The Fourth Protocol

February 1, 2013

fourthprotocolMichael Caine didn’t plan to have two British spy thrillers released on the same day, it just worked out that way. Of the two, The Whistle-Blower is the more involving and emotional. The Fourth Protocol, while admittedly crisper, is a more mechanical affair.

It’s based on the Frederick Forsyth novel, and Forsyth also adapted the screenplay, as well as executive-producing the movie with Caine. Forsyth’s idea here is that a KGB agent (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrates England and sets himself up in a house near an American air base. Through the Soviet espionage network, he receives a series of items which, when assembled, will construct an atomic bomb.

Caine plays an English intelligence man, something of a renegade, who first sniffs out the plot and must collar his adversary before the bomb goes off. There is, or course, much complicated spy stuff to be chewed over in the course of the hunt.

Caine is fine, though I’d like to see him in a comedy again soon. Brosnan, the star of “Remington Steele,” is effectively grim, perhaps with the memory of how he lost the James Bond role.

The film finds juicy supporting parts for Ned Beatty (who, with The Big Easy, also had two films open on the same day) and Ian Richardson. There’s not much of interest for the beautiful Joanna Cassidy (Under Fire), as a Soviet agent who, in the course of putting the bomb together, gets an erotic yen for Brosnan. She deserves better than this.

The director, John Mackenzie, made a crackling gangster film a few years ago, The Long Good Friday. He’s a better director than this material, but he does keep The Fourth Protocol on its clock-watching course.

First published in the Herald, September 1, 1987

George Axelrod is credited with “screen story,” but Forsyth wrote the novel and also the screenplay. Go figure.

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Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?