The overcooked but diverting Cold War-era espionage thriller Scorpio stars Burt Lancaster as Cross, a CIA agent marked for extermination because his superior believes he’s turned double agent for the Soviets. The “Scorpio” of the title is Cross’ onetime apprentice, Frenchman Jean Laurier (Alain Delon), a suave killer the CIA uses to ice foreign enemies the company can’t “officially” eliminate. Cross’ nefarious boss, McLeod (John Colicos), hires Laurier to kill his former mentor, but Cross realizes he’s been targeted and escapes from his home base in Washington, D.C., to Europe. This sets the stage for cat-and-mouse intrigue set in Paris and Vienna, some of which is quite zippy, like a lengthy shootout at a construction site.
However, more interesting that the action stuff is the camaraderie Cross shares with his longtime KGB counterpart, Zharkov (Paul Scofield). Both men have outgrown ideological differences, and they recognize that their ambitious young superiors are more interested in political advancement than actual counterintelligence. Zharkov finds his old friend a hiding place in Vienna, clues him in to the movements of CIA operatives assisting Laurier, and talks shop over long drunken evenings. Watching these old lions debate the broad strokes of the Cold War is fascinating, even though their exchanges are muddied by occasionally pretentious dialogue.
Scorpio is generally smart and tense, but it’s a difficult movie to follow—not because the story is overly sophisticated, but because the filmmakers often forget to give viewers key information. The biggest flaw in this regard is that we’re never told why McLeod believes Cross went rogue, which is pretty much the whole show. However, as directed by thriller veteran Michael Winner (who never let script problems get in the way of a violent action scene), the film zooms past narrative hiccups like a getaway car blasting over speed bumps. Lancaster works a world-weary groove that keeps his tendency toward macho preening in check (though he demonstrates still-impressive athleticism in action scenes), and Delon is perfectly cast as a cool professional with a soft spot for stray cats. Scorpio is far too long at 114 minutes, and there are so many plot twists that the movie eventually exhausts itself, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff along the way.