“ZEPPELINS. BOMBS. BORDELLOS. BURIALS. RIGG. REED.”
This is one of several taglines attached to the marketing for the Basil Dearden-directed (Dead of Night) action comedy The Assassination Bureau, a film adapted from a Jack London (The Call of the Wild) novel and released into theaters in 1969. Despite leads Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service/Game of Thrones) and Oliver Reed (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen/Gladiator), the film didn’t make much of a mark when Paramount Pictures released it, though that may be more likely due to the historical events at the time rather than the film itself. Now, however, this dark-tinged comedic actioner has a chance to be met with a more welcoming audience as Arrow Video offers a high-definition edition with the original audio track, an image gallery, a brand-new feature-length audio commentary track, and a nearly 30-minute featurette exploring the film itself.
London, 1908, and the world is a few years from its first World War. Yet, there is no real peace as burgeoning reporter Sonya Winter (Rigg) discovers evidence there to be an organization responsible for a series of assassinations that have taken place over the years in various parts of the world. In an effort to bring them into the light, she is hired by newspaper owner Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) to make contact with the organization. Upon making contact with the chairperson of the organization now known as The Assassination Bureau Limited, Ivan Dragomiloff (Reed), Winter hires Dragomiloff to put a contract on himself as Winter believes the organization to be a scourge on society. Rather than scoff her away, Dragomiloff uses it as an opportunity to test his team to see if they’re as criminal as Winter proclaims. What neither realize is that they may be pawns in a greater and more dangerous plot.
In checking out the trailer after the initial release announcement, there was a sense that all the surprises or twists inside The Assassination Bureau had been revealed. The discovery by Winter, the hiring of Dragomiloff to set up his own death, and the eventual consummation of their will-they-won’t-they banter. Considering the magnetism of Rigg and Reed on their own, it makes sense to pair the two together in the tale and the results are incredible fun! More importantly, what the film is about is still well-hidden by trailer so that the audience only knows that they’re going to get an action romp, unaware of the teeth within. Outwardly, using examples of today, Bureau is a little like if the Kingsman series merged with a confidence film. The Assassination Bureau Limited sees themselves as an organization who is hired to remove people from existence, human life being extraordinarily valuable and also highly replaceable; yet, Dragomiloff operates the organization in the same way his father did, through the view that all who are removed by the hand of the Bureau are ethically or morally corrupt. From a logistical perspective, this keeps Dragomiloff clear from any sense of satisfying a bloodlust, making him more businessman than killer, but one who operates not with a capitalistic approach (committing murder for the purpose of generating wealth) but with a consideration for his fellow humans as only targets deemed dangerous to humanity are removed. It makes sense to maintain the pre-World War I setting of the novel (it was written before the war began in 1914) as it allows the world to feel far less 11-minutes-to-midnight and thereby makes the destruction of the Bureau (either by the loss of Dragomiloff or the organization as a whole) take on greater weight as if the organization could somehow prevent a greater tragedy from occurring. It’s here that the film bares its teeth as we discover that the endgame is for Dragomiloff to be killed so as to allow the Bureau to make bigger moves behind the scenes, going so far as to violently disrupt a peace convention, kicking off global tensions years ahead of where they would go in reality. Amid all the tomfoolery, sharp wits, and cranial combat, there is an undercurrent question as to whether those with the power to remove threats possess a moral obligation to take action and, if yes, should they function independently of country or notoriety.
Within the historical context of the original release, this question certainly doesn’t help the film garner any favors. By the time Paramount Pictures released Bureau, a film starring then Avengers (1961-1969) star Rigg and Oliver! (1968) star Reed (among their other works), the Civil Rights Movement was well underway in the United States, with tragedies such as Medgar Evers (1963), President John F. Kennedy (1963), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (1968) still freshly carved upon the country. The idea that audiences might want to go see a silly, caricatures-filled action comedy centered around the leader of a group that is hired to commit such acts seems quite ridiculous in hindsight. It’s for similar reasons that Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints (1999) basically shot straight to DVD after the Columbine shooting (1999), trenchcoat-wearing The Matrix (1999) just barely missing the impacts, and that’s a single modern example of media releasing at the wrong time in the view of the public. Watching it now, however, without that cultural aspect, one can sit back and enjoy the quickly paced narrative excellently performed by two leads that appear to be having a ball together.
