09 September 2012

MY BOND, MY BOND, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

A VIEW TO A KILL
Directed by John Glen
Written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson
Premiered 22 May, 1985

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
After an uncharacteristic disclaimer announcing that there is no real-world figure that the movie is basing its villainous plot upon, we jump into: a skiing chase. That makes the franchise's fourth, if you're counting, but this one has a twist: at a certain point, the bad guys shoot James Bond's (Roger Moore) skis right off, and he is obliged to make do with a twisted piece of metal that he fashions into a snow-surfboard, and he thus snow-surfs down the mountain. A scene that, against all the odds, is credited with kickstarting the notion of snowboarding amongst general winter sports enthusiasts; a scene that, additionally, is scored with a cover of The Beach Boys' "California Girls" by a group called Gidea Park, which is so unbelievably fucking terrible that my ears are bleeding right now, just thinking about it.

Bond, incidentally, is in Siberia to hunt for the corpse of MI6 agent 003, who was smuggling a microchip of some great importance, when he is set upon by the KGB assassins; he escapes only with the assistance of a submarine disguised as an iceberg, though the Union Jack on the inside of the hatch ruins the illusion somewhat; inside is a simpering blonde (Mary Stavin), who is unusually simpering even by the standards of Bond's sexual conquests, who banters uncomfortably with the spy before he turns on the autopilot and we see that sad little fake submarine putter off into the arctic waters.

The ski chase isn't terrible - indeed, it is almost certainly the best action sequence in the film - but everything involving the submarine and the bimbo inside is unendurable, and even if everything else worked, the "California Girls" moment would put this sequence firmly on the wrong side of the balance. A dreary start to a dreadful movie.

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Rating: 1.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
The sheer excitement of a rock theme after all those fucking ballads, and a bit of flimsy memory, had caused me to recall Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" as being a better song than, in point of fact, it is (though it still managed the neat trick of being the only Bond theme to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100). The faulty memory comes in, partially, because John Barry (who helped shape the Duran Duran composition) did an uncommonly good job of tweaking and re-orchestrating the tune in the score of the movie proper, which against all the odds is one of the best in the franchise (and is the sole element of the movie in which the construction"one of the best" need come a-knocking).

But on its own, the song itself is, honestly pretty daft, with lyrics that I'm not going to even bother trying to sort through. Something about meeting you through a view to a kill, so let's dance into the fire. But as straight-up earworm of '80s production and one aggressive hook after another, I cannot pretend that I don't grin a little bit while it's playing, nor that I am not currently humming it. Hell, I have to give the film a passing grade somewhere.

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Rating: 3.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Confronted with a movie that offers no terrifically exciting visual hooks - horse auctions and earthquakes - and a nonsense song whose chorus surreally insists that we "dance into the fire, one fatal kiss is all we need", Maurice Binder, apparently, went insane. I truly don't know what else to say about the no-holds-barred weirdest Bond title sequence throughout, as of this writing, 22 films. Women with phosphorescent, neon face paint representing flames and ice flakes mime skating as they stand in front of a giant fan - if the effect is supposed to be, "they're skiing!", it fails abysmally - and one woman in particular pretends to ski right through a fire, because hey, that's in the lyrics, until a Bond silhouette shoots her and turns her into an ice statue; there is day-glo tape wrapped around a woman's naked chest, like she just skied topless through crepe paper. At one point, we see silhouettes of naked skiers going down an incline, and it seems unusually, comfortingly like what a Binder sequence is meant to, until the Giant James Bond transparency comes up like a kaiju monster and starts shooting at them.

And how proud Mr. Barry must have been

I honestly do not know if this is the most amazing thing ever, or the dumbest.

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Rating: 3 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Back in England, MI6 tech expert Q (Desmond Llewelyn) determines that the microchip is a special EMP-resistant model made by Zorin Industries. Since this suggests a certain amount of double-dealing might be going on, Bond is assigned to investigate Zorin, which he does first by going on a merry outing to Ascot Racecourse with Q, M (Robert Brown), and Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). Moneypenny gets to quote My Fair Lady's "move your bloody arse" line, and it's all so cute and Britishy to see them all dressed up like dandies - boy, I'll bet it made Bernard Lee up in heaven so sad that he couldn't be a part of it!

