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Bullet To Beijing  

Low budget addition to the Palmer Franchise [DVD]

Michael Caine filmed this made for TV movie in the mid 90's, back to back with Midnight In St. Petersburg [1995] [DVD]. Harry Palmer has been unceremoniously ousted from the Secret Service.. but finds a private contract to recover a stolen biological agent, for a mysterious but powerfully connected Russian, played by Michael Gambon. The journey to find this bio-agent and understand who is doing what to who and why, takes us on the titular train from Russia to Beijing. The story is frankly hard to swallow on many levels, and is woefully disappointing if you come expecting the flair of the The Ipcress File [Blu-ray] or Funeral In Berlin [DVD] [1967]. In the absence of Len Deighton, the screenwriter has tried to emulate the intricacies of a convoluted spy thriller with double crosses and twists.. and only succeeded in tying himself up in knots and ultimately losing all credibility. Although there are plenty of action scenes dispersed throughout the movie, there is nothing outstanding, merely workmanlike, and it plays more like a pilot to a TV series than a standalone movie. As for the hero, for a seasoned spy, Palmer seems to do little more than get carried along by events and go around asking old friends and near strangers what they know, when he needs a lead. Jason Connery feels like stunt casting designed to remind you of his dad, but he betrays no emotion.. I've seen garden shrubs that made more compulsive viewing.. and Mia Sara also does little to further her career. It's only Michael Caine that frankly makes this at all worth watching - that and the genuine locations. There's an oddly out of place music score by Rick Wakeman of all people.

There's a pleasure to be had in seeing Caine play Palmer again.. it's something about nostalgia. Watching this is sort of like going back and rewatching some of your favourite 70's or 80's tv shows.. you know they're really not very good, but it reminds you about enjoying them, once.. and it puts a smile on your face. Here, we get to see Caine in action in a story which while not perfect, will pass some time for you if you are in the mood for undemanding entertainment. By the end of it though, when you hear the hints that the next one is on its way, you'll probably be inclined like me to think enough is enough.. goodwill only goes so far, in covering up wooden acting and dodgy production values.

With Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg both on the list of producers, this could have gone a number of ways – but this prequel has a satisfyingly retro feel which evokes much more heartwarming Spielberg than it does hyper edited and cgi-tastic Bay. Travis Knight as director (Kubo and the two strings) has brought some much needed clarity and simplicity, with more than a soupcon of eighties nostalgia..

Starting out with familiar territory with battles between Autobot and Decepticon, pretty quickly results in Bumblebee being sent to Earth (in the eighties.. )to pave the way for others to follow..but stealth is vital, so he becomes, of course, a Volgswagen Beetle. Injured and vulnerable, he is discovered by teenager Haylee Steinfeld, who helps Bumblebee learn to communicate and survive in his new environment. Their relationship forms the heart of the movie, and it works wonderfully, not least due to an endearing performance from Steinfeld. She brings a real warmth and dimension to her teenager struggling with the loss of her dad. That’s not to underplay however, the affection that shows in Bumblebees character. You actually feel that the creative team have really understood how to bring character to the eponymous car/robot in a way that none of Bay’s movies managed. A pre-existing affection for Transformers is not required here – though those with memories of the original Transformers are going to relish the throwback feel and look. The plot beats are also retro… enough that the movie does not ooze originality in terms of character development. I’m not going to pretend this is the new Citizen Kane, but that’s not really the point. It’s just fun being won over by the winning chemistry of the leads, in a movie that is oddly old-fashioned.. in a good way..

I kind of wish this had been the first Transformers movie – it would have pulled me in to the world in a way none of the others have been able to. Bringing things down a notch from world destroying cacophony and mayhem, and introducing some real characters that are a pleasure to watch, has transformed (sorry) this franchise at a stroke. I’d love to spend more time with these characters – let’s hope they’re not tempted to go bigger in a sequel……

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