Martin Sheen as Alex Holbeck in Enigma

Sheen's Coded Mission

"Enigma" is what I would call an old style cold war spy thriller as we watch an agent heading to the other side of the Berlin Wall to try and steal an important scrambling device from the Russians. It has all the aspects of a classic thriller, the adventure of this agent trying to go around unnoticed, the danger he encounters, the nasty Russian officers who are hot on his trail as well as an obligatory romantic sub plot. But "Enigma" isn't a cheesy spy thriller; it is surprisingly well made delivering just the right amount of thrills from the danger and action without ever going over the top and corny. It throws twists at us which are well worked into the storyline and the whole romantic subplot adds another layer, a layer which has to be said is quite beautiful. As such "Enigma" is a surprisingly good thriller which like so many can be picked to pieces under closes analysis but works to the point that by the time it comes to an end at a comfortable 102 minutes you will have enjoyed what you watched.

When the CIA discovers that 5 Soviet dissidents are set to be assassinated they are helpless to save them unless they can get their hands on a Russian scrambler device to intercept crucial messages. Persuading former defector Alex Holbeck (Martin Sheen - The Cassandra Crossing) to return to East Germany, Alex must try and steal a scrambler before it is too late, except the minute he arrives in the country he becomes aware that the authorities especially the cold and calculated Dimitri Vasilikov (Sam Neill - Wimbledon), are already on to him. And so Alex will have to use all his talents and the help of former girl friend Karen Reinhardt (Brigitte Fossey) to achieve his goal and escape before it is too late.

Brigitte Fossey and Sam Neill in Enigma

Now to be honest "Enigma" is surprisingly confusing for at least the first third of the movie as it tries to build up the intrigue. We are given limited information and so learn that former defector Alex Holbeck has been persuaded to go back behind the Iron Curtain to try and steal an "Enigma" machine, a Russian scrambling device used in a handful of computers. And we know that the reason to do so is that it has come to light that the Russians plan to assassinate 5 dissidents but which ones and where, is the reason why Holbeck needs to get the scrambler. But that is about it, relationships are sketchy as is the reason why Holbeck has been chosen. It is very confusing although all does become clear the further you get into the movie as do who the various characters are when it comes to the Russians who are trying to get to him before he gets the scrambler.

Confusion out of the way and there is something quite familiar about "Enigma" with Holbeck hooking up with former friends, members of some underground resistance in order to get the scrambler. And so we get introduced to the romantic sub plot as he ends up getting close to former lover Karen Reinhardt once again. But rather than just being all very obvious this familiar territory is well worked with Holbeck employing various realistic disguises to move around whilst we get the drama of the Russians doing what ever they can, including humiliating interrogation techniques, to get to him. All of which culminates as you would expect with Holbeck staging a daring robbery on a high security building to get the scrambler. But before it gets there we get twists, duplicitous activity which ends up explaining why he is there and clearing up the confusion which filled the first third of the movie.

But we also get the romantic sub plot which rather than being weak padding is actually crucial to the story as Karen dupes Russian official Dimitri Vasilikov into falling for her. It is an integral part of the storyline and is actually surprisingly romantic with director Jeannot Szwarc really capturing something very special through his wonderful eye for a shot. Talking of which it has to be said that Szwarc's direction through out is pretty spot on, delivering the sense of thrill and intrigue without ever going over the top and making it cliche. And whilst filmed in France rather than Germany the sets and buildings look spot adding to the sense of atmosphere.

And it has to be said that Szwarc also gets some fine performances out of an impressive cast. Martin Sheen delivers a nicely restrained performance as Alex Holbeck, giving him an almost average Joe style but at the same time making it believable that he is capable of hiding behind disguises and putting his life in danger. Not once does Sheen over egg the performance and at the same time as delivering a sense of realism when it comes to being a spy also gets the romantic layer spot on, delivering the emotion with out letting it over power his scenes.

Sam Neill is just as effective as Dimitri Vasilikov with a coldness about him in the way he sets about trying to track down and stop Alex, ramping up the emotional frustration as the storyline proceeds. And at the same time gets the romantic side of his character spot on, delivering a believable performance as Dimitri falls for Karen. Talking of which, Brigitte Fossey holds her own as Karen Reinhardt and most significantly makes you wonder whether she did really fall for Dimitri when asked to dupe him into falling in love with her. It is these trio who make "Enigma" so enthralling but they are also helped by solid performances from Derek Jacobi, Michael Lonsdale, Frank Finlay and Michael Williams.

What this all boils down to is that "Enigma" is a surprisingly entertaining cold war thriller. I say surprising because quite frankly there have been a lot of cold war spy thrillers and most of them just sort of merge into one but "Enigma" gets it for the most right. It may have a storyline which feels familiar but director Jeannot Szwarc works it well delivering a sense of realism to it and never once over egging any of the elements even the romantic sub plot. Plus whilst Jeannot Szwarc does his job well so do all the actors especially Martin Sheen, Sam Neill and Brigitte Fossey who are for the most faultless.