability. In each of these episodes, Muir shows his willingness to sacrifice Bishop for the larger cause, so the older agent’s final unauthorized operation is really a giant payback for his own string of betrayals of his recruit.
There are a few issues of plausibility. It wouldn’t be fruitful, for example, to consider the movie’s chronology. Flashbacks aside, the story transpires while every one of Tom’s contacts worldwide is apparently standing by; whether he’s calling a London securities dealer or a Hong Kong newspaper reporter, their respective offices are always open. The year is a puzzle, too. One title says “1991,” yet Muir works in an age of both palm-sized cell phones and desk-sized electric typewriters. Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata’s screenplay also seems to leave a rather large gap between circa-1985 Beirut and the more recent events.
Preposterous as it is, though, Spy Game is onto something. Compressing the action into a 24-hour period in which Muir can’t leave the buildinghe’s scheduled to turn in his agency credentials the next time he goes through the front door’s security checkpointgives the story as much snap as the breathless camera movements. (Too bad the filmmakers didn’t devise an inside-the-building climax rather than the more conventional action-flick ending they settled for.) Scott doesn’t do much with the widescreen compositions, but the movie is an enjoyably high-pitched sound-and-light show that benefits from Redford’s well-established ability to play anti-establishment golden boys.
Of course, since this film was made, the spy business has become relevant again. Terrorists, bombs, and covert operations are in the news, and there might be a temptation to take Muir seriously when he asks his superiors, “Do you remember when we could tell the good guys from the bad guys?” Nah. Spy Game makes Beirut and East Berlin look pretty convincing, but its worldview is standard Hollywood tough-guy disinformation.
It could be called a remake, but Tortilla Soup is really more of a cultural transliterationthe plot and characters of Ang Lee’s Taipei family dramedy, Eat Drink Man Woman, given a lightly Latin makeover. Although directed by a Spaniard, María Ripoll, the film was designed for a mainstream American audience rather than the Spanishlanguage market; it’s mostly in English, set in upper-middle-class L.A., and as bland as turkey and mashed potatoes. Even those who prefer Mexican to Chinese food will find this version less pungent than the original.
Viewers who suppose they recall little of Lee’s film will probably have flashbacks once the opening food-preparation close-ups yield to narrative: Martin (Hector Elizondo) is a retired chef who insists that his three grown daughters attend one of his elaborate feasts every Sunday. Actually, it’s not too hard bringing them together, because all three still live at home: recent high school graduate Maribel (Tamara Mello), repressed schoolteacher Letitcia (Elizabeth Peña), and seemingly self-assured Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), an MBA who’s been offered a new job in Barcelona.
Each of the family members is about to face a crucial change. Long-widowed Martin is losing his senses of taste and smell, in a sign of his dwindling enthusiasm for lifeor his need for a new love to reinvigorate him. He’s presented with two possible mates: unassuming single mom Yolanda (Constance Marie) and her pushy mother, Hortensia (Raquel Welch), who’s closer to his age. Eager to escape her family, spunky Maribel prematurely moves in with her new Brazilian boyfriend, Andy (Nikolai Kinski, Klaus’ son), and announces that she is postponing college. Letitcia develops a crush on her school’s new baseball coach, Orlando (Paul Rodriguez), encouraged by student pranksters who leave poems on her desk that she assumes are from him. Carmen seriously considers Barcelona, but what she really aspires to be is a chef, a career always discouraged by her father, who wants her to do betterand disapproves of her fusion cooking.
Although Ripoll and scripters Vera Blasi, Tom Musca, and Ramón Menéndez changed the food and the musicsamba predominates, including two versions of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”they’ve made remarkably few other changes, even to plot elements that don’t compute in their new cultural context. (The strangest holdover is the characterization of Letitcia as a fervent Christian, a curiosity in Taiwan but hardly anomalous in Chicano America.) What has shifted is the tone; Ripoll’s rendition features sitcom-y line readings, broad physical comedy, and lots of destruction of domestic furnishings. Elizondo manages to keep his dignity, but most of the other playersespecially Peña and Welch, whose characters suffer contrived humiliationsare badly served. Eat Drink Man Woman wasn’t a perfectly balanced repast, but by comparison Tortilla Soup is barely lunch at Taco Bell. CP