Company Business (1991)

Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Gene Hackman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kurtwood Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Daniel von Bargen, Oleg Rudnick, Geraldine Danon
Music by Michael Kamen

Company Business was a spy film that I was really looking forward to seeing. Not because Gene Hackman stars in it, even though I’m a huge fan of Hackman. Not because the production designer was Ken Adam, even though Adam’s futuristic set design in films like Dr. No and Dr. Strangelove revolutionised the way that films could look and feel. And not even because the score was done by Michael Kamen, even though I am fond of Kamen’s scores for Die Hard and Licence To Kill. The name that drew me to Company Business is that of the director Nicolas Meyer. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole heap about Meyer’s career, but what I have seen and read impresses me.

The first time I encountered Nicolas Meyer’s work was when I watched a little film called Time After Time (1979). In it, author H.G. Wells and Jack The Ripper travel forward in time to present day (back then it was 1979). They time travel using ‘The Time Machine’ from Wells’ novel of the same name. The film was pretty good, but it wasn’t great. But what intrigued me was the premise of combining a real life person, like Wells, and then combining it with a literary element, like the Time Machine, and then bringing to the story other characters from history, like Jack The Ripper.

This kind of intextualisation is very common today. Popular examples include The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. But back in 1979, this was an interesting and fresh approach to story telling. Oh wait, I hear you say. They have been mixing up characters and stories for years – What about Billy The Kid Vs Dracula or Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein? Sure, genre and character hopping has been happening for years, but before Time After Time the productions were more like ‘gimmicks’ rather than cohesive, well researched, well read, amalgamations.

My next encounter with Meyer’s work was on a film called The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). Meyer didn’t direct this movie. He wrote the novel on which it was based. The Seven Per Cent Solution is a Sherlock Holmes movie, but like Time After Time, the line between the literary world and the real world was blurred. In the story Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. I haven’t seen the The Seven Per Cent Solution in years, but I remember enjoying it. The film seems impossible to find now. Some Amazon Sellers seem to have copies, but the prices start from US$229.00. I think you’d have to be a pretty fanatical Holmes fan to shell out that kind of money for a film.

The next time I watched a Meyer film, he had reached the big time. He was at the helm of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – in my opinion, still the best of the Star trek films. If you listen carefully, the film is littered with literary allusions, from Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens to Herman Melville – From hell’s heart, I stab at thee! Meyer was invited back to direct Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, and once again he delivered a fantastic film filled with literary references.

That brings us to Company Business, written and directed by Meyer. For me, espionage is the perfect genre for mixing fictional and real events or characters. It is already a common practice. How many times have we had Kim Philby or Carlos The Jackal placed in fictional stories. Most of the time though, this is revisionist story telling, where the failures of the Western intelligence communities are righted by a fictional hero.

But now, let’s look at the film before us: Company Business. The film is set just before the fall of Communism in Russia. The Berlin wall is down, and Gorbachev is still in power. But back in Fort Worth, Texas, retired CIA spook, Sam Boyd (Gene Hackman) is doing a little industrial espionage for the Maxine Grey Cosmetic company. It appears that one of their competitors has been stealing their formulas. Boyd, rather unconvincingly, garners the evidence and presents it to the Chairman of Maxine Grey, played by Shane Rimmer. Bond fans will remember Rimmer as Commander Carter in The Spy Who Loved Me, but he also played uncredited technicians in Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice. In fact Rimmer is an American actor who lives in London, so whenever there is a British spy film, that needs an American, they often turn to Rimmer. Apart from the Bond films, he has appeared in Dr. Strangelove, The Saint, Danger Man, The Persuaders, Scorpio, S.P.Y.S., The Human Factor, Quiller, Return Of The Saint, A Man Called Intrepid, Charlie Muffin, The Holcroft Covenant, The Bourne Identity (1988), and Spy Game. Rimmer’s role in this film lasts for about 30 seconds.

