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'The Fourth Protocol' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 29, 1987

And you think Elvis impersonators are omnipresent! Michael Caine, the Busiest Man in Show Business, is able to fill an entire cineplex almost single-handedly. The prolific professional now recurs in "The Fourth Protocol," his third movie this summer and his second in 10 days. This one is an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the bestselling spy thriller by Frederick Forsyth.

Caine is able as British agent John Preston, a tenacious spy catcher on the trail of the ruthless Major Petrofsky, a top Russian operative assigned to nuke an American air base in Britain. Petrofsky is assembling an atomic bomb from parts smuggled in by fellow spies. Then the renegade Preston picks up the trail.

Like one of Smiley's people, Preston is a man of honor caught in a bureaucratic power play, but he keeps on spying anyway. Demoted to the Secret Service's lowly airports and ports division, yet ever the professional, the scrupulous Preston discovers a dead Soviet sailor with a polonium detonator in his tobacco tin. And the skulking begins.

Pierce Brosnan, the former star of TV's "Remington Steele," is interestingly cast as Petrofsky. He's the bad Bond of the story, the good-looker with the stomach muscles and the sports car. And while it's not exactly a speaking part, Brosnan conveys the soullessness of a shark.

Depicting a Soviet citizen as anything but crumpled and corpulent is in itself a coup. And the contrast between the beautiful but deadly Petrofsky and the thickening hero Preston is an effective twist on movie stereotypes.

The screenplay, adapted by Forsyth himself, is an onion-skin thriller, with layers of betrayal -- less claustrophobic and less cerebral than le Carre', which allows for action pacing.

The plot has more characters than a pyramid-building scene in an epic. But director John Mackenzie makes it easy to follow, even for a person who can't play Clue. The movie reunites Mackenzie with Caine, who costarred in his "Beyond the Limit," a muddled tale of South American revolutionaries. But Mackenzie appears to have mastered clarity. We can even keep the faces and those sonofavich Russian names straight.

Forsyth's story is based on the latest in terrorist technology. You can build a small bomb in your basement if you want to nuke the dog who digs up the garden. The screenwriter also reduces world politics to a series of career moves, a sort of international yuppism, complete with double agents, death threats and atomic skulduggery.

Ian Richardson is the epitome of snide savvy as Sir Nigel, the conniving head of British foreign intelligence, with Ned Beatty and Ray McAnally lending support as his KGB counterparts, who stumble onto a plot hatched by spy overlords. Joanna Cassidy has a tiny role as the bombshell who helps Petrofsky build the bomb. And she sure is sorry she triggered his interest.

The Fourth Protocol, is at area theaters and rated R. It contains partial nudity and violence.

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