Sleeping Dogs is the second of the Circles of Deceit TV movies (recently released on DVD from Acorn) starring Dennis Waterman as an aging former SAS soldier turned MI5 operative John Neil. After the tragic events of the first movie, The Wolves are Howling (review here), Neil has retreated back into his private, alcohol-fuelled seclusion in Northumberland. But he did a good job on the Irish mission, and seems too good a man to let go without a struggle. So when his former colleague, played by Susan Jameson, is appointed Controller of MI5 (remember, this is ’95, the same year Judi Dench took over as M during Stella Rimington's tenure as the first publicly identified Director-General of MI5), she seeks him out and basically dares him to come out of retirement. Between SAS veterans who’ve seen combat together (in a highly unconvincing flashback set in Libya in 1983, made to look even sorrier in comparison to the combat scenes in the recent SAS drama Strike Back), that seems to work. And so, a little bit fitter than when we last saw him, with additional facial hair (which becomes him), and with a trendy new female boss instead of Derek Jacobi, John Neil is suddenly back in action and the one-off drama Circle of Deceit has, two years later, become the series Circles of Deceit.
Sleeping Dogs is much more of an espionage story than The Wolves Are Howling, which dealt with terrorism. Neil is sent to visit an aging former KGB colonel in Paris who wants to sell information. It’s his job to determine if the information is even worth buying four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Since the fall of the Wall, it’s a buyer’s market,” he tells the would-be seller, Colonel Petrov.
Petrov is played by portly spy veteran Leo McKern (The Prisoner, Hot Enough For June, Help!) with great joviality, very much along the lines of Oskar Homolka’s Colonel Stok in the Harry Palmer movies. McKern doesn’t even attempt a Russian accent (at least I don’t think he did…), but he’s one of those larger-than-life screen presences who doesn’t need to, like Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October. Petrov gives Neil two names as a free sample demonstrating the quality of his decades-old intel. Unfortunately, he’s murdered shortly thereafter, giving the Controller plenty of reason to believe that the names are valuable. It’s up to Neil to figure out why.
One of them, Annie Shepherd (Frances Barber, a Reilly: Ace of Spies vet who now plays that eyepatch lady on Doctor Who), is a sexy, mature woman (who teaches adult education classes in German), so of course Neil ends up falling for her, even though she might be a Russian sleeper agent… or worse. The other, Bill Roper, is a wealthy software designer who drives a white Lotus Esprit Turbo.
The Lotus is involved in a car chase (well, a pursuit, anyway, as Neil follows him, but not at high speed). It doesn’t turn into a submarine, but submersible capabilities aside, any screen time for a white Lotus is sure to increase my opinion of a spy movie—not that it really needs increasing in this case.
Like The Wolves are Howling, Sleeping Dogs is solid spy entertainment. The production values don’t seem quite as high as they were on the first entry, but there’s still a large enough budget to destroy a few cars and deploy a few helicopters. (And a little of that stuff goes a lot farther in a more serious spy drama like this than it would in a Bond imitation.) There’s also some much more elaborate fighting than in the first movie, including a particularly violent struggle to the death between Roper and an assassin who might be working for the Russians or might be IRA.
Yes, the IRA is involved again (and still harboring a serious grudge against Neil for the blow he dealt them last time out), as are former KGB and Stasi agents, various freelance assassins and Paul Freeman (Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark), all of which adds up to a fun and intricate plot.
Freeman is so good as a slick, slimy, upper-crust MI5 official that I’m surprised he doesn’t get this kind of role more often! Neil makes an uneasy alliance with a sadistic ex-Stasi assassin and puts his trust in Annie (despite his boss’s belief that she’s a dangerous KGB sleeper) to pull all these threads together and stop an imminent threat to a rapidly approaching summit meeting.
Like The Wolves are Howling (again), Sleeping Dogs doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, but it does a very good job with tropes tried and true. The plot is a sort of mash-up of various Len Deighton and Ken Follet elements (all good things), and Neil himself (well played by the likable Waterman) remains a compelling, if not terribly original, character.
Like James Bond, he’s ultimately a blunt instrument wielded by the state. And that seems to give him the edge over the radicals and zealots he comes up against. Unfortunately, it also makes him ideologically incompatible with his potential lover, who’s passionate about her political beliefs. “Petrov explained it to me,” Neil tells Annie, recalling a conversation he didn’t quite understand at the time but comes to over the course of the movie. “He said he never recruited anyone with political beliefs. Just people like me.”
“And what did he mean?” she inquires. “People like you?”
“Just… ones who can’t live any other way.”