James Bond Redux, part IV.
…the ongoing summary of my opinions on the Bond films. Parts I, II, and III covered the series’s first two decades, the 1960s and the 1970s. The 60s Bond films are most definitely stronger than the 70s ones, although I do not share the generally held view that this is because of the “Sean Connery versus Roger Moore” debate. With the possible exception of Diamonds Are Forever, Connery had no outright bad scripts to work from, whereas Moore started out with the four most troublesome scripts in the series (and one, Live and Let Die, that is an out-and-out stinker). So on I go into the Bond films of the 1980s. And, wouldn’t you know it? The 80s turned out to be, at least in my view, the best decade for Bond yet.
:: For Your Eyes Only. After the over-the-top outer-space excesses in Moonraker that nearly turned the Bond series fully into self-parody, a return to smaller-scale stories concentrating on the espionage aspects of the Bond mythos was called for. This was delivered, in spades, with For Your Eyes Only, which is not only Roger Moore’s best Bond film but one of the best in the series. It’s a stylish and slick espionage thriller, the first genuine espionage thriller in the Bond films since From Russia With Love. The film trades on the cold-war dynamic, cleverly showing how the East vs. West antagonisms of the Cold War rarely played out directly but instead were delegated to smaller, allied forces. Bond does a lot of investigating in this film, following one trail and then another as he attempts to learn who is behind the brutal murder of a British agent who was looking for the sunken British spy ship and outrun the Eastern Bloc agents who also want very much to find that ship. The film’s action sequences are superb (with the exception of the teaser sequence, a bizarre thing involving a helicopter and the apparent reincarnation of Ernst Blofeld), including the second-best ski chase in the entire series and a mountain-climbing sequence toward the end of the film that features some eye-popping stunt work. For Your Eyes Only is also notable in that the villain’s identity is actually unknown to us for much of the film; we don’t know who to trust, which heightens the tension. There is no “bad guy sitting in his impregnable fortress surrounded by lackeys” scene here (well, there is, but it’s at the very end of the film and it’s only a handful of lackeys). Bond does not know who he is really up against, a pleasing development in a Bond film. The other great strength is the film’s heroine, Melina Havelock, a strong-willed Greek woman who is out for revenge. (Her father is the British agent killed early in the film.) She is an intelligent and utterly beautiful woman who never is reduced to a mere damsel-in-distress. The score is provided by Bill Conti, who uses some disco and early 80s rock stylings in the music; nevertheless, this actually works (whereas the Marvin Hamlisch efforts on The Spy Who Loved Me are disastrous). There are some wonderfully infectious action cues in the score, and the song is one of the better ones. And Roger Moore’s performance, as far as I am concerned, gives the lie to the idea that Moore was only about playing Bond for laughs. He maintains a fairly serious tone throughout, and there is one scene — where he confronts an assassin who has ended up in a poor position — in which Moore’s Bond is as ruthless as Connery’s Bond ever was. For Your Eyes Only is one of the series’s best efforts. (The Gadgets: the emphasis here, like in OHMSS, is on human abilities. The only real gadget in the film is a computer called the IdentiGraph that collates the characteristics of a physical description and uses the information to identify the person described. In fact, the early-80s computer technology in this scene is the only part of the film that seems dated. Q appears in the film, but mostly in an advisory funtion.)
:: Octopussy. This is one of my favorites. It goes for a bit more of an epic feel than For Your Eyes Only, while retaining that film’s emphasis on character and espionage. This story also plays on the Cold War dynamic, pitting Bond against a fiendish plot concocted by a rather renegade Soviet general. (I find it interesting that the Bond series didn’t really employ the Russians in any kind of villain capacity until the films of the 1980s. True, in From Russia With Love Bond initially believes himself to be working against the Russians, but it turns out that he’s really up against SPECTRE. Russians don’t really figure much at all in the Bond mythos until For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy.) The story involves jewelry smuggling, fake Faberge eggs, a traveling circus, and finally a secretly planted atomic bomb; and all this transpires in India and in Germany (which was still divided at the time). The Indian locations are gorgeous, and a highpoint is the scene where Bond has to elude an elephant-hunt staged by the villain. The film actually boasts more memorable action sequences than most Bond films: the teaser sequence, in which Bond flies a one-man jet and avoids a heat-seeking missile, is excellent; there is a fun chase through the streets of New Delhi; and the film’s entire last act — involving Bond’s race against time to stop the atomic bomb from exploding — is riveting. Louis Jourdan is excellent as Kamal Khan, the villain, who has one of the better henchmen in the series, a giant named Gobinda. (Gobinda is not just brainless muscle: during the film’s climax, when Bond is clinging to the outside of Khan’s airplane, the look on Gobinda’s face when Khan orders him to “Go out and get him” is priceless.) Maud Adams stars as Octopussy, the film’s heroine and title character. She is another strong woman; if at the end of the film she does turn into a damsel-in-distress, it’s not for lack of effort on her part. The only blemish on the film’s acting is Steven Burkoff, who plays General Orlov in over-the-top fashion that is at times very hard to swallow. John Barry returns to do the score, and turns in another fine effort. Octopussy is excellent. (The Gadgets: There is the afore-mentioned one-man jet plane of Bond’s, used in the teaser sequence. He also has an assortment of useful wristwatches: one that tracks a homing device he is able to plant in the faberge egg, and one that is a tiny television that provides him with some very timely information toward the end of the film. And given my love of fountain pens, I loved the one in this film that actually dispenses acid that “dissolves all metals”. You never know when that may come in handy. Q actually gets something of an action sequence as he pilots a hot-air balloon.)