Anyway, the point, besides to ruin everything decent in the world, is that Zorin Industries head Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) is a horse owner whose animal wins at Ascot despite being unlikely to have done so; Bond suspects drugs, but no evidence can be found. Thus he travels to Paris, to check on Zorin's massive French horse-breeding estate, briefly checking in with French detective Aubergine (Jean Rougerie) before that man is killed by Zorin's terrifyingly statuesque, androgynous henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones).

At the Zorin estate, Bond and MI6 horse expert Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee) investigate and uncover exactly how Zorin is secretly drugging his horses to victory, but they are found out, and Sir Godrey is killed by May Day while Zorin, who we learn to be a selfish KGB defector at this point, prepares a more amusing death for Bond. The agent naturally survives, and follows Zorin to San Francisco, where we finally get back to the whole microchip deal from, like, an hour and a half earlier: Zorin has been stockpiling his super-awesome microchips and plans to destroy the world's non-Zorin supply by flooding the faults underneath central California with sea water, thereby creating a super-earthquake that will flood Silicon Valley. Bond and fellow enemy of Zorin, the fiercely independent geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) team up to prevent the explosion, and then chase Zorin's airship to the Golden Gate Bridge, where he and Bond have it out once and for all.

It's like Goldfinger, plus an hour of go-nowhere horse auction action, and more stupidity than I even know what to do with. Though it does, at least, continue the Moore Era tradition of up-to-the-minute plot concerns; what says "outlandishly dumb action film from 1985" better than a plot to flood Silicon Valley and corner the world's microchip market?

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Rating: 1 Stolen Nuke


THE VILLAIN
"Christopher Walken as a Bond villain" isn't just a brilliant idea. It's like a parody of a brilliant idea, so cool in every regard that the mere fact of it actually coming true seems impossible.

And that what makes it a wrench that he is such a motherfucking awful Bond villain. A lot of it is the conception of the character at the script level, which was always going to be a film-destroying problem: a genius madman created as the result of an ex-Nazi scientist's genetics experiments carried on in secret in the Soviet Untion, who joined the KGB and was planted in the West as a destablising element, but became so entranced by the possibility of endless wealth and power that he threw over the Russians and prepared to destroy an industry for his own advancement, bringing along his Nazi creator to... dope horses? It's overly complicated to absolutely no purpose, given the simplicity of his ultimate goals: a little bit of Hugo Drax, a little bit of Auric Goldfinger, and neither of those men needed that kind of convoluted backstory. And we needn't rehash how bad is his villainous plot.

It is, despite all of this, customary to append some variation of "Chris Walken is the best and only reason to care about this movie" to any review of A View to a Kill, which custom I will not be following; it seems to me to exist solely out of some duty-bound sense to regard Walken, a brilliant character actor, as infallible. In point of fact, I find this to be the worst Walken performance, by far, that I have myself seen: ponderous and tetchy, and burdened by overly literal line readings that come to the set fully-formed, without allowing nonsense like "reacting to other actors" to bother him. There's no menace, or any of that jagged, magnetic Walken "affable psychopath" persona; the single moment he comes alive is when, looking at the San Francisco skyline from the airship, Grace Jones breathes, "what a view", to which Walken giddily adds "...to a kill!!!", the actor only rousing himself to give any juice at all to the film out of seeming enthusiasm that he gets to say the title, as though that exchange was any sort of triumph of screenwriting. Even worse: his big "I expect you to die!" moment is the lame "This'll hurt him more than me" as Zorin attempts to swing a zeppelin cable with Bond hanging on it into a steel beam. All in all, a miserable disappointment and waste of a once-in-a-lifetime casting coup.

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Rating: 1 Evil Cat


THE GIRL
I swear, I'm not picking on everything in A View to a Kill because I don't like the movie; I don't like the movie because every single element of the film blows gnat nuts. Case in point: California state geologist Stacey Sutton, who might very well be the least useful Bond Girl of all time: popping up a few times in the early going just so we know her face, but not having any connection to the plot itself until at least two-thirds of the way through, whereupon she informs Bond and us of some ridiculous non-science that Bond and we learn elsewhere, anyway. Making her not even a useful expostition box, but a source of secondary confirmation of plot points. As a damsel in distress, she's barely even an inconvenience, particularly as a visibly-annoyed Roger Moore constantly glares at her like you might at a naughty dog.

