Bullet to Beijing (TVM) (1995)
“A stolen biological weapon begins a high-stakes game of kill or be killed!”
Director: George Mihalka
Cast: Anatoly Kulbitsky, Shaughan Seymour, Michael Caine
Synopsis: A retired British spy is called back into service by his government to help prevent North Korea from getting its hands on a deadly virus called “The Red Death.”
Bullet to Beijing, the movie that brought Harry Palmer out of retirement, is also the movie that drove actor Michael Caine (briefly) into retirement, so unpalatable was the filming experience. There was precious little return for his suffering, either; this film, although inoffensive, hardly deserves to be associated with the Harry Palmer films of the 1960s. Bullet to Beijing isn’t a particularly bad film, it’s just has no ambition about it, no obvious desire to do anything other than tell an old-fashioned spy story in the most efficient, cost effective way that it can.
It’s the mid-1990s, and Harry Palmer (Caine — Zulu, The Dark Knight) is an ageing British agent whose time has passed. In fact, at the movie’s start, British Intelligence no longer considers Harry to be of any use to them, and unceremoniously retire him. He isn’t out of work for long, though. He receives a job offer from Alex (Michael Gambon), a shady Russian fat cat who wants him to retrieve a deadly biological virus called Alorex. With the help of Alex’s faithful sidekicks Nikolai (Jason Connery) and Natasha (Connery’s soon-to-be wife, Mia Sara), Palmer learns that the virus, known as The Red Death, is being transported in two harmless component parts aboard the titular ‘Bullet’ train to Beijing. Once aboard the Bullet, they run into Gradsky (Lev Prygunov), a former KGB General, and Craig Warner (Michael Sarrazin), an ex-CIA Agent. Gradsky is transporting a crate to the North Korean embassy, but when he finds Palmer and Nikolai snooping around the crate he has them thrown from the train.
While Bullet to Beijing contains the kind of twists, turns and double crosses you’d expect from a spy movie, it attempts to deceive its audience by hiding a very simple plot within a deeply convoluted one. It boils down to a MacGuffin chase set — but only partially filmed — in foreign locales. The movie never really seems able to decide whether it’s presenting itself as a serious espionage drama or a comic one, and so becomes a curious hybrid, with Caine cracking small jokes at often inappropriate moments. It sort of makes his character more endearing while simultaneously giving the incorrect impression that he’s a little out of his depth — a consequence which doesn’t feel intentional. Nevertheless, while Bullet to Beijing can’t hold a light to the earlier Harry Palmer films, it does provide some modest entertainment, and is immeasurably enriched by the presence of dear old Michael Caine.
(Reviewed 23rd March 2014)