RUSSIAN ROULETTE. Embassy Pictures, 1975. George Segal, Christina Raines, Bo Brundin, Denholm Elliot, Richard Romanus, Gordon Jackson, Louise Fletcher, Peter Donat, Nigel Stock, Val Avery, Screenplay by Stanley Mann, Jack Trolley, Arnold Margolin, and Tom Ardles, based on the latter’s novel, Kosygin is Coming. Directed by Lou Lombardo.

   I was halfway into this late Cold War, early Glastnost, thriller set in a wet grungy version of a Vancouver so unattractive Canada should have boycotted the studio that made it when I realized I had seen it before. I’m not sure why I so roundly forgot it, but I surely did.

   In retrospect I suspect PTSD (no, I am not making light of PTSD, I have PTSD) from having seen it the first time.

   George Segal is Corporal Shaver of the RCMP, a plainclothes cop with an attitude and a life vaguely falling apart because he is on leave for punching his superior, Peter Donat, in the eye. As we meet him he is meeting with seedy Special Branch agent Denholm Elliot in a bar for Veterans with amputations (just why Elliot and Segal are members is never quite covered, nor is why if both belong to a small club neither knows the other).

   Elliot has the good sense to play the whole film as if he can’t quite figure out how to get out of it.

   Anyway, Elliot has a job to offer Shaver, one that might save his police career, and at the minor cost of his conscience. Rudoplph Henke (Val Avery) is a deviant Russian dissident living in Vancouver, a pain in the ass to everyone, and the Canadian government would like him out of the way during an upcoming diplomatic visit by Soviet Premier Kosygin — something the KGB, in the person of an insistent Soviet security expert (Bo Brundin) is pressing.

   All Segal has to do is kidnap the unpleasant Henke and keep him on ice for a few days. Hey, it’s Canada, no pesky Constitution to deal with, no big deal, right ?

   Meanwhile a flashy American, Richard Romanus, has arrived in Vancouver with a gun and a photograph of Henke. Obviously things are going to get complicated.

   And there lies the problem, aside from the grungy look of the film. The plot is absurdly complicated, and a film that builds up some real suspense toward the end with a race to save the target, is burdened by questions that don’t get answered and a Rube Goldberg construct of complications that really don’t seem necessary.

   If the Soviets had operated like this, we wouldn’t have had to wait nearly twenty years until they failed.

   So when Segal goes to kidnap Henke, only to have him snatched under his nose by someone else, rather than go to Elliot or his superiors, he decides to play private eye and find out what happened to Henke. This involves the receptionist at the RCMP he has broken up with (Raines) and her friend, a totally wasted Louise Fletcher. Because obviously a scene indicating Henke was violently kidnapped doesn’t need reporting to the authorities, who blithely assume Segal did his job.

   Later he doesn’t bother to report when his friend, another policeman, is murdered and left in Raines bathroom for information Segal already got somewhere else (and if it is that easy to find why kill … well, this film doesn’t bother to think these things through). Nothing had happened since Segal made a bad guy walk the plank off a railroad bridge and a body always picks things up. At least it does in better movies than this.

   We however pretty much know why Segal’s character is on suspension. He’s a lousy cop, he punched a superior, bungled a simple job and lied about it, drowned a suspect and claimed his new expensive sports car, and failed to report the death of a policeman.

   It doesn’t help that at several points Segal’s Shaver just suddenly knows things, like that Romanus, who offers him a lift when his car is towed (from a ski resort Segal has driven all the way to so he can speak to colleague Gordon Jackson who is coming back to town anyway), is trying to kidnap him. Just out of nowhere, because he’s the hero and Romanus character is about to be written out of the story, he knows the American giving him a lift is out to kidnap him.

   He doesn’t recognize him, Romanus hasn’t been following him, there is nothing suspicious about his car being towed (until later when it is, and meanwhile Segal hasn’t tied his car being towed to the coincidence of his being nearly kidnapped), and he doesn’t learn anything valuable from Romanus, though he does get Romanus nice Jensen Interceptor rather than the clunker he’s been driving.

   As far as I can tell, Romanus’s whole point in the film is so Segal’s character gets to drive that car.

   I had a Jensen in the seventies. It is worth at least a Richard Romanuses, I promise you.

   Of course. as you might imagine, Elliot and everyone is lying to Segal, and he begins to piece it together. Henke isn’t a Russian dissident, but an American CIA agent (why in the hell a CIA agent would pose as an anti-Soviet and live in Vancouver to spy on the Soviets is one of the bigger holes in the plot), and everyone but Segal knows that including the KGB Colonel who promptly kidnaps Segal and Raines and reveals his plot to assassinate Kosygin, for getting too friendly with the West, using the drugged CIA agent covered in explosives (and no, they never do explain how he is supposed to get close enough to blow up Kosygin since he is stoned out of his gourd) sitting in the doorway of a phony police helicopter (because the RCMP would never notice a stray helicopter while trying to protect a world leader or stop a staggering man wearing explosives from getting near a world leader).

   Raines and Segal escape from the farm where they are being held, and at least some suspense (about mid-film the director spends a pointless ten minutes as Segal goes from one Chinese restaurant to another looking for Elliot) kicks in as a race/chase ensues with cars zipping everywhere, quick cuts to the helicopter and drugged Henke, a whole Road Runner thing with Segal and the Soviet Colonel, and rooftop shootout between Segal, the Colonel, and the helicopter in downtown Vancouver, that, true to the quality of work Segal’s Shaver has shown up to now, ends with him murdering a CIA agent he could have stopped with a bullet to the knee.

   At one point he and Raines escape by causing a car wreck. He then takes the keys to the handcuffs from the dead driver and frees them, but does he take the gun the man almost certainly has — no, because if he had a gun, he could just shoot a couple of bad guys who are about to chase him. It’s that kind of brainless plotting that sabotages this at every turn.

   When he hands his boss Donat the rifle he confiscated from another policeman at film’s end, I half expected Donat to shoot him. The man is a menace. Clouseau is more capable.

   Did I mention this movie makes some of the worse music choices in the history of suspense movies that work to sabotage an already confused and confusing story?

   I’m not sure what anyone thought they were doing. The whole movie is ugly. Literally they cannot find one attractive thing is all of Vancouver and the surrounding countryside. Even the ski lodge is photographed ugly.

   Segal is better than the material, but wasted, and the amateurish confused direction and screenplay are frankly terrible. Good actors are given underwritten dialogue with no motivation and much of what does happen in the film is stretched to the breaking point where it could have been covered in a few lines of decent exposition.

   About fifteen minutes of suspense at the end doesn’t excuse the fact that nothing, including the big chase, makes any sense at all. They don’t give the viewer the chance Russian roulette (that’s another problem, the title gives too much away) does in real life. They load this one with duds and fire them all at the unsuspecting audience.

   But other than that, I liked it.