Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Diplomat (Screen Australia, Power, New South Wales Film and Television Office, The See, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I had hoped to watch something I’ve had in the video backlog for some time: The Diplomat, a 2008 ( dates it a year later, but 2008 is the copyright date) two-part TV-movie made by an Australian company but actually shot in Britain and Germany (though with some patched-in stock shots of Aussie landmarks). As things turned out I was having a hard time staying awake during this movie and burned out after part one — maybe I was just too tired, or maybe The Diplomat is just not that good a movie. Its central premise augurs well: the film opens with its most exciting scene, in which British police led by Detective Chief Inspector Julie Hales (Rachael Blake) are staking out a drug buy in which the drugs are concealed in wooden objects we’re told later are guitar parts (huh?). The cops seem to be waiting for the actual climax of the transaction — the physical exchange of money and drugs — only it gets disrupted by two teenage taggers who show up at the already extensively graffiti’ed location, spray cans at the ready, and find themselves taken hostage by the crooks, forcing the cops to intervene early to get the baddies to release the kids. 

A shoot-out ensues and Hales’ forces arrest the title character, British diplomat Ian Porter (Dougray Scott), who was standing by and apparently supervising the drug deal — though the writing committee (Greg Haddrick, Ronan Innane — oops, I mean Glennane — and Neil Greenwood, story; Peter Galling — oops, I mean Gawler — script) never, at least in part one, bother to explain just what his role is or whether he’s genuinely in league with the Russian Mafia or is infiltrating them as part of a sting operation by MI-6 (the “MI” stands for “Military Intelligence” and MI-6 is essentially the British CIA, while MI-5, charged with domestic intelligence and counter-intelligence, is basically their FBI — James Bond works for MI-6). The main dramatic issue is that whichever side he’s on, Porter refuses to divulge anything he knows about the Russian crooks he’s either working with or infiltrating to Hales and the domestic British police — so, under the guise of offering him “witness protection,” they arrest him and send him and his ex-wife to Australia. They hide him out there in a series of supposedly safe locations, though each one gets compromised and the Russian hit squad assigned to kill Porter crashes each one. The reason the British police sent Porter’s ex-wife Pippa (Claire Forlani, a name I recognize from her similar role in the NCIS: Los Angeles TV series) into so-called “witness protection” with him is that she herself was nearly killed when a truck driven by Russian assassins deliberately rammed her car, and the driver warned her afterwards that they would continue to attack her if she didn’t get her ex to stay silent to British authorities. Judging from the blurb on the box I had imagined that The Diplomat would be a series of flashbacks in which, having been arrested for collaboration with the Russian mob, Porter would tell his story to interrogators and we would slowly be given the truth; instead it turned out to be a surprisingly dull story interspersed with action highlights, all of which came from the Russians’ attempt to kill Porter. 

When one of his safe houses was compromised, Charles joked, “Next they’ll put him in a tree house with no electricity and only canned food,” and he wasn’t far off: his next spot looks like they actually built it into a tree. In the big climax to part one, Porter’s wife (from whom he became estranged on October 3, 2003 — the date is actually given in the script — which was when their son drowned to death in their swimming pool) and the two officers who were supposedly guarding the Porters are all gunned down and killed by Russians, presumably turning Porter into the sort of driven revenge figure that’s become a cliché in stories like this. The Diplomat suffers from the attempts of the writing committee and director Peter Andrikidis to steer it in between a James Bond/Jason Bourne-style actioner and a more serious John Le Carré-type of spy story, and as usual, in attempting both they achieve neither. But the main problem is it’s simply dull: except for the big action set-pieces all too little actually happens, and it doesn’t help that there aren’t any really charismatic actors in the piece or that the people they did cast look an awful lot like each other. The males are all tall, lanky and either dark-haired (Dougray Scott) or sandy-haired — you can reliably tell Scott as the lead apart from the rest only because his hair is darker and his face craggier, which I presume was supposed to mean that he was older than the rest — and of the women, Rachael Blake is blonde and Claire Forlani is dark-haired but that’s about the only difference between them. It’s a pity, because The Diplomat could have been a really good movie and instead it’s just dull, occasionally enlivened with action (Andrikidis is a good director of blood and carnage but he has virtually no sense of suspense — one can readily imagine Alfred Hitchcock looking down from heaven at this movie and asking, “Didn’t you people learn anything from me?”) but mostly just reams of expository dialogue recited by unexciting actors. — 9/5/17


