Bullet to Beijing (1995)

screenshot from Bullet to Beijing

Directed by: George Mihalka
Screenwriter(s): Harry Alan Towers
Starring: Michael Caine, Jason Connery, Mia Sara, Michael Sarrazin, Michael Gambon
Genre: Cold War / Spy / Thriller
Country: UK / RUS / CAN / USA
Running time: 1h 45m
Rating: 2 out of 10

Bullet to Beijing is the first of two TV movies for the US Showtime Network filmed back to back, the second being Midnight in St Petersburg. Although filmed in 1994-5 and previewed at Cannes in May 1995, they were held back from broadcast on US and UK TV until 1997.

Beijing introduces us to some characters who will also crop up in Midnight: Jason Connery as Nikolai Federov and Michael Sarrazin as ex-CIA agent Mike Craig. Connery Junior, to his credit, does not attempt a Russian accent, instead opting to go down the route his father usually takes of retaining his own accent and hand-waving it away (Nick was educated in England). But poor Sarrazin, meanwhile, must wonder where his career has gone, as his role consists mainly of looking shady and popping up unexpectedly as Felix Leiter-lite.

The female roles are so superfluous that you wondered why they bothered to include Connery’s then-wife, Mia Sara, at all. She essays the female lead, Natasha, who may or may not be working on the same side as everyone else. And, given the high number of low-quality performances on show, she fares none too badly. You can’t say the same for Sue Lloyd (The Ipcress File, TV's Crossroads), who’s listed in the credits but only appears as a voice in a phone conversation at the beginning.

The film opens with Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) seeing a Russian being killed outside the North Korean Embassy in London. He is almost immediately forced into early retirement from MI6, the victim of budget cuts. Just in case you missed that he’s Harry Palmer, he shouts at his boss to remind you:

I have been involved in some very important cases! There was the Ipcress File affair, the funeral business in Berlin…

Inexplicably, he gets his first job offer almost before he’s cleared out his desk. Russian gangster, Alex (Sir Michael Gambon), wants Harry to work for him on a ‘matter of security’ regarding a virus known at the Red Death in return for $250,000. The how, why and wherefore of this is unimportant – at least it appears to be to the director, cast and scriptwriter – as what follows is a load of cloak and dagger tosh, a contrived mess surrounding a deal between Alex and the North Koreans over weapons and drugs. Everyone double crosses everyone else and all sense gets lost in the confusion.

And the bullet to Beijing? It’s both the trans-Siberian express train and, as is mandatory in this type of thriller, also refers to a bullet which is being transported in someone’s luggage to Beijing.

With a younger actor in the lead, and without the Harry Palmer character, it would have been a perfectly serviceable (if slightly dull) time-waster, a cut-price knock-off Bond movie that you'd have picked out of Blockbuster for a weekday afternoon alongside something with Michael Dudikoff or Dolph Lungren. But they did go for Caine-Palmer without remotely understanding that the point of Harry Palmer was that he was the anti-Bond, a truculent functionary who wouldn’t think of risking life and limb for country.

Although not fit to lick the boots of the original Harry Palmer films, the film gets a little credit for the sheer joy of seeing the two Sir Michaels hamming it up big style.

The Harry Palmer Collection