Friday, 30 March 2012

A View To A Kill

Okay, just let me say this. A View To A Kill is a lot better than you think it is. I know people can be quick to dismiss it: Moore is far too old, nearly sixty. By now we're bored with him. He shouldn't have made Octopussy, let alone this. Reviewers, like me, ploughing through the films in order, are impatient to move on, to get to the good stuff. But despite all that, we should not overlook AVTAK. There's much to admire here - including Roger Moore's last performance as 'James Bond as played by Roger Moore'.

To be fair, it's not his fault he carried on. Moore was sure Octopussy was his final Bond - but then he had thought the same thing after FYEO, and even Moonraker. Throughout the late Seventies and early Eighties a seemingly never-ending search was under way for a new James Bond. Some actors (like Michael Billington) were auditioned again and again. Future stars like James Brolin and Sam Neill were screen-tested. The implication is, apparently, that nobody could do it better and, like the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Moore was required to soldier on regardless. Broccoli did have his eye on a pair of comparatively young actors called Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton by now (Dalton had been first considered back in 1969 for OHMSS, then again during the late Seventies; Brosnan came to Broccoli's attention during the making of FYEO) but neither of them was quite ready yet. For whatever reason, Broccoli remained unsatisfied.

Unfortunately this is surely a Bond too far for Moore. Watching AVTAK, one can't help but scrutinise him, to wonder what construction work or emollient has been applied behind the scenes. I've even heard it said that Moore had had cosmetic surgery after Octopussy, which is neither here nor there, but just look at his eyes. Whatever de-wrinkling techniques have been employed, nothing could have been done about those; faded and washed out to a pale watery blue, they are the eyes of an old man.

There's always been a hint of play-acting with Moore's Bond, but here it is very much all play and little acting. This is especially the case in the scenes where he has to flirt with his (ahem, much) younger female co-stars. It's as if his age has become a joke in its own right, like in a Carry On film where Moore might be playing the doddery old man who doesn't know he's too old to be phwoaring at Barbara Windsor. Listen to the exaggerated "Ooooh!" he emits as he and Tanya Roberts finally get it on at the end - it's half Kenneth Connor, half Charles Hawtrey and it's the very last sound Moore's Bond makes. It doesn't help either that Moore has so many opportunities to try it on in AVTAK, as if the producers are trying to manufacture sexual charisma by draping him with women. It doesn't work, but it is not always sleazy either. There is actually something tender about some of these hook-ups: Bond even tucks Stacey up in bed after she falls asleep in her underwear. Connery's Bond, one feels, would at least have stuck his hand down her top whilst he was at it. In fact there's no hint whatsoever of the sadistic brute about this version of Bond. And (mercifully) without the awful jokes of Octopussy, Moore is left with nothing to do but play 007 with a straight bat. He's not showy, or mean, or troubled. He is, instead, just a charming old gent, a nice guy who rescues damsels and bakes them quiche; who plucks people from burning buildings; who, when confronted with a dastardly villain, shows his own goodness with a series of earnest and principled frowns. The end result is an uncomplicated, straight-backed and really rather sweet old duffer of a Bond. It might not be your cup of tea, but this is, if nothing else, an eminently likeable portrayal of 007.

(from l to r) Dull, Old, Mad, Psycho
I was pleasantly surprised by the women here, whom I had previously written off as, respectively, dull and mad. But that's not fair. Stacey may seem dull in comparison with May Day, and May Day may seem bonkers when compared to Stacey, but they both have many good qualities. Stacey is remarkable really in that she is one of those exceedingly rare 'ordinary' Bond women. She has a real job, a house, a back story, and even a legitimate reason to be involved in the plot. (The other Bond women from the Moore era, for the record: a clairvoyant voodoo priestess, an MI6 spy, a KGB spy, a CIA astronaut, a marine archaeologist and a circus-owning international jewel smuggler.) Stacey is a geologist working for the State of California. For the Bond films her character is like something out of a kitchen-sink drama. Even better, Stacey doesn't throw herself at Bond, or end up in a bikini for no reason; she's not patronised and she doesn't 'hilariously' make stupid girly mistakes like a stupid girly-girl. No, she's not particularly exciting. But she is nice, and competent, and she even gets to drive the fire truck.

Then there's May Day. Yes, Grace Jones does seem to be a prime piece of stunt casting and yes, what the hell is she wearing? But look past all that and she is actually pretty good. May Day's character may seem outrageous and absurd compared with Stacey, but don't forget that May Day is the film's henchman - stick her alongside Jaws, or Nik-Nak and suddenly she makes sense. At least she does have a character (unlike some) and it's a compelling one, too: a damaged woman in a weird relationship, brimming over with anger, frustration and pride, ultimately prepared to kill herself to get back at the lover who has betrayed her. As last minute conversions go, it's a damn sight more convincing than Pussy Galore's. And of course, Jones is amazing visually and physically - it's great for the series that May Day poses a real physical threat to Bond and she deserves to be considered as at least one of the most interesting and memorable Bond henchmen, if not one of the best.

