Billion Dollar Brain(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 10.4.2005)
In 1967's Billion Dollar Brain, the third and final theatrical installment in the Harry Palmer series (after The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin), the first code phrase given to Michael Caine's Cockney ex-spy is Richard III's "Now is the winter of our discontent," a phrase that aptly encapsulates the film. Bond Producer Harry Saltzman envisioned the series as the less bombastic alternative to 007, but bizarrely conscripted wacko auteur Ken Russell (Women in Love, Tommy) to direct this entry after Goldfinger's Guy Hamilton did laudable genre work in Funeral. Imagine Matt Damon and company tapping Todd Haynes to helm The Bourne Ultimatum and you have a pretty good idea of the resulting miscarriage.
Things start off well enough with Russell introducing us to ex-spy cum private eye Palmer's dilapidated office/apartment in a scene evocative of the opening to the previous year's Harper and we even get a Bond-esque title sequence courtesy of Maurice Binder. From there, though, Russell and scripter John McGrath (The Dressmaker) pull phrases from Len Deighton's source novel like "virus-incubating eggs" and "supercomputer" and throw them together like magnetic poetry without much concern for coherence.
The plot concerns MI5 blackmailing the bespectacled Palmer back into service and General Midwinter (Ed Begley), a jingoistic Texas oil tycoon bellicosely unleashing his private army to aid a non-existent, anti-communist uprising in Latvia based on faulty intelligence spat out by his billion dollar supercomputer. The best thing that can be said about the flick is that it's as relevant to the present political landscape as it was when LBJ had us in Vietnam. But when Russell obtusely compares Midwinter and his army to Hitler and his storm troopers and focuses more on Victorian porn than plot, the film unconsciously teeters on the brink of the self parody contained in Casino Royale (released the same year).
Russell directs the film like a schoolchild doodling during a civics lecture, which makes sense given that he claims that the directing assignment was "shoved down his throat." At least Russell's ADD allows for some interesting visuals by cinematographer Billy Williams (Gandhi), such as an overhead shot of Palmer waking up in a tub filled with corpses. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (Murder on the Orient Express) consciously avoided using "sympathetic instruments" in his score, instead relying upon percussion, piano, and the ondes martenot (a French electronic instrument) to underscore Palmer's persistent disorientation throughout the film, which was shot in snow saturated Finland during one of its coldest winters.
Caine grumpily shivers through his role as the malcontented Palmer. Besides repeatedly getting knocked unconscious, quibbling over a 300 pound pay raise, and being left stranded by his superiors, Palmer accomplishes less than even Austin Powers, the spy who spoofed him (Caine appears in Goldmember as Powers' pop with the glasses he wore as Palmer).
There's also solid supporting work by Francoise Dorleac (Cul-de-sac) as a duplicitous double agent, Oskar Homolka (War and Peace) as Palmer's jovial Russian ally, and Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire) as the oily Oz pulling the strings of Midwinter's supercomputer (voiced with a HAL-ish drone by Donald Sutherland). The featureless film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0. -- Colin Miller