Thursday, March 16, 2017

Russian Roulette (1975)

          The only unique aspect of this Cold War espionage thriller is that it takes place in Vancouver and features an officer of the RCMP as its protagonist. In every other respect, it’s the usual murky stuff about conspiracies and double-crosses and last-minute efforts to prevent a politically charged assassination. Adapted by a cabal of screenwriters from a novel by Tom Ardies and directed in a perfunctory style by Lou Lombardo, previously an acclaimed film editor known for his work on pictures by Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah, Russian Roulette stars the appealing George Segal as the aforementioned RCMP officer. At the beginning of the movie, he’s on suspension, so a representative of the RCMP’s intelligence arm, Commander Petapiece (Denholm Elliot), offers a way back to active duty: Corporal Timothy Shaver (Segal) is to find and illegally detain an Eastern European named Henke (Val Avery), now living in exile in Vancouver. Only it turns out Russian operatives also want the man, so intrigue unfolds as various parties converge on Henke’s last known whereabouts. Before long, dead bodies accumulate and the intrepid Shaver discovers that Henke plans to kill a Soviet leader during an official visit to Canada. Also pulled into the escapade is Shaver’s on-again/off-again lover, Bogna (Cristina Raines).
          The first half of Russian Roulette is quite terrible, all confusing stakeout scenes and mystifying confrontations, because even though the setting of a gloomy winter in Western Canada lends visual interest, it’s virtually impossible to understand (or care) what the hell’s going on. Segal’s character is little more than a stereotype, the smartass cop who resents authority and wantonly breaks rules. The second half of the picture is markedly better, because once Russian Roulette resolves into a straightforward race-against-time thriller, Lombardo the skilled editor picks up the slack for Lombardo the inexperienced director. (Although Richard Marden is credited with cutting the picture, it’s likely Lombardo was never far away from the post-production process.) Almost by happenstance, Russian Roulette contains a couple of fairly good scenes, including the final action climax and the enjoyable throwaway bit during which the hero patiently explains to an old woman the complicated message he needs for her to convey by phone to authorities. Supporting actors including Avery, Elliot, and Richard Romanus do respectable work in nothing roles, but Raines flatlines as the female lead, and Segal’s innate charm can’t make up for the lack of an interesting story. At best, Russian Roulette is passable action/suspense slop. No wonder Lombardo returned to the editing room, directing only once more seven years later.

Russian Roulette: FUNKY


Unknown said...

You can have yourself a bizarre Vancouver Mounties vs. Russian Espionage double feature. In 1989 Martin Sheen starred as American cop John Hyde in "Cold Front," another tale shot in Vancouver concerning Mounties and the KGB, this time focused on terrorism.

By Peter Hanson said...

Presumably the Russian operatives enjoyed the cold weather in Vancouver...