Movies are a great way to experience the world of espionage, to include lessons for developing a spy mindset. Agent Game is a fast-paced spy thriller that weaves flashbacks to build narrative tension, but the story falls short with theme and character arc. Let’s see why.
Agent Game more American spy movie (weapons, fights, explosions) with tactical gear and street smarts, less British spy movie (intrigue, moles, tradecraft) with tweed and whiffs of aristocracy.
The spy plot device centers on Omar (Barkhad Abdi), who was traveling to London with his wife before being captured and detained at a CIA black site in East Europe. The two lead interrogators, Bill (Jason Isaacs) and Harris (Dermot Mulroney), question Omar about his involvement with the Crescent Democratic Front (CDF), which resists the dictator Bandar el-Mizdawi but allegedly receives funding from shady individuals.
After multiple attempts, Bill and Harris assess that Omar is probably telling the truth: he’s not a terrorist. You see, Bill and Harris have a spy mindset: they pursue the truth rather than seek a forced confessions or blindly follow orders. Visser (Annie Ilonzeh), the junior CIA officer who takes orders from Olsen (Mel Gibson) in headquarters, crafts a different approach and threatens to detain Omar’s wife.
The situation escalates as Harris contacts some colleagues and discovers that the United States is now backing the dictator el-Mizdawi because he’s supporting the fight against al-Qaeda. In exchange, el-Mizdawi wants help eliminating his enemies, to include Omar. Just as Bill and Harris unravel the conspiracy, Visser kills Bill but Harris escapes.
To be clear, the United States works with shady dudes to fight our enemies, so Omar wouldn’t be the first innocent victim in the global war on terrorism, but it raises an obvious question. Why would Olsen and Visser go through the hassle of detaining and interrogating Omar (he’s not a terrorist) with people they doesn’t control (Bill and Harris). Visser could have located Omar and killed him, without exposing a CIA black site.
In Washington DC, Olsen and Visser assemble a team of expendable loners to capture Harris at a hotel in Antwerp, Belgium. Harris has video evidence of Bill’s murder at the black site and must be eliminated – no loose ends.
The team includes Kavinsky (Adan Canto), Miller (Katie Cassidy), and Reese (Rhys Coiro), an odd trio that never worked together but have enough grit and street smarts to get the job done. During the hotel raid, the mark (Harris) kills two other team members before surrendering. They hood him and take him to the car, without looking at him or talking to him, unaware that he’s a CIA officer.
Two obvious questions arise. First, why would Harris risk getting captured to expose the evidence if he could pass it to a colleague or a journalist? Second, why capture and transport Harris to another location if you can kill him during the hotel raid?
The team drives to an airplane and begins the next leg of the journey, during which they get to know each other and discuss the mission. However, Kavinsky starts receiving alerting messages on his cell phone, which makes him wonder about the prisoner and the operation. Headquarters notifies Miller that Kavinsky is receiving unauthorized messages and instructs her to prevent Kavinsky from questioning the prisoner.
Kavinsky and Miller unholster their weapons, with Reese playing referee. They deescalate and agree to unhood the prisoner (Harris) and watch the video of Visser killing Bill. (Harris was transmitting messages to Kavinsky’s phone with an electronic device under his skin.) The team realizes that Olsen and Visser recruited them for this mission and rightly conclude that they’re pawns about to face death.
Moments later, the plane begins a descent for Kosovo.
On the ground, Visser is waiting for them and wrongly assesses that the team probably knows nothing about the prisoner. She has orders to kill all of them, which she’s prepared to do because she apparently believes she’s acting for the greater good – keeping the wars small and the sacrifices meaningful, etc.
However, Olsen has a few tricks up his sleeve. To ensure Visser isn’t a loose end, he dispatches an assault team in helicopters to kill everyone, and then launches missiles to kill all of them! (Thank goodness he didn’t kill the person who launched the missiles, and so on.) The attack, of course, is attributed to Omar and the Crescent Democratic Front.
Olsen has lunch with a CIA powerbroker to celebrate and is later bumped by Miller on the street, which means there are some loose ends after all. He shoots his weapon without regard for human life and calls an eccentric rich guy to say they have a problem.
Using a present-day plotline (the team’s capture of Harris) with flashbacks is often a good way to add reveals and weave a plot that builds to a natural climax, but flashbacks are sometimes used to create artificial tension when a linear unfolding of the plot doesn’t work.
Agent Game, unfortunately, opted to portray Olsen as a caricature of evil, a man who slaughters his fellow American citizens while sipping scotch and making pithy statements about war and the greater good, followed by a good laugh while eating BBQ. What is the message? Yes, we live in a complex world, and yes, we sometimes hurt innocent victims, but the story would have benefited less cynicism and more subtlety and character growth.
We should never disregard our ideals, but exposure to the harsh realities of the world often forces us to take a more nuanced approach, less black and white, such as pivoting from one “ally” the next. Yes, we might make strategic calculations that result in the deaths of innocents, perhaps to save a greater number of innocents, but such decisions should sting our soul and never trigger a hankering for BBQ.