At least she's not as breathtakingly stupid as Goodnight from The Man with the Golden Gun, though Roberts's overcaffienated, big-eyed performance makes it seem like she actively wishes that were not the case. And at least Roberts, though contemptibly chipmunkish in her acting style, is particularly easy on the eyes..

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Rating: 1.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
There's so much about May Day and Grace Jones's performance of her that emphatically, objectively, does not work: a sex scene with Zorin in particular is nothing but a humiliation for all involved. But there's something tremendously alien about Jones's muscular, tall build that I find captivating: she's like the more overtly cartoonish Bond henchmen in her physicality, except there's no unreality about it. And Jones's fairly dreadful performance style, I find, works to enhance rather than detract from this otherworldly feeling.

It would, I suspect, be easier to dislike her in a better Bond movie, and not just because she wouldn't stand out as much from the insipidity all around; I find the curiousness of her presence and onscreen visual authority to be a good expression of the "what the hell" nature of the rest of the movie. And I find myself totally in sympathy with Bond's look of pure dismay when she dies, even though Moore and Jones did not get along to an almost comic degree; it's telling that he's far more shaken when May Day is gone than when Stacey is about to fall into the San Francisco Bay.

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Rating: 3.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD EMBARRASSED IN FRONT OF HER BOSS
"Pola Ivanova!" shouts a surprised, delighted Bond at one point, and he hasn't just stumbled into a wacky children's TV show, however unlikely the name sounds, especially in Moore's delivery. He is, rather, speaking of the KGB spy with whom he's crossed paths off-screen before, who is now Russia's agent in charge of stopping the turncoat Zorin for their own purposes. Bond tricks her and steals her work, of course, but not before they have a fun tryst in a jacuzzi, where "Tchaikovsky" becomes the most unlikely euphemism for "vagina" in the history of English-language cinema.

I am unbelievably close to straight-up loving this character. I think it's an incredibly good idea to give Bond more history that we don't see in the movies, and I adore the idea that MI6 and KGB spies have the kind of collegial "day at the office" relationship with one another that Bond and Ivanova can hook up like rival professors at a conference, repeatedly. Plus, there's a flirty sex-among-equals vibe to their scenes that is a great rarity in the chauvinist universe of the Bond franchise.

The downside, though is huge: Fiona Fullerton, who plays Ivanova, is a damn lovely woman whose reaction shots to being duped by Bond are priceless, but her Russian accent is inconceivably bad. "Maybe the worst Russian accent I have ever heard"-bad. And whatever the value of the character might otherwise be, it's hard to take her seriously when she opens her mouth and a Looney Tunes character starts talking.

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Rating: 2.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Roger Moore was 57 at the time of shooting; Roger Moore was too old and he had known it for two years now, though nobody else seemed to; Roger Moore could do nothing as far as action-packed mayhem went (though thanks to some plastic surgery, at least Roger Moore looked slightly younger than he did in Octopussy). This is true through every inch of the movie, but it reaches its apotheosis in the worst action scene of the entire Bond franchise, as the spy chases May Day through the Eiffel Tower, the editing badly trying to convince us that the stuntman playing Bond's legs belong to the actor who could not jog up stairs without breaking his knees.

And the action-light movie only barely crawls above that level: there is a horse-race that is, minimally, a novel sort of chase scene, excepting that horses do not have the inherent speed and danger of speeding cars, even when a Nazi superman uses Tom & Jerry-level traps to knock people off horses; but it's still better than the film's actual car chase, which involves Bond on a fire engine ladder, and police cars used as the butt of slapstick gags. The fistfight on the Golden Gate Bridge is a flimsy disaster, combining rear projection and props that the actors are clearly not hanging from to suggest that Walken, Moore, and their stunt doubles are busy practicing some manner of avant-garde dancing.

