Monday, March 04, 2013

Films of Michael Caine: Bullet to Beijing

(alternate title: Len Deighton’s Bullet to Beijing)
Cast: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Jason Connery (Nick), Mia Sara (Natasha), Michael Gambon (Alex), Michael Sarrazin (Craig), Lev Prygunov (Colonel Gradsky), Anatoly Davidov (Yuri Stephanovich), Sue Lloyd (Jean), Burt Kwouk (Kim Soo).

Crew: George Mihalka (director), Alexander Goloutva, John Dunning and André Link (producers), Peter Welbeck (writer), Rick Wakeman (music), Peter Benison and Terence Cole (cinematography), François Gill (editor), Yuri Pashigorie (production designer).

Synopsis: British secret agent Harry Palmer witnesses a Russian scientist being assassinated at a demonstration outside the North Korean embassy in London. Before he can investigate the case, Palmer is given accelerated retirement – effective immediately. Harry is offered $5000 to fly to St Petersburg. As soon as he arrives, people try to kill him. The former spy is taken to meet Alex, a wealthy Russian who employs him to find a missing biological weapon called Red Death. After surviving another attempt on his life, Harry boards a train to Beijing. He discovers half a dozen people on board, all working for Alex. They are supposed to deliver Red Death to the North Korean embassy in Beijing, in exchange for heroin. But the samples are fakes. When everyone returns to St Petersburg there is a shootout at the train station. Despite much treachery and double-crossing, Harry survives and the heroin is destroyed. Palmer makes a mortal enemy of Alex but decides to stay in Russia, going into business for himself …


In 1992 Caine told Empire he steadfastly refused to make another Harry Palmer film. Two years later he found himself in Russia making not one but two Harry Palmer movies, shot back to back between August and November 1994. [See Midnight in St Petersburg for more information about the other half of this pair.] Caine’s presence was an essential to secure the use of author Len Deighton’s insubordinate spy. ‘I told the producers to come back when Michael had agreed,’ Deighton told the Sunday Times in 1995, ‘thinking he never would.’

Caine told the Mail on Sunday that returning to the role was amazing. ‘After all this time, the moment I put on those heavy glasses, the character of Harry Palmer came back to me whole – the voice, the walk, the lot. I felt it was only yesterday that I had hung up Harry’s props.’ The actor spent time with KGB officers, learning about the reality of espionage. ‘They showed me their headquarters. I said it was a bloody ugly building but not particularly sinister. They said “Yeah, but there are eight storeys underground...”’

Post-production on Bullet to Beijing was completed in 1995. An article in the Sunday Times suggested the film might reach British cinemas that autumn. Instead the movie received a limited release in Canada during 1996 and was nominated for an award by the Canadian Society of Cinematographers.

In January 1997 the Sunday Times reported the film had been killed off by bosses at Disney, at a cost of £10 million. The success of James Bond’s comeback in Goldeneye (1995) was cited as a factor for cancelling a cinema release for Bullet to Beijing. Instead the movie made its US debut on a cable network called The Movie Channel, premiering on April 5 1997, with a video release later that month. Both were rated R by the MPAA. The film went straight to video in Britain during 1997, rated 15, and has seen been deleted. A DVD was released in Canada, incorporating 20 minutes of extra footage.

Bullet to Beijing gives a prominent acting credit to Sue Lloyd as Jean, reprising her role as the female agent from The Ipcress File (1965). ‘We brought her back for five minutes in the new one for old times’ sake,’ Caine told the Sunday Times in 1995. But the character did not appear on screen in the UK video release. Sue Lloyd’s cameo can be found on the extended Canadian DVD version. Harry and Jean meet for dinner. Jean left the secret service to get married years earlier, but her rich husband recently died. Palmer asks if she will marry him, but Jean refuses. They begin making love.

In 1998 Caine talked about Bullet to Beijing during his public interview at the NFT. ‘It was one of those things when it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was interesting to do, but kind of boring at the same time. I’ll tell you what it was like. It was like a holiday romance. It wasn’t so good once you got back home. She didn’t look as hot as she did on the beach, when you’d had eight sangrias!’

Reviews: ‘Caine returns to the role of Harry Palmer … but the reunion is not a happy one; the problem is the dull script that defeats everyone.’ – Halliwell’s

Verdict: Caine’s film career has been through many peaks and troughs - the first half of the 1990s was most definitely a trough. This is the better of two Harry Palmer films shot in 1994, but that is damning it with the faintest of praise. The clumsy script is packed with pointless action sequences and nods to The Ipcress File (1965). These only reinforce how badly this film compares with it predecessor. Harry spends the first 30 minutes asking stupid questions to elicit exposition from the other characters. After that, things go downhill. Mihalka’s flaccid direction has the hallmarks of a journeyman, while the cast look ready to shoot their agents. Caine tries his best but has precious little with which to work. It’s no surprise this film went straight to video in most countries.

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