Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 22, 2023)
Back in 1910, noted author Jack London got a story idea from fellow famous writer Sinclair Lewis and attempted to develop it. However, London got about 20,000 words into The Assassination Bureau before he bailed because he could not figure out a good conclusion.
More than 50 years later, Robert L. Fish took the unfinished manuscript and wrapped it up for publication in 1963. Six years after that, The Assassination Bureau made it to movie screens.
Set in London circa 1908, journalist Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg) uncovers the existence of a group called “The Assassination Bureau, Limited”. This organization has existed for decades and its members will kill high-profile targets – but only if they can find a strong moral justification for these actions.
Outraged by this notion, Winter attempts to subvert its pursuits with a unique challenge: bankrolled by publisher Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas), she takes out a contract on Bureau chairman Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). True to his mission, Dragomiloff reacts to this with excitement, as he enjoys his unusual position as the prey instead of as the hunter.
I suspect most of us think of associate Jack London with rugged “man vs. nature” tales like Call of the Wild. A wild mix of action and comedy such as Bureau didn’t seem like it’d come as part of his MO.
Whatever the case, Bureau seems like an intriguing prospect. With a dark view of humanity and an impish tone, the film feels ripe to deliver a giddy and violent romp.
Alas, Bureau fails to live up to its potential. Although it offers moderate entertainment, it plays matters too safe to really connect.
At its core, Bureau feels like it should give us a crazed romp along the lines of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. With characters who trust no one and fear violence at every turn, the movie’s comedy needs to let it rip and not hold back.
However, Bureau seems unwilling go for the gusto. It dabbles with the appropriate levels of lunacy but never manages to achieve anything clever or witty enough to soar.
The loose narrative doesn’t help. Granted, a cat and mouse tale like Bureau doesn’t necessarily lead toward a concise, A to Z story.
Nonetheless, what plot we find hops all over the place and never comes across as terribly smooth. Bureau often seems more like a collection of connected comedy/action pieces than a real plot.
Bureau also just doesn’t seem as cynical as it should, and the trite involvement of a romantic subplot doesn’t help. We don’t need Sonia and Ivan to fall for each other, but I guess those involved thought audiences expected leads played by Rigg and Reed to get together and felt compelled to follow suit.
This becomes nothing but an unnecessary distraction, and it doesn’t help that Reed and Rigg don’t really connect. Reed feels miscast as a “man of 1000 faces” as well, for the role seems more appropriate to a broader talent like Peter Sellers.
Not that Reed lacked skill, of course. However, he simply doesn’t pull off the chameleonic nature of the part, and he can feel stiff here.
None of this makes Bureau an unpleasant viewing experience, as its clever premise and professional execution mean that it remains watchable. It just doesn’t live up to expectations related to its concept and potential.