Michael Caine & The Fourth Protocol (1987) … sort of

Michael Caine banner.

This was going to be a film review. And it is. Kind of.

Actually, it’s probably got more in common with a potty old geezer messing around in an overgrown backyard, pretending he’s gardening, muttering to himself, and occasionally actually pulling a weed or two.

And so … I came across a preposterous ranking of Michael Caine’s films in the Guardian this weekend. Some plonker with the title of film editor at the UK branch demonstrated a serious lack of taste and insight into Caine’s films by putting Harry Palmer in the middle, Alfie at the front, and giving the number one slot to The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  Utter tosh!

Anyone with any discernment at all knows the all-time best Caine film was Funeral in Berlin (1966).

In fact, to settle the matter here are Caine’s top ten film, in the right order:

  1. Funeral in Berlin (1966)
  2. The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
  3. Zulu (1964)
  4. Get Carter (1971)
  5. The Ipcress File (1965)
  6. The Italian Job (1969)
  7. The Last Valley (1970)
  8. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
  9. Play Dirty (1969)
  10. Batman Begins (2005)
Frederick Forsyth novel jacket.

Good!  Right!!  That’s settled then!!!

Anyhow, in that ridiculous Guardian list was a film I’d never heard of.  Quite an oversight for a long-time admirer of Caine’s versatility as an actor.  The Fourth Protocol (1987).  Released three years after the eponymous Frederick Forsyth novel.

All the more an oversight for the inclusion in the cast of Pierce Brosnan as a ruthless KGB assassin, Ian Richardson as the deceptively genteel British intelligence bigwig Sir Nigel Irvine, and Ray McAnally as the stony-faced General Yevgeny Karpov, playing both ends against the middle for his own advantage.  I enjoy all these actors.

So off I went to hunt the film down. And yes, it’s not in my top ten of Caine’s work.  A little dated, yes, but it’s a competent enough spy thriller. Especially for those who were alive at the time, and aware of just how hot the Cold War was becoming just two years out from its end. Ray McAnally as a hard-bitten Soviet general.

Ian Richardson as Sir Nigel Irvine.
Ian Richardson as Sir Nigel Irvine.

The premiss—of a portable nuclear device being deployed inside the target country—is as frightening today as it was then.  Even if the Russians are less likely to be the bad guys in such an endeavour today.

Michael Caine reprising the insolent Harry Palmer persona misfires a little bit.  He’s too obviously middle-aged in the film, and the expectation would have been for more subtlety from a man of his experience and insight.  The quick temper and coarse language are just not right for Caine in 1987 (when he was 54 years old).

Still, it worked after a fashion.

Brosnan wasn’t given much scope by the script but to look hard-faced and act with menace.  Not beyond his range, but definitely too little scope or acting reach. Ian Richardson honing the Francis Urquhart persona that made him famous.

After Caine, Richardson stole the limelight. Already an alumni of the Bill Haydon rôle in the BBCs superb production of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), he was honing a persona that would flower as Francis Urquhart in the extraordinary BBC adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s novels of the House of Cards (1991-1996) trilogy that still outshines even the best episodes of the American re-make.  Dobbs had all the insights of a former chief of staff at Conservative Party headquarters in the UK. American scriptwriter Beau Willimon, just couldn’t compete for pure verité.

Ray McAnally as General Yevgeny Sergeyevich Karpov.
Ray McAnally as General Yevgeny Sergeyevich Karpov.

It seemed that the film did relatively well at the box office at the time, even given that it competed with other August releases Who’s That Girl with the then wildly popular Madonna, No Way Out with Kevin Costner, and The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.  Box office favourites that year that might have also competed for cinema audiences included Platoon, Fatal Attraction, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, The Witches of Eastwick, and Predator.

It seems so long ago now, but so much better in terms of choice.  Today we get a superhero formula repeated three times a year, cheap and shitty violence porn, and not very funny romcoms.  No major acting talent needed or found. Just crap spectacle all around, and filler films that feel like elevator muzak.

On that basis The Fourth Protocol still stacks up, no matter that millennials would probably dismiss it for having been made ‘before time began’ (their own birthdates, usually).

Well.  I’m done pottering around in the overgrown yard.  And with muttering to myself.  For now.


The Fourth Protocol DVD jacket.

The Fourth Protocol, Lorimar Motion Pictures, 119 minutes, 1987.

Directed by John Mackenzie, produced by Neville Cawas Bardoliwalla and Timothy Burrill, screenplay by George Axelrod and Richard Burridge from the novel by Frederick Forsyth, cinematography by Phil Meheux, edited by Graham Walker, music by Lalo Schifrin.

With Michael Caine as John Preston, Pierce Brosnan as Major Valeri Alekseyevich Petrofsky/James Edward Ross, Ned Beatty as General Pavel Petrovich Borisov, Ray McAnally as General Yevgeny Sergeyevich Karpov, Ian Richardson as Sir Nigel Irvine, Joanna Cassidy as Irina Vassilievna, Julian Glover as Brian Harcourt-Smith, Michael Gough as Sir Bernard Hemmings, Anton Rodgers as George Berenson, Alan North as General Govorshin.

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