After the British traitor Kim Philby has been assassinated in secret by a branch of the Soviet authorities, it triggers off a new plan to destabilise the West; there have been unwritten protocols agreed between the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, and the fourth is all that is left. It states that no country owning nuclear arms will smuggle them into a rival country and set them off in secret, essentially using underhand tactics to destroy part of that nation instead of sending a missile or dropping them from a military plane. But now a KGB agent, Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) has been despatched undercover to set up an atomic device that will destroy not only a U.S. air base but also the land from miles around, and the British know nothing about it...
As you can guess from a movie that takes revenge on Kim Philby in cinematic form during its first minute, The Fourth Protocol was a rather right wing project, dreamt up by the author of the book it was based on, Frederick Forsyth, a Cold War potboiler whose idea of a grand plan of villainy would be Moscow installing a Labour Government in eighties Britain. That part was left out of this, so what you had was a rather stately spy saga which pitted Harry Palmer against James Bond, as Brosnan would become in the future, and Michael Caine had been in the past. Caine played British agent John Preston, who is the only thing standing between the public and nuclear disaster as it is he who notices something is up when a sailor is killed in an accident then is found to be carrying a suspicious disc.
Not like a CD, a disc of potent material of the sort a bomb could utilise, but this revelation occurred when the story was well progressed, leaving you watching Preston stuck with catching up on what we in the audience already know. It would have been good to see Caine and Brosnan share a few tense scenes, yet in effect they barely shared the screen, leaving a film of two intercut halves as Petrofsky puts his plan into action and Preston trails along behind him putting two and two together to make five as his bosses are more obstinate and unreasoning than those in a whole collection of eighties maverick cop flicks. Naturally this makes Preston look just anti-establishment enough to render the movie as a sensible point of view in the Cold War rather than the reactionary runaround (or walkaround, for much of it) it actually was.
Still, if this was no help in understanding the tension between East and West at the end of the Soviet grip on the East, then at least you got a glimpse of Britain in that era, whether it be such details as the Ford Fiestas puttering along the motorways or Big Daddy performing a "splash" on an opponent during the wrestling on television, all constructing a mood of aspiration for a future that was by no means guaranteed and a lingering past that was grounding society in the conventions of what had gone before. Was 1987 a particularly pivotal year? Possibly not, but The Fourth Protocol offered a snapshot of its mid-point position with its lack of realisation the Cold War was drawing to a close and the computers it regularly showcases as the most exciting new things to happen along since... well, since whatever the last items of technology were.
Oddly, though it would have been nice to see Caine as an older, even more cynical Harry Palmer there was little of the charm of that character allowed as he was surprisingly staid, as befitting a rather stuffy tale trying and failing to get the pulse pounding in spite of the looming Third World War supposedly right around the corner. Brosnan was weirdly blank, like some programmed assassin whose smile never reaches his eyes, murdering innocent people who stand in his way of getting the job done, including one unfortunate homosexual gentleman who blunders into an handover of a vital part for the bomb, then thinks his luck is in as Petrofsky asks him to accompany him to his car for some "fun" which turns out to be a slit throat. If this was tough on the gay population, the black population had Caine standing up for them as he beat up two skinheads for racially abusing a woman on the Underground, presumably included to prove this may be a deeply conservative movie, but it wasn't mad racist. Still, some respond to its sedate pace and preference for talk over action. Music by Lalo Schifrin.