The Bond Films: Moore

The Roger Moore years are not as bad their reputation. The seven films Moore starred in range from serviceable to very good. The reason everyone is so down on them is because … they weren’t the Connery years.

And that was a key problem, at least early on. The producers kept trying to enact the Connery formula. This simply didn’t work for Roger Moore. Moore was not very good as an action hero. He was credible as a sophisticated spy: Bond with the rough edges polished off. Once they learned to play to his strengths — charm and humor — things got better. But they only reached the height of the Connery years once before the series fell back.

Another problem that plagued the Moore years was the lack of a consistent enemy. The lawsuit that took SPECTRE out of the picture left the films fumbling for an enemy worthy of Bond. Taking a cue from Diamonds are Forever and You Only Live Twice, they settled on the Madman of the Month, some extremely rich guy who was intent on bringing armageddon or very nearly (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill).

This was a mistake. Bond works best in the context of a spy novel. Even if the conflict is absurd, the underpinning of the conflict — East v. West, SPECTRE v. the World — should be a power struggle. Eyes is one of my favorites of the era as it’s a very traditional spy adventure.

The logical enemy to replace SPECTRE was the Soviet Union, this being Bond’s primary enemy in the novels. They are, in fact, the enemy in Eyes and played a role in View. But why were they ignored in the other films?

Well, for one, I think the producers didn’t want the films to become “political”. If so, this would be a bogus concern, since Eyes wasn’t political at all. The Cold War was the Cold War. It existed. You didn’t have to make a moral judgement about it. Stopping the Soviets was James Bond’s job.

Second is the tendency for Hollywood to gloss over communism’s crimes. I’ve blogged on this before, but the blindness of the Hollywood Left to the horrors of Mao, Stalin, Khrushchev, et al. was simply appalling. Their refusal to portray the KGB and the Soviet state accurately was a political decision. It’s a reminder of a mentality that laughed at Reagan for describing a nation that murdered millions of its own people as an evil empire.

Place the Moore years in a Cold War context, build them around Moore, replace self-parody with humor and the series would have been better, I think. It would have had the edge it so desperately needed and rarely got.

Anyway, getting to the films themselves…

Live and Let Die: I have a slightly better opinion of this than I should, rating it 7/10. IMDB ranks it 10th. There’s a lot to dislike. Gloria Hendry is wasted. The voodoo plot is a bit silly. The overall plot doesn’t quite work (and I can never remember it anyway). The attempt to cash in on blaxploitation doesn’t quite work. The boat chase scene goes on far too long. And it introduces JW Pepper, one of the most uncomfortable characters to afflict the Bond franchise.

On the other hand, Moore is smooth in his first outing, Jane Seymour is luminous as Solitaire and Yaphet Kotto is one of my favorite actors, somehow making Kananga work as a villain. Even Geoffrey Holder has his moments, although every time I hear his voice, I expect him to say, “crisp and clean and no caffeine”.

And the theme song is great.

It’s a mixed bag and one I still can’t quite get a handle on. I guess that applies to the entire series once Connery left.

The Man With The Golden Gun: Here’s a question. You’ve got Roger Moore at his peak. You’ve got Christopher Lee as your villain. You have Britt Ecklund as your Bond girl. How do you not make a good movie out of this?

By adding silliness left, right and center. By trying to shoehorn in the energy crisis. By making Mary Goodnight completely useless. By catering to every asian stereotype you can think of. By bringing the ridiculous Archie Bunker JW Pepper back for an encore. By hitting the awful zenith of Bond villains refusing to kill the hero when he’s at their mercy. By making the film into a parody of itself, playing almost everything for laughs.

IMDB ranks this 15th, the middle of the pack. I rate it 6/10. Lee and Moore basically carry the film. The series was still unwisely trying to cram Roger Moore into a Sean Connery-shaped hole. Thankfully, they’d abandon that notion next time around.

I mentioned earlier that abandoning the novel for You Only Live Twice created problems here. In the novels, Twice occurs after Bond’s wife is killed. He is despondent, bitter and almost useless as an agent. The plot, involving an estate in Japan where people can kill themselves in creative ways, would make a terrible movie. But it leads into Bond getting captured and brainwashed in Golden Gun and attempting to kill M.

Now that might have been interesting. It would still be interesting today.

