'Archangel' intrigue on high


"Archangel," which premieres on Ion at 8 Saturday night, is a 3-year-old, three-hour-long BBC drama set in modern-day Russia. And oh, yeah, it stars Daniel Craig, he of the icy blue eyes and the James Bond franchise, which is about to send its latest installment, the remarkably titled "Quantum of Solace," into theaters everywhere.

So if you're wondering why "Archangel," which no one has ever heard of, is suddenly popping up on American TV, there's your answer.

"Archangel" is not what anyone would call the actor's finest work, but it ain't half bad. Especially if you are one of those history buffs who occasionally wonders why Hitler still gets so much attention from filmmakers while Josef Stalin, a no less fascinating monster, gets almost none at all.

"Archangel," based on a novel by Robert Harris, sets out to remedy that. The film opens with a soldier with a port-wine-stain birthmark witnessing Stalin's death.

Cutting to the present, we encounter Craig's Fluke Kelso, a former hotshot history professor with a specialty in Stalin, who is at a scholarly conference in Moscow to remind the audience of his genocidal tendencies. Yet if a sudden burst of protesters is any indication, many Russians miss Stalin's iron fist and consider the rise of capitalism the putrescence of the West.

Who should be waiting for Kelso after his presentation but a grizzled old guy with a port-wine birthmark. "You think you know all about Stalin," he tells Kelso. "You don't know . . ."

Stalin had a secret diary that was taken from his safe on the night of his death and buried for safekeeping. In this diary, apparently, is a secret that could change the fate of Russia and indeed the world.

With the aid of the old soldier's daughter Zinaida (Yekaterina Rednikova), who is now a high-priced call girl (oh, the perils of capitalism!) and an ambitious American newscaster (ditto), Kelso unravels the mystery and discovers the shocking (and somewhat hilarious) secret.

Craig is far and away the best thing in the film, capable of creating tension with his jawline alone, which allows him to hold a viewer's interest through the (many) talky trips through modern Russian history. Though as a professor he doesn't have the smoldering violence and assassin-ator know-how of Bond, he remains admirably cool under pressure and takes his beatings (and shocking revelations) with splendid stoicism. (But then again, he is British.)

It's a shame the project was made before he was a star -- with a little tweaking and some better casting of other roles, "Archangel" could have packed a much bigger, "Da Vinci Code"-like punch.

As it is, it's something to watch if you're either a devoted Craig fan or just the sort of person who secretly believes that Anastasia escaped, Hitler may have been cloned and Jack the Ripper was really a member of the British royal family. Which is cool and always makes for pretty good TV.





Where: ION

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: R

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