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Rating: 1 Walther PPK


GADGETRY
In what is not at all a glaring piece of product placement, Bond has a doohickey with "The Sharper Image on it that allows him to unlock a window from the outside. Also, Q gets to show off a little camera-bot that looks like a rejected Return of the Jedi prop and gets used just once, so that the quartermaster can spy on Bond and Stacey diddling in the shower. Which is pretty much the only thing Q gets to do, other than tell us all about the movie version of microchips, in the film that suddenly and violently reverses the "let's give Q lots and lots of stuff to do, all through the movie!" trend of the last few pictures.

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Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Fair is fair: the whole idea of Bond snooping around Zorin's horse paradise might be a narrative non-starter, but the grounds are spectacular, the historic Château de Chantilly tricked up with menacing labs and glamorous bedrooms. The actual contribution of designer Peter Lamont is limited, but it's hard not to be impressed by Zorin's prestige and power.

Once the action switches over to the caves beneath Silicon Valley, we're introduced to the first underground setting in a Bond franchise that actually looks like a cave, and not a cave-shaped soundstage; hardly imaginative, but it feels real and plausible, so that at least works in the film's favor.

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Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Hanging out at the Château de Chantilly is undoubtedly elegant; the ludicrous Dance of the Poison Butterflies that pulls focus from the chic restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower are undoubtedly not. And Moore himself, looking tired and extremely angry at the film around him, is less sexy and appealing and GQ-ish than he'd ever been in any film; when he does feint towards being a cultured man of the world at Zorin's cocktail reception, it feels almost spiteful.

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Rating: 1.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Forced into confessing that he's a British secret agent to avoid detention after the San Francisco City Hall catches on fire, Bond introduces himself to a SFPD Captain.
Forced or Badass? Running scared from the cops? That's pretty damned forced in my book.

Then he says it again just a few seconds later, when Stacy is shocked to learn that he's a spy. I suspect that even at this point, Bond realises that he has to tell her things twice to make sure they stick in that big hollow skull of hers.

And more! While incognito, Bond introduces himself to Dr. Mortner at the horse auction as "St. John-Smythe. James St. John-Smythe," which is a line that could not be satisfactorily delivered by the finest actor in the history of the British Stage, let alone an aging Roger Moore. And, he twice introduces himself as "Stock. James Stock." As in, "stocks and bonds", because FUCK YOU WILSON & MAIBAUM.

I do not know when series trademarks turn into a writing crutch, but it happened somewhere in all that, I am certain.


BEST QUIP
BOND: "She certainly bears closer inspection."
SIR GODFREY: "We're on a mission."
BOND: "Sir Godfrey, on a mission, I am expected to sacrifice myself."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
The end credits of Octopussy lied in promising us that James Bond Would Return in From a View to a Kill. I do not know how that film would have been different from just plain A View to a Kill, except in this: it would certainly have been better.

Roger Moore made no secret of his dislike for the whole thing: he felt the escalating violence was contrary to the spirit of Bond, he couldn't stand Grace Jones, was humiliated by how much older he was than Tanya Roberts, and probably felt like he was chafing in a role that he'd already tried to leave two years prior, before Albert R. Broccoli threw money at him. And his disinterest in playing the character shows up in what is almost certainly the worst single performance of Bond in the Eon franchise, despite a few moments of jollity, nearly all of them involving Patrick Macnee, with whom Moore gets to play at plummy British comedy-of-manners humor. And for that matter, what of Macnee, the one and only John Steed of The Avengers, given nothing to do except be puffy and die in a car wash? Talk about missed casting opportunities.

Once again, we have to say goodbye to a longtime member of the franchise in the midst of disaster: Lois Maxwell, the only performer to have appeared in each of the first 14 Eon Bond pictures, would not be returning. Some of the only actually charming moments come from her performance, as she is allowed to leave the confines of M's office for the first time to go to the horsetrack; there's a bubbly silliness to her little moments that is sweet, and touching for our knowledge that this first and most definitive of Moneypennys would be leaving hereafter.

