Hopscotch is a conundrum. It’s a comedic but still realistic spy movie filmed in the waning days of the terrifying Cold War. It’s a sleek caper that expects us to accept a rumpled, elderly lead actor as the dashing hero. It’s an international jaunt between multiple countries that could have been resolved within Washington, D.C. It’s a throwback that feels like a ‘60s film in spite of its 1980 release date. Inconceivably, it all works, leading to a totally satisfying romp that proves to be just as much fun for viewers as it does for its clearly delighted star.
Walter Matthau stars as a veteran CIA agent named Miles Kendig who unceremoniously gets put out to pasture as punishment for a slightly botched mission. He’s devoted his life to the agency as a field agent, and has no interest in riding a desk until his imminent retirement, so he decides to plot his exit on his own terms. That exit involves embarrassing his boss and his agency via threatened publication of a tell-all memoir, leading the boss to stage a worldwide manhunt utilizing his vast spy network.
Similar to the Jason Bourne movies, much of the viewing pleasure comes from watching the disgraced spy turn the tables on his former compatriots, always staying one step ahead of them thanks to his years of experience. Unlike Bourne though, Kendig’s ploys generally lead to laughs rather than violence, such as his inspired choice of his boss’s vacation home as a cheeky safe house.
Matthau is a delight in his seasoned spy role, clearly relishing the unlikely character choice. He’s matched up against Ned Beatty as the blustery CIA boss, with Beatty going a bit overboard with his cartoonish exasperation at times but generally serving as a worthwhile foe. Glenda Jackson plays Kendig’s Viennese ex- and possibly future flame, expertly anchoring his field operations as he skips around the world avoiding the CIA. Finally, a young Sam Waterston plays Kendig’s bright replacement and principal pursuer, bringing his bemused air to a character trapped between satisfying his boss and honoring his predecessor.
The bonus features are fairly light for a Criterion release, but include insightful brief interviews with the writer and director, as well as an episode of Matthau on The Dick Cavett Show broadcast during the same timeframe as the film’s theatrical release, although not specifically promoting the film. The film’s inherent technical qualities aren’t the greatest, so Criterion’s decision to perform their digital restoration at only 2K resolution instead of 4K isn’t a drawback. Likewise, the audio track is only monaural, albeit uncompressed on the Blu-ray. One somewhat unique feature for the sound: the inclusion of an optional broadcast television track for family viewing.