Film: Russian Roulette

March 24, 2019

Older movies aren’t necessarily better movies. For an act or so, Russian Roulette (1975) possesses the nostalgic watchability of grubby seventies cinema, but overall it’s pretty terrible. Shaver (George Segal) is a suspended, loose-cannon member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver. When a disheveled Special Branch officer named Petapiece (Denholm Elliott) recruits him to take a shady Russian criminal into custody in advance of an important summit, Shaver sees an opportunity to earn his way back into the force’s good graces. But he soon finds himself in over his head, confronting a devious assassination plot spearheaded by Russian intelligence.

If you’ve ever been curious what Vancouver, B.C. looked like back in the mid-seventies, Russian Roulette — filmed on location — is the movie for you. Otherwise, this is a justifiably obscure movie, a clumsy, far-from-ingenious spy thriller. In a genre frequently characterized as “competence porn,” Russian Roulette is rife with incompetence — especially from its hero, who doesn’t seem particularly good at what he does, nor likable while he’s doing it. Elliott is a quirky presence, and Richard Romanus is vaguely amusing as a criminal heavy Shaver mixes is up with. But when the mystery falls away in the third act, the film lurches into silly, clumsily shot action-adventure, landing with a thud. I suppose it was nice to temporarily revisit an era where the threat of Russian meddling could be so basic and cartoonish, and the film’s dingy cinematography provides an interesting, modest look at the Vancouver of yesteryear. But those are pretty much the only things the film has going for it.