And, hang on, who's that but Christopher bloody Walken! Even then he had a reputation for being able to play scary oddball characters and he is brilliant in this, making Max Zorin the best Bond villain since Scaramanga and easily one of the greatest of the franchise. Zorin, a left-over from Nazi breeding experiments and a genuine psychopath, is a more nuanced and compelling baddy than one might imagine from that description. Yes, he's unhinged and violent, but Walken gives him layers of self-control with which to cover up the madness, a reasonable jocularity that is all the more chilling for being a ruthlessly calculated façade.

It's just a shame then that his evil scheme is a bit, well, dull. For a start, Californian earthquakes are all very Superman I. And, yes, I know the world silicon chip market is important, but this is hardly holding the world to ransom. Who would mind if he just bought out Silicon Valley? Surely not the governments of Reagan or Thatcher (it's the Russians who seem happiest when the scheme is foiled after all - has MI6 been played?).

So, with that last comedy "Oooh!" still echoing in our ears, the Roger Moore era comes to an end. The Bond films in the Sixties were a phenomenon, but during Moore's tenure they become an institution - no mean feat considering how precarious the future of the franchise was in the early Seventies. For a long time it has been fashionable to sneer at Moore's movies and at his performances but I don't think that's fair. His films vary enormously, both in style and quality, and should be considered on their individual merits. The bad ones are awful, yes (Moonraker, most of Octopussy) but TSWLM and FYEO are absolutely brilliant. But good or bad, the series flourished during this time. The audiences were always happy to go back for Moore.

* * *

Pre-Credits Sequence: 
It's another mission for Bond, this time in some ice-bound expanse, and it's another neat little PCS. It's nearly brilliant, featuring, as it does, some nifty skiing, some snowboarding (which was unheard of in 1985) and even an exploding helicopter. But why in the name of Penelope Smallbone did anyone stick the Beach Boys over the snowboarding stunt? It's not actually even the Beach Boys, but a cover by a band called Gidea Park. (Google them, go on, I dare you.) BOND PRODUCERS TAKE NOTE: if you want 007 to impress us, whack the Bond theme over the top of what he's doing. Ta very much.

Apparently John Barry was a bit sniffy about working with Duran Duran but, goodness me, the resulting track does give the whole franchise a whacking great kick up the backside and a much needed injection of energy. The song was (very unusually for a Bond theme) a massive world-wide hit and suddenly, from this point, this is what a Bond theme is supposed to sound like. It may be a coincidence, but after several rather lacklustre efforts, Barry's score for AVTAK is a return to his previous high form; it's exciting, full of energy, and even manages something approaching grandeur during the escape from City Hall in San Francisco. Maurice Binder has also had a shot in the arm of something. It may be the same 'slowly gyrating girls' stuff as always but the visuals do look strikingly different thanks to all the neon and day-glo colours. Finally the Eighties have arrived.

66. It's not particularly high compared with some Moore films, but as is traditional the tally sky-rockets in the final act. Although here, instead of a climactic battle, we have a massacre as Zorin kills all the civil engineers and labourers that have been working for him in the mine. I counted 55 deaths on-screen during this sequence alone but surely there would have been more. It's the most gratuitous act of violence we've seen carried out in the series so far.

Memorable Deaths:
 Aubergine is stung by a poisoned butterfly up the Eiffel Tower. Grace Jones rides a massive bomb down a railway. Christopher Walken giggles and gasps as he tries and fails to hold on to the Golden Gate bridge. Reminiscent of Mr Solo from Goldfinger, an investor reluctantly 'drops out' of Zorin's air-ship board room meeting.

Licence to Kill: 5 - very low for Moore but then he is loaded with rock salt during the only gun battle.

Exploding Helicopters: 1! And a zeppelin! Get in!

Shags: 4! The record's gone thanks to a perfect storm cooked up by a) the need to have a conquest in the PCS; b) May Day being a bit crazy/desperate/into old men; c) a saucy hot-tub cameo from Fiona Fullerton; and d) Stacey Sutton taking pity on Bond in the very last few seconds. Four. That's more than Dalton managed in total isn't it?

Crimes Against Women: Not much. There's a poor 'women's lib' reference that sounds hopelessly out of date even for 1985. Bond is rather sleazy at Zorin's party but otherwise Moore is now all sweet and avuncular and not the callous sexual predator of LALD or TMWTGG. In the scene where Zorin and May Day spar there is an uncomfortable moment where it looks like Zorin is attempting a sexual assault. But then they are both fairly unusual, even by the standards of Bond villains, so it's not entirely impossible that this isn't 'normal' within the parameters of their (dysfunctional and damaged) relationship. If so, they really need a Safe Word.

