Film: Enigma (1982)

August 10, 2020

It starts slowly, over-relies on a rushed romance, and is beset by a certain cheesy 1980s ambience, but Enigma (1982) makes up for its flaws with a clever third act and a deft resolution. This spy drama features Martin Sheen as Alex Holbeck, an East German expatriate who fled the Soviet Bloc. He now lives in Paris, a radio broadcaster who serves as an inspiring voice for dissidents from abroad. When the CIA learns of a Russian plot to kill five other former-Soviet dissidents in a coordinated assassination, they recruit the resourceful Holbeck. His mission: go back across the Iron Curtain to steal an Enigma-like scrambler device — the key to decrypting the unbreakable Russian code that will identify the targets, and thereby save their lives. Already motivated by idealism, Holbeck also has a hidden agenda: seeing his ex, Karen Reinhardt (Brigitte Fossey), whom he left behind and quietly still loves. Unexpectedly, she becomes the key to executing the heist.

Oh, Enigma is far from a spy genre classic. Its abrupt beats are on the mechanistic side as it herky-jerks from character to character across Europe. In the early acts, it unfolds with predictable rhythms. Unlike many films of this sort, it eschews phony accents, which can often be a good decision — but here it’s not, since weirdly all the enemy officers have British accents. Another major drawback is that a primary spoke of the plot’s wheel is a whirlwind romance between Karen and a dashing Russian villain played by Sam Neill, which happens with such off-hand hastiness that it’s doesn’t sell the wrenching emotion the turns of the plot require.

Nonetheless, I kind of liked Enigma, which slots neatly into my comfort-food diet. Even at its least effective, it makes for a fun diversion, with Sheen providing an accessible spy hero, and Fossey an effective love interest. The lead-up is dry, but the impossible mission itself — as Holbeck executes both the primary heist and then labors to rescue Karen from the enemy hands — contains nice, twisty misdirections and urgent action. It all builds to an understated and satisfying character-based climax that works pretty well considering the unconvincing romance it hinges upon. Ultimately this one won’t blow anyone’s mind, but it’s a pleasant enough watch for those of us who enjoy this kind of grainy, old-school spy film.