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Movie Review : 'The Fourth Protocol': One Dud Of A Spy Caper

August 28, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

You couldn't hope for much better components than those of "The Fourth Protocol" (citywide). As director: John Mackenzie, whose "The Long Good Friday" was an ineffably taut crime thriller. As screenwriter: Frederick Forsyth, whose earlier novel, "Day of the Jackal," provided its director, Fred Zinnemann, with material for a film that is still a high-water mark in literate screen suspense. And as star and co-executive producer: Michael Caine, who seems to have a particular affinity for the realer-than-real spy genre.

The cast bristles with potentially interesting actors: Pierce Brosnan, Ray McAnally ("The Mission's" papal legate), Joanna Cassidy, Ned Beatty and Ian Richardson, among others.

And yet, as "The Fourth Protocol" begins at the outside and curls its way into the center of its wildly complex plot, it becomes almost a "Saturday Night Live" spy spoof. We're saturated with detail: Where will the nested Russian folk-art dolls, the visiting violinist's patent-leather shoes and the American Air Force officer's randy wife fit into the Greater Scheme of Things? Gradually, as our eyes glaze over, it becomes very hard to care--and even harder to suppress a giggle.

Add to this the decision to have the cast's supposed Soviets speak basic Midwestern English and you have a very odd aural and visual slippage: Ray McAnally and Ned Beatty in fur hats and rimless glasses, referring to one another as Yevgeni Sergeivitch and Pavel Petrovitch while sounding like Chicago grain merchants.

The film begins with harrowing facts: with today's technology, a small atomic bomb that's big enough to devastate two square miles and kill 2,000 to 5,000 people can be assembled almost anywhere from a dozen components. With the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Forsyth tells us, the United States, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. signed a secret "Fourth Protocol" agreeing never to build such devices. Ominously, the film's introduction reports that of the treaty's four secret "protocols," only the fourth remains and that is subject here.

Forsyth takes as his premise the notion that the KGB plans to detonate such a bomb on an American air base in Britain, causing a wave of anti-Americanism to sweep Europe and eventually bring down NATO.

It is Pierce Brosnan, as the heartless, cunning young Maj. Petrofsky, who is chosen by KGB head Govorshin to go to Britain, supervise the assembly of the bomb's elements and trigger it. Meanwhile, British intelligence, headed by Sir Nigel Irvine (Ian Richardson), begins to suspect the plan after it uncovers the actions of a British traitor (Anton Rodgers). The British use ex-paratrooper Caine, an intelligence agent of the action-oriented school of spy catching, to search out Petrofsky--and decipher just what he is up to.

The brisk action-opening, as Caine breaks into Rodgers' posh flat, makes us hope for a brilliant thriller, densely plotted. But there are far too many pieces without the sense of where they belong, possibly the result of the film's multiple writing credits: They are to Forsyth, for the screenplay from his own novel; George Axelrod for a screen story adaptation credit, and "additional material" by Richard Burridge. Clarity was, alas, not the final result of so many clever hands on the project.

But Mackenzie's direction is also part of the problem, particularly in Brosnan's realization of Petrofsky. A little like "Day of the Jackal's" jackal, the coolly handsome killer who leaves a trail of death behind him, Petrofsky is played in so opaque, so closed-down a fashion that rather than becoming glitteringly dangerous, he becomes predictable and then discountable.

There's no such lack of emotion in Caine's angry, widowered agent, tirelessly pursuing one lead after another to ferret out the Soviets' method, but one spark-plug performance is not enough to keep this enormous, elaborate superstructure afloat. Long before Brosnan and his cohort attempt to assemble their deadly device, the film itself has stopped ticking. (The film's R-rating is for its scenes of violence and its nudity, brief but entirely gratuitous.)

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