While based on a short story by Jack London (which I haven’t read), The Assassination Bureau is obviously not concerned with literary fidelity. A star-filled, big-budget roller coaster ride with Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg, it is nominally about an attempt to destroy an organization that commits assassinations for hire. Rigg plays an enterprising feminist reporter who sees exposing the organization as her ticket to fame. Reed is the chairman of the bureau, whom Rigg hires—to kill himself.
The rest of the film follows the attempts of other bureau members either to kill Reed or to be killed by him as Rigg tags along. The story, elaborate and thin at the same time, is conceived for amusing conceit, not suspense and certainly not plausibility. The actors are playing games, not characters. Rigg, for example, is wasted in her barely written role. She and the others are not bad, but their efforts to make a frothy farce about mass killing are too strenuous to take flight.
If the script sparkled with more wit than frenzy, the results might have been ebulliently cynical. (Something along the lines of Kind Hearts and Coronets perhaps). However, instead of exploring the conceit that professional murder pales next to the legal kind performed by the State, which was probably London’s point and is given token expression by Reed, effort centers on devising the zaniest means to dispatch the characters. The killings start with the moderately engaging, fiery death of Philippe Noiret, who gives the best performance in the film, but instead of building to greater heights of outrageous exaggeration, they dribble out to the point of routine.
Whatever hope there might have been for a clever spree is weighed down by production excess. This is a dressed-to-the-nines Late Victorian/Edwardian recreation with huge sets, milling crowds, location photography, and overdressed stars bustling from one European capital to another, accompanied by an assertively bouncy score determined to make you die with mirth, but more likely to make you want to fight back. What the film lacks in cleverness it tries to hide with silliness, leading to a climax with a full-sized Zeppelin recreation, for goodness sake. On board, Reed and Curt Jürgens fight a duel in one of those Errol Flynn-style parodies that are never as entertaining as the originals while the villain of the piece, Telly Savalas, struggles to complete his nefarious plans. (Savalas really plays himself. He doesn’t even attempt an accent for his supposedly British character.)
All the boisterous movement is like watching goldfish avoid each other in a bowl. The relentless joshing reminds us that all these murders are meant to be “fun,” but they never are beyond a dim appreciation of the decorative sets and costumes. Far from being the sophisticated romp it clearly thinks it is, The Assassination Bureau borders on the offensive, not because it makes a joke out of murder, but because it doesn’t.