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The spies in their wilderness years: “The Fourth Protocol”

February 2, 2013

4protOkay, so this one isn’t so much an action movie—more of a thriller—but it certainly is obscure. I’m not even certain this was released in the US. I remember seeing posters for the VHS release, but can’t recall ever seeing a commercial for a theatrical release. That’s kind of too bad, since The Fourth Protocol is a nice, understated spy movie–a good espionage tale adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel. Plus, hey, it’s got Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan! How can a movie with those two guys possibly be bad? Answer: it can’t. Plant those dudes in Caligula and I guarantee you’d walk out of theater thinking, “Well, you know that one scene was pretty good. That one where Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan swapped stories about growing up in the UK, while Malcolm McDowell sodomized a horse in the background.”

The Fourth Protocol begins with a bit of wish-fulfillment, as British-defector Kim Philby is murdered by a fellow KGB officer, who then dispatches their top British-infiltration agent, Valeri Petrofsky, (Brosnan) to England for nebulous reasons. The KGB is in the midst of the power-play, and Petrofsky is somebody’s pawn, but whose and why is still not clear.

Meanwhile in merry ol’ England, MI5 agent John Preston (Caine), is following up on a traitor in the Ministry of Defence (yeah, they spell it that way). The traitor—who believes he is assisting the South Africans in defiance of Western sanctions (it’s 1987, remember)—leads him to a KGB mole within the South African embassy.

Alas, MI5 is also in the throes of bureaucratic in-fighting, and Preston is caught on the wrong side. So, for exposing a spy that’s been working the British government is to be busted down to airports and ports duty. Fortunately, he gets a break when a Russian dockworker is hit by a bus while fleeing a guard. Hinky thing #1: he doesn’t have the rough hands of a dockworker, or anyone who does manual labor. Hinky thing #2: he was carrying a small disk forged from plutonium.

Uh-oh.

Russians carrying plutonium cannot be a good thing. Neither can Russian spies buying houses near American Air Force bases. Think he’s there simply to get some good pictures of F-111 fighter/bombers? You know, the ones carrying nuclear cruise missiles? The ones being protested by British anti-nuclear groups?

Oh, and do you know what the Fourth Protocol refers to? Hint: one of the plotlines from Octopussy was ripped off from the novel this movie is based upon. And it has nothing to do with an all-chick circus or old-person sex.

1987 was a tough year for both of these leads. For Brosnan, it was the year that he was tormented by the release of the first 007 movie after Roger Moore hung up the Walther PPK—a role that had been torturously close to being his before NBC decided to pull possibly the biggest dick move in history. And for Caine, it was the year Jaws: The Revenge was released. With both of these men facing professional disappointment, it’s probably no wonder that they both turn in stellar performances.

Brosnan does the unbelievable in dialing his natural charm and charisma down to 0 and transforming himself into a handsome but bloodless faux-human. He’s the most chilling killer-cum-human simulacrum this side of Vincent in Collateral. For his part, Caine slips into his spy role of Preston as comfortably as putting on an old overcoat—one owned by Harry Palmer.

Of course, The Fourth Protocol runs into the same problem as any Cold War thriller: we know who wins. And unless it’s made Quentin Tarantino, these movies are going follow the flow of history. Still, The Fourth Protocol is a great throwback to the days before drones and CGI and Glastnost, and a great opportunity to watch two of the most charismatic pros in the business turn in a solid piece of work.

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