According to Judge Bill Gibron, it's perhaps time for Jason Bourne to really lay down an "ultimatum"—no more uninspired adaptations of Robert Ludlum's spy novels.
The Boring Ultimatum
When the Germans invade Poland, Doug Spaulding (Stephen Collins, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) loses everyone he ever loved. Recruited by the U.S. government to join the wartime counterintelligence team, the newly commissioned Colonel finds himself working with the rebels in Spain. It's there he has his first run-in with Hitler's sinister Gestapo. Reassigned to New York after being injured, he is ordered to participate in a highly classified undertaking. A high-ranking German official, Franz Altmüller (Werner Klemperer, Hogan's Heroes), wants industrial diamonds for the Nazi rocket program. The Americans are desperate for gyroscopes that will keep their bombers in the sky. Since both war efforts have what the other wants, a deal is made, and Spaulding is put in charge of overseeing the swap. Traveling to the location of the trade—Buenos Aires, Argentina—our hero again runs into old flame Leslie Jenner Hawkewood (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo). They had a previous tryst in Manhattan that ended badly—both personally and politically. As the typical backstabbing, double crossing, and last-act denouements occur, we soon learn that there is more riding on The Rhinemann Exchange than mere technological triumph. The fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.
Plodding, lumbering, and stinking of the '70s (and not in a good way), the mini-series take on Robert Ludlum's novel The Rhinemann Exchange is spy thriller as sleep aid. Featuring a major-league cast doing bush-league things, and a narrative that can't stop killing off the name guest stars, this bass ackwards narrative is nothing more than a series of standoffs, shouting matches, and subterfuge, interrupted every 30 minutes or so with a sex scene. Don't get your randy little hopes up, however. This is Me Decade TV we're talking about (it was offered as part of something called "The Bestsellers" series). Lauren Hutton does suggest a great deal, but there's nothing naughtier in her seductions of Stephen Collins than a close embrace and some heavy smooching. Toss in Werner "HOOOOGAN!" Klemperer as a far more serious version of his Colonel Klink character, and a random assortment of A, B, and C list leftovers (everyone from Claude Akins to John Huston), and you've got a well-meaning, but very meandering walk through the closed-door wheelings and dealings of World War II, all processed through the best-selling author's ability to sap any interest or emotion out of the situation. Thanks to generic casting and plain performances, we wind up with the action/adventure equivalent of Ambien, without the late-night food binges and unconscious incontinence.
It's not all Ludlum's fault. Director Burt Kennedy, a notorious broadcast mouth-breather responsible for such stogy efforts as How the West Was Won and Shoot Out in a One Horse Town, decides that the best way to present this wealth of literary legerdemain is to create the visual equivalent of a page turner. That means, we get several three- to five-minute scenes, self-contained and vignette-oriented, each one playing out perfunctorily before moving onto the next disconnected moment. For example, our hero heads over to Vienna to see his Dad. They have a discussion. The old man invites his son to summer in Poland with him. They agree to discuss it later. Our lead seduces his father's assistant. Jump cut to the news—the Nazis have invaded Eastern Europe. Everyone we've just met—except for our future spy—is dead; that's the first five minutes of the movie. Similarly, our newly minted action man is stationed in Spain, messing with Hitler's heavies as he beds the bride of a missing resistance fighter. During a mission, Spaulding is stabbed. His hacienda honey nurses him back to health. They have a romantic tete-a-tete. The Gestapo shows up and guns down the sensitive senorita. Tommy gun blazing, our champion gets some payback. Cut to next scene. Granted, as the material moves along, Kennedy settles in a little, probably for the expositional needs of the plot more than anything else. But as each new chapter presents previously unseen cast members, we start having flashbacks to the fate of other "one scene" wonders. We recognize calculated corpse fodder when we see it.
Fans of the author will also balk at some of the liberties taken with his tome. Spaulding is portrayed in the book as an impressionable voice actor working in radio. Here, he's a wandering polo playing jetsetter unable to settle down or commit. The character of Jean Cameron, the character whom Spaulding falls for while stationed in Buenos Aries, has been merged with the Lauren Hutton hottie from New York, Leslie Jenner Hawkewood. She now plays an important part in both the stateside and international theaters. The rest of the story is more or less the same, but with a lot of superfluous romance novel nonsense thrown in to keep the average TV audience glued to their sets. The last-act twist is kind of interesting, since it suggests a lot of fascinating side elements to the war that few people probably consider in the grand scheme of things, but it still feels purposefully pat and overly simplified. And don't come looking for authenticity here. Ludlum liked to push the boundaries of believability—just look at his jackrabbit Jason Bourne character. If the Allies and the Axis really did get together to trade industrial diamonds for high-altitude gyroscopes, one imagines a lot less hugger mugger than what The Rhinemann Exchange depicts. The spy game suffers from its own self-imposed sense of mystery and intrigue. The quickest way to reduce either element is by focusing on the fringes, on the facets that offer little in the way of insight. This is what this mediocre miniseries does over and over again.
Obviously hoping to earn a little tie-in cash with the release of the latest Bourne bash-up, Universal unearths this forgotten artifact of TV's fascination with the long-form drama and presents it, bare-bones, in a practically VHS-like DVD. The 1.33:1 image is old and faded, filled with commercial insert fade-outs and scratched-up stock footage. There is a phoniness to the sets (a Greenwich Village apartment, a submarine interior) that really shows the made-for-boob-tube budget and, unlike the far superior Winds of War, there's no gravitas in the depiction of the Nazis. We get the standard red swastika flags—that's about it. Soundwise, the Dolby Digital mono makes the massive orchestrations by composer Michal Colombier sound flat and lifeless. The dialogue is easily discernible, though, so one imagines that miniseries beggars can't be choosers. Those hoping for some manner of added content, however, will be greatly disappointed. There are a few pre-menu screen previews, but that is all. No context or explanation about how this work fits within the overall Ludlum canon.
If your espionage proclivity runs more toward Paul Greengrass than Graham Greene, you'll definitely snooze through The Rhinemann Exchange's four-hour fumble through the undercover elements of WWII. Old-school spies need only apply.
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