Interestingly, for a film with quite a bit of on-screen violence, it’s quite tame overall, leaning more into the ridiculous than sincere, enabling them to get away with quite a bit more. On the other hand, it’s quite sexy, the chemistry between Riggs and Reed alarming in so much as the delayed gratification of the characters getting together made the actors’ scene-work even more enjoyable and tension-filled. Especially with the few moments of bared skin (neither of the leads) being exceptionally tame, I’d feel fairly comfortable showing this film to my eldest as he’d likely enjoy the lovely production design, the clear-yet-comical execution of the kills we do get on-screen which repetitiously use the same explosion in different colors to denote bombings and smart blocking to avoid anything grotesque on-screen, as well as the frequent use of situational awareness rather than brute force to make it through each encounter.
In a regular home release review, especially one of an older theatrical release, I would offer information on the packaging, any included physical home release materials, as well as share the process of creating the print. Though a review copy was provided by MVD Entertainment Group to conduct this home release review, it is a check disc and only comes accompanied by the film and on-disc materials. According to the press release and official release sites, the retail edition does include an illustrated collector’s booklet (first-pressing only), as well as a reversible liner to display one of two covers.
Let’s be clear: this is not a restoration so much as a high-definition release. The difference being that it appears, for better or worse, that Bureau did not undergo any color correction or audio adjustment in the development of this edition. While it certainly is a colorful film and of a markedly better quality than the original trailer makes it appear, there’s plenty of visible grain and the audio requires quite a bit of adjustment as the dialogue often dips depending on the shot (closer is clearer; further is more distant). This doesn’t detract from the general frivolity of the film, but as Arrow Video does release quite a few restorations in 2K, 4K, and 4K UHD, one would’ve expected a bit more clarity of image and sound. Again, the flesh tones are more natural, the clothes and locations lush, and there is improved balance in overall tone from the original Technicolor release, but it’s not where one can really take in the brilliance of 1960s cinema masquerading as the early 1900s.
The bonus features, while meager, are rich. As mentioned, there’s the original theatrical trailer, as well as an image gallery. The collection is a mixture of on-set and promotional photography, inviting us to see the cast in character as they work or to get a sense of how Paramount Pictures marketed the film via their various marketing materials. If you’re a cinema history fan, this is pretty neat to explore. However, be advised that, though the gallery is set up like an auto-run for 1:02-minutes, it must be manually controlled, requiring that the viewer press either play or forward to move to the next image. That said, you can set it to fast-forward in order to create a sense of an auto-scroll, saving the viewer time and energy. Additionally, there’s a brand-new new audio commentary with authors Sean Hogan and Kim Newman, who explore the film, offer various tidbits about the cast and their other projects (like the Bond connection), and generally add some whimsy to the already light film. For the proper historical context, make sure to check out the 27-minute featurette “Right Film, Wrong Time” from critic, broadcaster, and cultural historian Matthew Sweet. Watching the film in 2023, I appreciate the performances from Rigg, Reed, Savalas, and the rest of the cast, swept up in the violent play and frequent silliness, but I wouldn’t have considered the poor timing of the release of the project. Understanding the historical context brings the film into a sharper relief, making one wonder if the idea of a secret sect using their moral code to kill is something one should derive any kind of enjoyment from. Within the context of the film, certainly as Sweet discusses it, I feel comfortable in the viewing (and hopefully rewatching with my children when they’re older), but possessing the awareness brings a bit of depth to the experience where I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Overall, despite the lack of a restoration which would improve the picture and sound, The Assassination Bureau is a rousing bit of cheeky fun whose energy still pops off the screen. For those looking for a deeper dive into the production, it’s admittedly frustrating that there’s only the Sweet featurette and feature-length commentary as the Imprint release in 2021 includes its own commentary track, as well as two featurettes (one from Newman and one from film historian Kat Ellinger). If only there was a way to gather them all into one release, at which point home viewers weren’t feeling like they were missing out. That said, I don’t think first-time viewers (like this reviewer) will mind too much as the film is a delight on its own.
The Assassination Bureau Special Features:
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
- Original lossless English mono audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- Brand new audio commentary with authors Sean Hogan and Kim Newman
- Right Film, Wrong Time, a 30-minute appreciation by critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet
- Original trailer
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork choices
Available from Arrow Video April 25th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Paramount Pictures The Assassination Bureau webpage.
For more information on the release, head to the official Arrow Video The Assassination Bureau webpage.
To purchase, head to the official MVD Entertainment Group The Assassination Bureau webpage.
Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews
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