:: Never Say Never Again. This film exists because of the court decisions that gave the rights to the Thunderball story to producer Kevin McClory. This is not an “official” Bond film (it was not made by Eon Productions, the company responsible for all the others), so it lacks such standard Bond touches as the gun-barrel opening sequence and the James Bond Theme. That said, though, it’s an excellent film which gave audiences in 1983 the chance to directly compare Sean Connery’s Bond with Roger Moore’s. (Octopussy had opened earlier that year.) Connery returns, looking twelve years older but still quite fit, and he play Bond one more time with amazing gusto. In truth, this film tells the Thunderball story much more effectively than Thunderball. The pacing is excellent, moving along at a zippy pace thanks to the directorial hand of Irvin Kershner (whose most notable film is an underrated flick called The Empire Strikes Back). There is also some wonderful dialogue in this film: when Largo asks Bond if he loses as gracefully as he wins, Bond says, “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never lost.” Bond’s contact in Nassau, played by Rowan Atkinson, is very nervous about Bond’s arrival: “Your reputation has preceded you, and you’re going to jeopardize the tourist trade if you start going around killing people!” And the film’s Q-figure, a strange man named Algernon, tells Bond: “Now that you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.” Kim Basinger, in an early role, plays Domino fairly well; she’s not very convincing at first but as Bond — and we — get to know the character, she loosens up. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a wonderful villain, and Barbara Carerra as assassin Fatima Blush nearly steals the show. The film’s only real blemishes are the climax, which is a bit of a letdown, and the music score by Michel LeGrande, which is a disaster. Never Say Never Again may not be an official Bond film, but “a rose by any other name….” (The Gadgets: Bond has a motorcycle that is equipped with guns and a rocket-thruster, a wristwatch that is really a laser, and — my favorite — a pen-pistol that fires very explosive bullets. There is also a gonzo bit of transportation, used by Bond and Felix Leiter toward the end of the film, that I can’t even describe.)
:: A View To A Kill. This, Roger Moore’s last appearance as 007, is generally held to be the series’s worst film. I actually like it, though it’s not without faults. The biggest one by far is the Tanya Roberts character, who is simply the worst Bond heroine to date. This is the best example I’ve ever seen of blaming an actor or actress for faults in the screenplay; while no one would ever claim that Tanya Roberts is a particularly skilled thespian, I seriously doubt that even Meryl Streep channeling the spirit of Ingrid Bergman could have done much with this role. It’s not Roberts’s fault that the script has her character not showing up until halfway through the film, and then standing around screaming “James! James! James!” And I suspect that it’s not Roberts’s fault that at one point her character fails to notice a certain object behind her. (If you haven’t seen the film, wait. It’s not to be believed when it happens.) And the other big fault is, sadly, Roger Moore, who tries but can’t really overcome the fact that he really looks too old this time out. He was starting to age in Octopussy, but it’s far more noticeable here. The film also plays a couple of its action set-pieces for laughs, most notably the fire-engine chase through San Francisco. But there are actually good things in A View To A Kill, starting with the villain. If ever an actor was born to play a Bond villain, surely it is Christopher Walken. He perfectly captures the sense of ego and psychosis that is at the heart of any good Bond baddie, and he is actually chilling during the climactic scenes when he is overcome by laughter at key points in the action. His henchwoman is played by Grace Jones, and although her character is interesting, the film does too much with her going around killing people. (Also, an early action sequence severely tests the suspension of disbelief: would it really take that long for her to reach the ground after parachuting off the Eiffel Tower?) And fans of The Pretender, take note: Walken’s associate, Scarpine, is played by Patrick Bauchau, who played Jarod’s father-figure Sydney on the television series. I suppose that I consider A View To A Kill to be something of a guilty pleasure. It’s definitely off-the-mark, a dangerous retread of the Bond excesses of the 1970s — but I can’t bring myself to actually dislike it. Oh well. (The Gadgets: While there is never a scene where Q sits Bond down and explains all his new gizmos, Bond has a ton of them. It starts in the teaser sequence, with a boat disguised as an iceberg. He has a Norelco shaver that detects listening devices; a credit card that pops open window locks; sunglasses that allow him to see through draperies; and a pocket-gizmo that he can press to a blank check and, using the imprint on it, generate a copy of the last check written. Q seems to spend his time working with a goofy robotic dog-thing. for some reason.)
…to be continued (only five more films to go)…