The Fourth Protocol
- August 28, 1987
- John Mackenzie
- Michael Caine
- Pierce Brosnan
- Ned Beatty
- Joanna Cassidy
- Julian Glover
- Michael Gough
- Ray McAnally
- Ian Richardson
When spy movies were more about spying than fighting, shooting, and blowing stuff up.
Way back in 1987 Pierce Brosnan was supposed to have become James Bond. But then he didn’t. Instead he had to settle on playing KGB agent Valeri Petrofsky against Michael Caine’s British Secret Service agent John Preston in the excellent thriller ‘The Fourth Protocol’. It may have been a let-down for Brosnan, personally. But his role as the ruthless but charming enemy spy is a career highlight. After all, Brosnan got his chance to be Bond eight years later.
Make no mistake though, this film is Michael Caine’s all the way. Caine easily convinces as this intelligent, irreverent, and experienced spy. As he executes a master plan to break into a very secure apartment on News Years, uncovers a Russian plot in England, and brazenly faces Brosnan’s assassin in hand-to-hand combat. James Bond? No. But John Preston comes close. His
confident cocky confrontations with his superior (a smarmy Julian Glover) are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Apparently, the head of the Russian KGB has plans to orchestrate NATO’s demise. He recruits Brosnan’s Petrofsky to journey to Great Britain under the guise of Englishman “James Ross” and detonate an atomic bomb.
Who knew Pierce Brosnan could be this cold-blooded? Ross/Petrofsky kills with efficiency and skill. Brosnan burns as this dashing and deadly agent. As he’s planning global chaos, he grows increasingly sexually frustrated. While undercover and living the “normal” life, the next-door hottie attempts to seduce Ross one night. I thought that Brosnan was literally going to explode. Then Ross’s “wife” (the sexy Joanna Cassidy) shows-up. Their bomb assembly scene is near orgasmic, Hitchcock worthy in its symbolism.
Watching Preston gather these little fragments of intel using just trade-craft and skill is a throwback to the classic spy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. Russian General Karpov and the head of the Russian Illegals Service (Ned Beatty) also uncover this secret plot and start their own inquiries. Karpov’s investigation inside Russia parallels Preston’s in England. A unique and creative plot device showing that not ALL Russians want to destroy the world.
When I first saw this film on cable in the late 80s, I was instantly drawn into this world of espionage. Without all the showy action that is now standard in this genre, I truly felt that events like this could really happen. None of these characters are comic book. They have real lives, real problems, and make real mistakes. You even get the impression that under most circumstances their lives are dull and boring.
‘The Fourth Protocol’ is a thinking man’s thriller. Most of the tension comes from knowing what MIGHT happen. Very little action, just lots of clever people working against each other for political (and personal) reasons. Petrofsky is a sympathetic bad-guy, he is a real human being who does what his government expects of him. You even sense his regret over some of what he must do. Petrofsky and Preston feel more like competitors than mortal enemies, both performing their own patriotic duties.
Fredrick Foersyth wrote this film’s screenplay based on his novel. Lots of depth and gravitas are given to the setting, characters, and story. Director John Mackenzie had worked with Brosnan before on his great 1980 London gangster film ‘The Long Good Friday’. Here Mackensize keeps this film full of gritty and realistic slow-burn tension. Tightly paced–slow, but never boring. Think ‘Tinker, Tailor’ instead of ‘Bourne’.
The budget for this film was rather small (at least by James Bond standards). But the production is well done–Finland stands-in for Russia. Lalo Schifrin provides one of his all-time best musical scores, Russian-esque, memorable, and very tense.
The supporting cast is full of talent. The aforementioned Julian Glover, Joanna Cassidy, Ned Beatty, the brilliant Ian Richardson, Michael Gough(!), even
Max Headroom Matt Frewer shows up in a small role.
The ending is bit too political and convoluted. And the very last scene is melodramatic and very corny. But all in all, it is a professional, well acted, fun, and smart tension-building thriller.
‘The Fourth Protocol’ may not be the best Cold War spy thriller, but it is one of the most credible. A classic of 80s cinema with two actors both just coming into their primes. Recommended.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
MPAA Rating: R
Length: 119 minutes