ICYMI: The Fourth Protocol (1987)
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I was raised on the James Bond films. The fantasy of being a secret agent, with endless charm, inventive gadgets, and romancing dangerously vivacious women was very hard to resist. But the Bond films tended to be light and superfluous when it comes to the hard-boiled world of international espionage. A good Bond film may be as enjoyable as fast food, but a good espionage film is the real meal and potatoes. Films that I would include on a list of so-called “Meat and Potatoes” espionage films would be The Third Man, Notorious, North by Northwest and perhaps my favorite, The Day of the Jackal. These are the kinds of films that took time to develop characters, put them in a tangible landscape and methodically built tension as we in the audience understood the scope of every step taken and every choice made. To this list, I would add The Fourth Protocol.
Based on the Frederick Forsyth novel (he also wrote the source novel for The Day of the Jackal), this 1987 thriller was incredibly effective during the height of the Cold War. And on recent viewing, it still stands up in a world where nuclear war is a constant threat. The films stars Michael Caine, in another great role, as John Preston, a working-class British spy who happens upon an ingenious plot of the Russian government. The evil Soviet Union plans on having a nuclear weapon smuggled, piece by piece, to a British home that is adjacent to a U.S military base in Great Britain. Once detonated, international relations between the U.S. and Great Britain will realistically implode and the Russians will revel in the chaos of shattering the “Special Relationship.” The key figure in this plot is the Russians’ best agent tasked with the assignment played by future James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan. Early on, we get a glimpse of his cold-blooded tenacity when he is tasked with eliminating a close comrade, just to prove his cold-blooded tenacity to the higher ups.
The film is directed by John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday, Beyond the Limit) who takes the time to allow these main figures and other characters to develop against a realistic modern geopolitical backdrop. There are no gimmicks and few quips as we watch the cat and mouse game unfold between Caine and Brosnan, who do not even meet until the breathtaking climax. Before we get there, we get to watch both characters develop and get a fleshed-out sense of who they are. With Caine, the film starts with him breaking into a duplicitous colleague’s home and using a nearby New Year’s Eve celebration as cover for blowing the door off a safe. Later he takes out his work-related frustrations on a pair of ruffians on the subway. We even get a charming scene of this widower whose idea of babysitting is to have his young son review computer files of suspected terrorists. Caine brings just mix of intelligence, stubbornness, and righteousness to John Preston and makes him a very memorable character.
Pierce Brosnan’s performance is maybe even more remarkable considering that his character only has about a dozen lines of dialogue (combined English and Russian). In his first theatrical role following his successful run on TV’s Remington Steele, Brosnan’s Valeri Petrofsky is sly and enigmatic. He does a lot of emoting with just his eyes, whether it’s tempering the advances of a lonely military wife or seducing a gay man he must kill after witnessing an exchange. His character gets ultimately tested with the arrival of Joanna Cassidy’s Irina, the agent charged with transporting the final components and orders for their mission. Their seductive dance is captivating, especially when we learn of their superior’s conflicting final orders for each other. This was the role that showed Brosnan’s range and strangely enough established his ease in the world of espionage.
As I mentioned earlier, The Fourth Protocol is a very good thriller, but also very steady and methodical. Everything builds to the final five minutes, and even then, we get another layer thanks to a coda scene that suggests there were more players than we imagined with more motives. Maybe it would just be easier to just smuggle an entire weapon all at once, but the thought of taking it one piece at a time and having it weaponized by an enemy with Pierce Brosnan’s shining Irish eyes is even scarier.