Sunday, January 21, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #51: The Fourth Protocol

Cast: Michael Caine (John Preston), Pierce Brosnan (Petrofsky), Ned Beatty (Borisov), Joanna Cassidy (Vassilievna), Julian Glover (Brian Harcourt-Smith), Michael Gough (Sir Bernard Hemmings), Ray McAnally (General Karpov), Ian Richardson (Sir Nigel Irvine), Anton Rodgers (George Berenson).

Crew: John Mackenzie (director), Timothy Burrill (producer), Frederick Forsyth (writer), Lalo Schifrin (music), Phil Meheux (cinematography), Graham Walker (editor), Allan Cameron (production designer).

Synopsis: The Cold War is finally thawing. To maintain his power-base as chairman of the KGB, General Govershin launches a covert operation to break the fourth protocol of a nuclear arms treaty. This prohibits the smuggling of atomic weapons. Major Petrofsky is sent to Britain and takes up residence beside a US air base. Couriers bring him the components to assemble an atomic bomb. But one courier is intercepted, alerting British agent John Preston to the operation. Govershin’s deputy, General Karpov, also discovers what is being planned. A Russian operative is spotted entering Britain. Preston follows the operative to a Greek café outside London. This leads British intelligence to Petrofsky’s residence. Preston and special forces gunmen storm the house and prevent Petrofsky from detonating the bomb. The Russian is murdered to prevent him talking. Preston realises it was Karpov who sent the operative, leading the British agents to Petrofsky. Karpov will use the failure to usurp Govershin and take control of the KGB…

Frederick Forsyth became a best selling novelist in the 1970s and 1980s with a succession of thrillers like The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, books with a veneer of verisimilitude. Several were transformed into successful films. When The Fourth Protocol was published in 1984, the author set up a production company with his old friend Caine to transform the story into a movie. Both invested money in the project. Forsyth was determined to write the adaptation himself, preparing seven drafts of the screenplay.

Director John Mackenzie was approached with the project. He had previously directed Caine in The Honorary Consul (1983). In an exclusive interview for this book, Mackenzie recalled the development process: ‘With the best will in the world, Freddie Forsyth can write a certain type of novel, but he’s not a screenwriter. The script was awful! This was a guy who was putting a million of his own money into the damn thing. I said I’ll only do it if I can rewrite the script. The producer, Timothy Burrill, eventually persuaded him to let me rewrite the script. Forsyth instantly regretted it, of course, but the thing had to get going.’ Mackenzie brought in a writer called Richard Burridge. ‘The film was practically underway. It was all last minute. We had a lot of problems, but I just carried on and made the film. We tried to make something more than had been in the original script.’

The $7 million production began shooting in February 1986. Finland was used to represent scenes in Russia, with the bulk of shooting at locations in the UK and studio work lensed at Elstree. Caine acknowledged similarities between his role in The Fourth Protocol and another British spy he had played previously, Harry Palmer, during an interview with the New York Times in 1987. But he also maintained the characters had their differences. ‘To me, Harry was a gifted amateur, which is what the British were 15 or 20 years ago. Preston is a top professional, which I think the British have become lately.’

He also discussed the two roles with the Daily Mail. ‘Someone asked me the other day what the difference was. I said Harry Palmer was Woody Allen and John Preston is Clint Eastwood – and I am one of the few actors who can play both.’

Mackenzie found it difficult getting any intensity of performance from Caine. ‘He’d done much more exciting parts of this type before. It was a dull part, there was nothing there. He sort of walked through it, it didn’t stretch him.’ Mackenzie attributes this to flaws in the script. ‘We did try and give him a sort of background, some depth, a dead wife and things. But that central character was not such a great character.’ The director campaigned for Burridge to receive proper credit. Ultimately the screenplay was attributed solely to Forsyth, with other credits going to Burridge for additional material and to George Axelrod for screenstory adaptation.

The film opened in the UK during March 1987, with a 15 rating. It received a mixed reaction from critics, who felt the plot got in the way of characterisation, and grossed just over $1 million. The Fourth Protocol was more successful in the US, where the R-rated film grossed more than $12 million. It was later released on video but has since been deleted. It is not currently available on DVD.

Reviews: ‘A decidedly contempo thriller … its edge is a fine aura of realism. Michael Caine … gives a thorough performance in a part that doesn’t really stretch his abilities.’ – Variety
‘Caine is a true master of the screen, communicating so much with so little material, but here he is given … too little.’ – Sunday Times

Verdict: The Fourth Protocol never catches fire, with nearly half the film elapsed before the main threat is revealed. In the meantime British intelligence has been pursuing what proves to be an utterly irrelevant subplot. Attempts to inject some life into the central characters fail, with Preston just an older, slower version of Harry Palmer. Caine gives a professional but thoroughly uninvolving performance, outshone by Pierce Brosnan’s compelling work as Petrofsky. At the time this film was made, Brosnan was being considered to replace Roger Moore as James Bond. Here you can see a sneak preview of the ruthless streak he now displays as 007. The Fourth Protocol is better than some thrillers Caine made in during the mid-1980s, but it still feels like a big budget TV movie.

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