Saturday, August 04, 2012

BOND-A-THON: A View to a Kill

Beware the temptation of the snap judgement. Particularly when undertaking a movie-thon whose entries you’re watching sequentially rather than ruminating upon retrospectively. And particularly when you haven’t seen some of those entries in quite some time.

I, dear reader, was not wary. Thus, from my review of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ on 12 June 2012: “ ‘TMwtGG’ is the franchise’s nadir,” an opinion that occasioned the redoubtable Tim of Antagony & Ecstasy to comment “the series' nadir? Now, that's at least one ‘Star Wars’ knock-off and one Chris Walken Nazi superman away from happening.”

And – lo! – reviewing ‘Moonraker’ on 1 July 2012, I was forced “to reappraise my earlier opinion of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ as the series’ nadir. Although perhaps ‘TMwtGG’ is more bitterly disappointing because of the flashes of potential it displays – ‘Moonraker’ simply starts bad and stays bad.”

And now I find myself squaring up to ‘A View to a Kill’, compared to which ‘TMwtGG’ and ‘Moonraker’ are not just great Bond movies, but masterpieces of world cinema. Indeed, compared to ‘AVtaK’, ‘Moonraker’ is ‘Citizen Kane’ with spaceships.

You can’t even say of ‘AVtaK’ that it starts bad and stays bad. It’s too desultory to attain the quirky degree of badness that can actually work, perversely enough, in a film’s favour. Only in its wildest dreams does ‘AVtaK’ aspire to being ‘so bad it’s good’. The cold, unavoidable fact of the matter is that it’s simply dull. John Glen’s direction is pedestrian. Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson’s script is a lame retread of tropes and character traits from earlier, better, entries. The action scenes are not only few and far between but lacking in dynamics, credibility and excitement.

As with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘Octopussy’, the title is from one of Ian Fleming’s short stories, but not a trace of the original tale survives. The pre-credits sequence actually has something to do with the film proper, as Bond (Roger Moore, pushing 60 and looking tired) retrieves a microchip from the body of 003 in the frozen wastes of Alaska while the Russkies close in on him. There follows a ski/chase scene (yup, another one) which ends with Bond ski-boarding to the strains of the Beach Boys before sailing off with a buxom beauty probably young enough to be his granddaughter in a mini-submarine disguised as an iceberg.

Then fucking Duran Duran kick in on the soundtrack, and Maurice Binder serves up arguably his most salacious and outright sexist title sequence yet – which is saying something for a guy who made a career out of projecting movie credits onto the gyrating silhouettes of naked women. If you’ve never seen the film before and these first six or seven minutes make you want to eject the DVD and go clay-pigeon shooting with it … friend, I wish you a steady hand and a good aim.

If you make it past the credits, this is what you get: M (Robert Brown) and Q (Desmond Llewellyn) identify the microchip as being manufactured by Zorin Industries and, worried that the KGB might have someone on the inside who has to access to a new type of chip that something something impervious to a nuclear pulse yada yada – the exposition is an exercise in what-the-fuckery and the science is so bonkers it makes your average Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘Barsoom’ opus look like Neal Stephenson – send Bond to infiltrate Zorin’s organization.

Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) is an American industrialist with designs on San Francisco’s silicon valley, so Bond naturally makes contact with him in Paris where he’s auctioning off some racehorses to be put out to stud because, y’know, he also owns some gee-gees. Let’s pause for a second here and contemplate two things.

One: I likes me some Christopher Walken. I like Christopher Walken when he’s reining it in and delivering carefully controlled character work (e.g. ‘The Dead Zone’), I like him when he’s being utterly undisciplined and chewing on the scenery like he’s not had a square meal in weeks (‘King of New York’, ‘Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead’), I like him when he’s doing nothing more than transfixing the camera and drawling a monologue (‘True Romance’, ‘Pulp Fiction’), and I think he’s pretty awesome and able to rock an off-the-peg suit when he soft-shoe-shuffles through an empty hotel in a Fatboy Slim video. So it fucking kills me even to think about how awful his performance is here, let alone write about it. The deal with Zorin is this: he’s the product of Nazi experimentation, a born sociopath, later groomed by the KGB and then allowed to carve a capitalist career for himself in the decadent west. (I’m not saying this film is ideologically confused, but what the fuckety fucking fuck???) Walken’s characterization of a sociopath is: laugh contemptuously, strike a pose somewhere between John Wayne pre-gunfight and a man who’s just shit his pants, deliver a line reading notable only for its grammatically appalling diction, then laugh maniacally until the director yells “cut”. I can only assume John Glen was delayed in yelling “cut” on a few occasions, because there are several scenes in which Walken laughs maniacally, looks embarrassed, barks out a bit more maniacal laughter and my will to live ebbs a little more.

Two: as a purpose of comparison between the literary and filmic incarnations of Bond, the books generally present tighter and more claustrophobic narratives than their big screen counterparts, with the bulk of the action usually occurring over a comparatively short period of time and confined to a single locale or a very limited arena of activity – ‘Casino Royale’, ‘Moonraker’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ are good examples. Ergo, the three-quarters of an hour in which Double-OAP – sorry, Double-O Seven – goes undercover at Zorin’s Parisian pad, snoops around, uncovers evidence of conspiracy, tangles with both Zorin and his feisty second in command May Day (Grace Jones), and has his mettle tested in a rigged steeplechase, is probably the closest any of the movies have come to a cinematic representation of the novels’ mise-en-scene. And you know what? It makes for a pretty damn boring viewing experience.

