The film opens with weary old Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) who works M.I.5, staking out the North Korean Embassy from an apartment across the street. Outside the front of the Embassy are a group of rowdy student protesters. Weaving his way through the crowd towards the gates is a Russian genetic research scientist, Anatoly Kulbitsky. Caught up in the melee of protesters, Kulbitsky is confronted by an old lady with a needle in the handle of her umbrella. She jabs Kulbitsky and he falls down almost dead. To onlookers, it looks like a heart attack. Within seconds, Palmer is on the scene and hears the dying man’s last words – ‘Red Death’.
Later, Palmer is called to the office of his superior, Colonel Wilson, but rather than being given a new assignment, he is made redundant and thrown on the scrap heap. Soon after, Harry receives a phone call offering him work. The details are sketchy, and for more information he has to meet the caller at the Savoy Hotel. Palmer arrives for the pre-arranged meeting, but no-one is there to greet him or explain the situation. He is however delivered an envelope with a substantial amount of cash, and a plane ticket to St. Petersburg in Russia.
Palmer doesn’t have a better offer and catches the flight. At the other end, waiting for him, is Nikolai (Jason Connery). It ends up being a lively welcome as a cell of Chechen terrorists aren’t too happy to have Palmer in the country. Nikolai quickly bundles Palmer into a car, with the Chechens following close behind. As you’d expect in this kind of film, this results in a high speed car chase. What differentiates this car chase from the hundreds of other car chases in spy films, is the backdrop of St. Petersburg. Cinematically speaking, it is not a city that we have seen on the screen many times before. Incidentally, later in 1995 (the year of release), the streets of St, Petersburg would feature in another chase, but this time the vehicle involved would be an army tank, and the driver would be James Bond – the film, Goldeneye.
The chase becomes even more interesting when Nikolai and Palmer exchange their car for a boat, and while still being pursued, race along the St. Petersburg waterways. After some deft marksmanship by Nikolai, they are free to continue their journey. They end up at a waterside mansion owned by Alexi Lexovitch – AKA: ‘Alex’ (Michael Gambon). Alex is a former KGB officer and now heads one of the many groups vying for power in Russia after the fall of Communism. Alex is also the man with the money, and Palmer’s new employer.
As a legacy of his days with the KGB, Alex is also the overseer of a drug company. This drug company has produced a particularly nasty pathogen nicknamed ‘Red Death’. Apparently this ‘Red Death’ has been stolen, and Alex wants Palmer to retrieve it for him.
In St. Petersburg, Palmer does a bit of snooping around, visiting a few old contacts from his days as a field agent. His enquiries pay off. He is advised to get on the Bullet to Beijing (a train). The ‘Red Death’ will be on board. But no-one is sure who the courier is. The train is a smorgasbord of characters, each with dual stories – one good, one bad – so you never quite know who to trust. Among the passengers is Nikolai, who has been following Palmer. There’s Natasha (Mia Sara), who works for Nikolai (maybe), and an ex-CIA operative named Warner (Michael Sarrazin). There’s also a group of nasty ex KGB members on the train. Anyone who has had a look at my recent review for Sleeping Car To Trieste should have an idea on the spy hi-jinks that they get up to on the train. There’s the secret discussions and brokered deals in the confined compartment spaces, and the open gamesmanship in the dining car.
The plot, a screenplay by Peter Welbeck (a pseudonym for producer Harry Allan Towers – you may remember him from the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series in the sixties), isn’t too bad, but isn’t as engaging as it should be. I wonder if the film would have worked better if it wasn’t a Palmer film and another actor was cast in the lead? Then it would simply be another spy film, and it wouldn’t have to live up to the three earlier films in the series. And that is the biggest problem facing this film. The first three films, and especially The IPCRESS File are considered classics. If you love spy films, next to the Bond series, they are essential viewing. If this film wasn’t a Palmer film, maybe it would be easier to assess it based on it’s merits rather than in connection with, and as a continuation of the past films.
Having said that, it may be the Palmer touches that make it acceptable spy viewing, rather than a b-grade stinker. Although said ‘Palmer touches’ are laid on rather heavily at the start. As Palmer enters Colonel Wilson’s office, he is told to “Close the door, Palmer”, echoing Colonel Dalby (Nigel Green) from The IPCRESS File. In the same scene, as Palmer defends his performance as an agent, he mentions that ‘IPCRESS file affair’ and that ‘Funeral In Berlin’. It’s written very clumsily. I know that being ‘self referential’ is hip, but here it doesn’t add to the story, and instead of making us ‘old’ fans feel ‘special’ because we know what he is referring to, it simply makes us cringe. But once Harry moves from London to Russia, the film improves and it reminds us why we liked Harry in the first place. And the scenes between Caine and Jason Connery, especially the discussion about the ‘Honeypot Trap’ work well. I’d guess that because Sir Michael has been friends with Sir Sean for so long, that Caine has probably known Jason since he was a child. They seem to have a natural report.
Bullet To Beijing is a low budget TV movie. If you remember that, and don’t expect a big brassy spy thriller then you’ll find this an acceptable time killer.