Film: Enigma (1982)

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.

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