The Spy Who Loved Me: I rate it an 8/10, the best of the Moore era. IMDB agrees with me, rating it #5, tops for the Moore era, the best between Goldfinger and Goldeneye. The film wisely (and contractually) abandons Fleming’s rather risque novel for another “madman wants to destroy the world” plot that is basically a warmed over You Only Live Twice with the train fight from Russia and the elevator gag from Diamonds thrown in. But it proceeds with such confidence and style, it’s incredibly enjoyable.

(I’ve always thought it would be interesting to take the plot of the novel — in which James Bond has little more than a cameo — and make a pre-title sequence out of it.)

The Connery films defined themselves in the 60’s; Spy gives the 70’s a miss and jumps right into the 80’s. It has a dazzling pre-credit sequence. Wisely, it reintroduces traditional spy elements and makes Q useful, bringing in the requisite humorous tour of Q’s lab. And it even has a decent soundtrack. Yes, that includes the cheesy theme song.

Spy is, by far, Moore’s best performance. It highlights his strengths — dry humor and charm. The scene with him and XXX in the van while Jaws rips it apart is a great combination of tension and humor, perfectly timed. And Moore nails it. It also gives him a little chance to show Bond’s icy side, when he calmly drops Stromberg’s thug off of the roof, dispatches Stromberg’s helicopter pilot and later shoots Stromberg himself. He’s credible in the action scenes. If only they’d followed this template more often, Moore would have ended up a lot more popular than he did.

Of course, no discussion of Spy is complete without talking about Barbara Bach as Major Amasova. She’s one of the best Bond girls. She illustrates one of the key factors in a good Bond girl: being more than eye candy. The chemistry of Bond films works best when the primary Bond girl can hold her own against him. It’s the reason Sophie Marceau was good and Denise Richards wasn’t. It’s the reason Michelle Yeoh and Izabella Scorupco work and Teri Hatcher doesn’t. The ideal Bond girl combines acting and writing to create a woman who is beautiful, smart, feisty and a little bit dangerous. Barbara Bach as Amasova is almost perfect.

One other note, since I’m in a contemplative mood. One trope of which I am very fond is when foes unite against a common enemy. This movie has it in spades, as the Soviets, British and Americans unite to fight Stromberg and save the world. It’s quite enjoyable.

Three more reasons to like this film? It has Valerie Leon, who has two scenes as receptionist but catches my eye every single time. It has George Baker, one of the most British of actors, in his second Bond film. And it has Caroline Munro, who was once suggested as a companion for a Doctor Who feature film. That might have been … interesting.

One final note: I have a very keen ear for soundtracks and the audio rhythm of movies. My friend Alan and I loved this movie as kids and once recorded the last half hour or so on an audio tape during a broadcast. I could listen to that tape over and over again and see the film in my mind. Even now, 30 years later, the last parts sound so familiar to me, it takes me back a generation.

Moonraker: I’m not sure I have a handle on this one either, but I’ll give it a shot. Moonraker is to Spy as Thunderball is to Goldfinger. It executes the same formula a superior film did — in this case, a dynamic Bond girl, a man who wants to destroy the world, Moore doing a credible job and Jaws. It just doesn’t execute as well. Early actions scenes are too silly or can’t make up their mind about the tone. Lois Chiles doesn’t have the chemistry Barbara Bach did. Drax isn’t as menacing as Stromberg was and his plan isn’t as believable. The climactic battle isn’t anywhere near as thrilling. Actually, the step down from Spy to Moonraker is steeper. But you see where I’m going: it’s a successful formula; it’s just not executed as well.

The movie has its points. Jaws becomes likable. Bernard Lee makes his final appearance as M. Moore is in top form, carrying large sections of the movie. Corrine Clery is gorgeous. But … something’s just not quite there.

I rate it a 7, higher than I used to since I’ve come to appreciate Roger Moore’s performance. On another day, I might give it a 6. IMDB rates it 20th among Bond films, with only View to A Kill and Die Another Day ranked lower, so I’m in the minority here in not hating it. Agony Booth has one of their very very long recaps that does a pretty good job of highlighting the film’s problem: good ideas poorly executed, action sequences undone by silliness. But there’s enough there that I deem it serviceable.

(It is interesting to look back after 30 years and see what dreams people had for the shuttle program. I can’t believe it’s the year 2011 and our space program is below what Moonraker portrayed. One little thing I noticed this time around: one of the technicians makes a reference to the TDRSS system, a satellite I’m very familiar with. The techno-speak is actually not horrific, even if the portrayal of a rotating space station is. (Seriously, it’s like someone story-boarded the scenes by watching 2001 with the sound off.))

