Secret agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is blackmailed into working for MI5 again on his wildest - and most dangerous - assignment yet. An insane oil billionaire, intent on destroying Communism by starting a new world war, is close to achieving his goal with the help of the world's largest, and most powerful, computer. Harry is the only man who may be able to stop him; but as he races from London to Finland to Latvia to Texas and back, he must determine who of his supposed allies (a sexy Russian agent, a Soviet colonel and an American mercenary) is the one he can actually trust!
'Billion Dollar Brain' is the third adaptation from Len Deighton's "Unnamed Hero" spy novel series, following 'The Ipcress File' (1965), a BAFTA winner for Best British film, and 'Funeral in Berlin' (1966). If 'Brain' had been a success, a fourth Palmer film from Deighton's 'Horse Under Water' would have been produced. Michael Caine plays the lead character Harry Palmer, the name given to the formerly anonymous character for the films, and he returned to the role three decades later in a pair of made-for-TV movies, 'Bullet to Beijing' (1995) and 'Midnight in Saint Petersburg' (1996), neither of which involved Deighton.
'Billion Dollar Brain' is an odd blend between the realism of John le Carre and the fantasy of Ian Fleming. The work of the latter was well known to producer Harry Saltzman, who, along with his business partner Albert R. Broccoli, produced the first nine Bond films of the franchise, from 'Dr. No' (1962) to The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Unfortunately, the combination of styles in this Cold Was thriller doesn't mesh well together, contributing to the film's uneven feel.
Harry Palmer is a former MI5 agent when the film begins, using his skills to work as a private investigator. He gets a job from a computerized voice (Donald Sutherland oddly enough) and is sent to Helsinki with a package of eggs filled with a deadly virus. Upon his arrival, Anya (Françoise Dorléac in her last role due to a fatal car accident that took her life at the much-too-young age of 25) meets him and is very forward, as females are in these male fantasies. She takes him to meet Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an old friend of Harry's and former American spy, who claims to be in love with Anya, but Harry and the audience know where she stands.
Leo suggests Harry join him as a freelancer and reveals he gets his assignments from the same computer that gave Harry the courier job. Harry had planned to turn down Leo's offer until he is forced back into service by MI5 because Leo is working for an organization, led by oil tycoon General Midwinter (Ed Begley), planning to destabilize Eastern Europe, which would likely result turn the Cold War hot.
'Brain' is the first of the Palmer films to be released as part of KL Studio Classics, and though I haven't seen either of the previous films in the series, screenwriter John McGrath does a very good job quickly establishing previous relationships between characters without the need to have seen the earlier stories to understand them.
Caine does a great job as Harry, as anyone who knows his work expects. He has leading-man charm, usually cool in his interactions as a spy needs to be, yet moments of frustration seep in as he deals with the crazy characters around him. Begley is over-the-top, foaming-at-the-mouth, conservative Texan who hates communists, likely based on United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, which gives a sense on he was seen by the English.
The plot offers some great story twists as characters cross each other while working towards their own goals. However, it is hard to see how Leo or Midwinter ever thought either of their plans would work. Leo never would have been given so much free reign in a tightly controlled organization without any verification, and Midwinter's plan of attack has such a major flaw in the execution it's hard to accept everyone blindly accepted it.
'Billion Dollar Brain' is a lightweight but forgettable diversion for fans of Caine and spy adventures, slightly closer to time well spent than time wasted, but not by much.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Billion Dollar Brain' comes from KL Studio Classics on a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard blue case. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video for 'Billion Dollar Brain' has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC that is displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The opening title sequence looks a bit dirty and damaged, but the image is much cleaner throughout the remainder of the film with black and white specks appearing on rare occasion.
There's a faint bit of film grain and faces appear a touch smooth, more likely due to a faded source print than digital tampering. Other scenes offer great detail, such as the bits of snow on Dr Kaarna's body. In addition, there's good depth on display with the frame, as seen in the attic where the computer assigned Leo his jobs and when Harry finds himself at the end of a shooting gallery.
The film's color palette is heavy on neutral colors, due in large part to the many snow-covered exterior scenes in Europe. In those scenes, like when Harry first arrives in Helsinki, they appear to have been brightened affecting the blacks, contrast, and clarity. The reds, like the chair in Leo's home, his car, and his thermos, are bright as are other primary colors. Blacks tend to be inky, but not always.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English but plays like a mono track. It is a bit underwhelming as it suffers due to the source. The dialogue is predominantly clear, but Midwinter's speech was likely recorded too loud as it distorts. The music also can be heard distorting, like when Harry is with Leo's family and the Latvian revolutionaries. The bass is minimal and the climatic battle comes across more like loud noise than specific effects.
'Billion Dollar Brain' is certainly worth a look for Michael Caine fans, but the high-def experience will likely be disappointing to most collectors.