I ran the second half of The Diplomat, the disappointing 2008 intrigue story produced by Australian TV (though actually shot in the United Kingdom, Germany and Tajikistan, but with some stock shots of the Sydney Opera House spliced in at the end to establish “Australianicity”), directed by Peter Andrikidis from a committee-written script (Greg Haddrick, Ronan Glennane and Neil Greenwood, “story,” and Peter Gawler, script) and starring Dougray Scott as Ian Porter, who depending on which story thread you believe is either a British diplomat who sold out to the Russian Mafia and started helping them with drug deals (in the beginning of the film) and, at the end, an attempt to sell a nuclear weapon to terrorists; or a secret agent for MI-6 (basically Britain’s CIA and the agency the fictional James Bond worked for) using his British-diplomat identity as a cover to infiltrate the Russian Mafia and bring it down. We’re not sure which even after this three-hour-plus movie, originally divided into two 95-minute segments for airing on Australian TV, is finally over; the first half is mostly a lot of dull and boring exposition interspersed with occasional action scenes representing the Russian mob’s attempts to kill Our (Anti-)Hero, leading to a climax in which the latest “safe house” in which the British government has arranged with the Australian authorities to keep Porter in what amounts to house arrest (though they euphemistically call it “witness protection” since their intent is to isolate him from human contact until he’s ready to spill the Russian mob’s secrets) is compromised and invaded by a Russian hit squad. 

Porter himself escapes but the Russians kill his estranged wife Pippa (Claire Forlani, playing a role similar to her part on the NCIS: Los Angeles TV series) and one of the two cops who were supposed to be guarding him. (It looked from the ending of part one like both cops were killed, but one of them turns up alive as a character in part two — while Forlani appears in part two in flashbacks representing her family life with Porter and their son, who drowned in their swimming pool five years before the main events of the film.) I was hoping that the loss of his wife (they had broken up following the death of their son but it was clear they were still romantically interested in each other, even though her attempts to resume their sex life were met with world-weary disinterest on his part) would turn him into the sort of impassioned, desperate revenge figure Dick Powell played in Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945) and Glenn Ford played in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), but no such luck: Porter seemed to do the same sort of disinterested glowering throughout part two as he did in part one. We get a lot more pachydermous exposition — including one oddball scene in which Porter’s Javert-like nemesis, British Detective Chief Inspector Julie Hales (Rachael Blake, a first-rate actress whose oddly lumpy face probably is what kept her from the stardom she otherwise deserved), is sworn into the Australian constabulary so she can have jurisdiction over the case and hunt down the nuclear weapon Porter and his Russian mob “handler,” Sergei Krousov (Don Hany, who looks like the Slavic version of Mick Jagger — the producers and casting directors of The Diplomat obviously followed the usual Lifetime practice of making the hottest-looking male in the film the principal villain!), are planning to sell to (unnamed) terrorists. 

The plan the British and Australian police forces work out is to apprehend the mobsters at the airport, but Krousov (whose name I kept hearing as “Khrushchev” throughout the film) double-crosses Porter and insists on driving him to the rendezvous (to which Porter is able to lead the police by simply leaving his cell phone connected — one would have thought crooks as smart as these Russian mobsters are supposed to be would have searched him first, found his phone and destroyed it so it couldn’t be used to track them, but no-o-o-o-o) and then take him in a helicopter that’s going to fly out of Australian jurisdiction, though it gradually becomes apparent that Porter is going to take the mobsters out himself by setting the bomb to explode once it’s safely out to sea, thereby sacrificing his life to kill the Russian mob leader and destroy the bomb he was going to sell to terrorists. The final 10 minutes or so of The Diplomat are actually quite effectively directed by Andrikidis, who in them shows a flair for suspense totally lacking in the rest of this movie, but I didn’t like The Diplomat and I found it that most disappointing sort of bad movie: a bad film that could have been a great one with tighter direction, better screenwriting (Charles and I agreed the people in 1930’s Hollywood could have got this story on and off the screen in less than half the time of the one we have!) and, above all, a stronger, more charismatic actor in the lead. Dougray Scott seems to have got the part mainly because his face shows a Robert Mitchum-style cragginess — but Mitchum was able to make his understated acting style work as a portrayal of diffident machismo (watching the 1962 war epic The Longest Day, in which both Mitchum and John Wayne appeared, I wrote that Mitchum was the authentically masculine man and Wayne the poseur) while Scott seems to go through the entire movie as if he were sleepwalking his way through it — which maybe he was: I can imagine some assistant rousting him awake in his chair on the set and him going, “Thank goodness! That horrible movie was only a dream!” — 9/6/17