It’s during this exegesis in ennui that Bond comes into contact with American heiress Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), our Bond girl du jour – not that she really comes into play until the last forty minutes or so – and here we come to the next bone of contention. Roberts had won the hearts and hormones of a generation of teenage boys courtesy of her roles as Julie Rogers in the 1980-81 seasons of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and as the scantily clad heroine in ‘Sheena’. Embodying all-American girl-next-door looks and the kind of figure that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window, Roberts was always going to be Bond girl material. However, while thespian talents aren’t always a prerequisite for Bond girl iconography, Roberts’ acting style is akin to a deer caught in headlights but concentrating so hard on reading off a cue-card that it hasn’t realized the headlights are so close and, oh fuck, attached to a speeding truck.

Then we have the terminally unlovely Grace Jones. Her acting style is more like a rabid dog caught in headlights. There’s a scene where she makes out with Walken. The fact that my eyes were rigidly on Walken throughout says nothing about any latent preferences on my part.

Then we have Fiona Fullerton as a Russian agent with whom Bond enjoys a brief interlude. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a stunner … but her attempt at a Russian accent makes the guy who played Schultz in ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ sound like Bruno Ganz.

Then we have Patrick Macnee. Just as there’s an academic paper to be written on the Bond/giallo correlation – Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celli, Barbara Bach, Barbara Bouchet (albeit in a non-canon Bond role) and former 007 George Lazenby all having appeared in notable examples of the genre – a study of the crossovers between James Bond and ‘The Avengers’ (Steed/Peel version, not Marvel comics) similarly awaits authorship. Honor Blackman (Catherine Gale from 1962-64) essayed Pussy Galore in ‘Goldfinger’, while Diana Rigg (the iconic Emma Peel between 1965 and 1968) and Joanna Lumley (Purdey in ‘The New Avengers’, 1976-77) both appeared in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Guest stars included Christopher Lee, Vernon Dobtcheff, Julian Glover and Geoffrey Palmer, all of whom memorably contributed to the world of 007. So it was probably inevitable that Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, would eventually get a role in a Bond movie. Tragic that he got it – and such a thankless role at that – in this one.

A young Dolph Lundgren makes a small appearance. Mainly because he was Grace Jones’s consort at the time and visiting the set when Glen found himself missing an extra. I mention this purely to illustrate my desperation in finding things to say about ‘AVtaK’.

Ultimately, this is a sloppy piece of filmmaking. The ridiculous lengths to which Zorin goes attempting to dispose of Bond makes the average Saturday morning serial with its cheating cliff-hangers look like an example of documentary realism; the over-elaborate set pieces (notably an assassination at the Eiffel Tower) swiftly become ridiculous; the schism between the jokey portrayal of Bond and Zorin gleefully machine-gunning helpless people who were about to drown anyway are irreconcilable in terms of tone and context; and there’s at least half an hour’s more running time than there is plot.

Any saving graces? Not the finale, which is so ludicrously staged and badly edited as to make the “off” button leap from a remote controller in a paroxysm of audio-visual mercy killing. Nor the gadgets, which are limited to a remote control camera that Q employs for state-sanctioned voyeurism in the final scene. Nor the nods to previous Bond movies, including the villain-as-cheat gamesmanship already embodied by Auric Goldfinger (likewise Zorin’s briefing of his criminal brethren is an unashamed copy from that film) and Kamal Khan, as well as the reappearance of the stolen Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington as referenced in ‘Dr No’. This latter is inexplicable even as an in-joke since the painting was returned in 1965, twenty years prior to Eon Productions shunting their lamest Bond movie yet onto the cinema screens of the world.


Rick said...

So far in my own retrospective, I've found A View to A Kill to have been the worst official Bond film I've seen.

However, MISS Grace Jones is, if nothing else, a memorable henchman (maybe for the wrong reasons, but who can forget May Day...and her hat). I NEVER liked her turn at the end, even if the story gave a reason for it.

Matthew Kitsell said...

Much as I'd really like to, it's hard for me to put up much of a case for the defence with A View To A Kill. It emerges for me as the weakest of the Moore Bonds along with The Man With The Golden Gun, both films appearing to have been made at a time when the series seemed tired and worn out. Nonetheless, AVtaK is not without its occasional pleasures and is fitfully entertaining.

I actually find Bond and Tibbett's undercover investigation of Zorin's stud farm in the French countryside to be the best and most enjoyable section of the film, and this would have made a fine Fleming short story on its own (even though it's practically irrelevant to the main plot), with Moore and Macnee working very well together as a double act. It's just that the film sighs and dies the moment it hits San Francisco and never really recovers.

It's not without its moments though: Walken's maniacal delivery of the line "I am happiest... in the saddle!" is something to treasure - and to add to his already very long list of enviable skills, Bond's Quiche de Cabinet simply looks exquisite. Connery's Bond would have waited for the girl to make him the quiche, and though Craig's Bond probably has a kitchen in his flat, he's unlikely to have ever spent any time there.



The Film Connoisseur said...

Damn dude! I personally dig this Bond flick, but it's probably because it was the first Bond movie I saw when I was a kid...but aside from that, I think it's a pretty enjoyable flick with its great moments, true, I haven't seen it in a while, but I seem to remembering loving that finale with Walken vs. Bond on top of the bridge. I'd need to rewatch though to give a fair assesment.

Recently saw Moonraker too...that movie was tons of fun! Silly no doubt, but fun as hell. And campy. But I dug it a lot, the whole sci-fi angle was well achieved, it felt to me like the Bond movies answer to Star Wars.

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