Casual Racism: I can't remember the last time we saw a Frenchman (not counting Michel Lonsdale or Louis Jordan who aren't playing French, of course) but the character of Achille Aubergine is strangely unpleasant, almost repellent, which, given that he's only on-screen for about a minute, seems oddly deliberate. Dr Carl Mortner is your common-or-garden Nazi eugenicist. All the (good) American men are dull but worthy, as usual (and all appear to have moustaches - was that a thing in 1985?). For the first time we get some British stereotypes as Bond and Tibbett play Upstairs, Downstairs.

Out of Time: What's a Walkman?

Fashion Disasters: It's tempting to say 'everything Grace Jones wears' but it's a little obvious. Her thong/leotard thing is eye-watering though and her asymmetric sunglasses are merely pretty bad. Bond has sunglasses too, trick ones from Q, but sadly they just look like part of some odd prescription and make Moore appear, astonishingly, even older.

Eh?: Does May Day have superhuman strength? It's sort of implied that she is at least incredibly strong, but unlike (say) Jaws she doesn't have the physique to match (yes, she is obviously in top shape, but she's still very slight). >> Why does Zorin go in person to collect his assassin (May Day) from the scene of the crime? Is that not just a little bit of an unnecessary risk? >> Why does Zorin use his private residence, his 16th century French château, as a packaging and distribution factory for silicon chips? They're not manufactured there, it makes no sense! >> Gogol, 'doing a Zorin', is there in person to pick up one of his operatives. The man is the head of the KGB and he is driving through California with known Soviet spy (and internationally famous ballet dancer), Pola Ivanova. How? Either (as is hinted elsewhere during this period) East/West relations are dramatically better in the Bond universe than they were in real life, or US counter-espionage operations are non-existent (which would explain, perhaps, why James Bond has to keep saving them). >> Bond tricks Pola by switching cassettes, but how does he know she even has a cassette? >> I may be wrong but the film appears to muddle up state and city government: Stacey works for the Californian Department of Conservation but the office is based at San Francisco City Hall? (The real DOC is, sensibly, with the rest of the state bureaucracy in Sacramento). >> Bond uses a credit card to break open a sash window. Fair enough, except that this is achieved electronically and with a beep, rather in the manner of a sonic screwdriver. Why not just slip the catch with it? And who the hell is auditing Q Branch? >> Why does Bond break in? Why not just ring the bell? >> Why would Bond go back for the shot gun now that he knows it is not loaded? >> Bond cooks a quiche. Stacey says, "I had no idea you could cook!" Well, you've just met him, why would you think he couldn't? Bond replies: "I've been known to dabble." No you haven't! We've been watching for twenty years! The closest you've come to cooking is when you flambéed Mr Kidd in DAF>> The baddies creep up to the house and kill nice CIA man Yip and then drive away. Why? Why not kill Bond and Stacey too? >> Bond steals a fire engine, gets chased through San Francisco, escapes and drives it to Zorin's mine. Except when he gets there it is a very different fire engine. Maybe, overnight, he ditched the first one and stole a second so as to evade his pursuers? >> Once again, Gogol turns up in M's office at the end of the film for a cosy chat. This time, he offers Bond the Order of Lenin to boot. Why? Was the USSR threatened by Zorin's plan particularly? Does the Governor of California not want to say thank you? >> Q, searching for Bond, is exploring Stacey's house with his Mars Rover. 1) How did it get up the stairs? 2) Why not just knock on the door himself?

Worst Line: May Day and Zorin gaze at nothern California as their airship approaches Silicon Valley. "What a view!" breathes May Day appreciatively. "To a kill!" hisses Zorin. Because that's a phrase isn't it, 'a view to a kill'. Whilst we're on the subject of dialogue, I have to record the first "shit" of the franchise, muttered by Stacey during the fire chase. It's immediately followed by the second "shit" of the series, which comes from the SFPD officer. I haven't gone back and checked, but I think these are the first profanities we've had so far. Back to the Future's full of them too.

Best Line: Again, not much in the way of a killer line, but the banter between Bond and Tibbett at least sounds like it was fun for the actors.

Worst Bond Moment: For sheer audience discomfort it has to be Bond in bed with May Day, but I'm not sure 007 would be complaining.

Best Bond Moment: Well it would be the snowboarding if it wasn't for the ersatz Beach Boys song. So I think instead it should be Bond carrying Stacey out of the burning City Hall - one doesn't often see a crowd cheering for Bond and the scenes here are reminiscent of other '80s films like Ghostbusters or Superman II.

Overall: This is a bit more like FYEO and bit less like Octopussy, but it's all very gentle (apart from when Zorin machine guns everyone to death). Moore's amiable old Bond is fun and familiar but all the edges have been knocked off of 007 and Fleming's original character has almost completely disappeared. Next time, (if there is a next time, see below) it'll be back to basics...

James Bond Will Return: ... Well, he'll just return, okay? Have some faith.

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