Bond, James Bond: The 80s, by Kyle Anderson
As the James Bond film series entered its third decade, with eleven films under its belt, it had already solidified itself as one of the most profitable and popular in history. However, the 1970s, to my mind anyway, had produced some of the silliest and most eye-rolling of the entire Bond oeuvre. Despite a truly terrific entry, The Spy Who Loved Me, the 70s ended with Moonraker, a movie so ridiculous that it contained Oscar nominated space battle effects and a pigeon doing a double take. The 1980s produced five more Bond films and, in response to the previous decade’s erratic entries, they featured a return to a more “realistic” style of Bond-ing. In the 80s, we get the final three Roger Moore films and the only two Timothy Daltons, and despite this change in actor, these films are the most consistent in tone and style, due in no small part to them all being directed by the same person, John Glen, who’d been an editor on some of the previous films. Consistency is good to a point. It ensures there won’t be the kind of genre-bending experiments from the 70s. All five films in the 80s are straight up, big stunt action movies and they never get too silly or stray too far from the main throughline. However, if the films are uniformly bland, confusing, and forgettable, consistency isn’t so good. Such is the problem with the Glen years.
After Moonraker went off the rails stylistically, and incidentally made more money than any of the other movies in the series to date, new series director John Glen made a conscious decision to ground the next film in reality, or as much of reality as a James Bond movie could have. His first film, For Your Eyes Only (1981), got rid of much of the winking goofiness of the previous few installments and used almost exclusively practical stunts and effects. There also seemed to be the sense of putting the previous films firmly in the past. The film’s cold opening shows Bond visiting the grave of his wife of ten minutes, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 12 years earlier, and getting attacked by his arch nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here played by some bald guy and only seen from behind. After some fairly ridiculous helicopter antics, Bond picks up the wheelchair-ridden Blofeld with the landing skid and dumps him into a factory’s smokestack, putting a final, yet brief and pretty dumb, end to his oldest foe. Blofeld is not named here and the reason for his quick dispatching is purely legal. Kevin McClory, with whom Ian Fleming wrote the initial outline for Thunderball in the late 50s, sued EON productions over the rights to characters created within, winning the sole ownership of the character of Blofeld. McClory also sued for the right to make his own James Bond film, though he was only allowed to remake Thunderball which resulted in Never Say Never Again in 1983, which had Sean Connery and the Blofeld character, but failed to beat Octopussy in the box office that year. So, as a “screw you” to McClory, and as a way to tie up all the Blofeld loose ends, the For Your Eyes Only shoehorned in his demise. Still, it does signify within the story that the golden age of Bond is over.
Aside from this legally obligated dumb scene, the rest of For Your Eyes Only is very straight forward from an action perspective. In fact the action in all the films in the 80s exist in a kind of heightened reality, that really all action movies inhabit. A tiny car probably couldn’t off-road down a mountain, nor could a man in his mid-50s hurl himself around the way he does, but it’s a movie and it’s not so far-fetched. Glen’s visual style is very straight forward. Nothing gets too showy, but everything is in frame how it needs to be. But is merely competent filmmaking enough for such a storied and varied franchise? At the time it must have been. These five films look like the bulk of action movies from the era, and that may be what the creative team was going for, but there is nothing remarkable about any of them. However, with the exception of A View to a Kill (1985) which is abysmally stupid, they’re all pretty watchable. So why exactly are they so bland, and what makes A View to a Kill so repulsive? For all the reasons the 60s and 70s were interesting.
First, we’ll discuss the not bad but boring entries, For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), The Living Daylights (1987), and Licence to Kill (1989) [sic]. The action scenes in them are well executed, and fairly fun, but there’s really no sense of outdoing the last one. For all their ridiculousness, the speedboat chase through the bayou in Live and Let Die and the boat/car chases in The Man with the Golden Gun were visually distinct and contextually new. We’d never seen Bond in these situations before. In both For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, Bond is in a chase in a small vehicle through crowded streets. Big whoop. In The Living Daylights, Bond has a car chase in the snow followed by a fairly silly sled chase with Bond and that film’s requisite Bond girl (Maryam d’Abo) going downhill on a cello case. Both chases are executed very well, however, they were essentially done already, and for more thematic impact, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There really comes a point, and the filmmakers knew it I think, where you’ve seen 007 in every permutation of fight, chase, exotic locale, and sexy rendezvous. It’d become a formula at this point, as had been established in earnest by the 1970s; Cold open, criminal plot, Bond on assignment, Q gadgets, sex with a hot woman who gets killed, meeting the villain, meeting henchmen, sex with bad girl, meeting good girl, big set pieces, Bond almost dies, huge finale, Bond sleeps with good girl, snappy quip, the end. It’s the same in every movie, but what can and should make them entertaining are the characters he meets and the situations he enters, and to a lesser degree the compellingness of the plot.
