Fourth Protocol, The (1987)

The Fourth Protocol (1987), directed by John Mackenzie.

A dandy cold war thriller about a KGB boss's private attempt to smuggle pieces of an A-bomb into Britain, then assemble and explode it next to a US air base.

Some spy stories are about James Bond driving little vehicles under exploding volcanoes. This movie is an example of another type: based more on the realities of spy-craft, surveillance and signals, breaking and entering, tailing people, turning traitors and making them into double agents. The Brits are especially good at this type of story, in that they seem to have a tradition of upper crust spy-masters, as played here by the great Ian Richardson and Michael Gough. We always have a hint of paranoia, given that British intelligence was once compromised at a high level by the Cambridge Five.

Michael Caine is more of a working class character, unimpressed by titles and insubordinate to bureaucratic superiors. Sometimes you have to bend the rules and step outside of the lines. We see the hunt not only from his side, but also from the Russians who are trying to figure out what the crazy boss is up to.

Pierce Brosnan is a Soviet iron man soldier; undercover in the UK he becomes a suave killer. And yet: when bomb expert Joanna Cassidy tells him they are going to kill 2-5000 people, you can see second thoughts on his face. He is also miserable from sexual frustration. When he finally gets his chance with Cassidy we have an unsettling erotic encounter: each has betrayed the other, both believe the other will shortly be dead.

Constructing the bomb is nicely tense, although I don't think I would handle fissionable material with my bare hands. The final chase and takedown are very good. Caine is pissed at the aftermath, but what did he expect? That everyone would admit that an official of the USSR deliberately tried to start WW3?

One wrong note is Ned Beatty as a Russian spy guy. I don't begrudge him all the roles he wants, but this one just doesn't work.

The Soviet characters mention the "Illegals Directorate". A lot of intelligence gathering takes place through known embassy members. As long as certain lines are not crossed, both sides allow it. But some spies are deep undercover and unknown to the target countries. These are the "illegals". A diplomat who gets caught is expelled; an illegal goes to jail.

Frederick Forsyth adapted the screenplay from his novel. He tones down some of the political content; in the book the UK Labor Party contains nothing but communist dupes.

Exciting score by Lalo Schifrin.

I can't believe this is still not available on NTSC DVD. There are several PAL discs and has a Windows media version of some sort.