The Fourth Protocol (1987): Pierce Brosnan plays 007, Soviet-style

25 MAY 2023

JBC rating: ****

James Bond Connections (4):

  • Starring Pierce Brosnan (James Bond, 1995 – 2002) as Soviet spy Major Valery Petroski.
  • Featuring Julian Glover (Aris Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only) as British intelligence official Brian Harcourt-Smith.
  • Director of Photography Phil Meyheux (DOP, GoldenEye and Casino Royale [2006]).
  • Production designer Allan Cameron (Production Designer, Tomorrow Never Dies).

In the late 1980s Irish-born leading man Pierce Brosnan famously became a near-Bond when contract issues with his Remington Steele producers led to him being unable to succeed Roger Moore as 007 in The Living Daylights (1987). However, in the same year Brosnan starred in another spy thriller, The Fourth Protocol, an adaptation by blockbuster author Frederick Forsyth of his own best-selling 1984 novel. Brosnan stars as a Soviet villain plotting to weaken NATO by detonating a nuclear device near an American airbase in England. Ironically, The Fourth Protocol helped Brosnan keep his EON ambitions afloat as, even while playing the villain, the young and impossibly handsome actor clearly remains a potential future James Bond.

The James Bond connections are everywhere in director John MacKenzie’s frequently gripping spy thriller. Allan Cameron, future production designer for the high-tech Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), here creates everyday settings dictated by the realism of the story. Phil Meyheux contributes the same efficiently cool cinematography he would bring to the thrilling Bond movies GoldenEye (1995) and Casino Royale (2006). Of course, any Bond fan will quickly spot the Soviet plot mirrors General Orlov’s scheme in Octopussy (1983). It’s fascinating identical plot lines emerged from the mid-80s zeitgeist and led to two very different but successful spy thrillers. As Forsyth was preparing his novel before Octopussy went into production he can’t be accused of copying the 1983 film. Clearly, regular news items following Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) protests at places such as Greenham Common in the UK influenced both parties.


As Major Valery Petroski, Brosnan is even introduced as a Soviet-style 007 complete with an “M”-style briefing scene with a KGB superior. Whilst undercover in England (where the character adopts a perfect local accent), Brosnan well delivers several Bond-esque moments, deploying ironic one-liners with aplomb and later playing a seduction scene with 007-style confidence. Though it’s impossible to see James Bond blindly following the increasingly brutal orders passed down by his superiors (or failing to spot his likely eventual fate), Brosnan, displaying the acting depth he would bring to the EON films in the 1990s, still manages to convey humanity. A superb moment follows his brutal execution of an English civilian who has unwittingly witnessed a secret exchange between Soviet spies. The camera focuses on an anguished Brosnan who well conveys a classic Bond-style conflict of trying to balance the unsavoury aspects of his profession against the needs of the mission.

Fascinatingly, The Fourth Protocol includes connections to the spy genre beyond Bond. Harry Palmer himself, Michael Caine (above), co-stars as intelligence officer John Preston who slowly unravels the plot before joining a race-against-time to stop Petroski detonating the nuclear device. As noted by contemporary reviewers, given his cheerful insubordination and chippy relationship with his upper-class superiors, Preston could be an older, wiser version of Harry Palmer. Indeed, in a set-up reminiscent of The IPCRESS File (1965), Preston initially finds himself working for two bosses. For Your Eyes Only star Julian Glover (below) plays his hostile superior, while Ian Richardson is an effortless mix of charm and menace as his outwardly more friendly case handler. Director John MacKenzie stages several excellent sequences following Preston involved in classic spy procedural work, opening the film with Caine’s character ingeniously breaking into a suspected traitor’s apartment on New Year’s Eve and later being involved in multiple surveillance operations.


After a decade of détente in the 1970s, the 1980s led to a renewed escalation in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of two ardent Cold Warriors in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. However, The Fourth Protocol adheres to the 1980s Bond model by featuring rogue Soviet elements as the villains. Indeed, an M / Gogol-style backchannel arrangement between Ian Richardson’s character and his Soviet counterpart (below, Richardson on the right) helps save the world. But this relationship is presented in a darker light here, as both duplicitous and a betrayal of British values. Unfortunately, this aspect of the film suffers because there isn’t enough screen time to fit the complexity of Forsyth’s novel into a two-hour movie. Too many scenes feature underdeveloped officials on both sides plotting against one another. As a result, the film’s epilogue lacks power. If the filmmakers had further simplified the complex plotting of the novel, perhaps by removing several officials superfluous to the plot and allowing Richardson more screen time, the climactic scene could have been more powerful.

The Fourth Protocol remains a flawed but compelling spy thriller from the later Cold War period. The film reflects the time by presenting elements of the Soviet state as a clear and present threat, but remains hopeful by portraying those in charge as sober realists. For cinema fans, the film connects so many other spy fiction legends, not least Michael Caine arguably playing an older version of his iconic Harry Palmer persona. But for Bond fans it remains essential viewing as a great advertisement for Pierce Brosnan as a potential Bond, and the closest we get to imagining him in the 007 movie he missed, The Living Daylights.

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