The Fourth Protocol (1987)

screenshot from The Fourth Protocol

Directed by: John Mackenzie
Screenwriter(s): George Axelrod
Starring: Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan, Ned Beatty, Joanna Cassidy, Julian Glover, Ian Richardson
Genre: Cold War / Crime / Thriller / Spy
Country: UK
Running time: 1h 54m
Rating: 8 out of 10

John Mackenzie directed one of the great British gangster films of all time, The Long Good Friday, which coincidentally gave a first real break to a very young Pierce Brosnan. And while this film, based on a Frederick Forsyth novel, is not in the same exalted company as that, it’s certainly proof that Mackenzie is a director of some talent when he has the right cast and material, both of which he has here.

Since he’s played Bond and become famous as a suave romantic lead, it’s easy to forget that Pierce Brosnan used to be an effective villian. Here, he’s perfectly cast as the Russian officer sent to unleash a bomb on a US Army base in middle England so that the Soviets can destablise NATO by blaming the USA for an accidental tragedy. It may very well be the best performance of his career.

The scene in which Brosnan and Cassidy (surely one the screen’s most under-rated and under-used actresses) assemble a bomb while indulging in passionate foreplay is a masterclass in tension of a few different kinds and allows Brosnan to show both sides of his apparently charming but ultimately coldly ruthless character.

Caine is his nemesis, John Preston, an MI6 agent feeling the pinch from younger, more politically astute, intelligence officers. Unlike Blue Ice and the two 1980s Palmer films, this is a realistic portrayal of a grown-up Harry Palmer: world-weary, with better instincts and more knowledge than any of his colleagues, but unable and unwilling to adapt to his employers’ whims.

All among the top-notch cast never put a foot wrong: in addition to Cassidy’s Russian agent, there are supporting players of the highest calibre in Ned Beatty as a soviet boss and the superb Ian Richardson as the head of MI6. Their job is, of course, made easier by the full characterisation in Alexrod’s script, which never allows plot to drive character.

Plot-wise, there’s nothing particularly new – we get double crosses, those at the sharp end on both sides being betrayed by politicians, car chases, all the Cold War staples – but it’s just done so much better than other such thrillers that it’s never less than enthralling.

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