After Boyd has tied up his industrial espionage case, he catches a flight to Washington. It appears the old boy is being called out of retirement by his old employers, the C.I.A. It appears Elliot Jaffe (Kurtwood Smith) and Colonel Grissom (Terry O’Quinn) have a little mission that isn’t exactly above board. They need a man who is not on the books. What is this mission? It appears that a Russian General Grigori Golitsin (Oleg Rudnick) wants to sell back Ernest Sobel to the Americans. Sobel was a U2 spy plane pilot that was shot down and captured in 1969. The Russians are willing to sell him back for two million dollars. But so it seems like an exchange, rather than a payoff, the American are swapping Pyiotr Grushenko (Mikhail Barishnikov) for Sobel. Boyd’s mission is to go to Germany and swap Grusenko and the money for Sobel. As this deal is ‘under the table’, Boyd will have no backup.

Boyd agrees to the mission and heads to the penitentiary at Fort William to pick up Grushenko. As he travels, on his car radio he hears that a prominent college professor, Norbert Kelly has gone missing. After picking up Grushenko, both men catch a flight to Berlin. Boyd hires a car and they drive past the remains of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. This symbolises that things are changing and both Boyd and Grushenko are dinosaurs. The world is not as they once knew it. So they head to a restaurant and get drunk. That’s what old spies do!

The next day, Boyd and Grushenko go to an underground train station that has been closed to the public for maintenance. The underground train system passes into the old East Germany for two stops. At the second is where the exchange will take place. Boyd and Grushenko get onboard a train and head down the line. At the location, both men get out. Grushenko is given the case of money. He has to walk through a no-man’s land to another train further along the track. He walks. And from the other end, U2 pilot, Sobel walks towards Boyd. As Sobel walks forward, something doesn’t seem right. Through his binoculars, Boyd watches Sobel’s movements and mannerisms. Boyd doesn’t think it is Sobel at all. In fact he thinks that it is a man he saw at the airport in Washington a few days previously – a man who happens to resemble the missing college professor.

Boyd calls a halt to the exchange. From the Russian side, agents start to fire their machine guns. Boyd rushes into no man’s land firing his pistol. He rescues Grushenko, and then with the Russians at their heels they make their way back to their train. Boyd takes the controls and races through the underground system to safety. I am sure that Boyd was just lucky that all the train lines happened to be clear on that morning, and that is how he could go anywhere he wanted. I’d hate to think that it was a silly plot contrivance!

After leaving the train, Boyd and Grushenko seek refuge in a gay bar. Boyd phones in to headquarters to ask for instructions. He is directed to a safe house. After the incident at the exchange, Grushenko isn’t as trusting as Boyd. At the safe house, he refuses to just walk in. From across the street, he shoots at the door bell. His hunch is right. When the bullet hits the bell, the whole safe house explodes. The door bell was wired to a large amount of explosive.

From then on, it’s a new ball game for Boyd and Grushenko. They no longer can trusts the Russian or the Americans. They are not even sure that they can trust each other. But therein lies the strength of Company Business. Sure it’s a spy film, but at it’s heart it’s also a buddy film, and the teaming of Hackman and Barishnikov works surprisingly well.

Because the Meyer films and stories I had seen or read, have such rich intertextual bases, I expected Company Business to be the same. But it in fact is a fairly straight spy story. I could make all sorts of ridiculous claims, trying to link Company Business to other great spy films and novels. For example: The casting of Shane Rimmer in a minor role, is a nod to the three Bond films in which he played minor roles – Driving past, where Checkpoint Charlie once stood is a homage to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Having the exchange take place in Berlin echoes Funeral In Berlin – and I could go on making this stuff up. Spy films, particularly Cold War ones have such a rich, but in many ways similar history, it is easy to manipulate the similarities to make plot lines seem like deliberate homage’s. Whereas in fact, Company Business doesn’t seem to be trying to evoke any previous spy films.

Even on a literary level, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to layer the dialogue with lines from famous novels – spy or otherwise. Company Business seems to be telling it’s own story in it’s own style. And that’s a good thing, but not quite what I expected from Nicolas Meyer.

What you get from Company Business is 94 minutes of entertainment, with no pretensions.

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