Only the sheer inanity of the concept, along with Barry's extremely intelligent use of music, saves A View to a Kill from being completely, unwatchably sour; that inanity, which at least gives the vague spark of campy life to a movie that desperately wants more of the Spy Who Loved Me/Moonraker campiness to leaven the ridiculous script, is the sole reason that this is not my absolute least favorite Bond picture; though, even with two films coming up for a re-watch that might wrest this title away, it's certainly my pick for the overall worst. Shitty '80s action at its most perfunctory - director John Glen must have disliked the whole affair as much as Moore, given how tediously he works through it, with the flattest, most mechanical direction of the series yet - and a villain who jump from pointless and forgettable all the way to painful and disappointing on the basis of the casting, and a plot that isn't worth all the patience it takes to follow it along to its conclusion, a general meanness of spirit mixing with utter idiocy, and the whole thing is just a bad slog. The end credits promise James Bond Will Return, but for the first time do not promise us the title of the film where that will happen; a keen metaphor for a series that had completely lost its way and needed to go in someplace new and unknown; and this would happen, with a particularly severe shift of tone, just two years later. A place that is much, much happier to be than here in the smoking ruins of Roger Moore's fun but far too long tenure as Agent 007.


OVERALL SCORE
24.5/60. I am not sure how I permitted this to happen, but that's higher than the score I gave Moonraker.

7 comments:

Telos said...

Of all the movies I enjoy, this is the one that, if word got out, would really prejudice judgment against my good taste.

I like it for idiosyncratic reasons that are unlikely to convince anyone else, but I’ll try to explain them as best I can. Many times it has happened that we meet a charming someone with a glaring flaw or foible -- maybe a laugh or a tic, an overused turn of phrase or a dangerous hobbyhorse everyone can smell a mile off. Rather than let that flaw dim her star, the laws of attraction can sometimes turn things on their head and make the flaw quite as precious as the person herself. The more the world gawks or ridicules, the more we find it specially endearing.

Just so do I feel about 80s pop culture, and especially all the parts of 80s pop culture that are the most made fun of today. And it so happens that all the places this movie was specifically weak, were the places the 80s were specifically 80s-ish. You know, Duran Duran; the rescue-movie motif; quiche; Q's robot toy; the whole ski v. snowboard quandary; causing an earthquake in San Francisco to corner the microchip market.

But to me, the excesses of the 80s were her glories.

And so I love this movie.

RickR said...

This is the only Bond film I ever saw in first run.

That is all.

james1511 said...

"I am not sure how I permitted this to happen, but that's higher than the score I gave Moonraker."

This is exactly why I refuse to score films on my own blog.

Mysterious F. said...

Even if everything else in the movie was good, A View to a Kill would still deserve the massive hatred that it has received over the years just for what it does to one of the best pre-Pet Sounds songs from The Beach Boys.

Jeremy said...

This is it for me, man. This is the absolute nadir of the Bond franchise. And I know it's got some REAL stinkers, a View to a Kill is on another level. Walken is literally the only positive feeling I could take away from this.

I wish Moore would have went out with Octopussy, which while silly as hell, was at least pretty darn entertaining, in the way the best Moore Bond films are. This is just...

JD said...

"But on its own, the song itself is, honestly pretty daft, with lyrics that I'm not going to even bother trying to sort through. Something about meeting you through a view to a kill, so let's dance into the fire."

Sounding both deep and stupid is part of every great Duran Duran song: "Don't ask me why I keep my promise melt the ice." "I sold the Renoir and the TV set/Don't wanna be around when this gets out." "It means so much to me, like a birthday or a pretty view/But then I'm sure that you know it's just for you."

I think it's a feature, not a bug.

redwood said...

Yes, yes, yes. Again, you hit the nail on the head, Tim. Moore is not only embarrassingly late in his years, but he's become a crotchety old curmudgeon. I agree, as well, that a lot of the movie works in spite of itself, in a way that films like "Moonraker" did not, the middle of "MWTGG", the underwater fights in "Thunderball" ... et al. Unlike my recollection of seeing it years ago, I can actually get through it. It's just a bad plot with cartoon characters, and bad 80s motifs. But as worthless as it all may be, it's watchable. That's the best thing I could say about it. But the factor that this was all on purpose is EXACTLY what makes it a competitor for worst entry in the series.