Needless to say, the movie has little to do with Fleming’s novel. I would love to see the plot of the novel brought back for the revived series the way the plot of Casino Royale was.

For Your Eyes Only: I’m not completely sure, but this may be the first Bond film I ever saw. This is probably why I’m a little more favorably disposed toward Roger Moore — he was the first Bond I saw.

The most appealing thing about this film is how much of a traditional spy tale it is, hearkening back to From Russia with Love. It plunders one of Fleming’s short stories and the finale of the novel Live and Let Die and builds on that to be a solid Cold War spy story. It’s refreshing not to have the world about to blow up for once.

Moore is again in good form. I understand he didn’t like the scene in which Bond kills Locque in cold blood. I, however, loved it. It was completely in character, for once; something Connery’s Bond would have done.

Carole Bouquet makes a good Bond girl, having the smarts and dangerous side that is so critical. Bouquet can actually act, too. A lot of people hate Bibi, but I don’t mind her too much. The villains are a mixed bag but the action scenes are quite good, especially the gripping climb up the side of St. Cyril’s. It’s a reminder of something the films would forget until Casino Royale — you don’t need multi-million dollar stunts to make a good action sequence. Tension, timing and composition are everything.

I rate it a 8, IMDB ranks it #11 among Bond films. It’s a solid outing. Unfortunately, it was the last for some time.

Octopussy: Ugh. After three reasonable outings, Octopussy takes us back to the silliness of Golden Gun. The film is filled with useless villains, uninteresting Bond girls and dreadful attempts at humor. Kamal Khan is annoying. Orlov is over-acted to the nth degree. Both Magda and Octopussy are too 80’s — too skinny, too sharp-featured, too dull and uninteresting. Even Moore is below par, his charm decaying into smugness.

There are few redeeming features. Moore and Adams have some reasonable chemistry. There’s about a half hour of genuine tension, from the fight on the train to the defusing of the bomb. But then it pisses away all that goodwill by having a bunch of circus performers take out Khan’s fortress and reducing Octopussy to a damsel in distress (although the finale on the plan is good). I’m a man. I’m a Bond fan. You have to go pretty far to annoy me with a scene involving scantily clad women. Trapeze artists taking out armed thugs does it pretty well.

I rate it a 6, IMDB ranks it 16th, which sounds about right.

A View To A Kill: IMDB ranks this is as the second worst Bond film, only above Die Another Day. I rate it a 7. So what do people hate that I don’t mind?

Well, Moore, now 57, gives his weakest performance. HIs expository scenes are almost grating, his charm more suited to a younger man. He would later admit he was too old for the role and disliked the film. It shows at times. The plot is a warmed-over Goldfinger, substituting microchips for gold and ignoring the Fleming short story from which it got the title.

This is the most 80’s of the Bond movies. The gaudy display of primitive computers, the cheesy opening, the hair, the silly humor, the Duran Duran theme (which is, I think, not bad.) Even the Bond girls are very 80’s — one Charlie’s Angel and one muscle model.

The latter is a point of complaint with some, but I actually don’t mind the two main Bond girls. I never found Grace Jones attractive but she plays the role of May Day with a zeal that few Bond girls do, making her a fun character, one I wish had been spared. Who else can lift a KGB agent over her head in high heels? And Tanya Roberts will never be mistaken for a good actress but she’s feisty, glamorous and carries off a geologist better than Denise Richards carried off a nuclear physicist.

Bond also acts a little stupidly in this one. He sticks around Zorin’s estate after being made, getting his assistant killed. He swims into a sea pipe, getting a KGB agent killed. He bumbles into Stacy’s estate, almost getting her killed and the getting his CIA contact killed. Not a good day at the office, frankly. There’s even an amusing scene — at least amusing to me — early in the film. After Bond tears up half of Paris chasing May Day, M upbraids him for millions in damage, massive law-breaking and creating a diplomatic incident. There was apparently even a deleted scene of M bailing him out of jail. I wish that happened more often after dumb destructive chase scenes.

So why do I like it? Well, it just flows better than Octopussy. Bond is somewhat Bondish. Christopher Walken makes a great villain as does Willoughby Gray. It has the last appearance of Lois Maxwell, who even acknowledges her aging but has lost little of her charm. The action scenes are competent and even engaging.

In short, it’s not great, but as Bond films go, it’s not bad. As forgettable as the film might be, it does give Moore a better send-off than Octopussy would have. And for that, I appreciate it.