Artisan // 1997 // 176 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 24th, 2002
Three secret agents. One evil conspiracy. The world hangs in the balance.
Yeah, that's right, The Apocalypse Watch is that nondescript movie you've noticed on the shelves of your local retailer only because its cover art is uncannily similar to that of Under Suspicion, starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.
The Apocalypse Watch has no relation to the Hackman/Freeman project (although John Shea's in it and he's played Superman's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, so maybe he can be considered a kind of generic-brand Gene Hackman). It's a TV-movie based on a Robert Ludlum spy novel and directed by Kevin Conner, who's helmed many other TV-movies, such as Jack Reed: Badge of Honor or Hart to Hart: Secrets of the Hart or I Can't Stop Eating!: the Mary Jane Sinclaire-Tucker Story (okay, I made up that last one, but the first two are absolutely real).
Before moving on to the review proper, let me admit up front that I prefer Conner's recut of the film, Apocalypse Watch Redux. Yes, it adds another 50 minutes to a film that already taxes one's attention span with a 176-minute run time, but I really think the added character development lends humanity to the project, to say nothing of the French Plantation scene -- ooh-la-la. (For those sarcastically-impaired, that was a joke; please don't hassle the poor high school kid working at your local Best Buy with trying to track down a copy of Apocalypse Watch Redux when he has other dilemmas with which to wrestle like, does Caitlin know he exists, and will his goatee ever grow in right, and will the next Limp Bizkit record suck because Wes Borland bailed.)
Secret agent Harry Latham (John Shea, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is the inside man in a neo-Nazi outfit that is looking to gain power in Britain's government as a first step toward world domination. Their modus operandi is to perpetrate terrorist acts which their right-wing candidate for Prime Minister can then blame on left-wing radicals, calling for a by-whatever-means-necessary approach to law and order. When the Nazis learn Harry's true identity and remove him from the scene, his older brother Drew (Patrick Bergin, Sleeping With the Enemy), who works for the CIA in some unspecified desk-jockey position, assumes the reins of the case. Also involved is agent Karin De Vries (Virginia Madsen, The Haunting), Harry's former lover and a woman with a deep grudge against the Nazis because of her family's experiences in concentration camps during World War II.
As Drew and Karin bounce back and forth between London and Prague, they begin to unravel just how deeply the roots of the neo-Nazi organization reach into European politics. Their lives in danger and unsure who they can trust within the British government or CIA, they uncover the Nazis' plot to contaminate England's water supply in the hopes of creating panic among the populace and ensuring victory for their candidate. Drew and Karin, in a race against the clock, must stop the evil plot and discover the identity of der Führer of the Fourth Reich.
I've never read Robert Ludlum and I pray this TV-movie is a bad interpretation of his work. The film can't decide whether it wants to provide campy spy fun in the vein of Ian Fleming, or serious intrigue and thrills in the vein of John LeCarre. It tries to do both and, in the process, fails to do either. Nazis, secret formulas, mind-control computer chips, grand schemes to poison water supplies, a villain who comes off like Jeremy Irons playing Dr. No, complete with secret castle lair -- it's got all the ridiculously flimsy characteristics of a Bond flick. But what makes Bond work is Bond, a dynamic super-human spy with gadgets and grace and sex appeal. The characters here are played like real (though poorly acted) spies who do boring spy stuff like paperwork and carrying on expository conversations while sitting in the front seat of a car during a stakeout, waiting for something to happen. These are spies who act like bureaucrats when they're not busy acting like cops. When's the last time you saw James Bond writing a report? [Editor's Note: Hey, he was studying Danish in Tomorrow Never Dies...]
The small-as-life nature of the characters serves to underscore how absolutely ludicrous the plot is. The Fourth Reich orchestrating terrorist attacks (and framing innocent left-wing anarchists) in order to seize power through the very democratic institutions they abhor, all financed by an evil chemical company? Come on. This thing is so full of liberal shibboleths and paranoia, I was beginning to wonder if Susan Sontag or Noam Chomsky were ghost-writers on the script. They should've gone all the way and worked tobacco companies, the NRA, and G. Gordon Liddy into the mix. The thing is, none of this stuff is played for fun, it's all treated with absolute seriousness.
Most disappointing, though, is that the makings for much suspense are right there. With more skillful execution, the movie could have provided unexpected and startling plot twists and double-crosses, exploiting double- and triple-agents in a way that would leave one unsure who could be trusted. It could've been fun. I can't tell whether Kevin Conner just couldn't be bothered with the effort it would have taken to deliver the goods, or if he thought at the time he actually was delivering them. I always knew what was going on and which side all the players were on. I never cared about any of it. Again, this film tries to do too much and ends up doing too little. Perhaps I was expecting too much from a made-for-TV movie
The acting. Yes, it's bad. While no one in the cast is exactly Olivier, I've seen Shea, Bergin, and Madsen turn in convincing performances elsewhere. None is in top form here. The clunky script is certainly partly to blame, providing lines like the CIA chief's (Al Matthews, Aliens) stilted, "You're out of line, Latham!" -- stuff that plays like parody even though it's supposed to be deadly serious. Oddly enough, I think the looping is partly to blame, too. The dialogue is synced correctly, but the ambience is all wrong. On location, the actors sound like they were recorded in a studio; so much so it was distracting at times.
As for the DVD presentation, the picture quality is strong throughout. The shot compositions appear consistent with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (not surprising since this is a TV-movie), so I've got no gripe with the fact it's not widescreen. The colors are sharp, with deep blacks, but digital artifacts are prevalent in fine-line detail. The print is close to pristine, although there's one shot where it appears there was dirt not on the source print but on the camera's lens during the shoot. On the plus side, there's some nicely photographed scenes of London: the Thames, Westminster, Big Ben, and even the MI6 building (as seen in The World Is Not Enough), but who wants to suffer through nearly three hours of a spy movie with no thrills, chills, or laughs in order to see beautiful shots of London?
The soundtrack is just plain boring and there are absolutely no extras.
Maybe hardcore fans of the source material feel the need to own anything and everything Ludlum. If you're one of these people, knock yourself out.
Much as I like a good, fun spy flick, this ain't it. I can't recommend it. I'm left wondering, why was this even released on DVD? Considering the middling quality and the complete lack of extras (the menu screen is so primitive it might as well be absent, too), wouldn't a VHS release have sufficed?
Guilty. Because of its unwillingness to even attempt to be a productive member of the DVD community, The Apocalypse Watch is hereby sentenced to life in the VHS section of local video retailers and rental shops everywhere.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 176 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated