It takes courage, or maybe something more like foolhardiness, to take on a role that will be forever associated with the young Michael Caine. The sexy, cocksure, contemptuous, hard-as-nails Michael Caine. Alfie, for God’s sake.
Or in the current instance, Harry Palmer, the larcenous soldier turned secret agent of the 1965 Cold War thriller “The Ipcress File,” which has been remade as a six-episode series that premieres Thursday on AMC+. Joe Cole, who played one of the criminal brothers in “Peaky Blinders,” takes on the thankless task of following Caine, donning Harry’s thick eyeglasses and rough-and-tumble East End attitude.
The original “Ipcress File,” based on a novel by Len Deighton, regularly shows up on lists of the best spy films, even though it’s not very good. Pauline Kael called it overwrought and rather silly, a judgment that looks even more apt a half-century on. Its attractions are limited to Caine’s charisma, 1960s London atmosphere (grimy and groovy), some garish energy and a measure of chic sadism (the common link in Caine’s films from that time).
So the good news is that Cole doesn’t have to equal Caine for this “Ipcress File” to be an improvement, and in many ways it is. The team behind it has done good and interesting work before: The writer, John Hodge, scripted the “Trainspotting” movies, and the director and cinematographer, James Watkins and Tim Maurice-Jones, worked together on the frightening feature “The Woman in Black.”
And in re-adapting Deighton’s story of kidnapped scientists, psychedelic brainwashing and the dawn of the neutron bomb, they have given a light dusting of logic and proportion to the far-fetched events while paying fond homage to the period and to the deluxe-international-spy-thriller category. (In a sly nod to the story’s improbability, a character reviews the plot late in the season and asks, “Am I expected to believe this?”) They also give the series some of the wit that characterized the Bond films, which were the primary competition for “The Ipcress File” and its several sequels.
The series mixes and matches elements from the “Ipcress” book and film as it takes the mystery in its own direction, keeping the element of nuclear brinkmanship while adding a more personal conspiracy with specific historical resonance. (A street scene early in the series contains a large clue to the direction this will take.) At close to five hours long, the show also travels beyond the London precincts of the film, venturing to Berlin, Beirut, Helsinki, Virginia and a Pacific atoll where the United States is testing a bomb.
We now get to see Harry being caught black-marketing British army supplies in Berlin, the downfall that leads to his being attached to an obscure branch of the British secret services. His boss, Dalby, is played by Tom Hollander, whose puckish presence is another of the show’s improvements. Alongside Harry as he tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to track down a missing British physicist is the more experienced — and, for a government employee, remarkably attractive — agent Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton).
The mandatory updating of the material — including the feminist revision of Jean, who chooses her career over a controlling fiancée — is integrated into the story and the period more thoughtfully than usual. A born-again American general (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) has strong “Dr. Strangelove” associations; the undetermined loyalties of a Black C.I.A. agent (Ashley Thomas), who recalls similar, lesser characters in the Palmer and Bond films, add dramatic interest to the historical and political framework. Where the film, in the spirit of its era, was content with a criminal mastermind as its villain, the series, in the spirit of our era, brings in cadres of embittered post-Suez and post-Bay of Pigs cold warriors.
You could, as the series winds along and pads out the time with a subplot about Dalby’s former Soviet lover, wish for some of the film’s silliness to enliven the lovely photography and bespoke nostalgia. And the story, while more coherent and consequential, still has a laboratory-maze quality to it.
You could also wish, it must be said, no matter how unfairly, for some of Caine’s blunt magnetism. The show has softened Harry — he has a more visible nobility — and Cole’s performance feels hesitant and unsure, neither here nor there. It doesn’t help that on Cole, Harry’s trademark glasses often make him look like a bratty child. (He identifies Dennis the Menace as his favorite comics figure.) If your main character is a cold fish, he should be a sexy cold fish.