Bullet to Beijing - 1995

Harry Palmer movies

The plot

The film brings back from retirement film’s greatest cockney working class spy, Harry Palmer. The conceit for the plot is to ask what does a secret agent do for work once the Cold War is over and the communists in Moscow are no longer the enemy. Now working on a freelance basis for the Russians, Palmer is hired to track down a deadly virus - the 'bullet' in question - being delivered to the North Koreans, by using the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Film notes

The film is not based on any of Deighton's books - just his characters - and it was generally panned by critics. Although it's billed as 'Len Deighton's Bullet to Beijing' on the DVD box, the screenplay is actually by Peter Wellbeck (aka producer Harry Towers). Caine’s central performance lacks much of the verve and style of the first three outings in the sixties; also, the filming style is more TV mini-series than Hollywood blockbuster. So it's not a great film overall.

Nevertheless, it has some charm. It's set in post-communist Russia and it does play up the rise of the Oligarch's well; the producers obviously got permission to film in Russia, so the budget was clearly there for what could have been a half-decent film. There are some well-worked car chase sequences and the footage on the train is shot well and rather dramatic; as a result, one does get a sense of the chaos and cheapness of life at the time in the gangster's paradise of post-communist Russia.

Palmer's romantic squeeze from The Ipcress File - Jean Courtney, played by Sue Lloyd - makes a welcome reappearance, but rejects Palmer's offer of marriage. There are hints in the dialogue that Connery's character Nikolai - with a Russian mother and a British father who 'worked for MI5' - might actually be Harry Palmer's son, though this is hinted at rather than made explicit.

One bonus is that the film does has the stunning actress Mia Sara, who played Ferris Bueller's girlfriend, here playing Nikolai's girlfriend, so it's not all bad. However, overall the film is not a patch on the sixties' series and leaves the viewer disheartened to see what the franchise - like the Harry Palmer character - has been reduced to.

Seventies keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman provides the soundtrack, which suits the period of time with all its electronic keyboards, but lacks much of the panache of John Barry's earlier soundtracks.

Trailer for Bullet to Beijing,
courtesy of the Harry Palmer Movite Site

Film notes

Director: George Mihalk
Producer: John Goloutva
Screenplay: Harry Allan Towers
Starring: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer); Jason Connery (Nikolai); Mia Sara (Natasha); Michael Gambon (Alex); Shaun Seymoure (Carruthers); Michael Gambon (Alex Alexovich).
Music: Rick Wakeman
Released/broadcast: 1995