Reviewed by Frank Lovece

It never fails: They're on the brink of retirement when all hell breaks loose. That's just the first cliché in this extremely well-shot espionage thriller that might have worked as an old-fashioned guy's-guy movie if the guys involved had any real, human personality and the espionage were actually thrilling. April 14, 1991. CIA operative Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has gone rogue to rescue a woman from a prison in eastern China. He's captured, tortured and has 24 hours before being executed. Our man in Hong Kong, consul Harry Duncan (David Hemmings), informs Bishop's mentor in Washington, Machiavellian retiring CIA spook Nathan Muir (Robert Redford). Muir arrives at work, hides the bulk of his Bishop files, gets called into the inevitable meeting, and spends most of the film in a conference room spinning flashbacks: his first encounter with sharpshooter Bishop in Vietnam, '75; recruiting Bishop in East Berlin, '76, and their differences over "the game"; and, finally, a clandestine assassination op in Beirut, '85. There Bishop fell in love with an "asset," human-rights activist Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack),

violating Muir's rule about treating assets as disposable goods if you're going to survive; it also makes Muir jealous -- in a guy's-guy way. Meanwhile, back in 1991, Muir's disdainful Agency rival (Stephen Dillane) starts sniffing around, knowing that Muir knows more than he's letting on, while the higher-ups at the table let Muir play them like yo-yos. For reasons as murky as they are hard to swallow, the CIA is willing to let Bishop — one of their most valuable agents — be executed by the Chinese, and since their decision is presented as a fait accompli, it's difficult to imagine why they practically invite Bishop's beloved mentor to come in and screw them. Things get progressively more preposterous as the film clambers on, accompanied by portentous and ill-used music as well as onscreen datelines punched out with those standard-issue "computer teletype" noises you only hear in movies. Forget the little modern-day anachronisms in the 1991 setting and the confused chronology involving a crucial kidnapping. It's Muir's ability to hoodwink the CIA and the military into a billion-dollar rescue operation using no more than a typewriter and a Junior G-man kit that, for all the film's grimly slick trappings, makes it as silly as a Roger Moore James Bond flick.