First, the Bond girls in the decade are incredibly uninteresting. For Your Eyes Only’s Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) has a fairly interesting reason for being in the movie – wanting revenge on the arms dealer who killed her family – but beyond that, she doesn’t standout in any way. The “other” Bond girl in the film is Bibi Dahl (played by Olympic figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson) is just annoying. She’s maybe 17 and the joke is that her uncle tells Bond she’s very innocent, but she’s actually a big whore. Hilarious. She throws herself at Roger Moore’s Bond and, to his credit, he realizes he’s far too old for her and rebukes her. But why is she in the film? In Octopussy, there’s a few moderately attractive women Bond sleeps with as well as the titular character (played by Maud Adams, who’d appeared as a different character in Golden Gun). I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the characters besides the fact that Octopussy is apparently the head of a smuggling ring. She’s not even the bad guy in the movie. The Living Daylights has Kara Milovy (the aforementioned d’Abo) who is a concert cellist who’s trying to help her Sovient boyfriend defect. I guess. And in Licence to Kill, we get the bad guy’s girlfriend, Lupe, (Talisa Soto, who frankly seems like she’d rather be somewhere else) whose whole purpose is to sleep with Bond and turn on the bad guy, and CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) who just complains about Bond not treating her like a strong, independent woman and then whimpers when Bond hits on other women. All of them are a mixture of strong and weak and as a result come across as uneven. Go figure.
The villains are even more flat, if that’s possible. They all seem to be powerful tycoons who set about to world domination for some reason or another. Part and parcel to their being uninteresting is the complete and total incomprehensibility of their evil schemes, i.e. the plot of the films. They’d long since abandoned basing the films on Ian Fleming’s stories, save the titles, and this is immediately evident here. I literally just watched these movies and I’m still foggy about what actually happened in any of them. In For Your Eyes Only, the villain is Kristatos (veteran British actor Julian Glover) is trying to retrieve a soviet “attack computer” from a sunken ship. We find this out at about the 105 minute mark of the 127 minute film. Bond also spends half of this film in the Alps, you know, where there’s bound to be sunken ships. Octopussy’s villain, Prince Kamal Kahn (Louis Jourdan) has forged Faberge eggs, but really he’s working with a renegade Soviet general to create an nuclear “accident” so that NATO will be forced to disarm and the USSR can take over Europe. What? I’m still not sure how Octopussy herself fits into this whole thing, but dammit, she’s in there. I for the life of me can’t tell you the plot of The Living Daylights or who the bad guy even is. I suppose it’s Joe Don Baker’s crazy American general-turned-arms dealer Brad Whitaker, but I’m only led to believe that because he’s the last guy Bond fights. Baker’s in all of three scenes in the whole movie. The film in the 80s that comes closest to having a good Columbian drug lord who disfigured Bond’s friend Felix Leiter and killed Mrs. Leiter. It gets a little convoluted in the middle, but overall it’s just Bond trying to stop the drug ring and kill the bad guy. It’s also no coincidence that Robert Davi as Franz Sanchez in the same film is the most fully realized villain.
Bond himself in these four films is equally flat. Roger Moore is in his 50s when the decade begins and his age is very evident. His boyish charm has faded away into licentiousness. You can’t help but find him lecherous as he’s paired with 20-something models and actresses. He does an okay job with the stunts, but he’s certainly not doing as many of his own as he did, and the stuntman is much more visible. While the character is always old fashioned, it worked okay for Moore in the 70s, but in the 80s he seems woefully out of touch. When he’s replaced by the much younger Timothy Dalton in the final two films of the 80s, there’s hope that the series would regain some of its youthful appeal, and to a degree it does, however the actor never feels comfortable in the role. Dalton looks the part, he’s a handsome guy for sure, and he ably handles the fight scenes and stunt work, but they never wrote for his acting style or his take on the role. In The Living Daylights, he’s essentially just a stand-in for Moore as the script has him cracking a number of jokes and looking coy, which Dalton isn’t suited to. It’s a bit better in Licence to Kill. While there are still a few silly one-liners, which Dalton does his best to make land, it’s the scenes where he’s being serious, pained, or angry where we see a glimpse of the kind of Bond he could have become if given another chance.
I promised earlier to talk about why A View to a Kill is so stupid. Well, where should I start? Nearly every aspect of the production doesn’t work at all, even though it probably has the most interesting locations in any of the 80s films, with most of the action taking place in Paris and San Francisco. Roger Moore was 57 years old when they shot the film and it’s his seventh time in the role. He’s really phoning it in here. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d attempted to reflect the actor’s aging in the script, but he’s expected to just be the same old (young) James Bond and we’re supposed to accept him in that way. The Bond girls are nothing short of awful. The good one, Stacey Sutton, is played by former Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts who, with her bleach blonde hair, big empty doe eyes, and chipmunk-squeaky voice, we’re supposed to believe is a California State Geologist. She and Roger Moore have zero onscreen chemistry and 50th time she shrieks “Jaaaames!” in the burning elevator, I wanted Bond to let just her fall to her doom. Seriously, there’s more sexual tension between Bond and Q. There’s also the bad girl, May Day, played by terrifying artist/musician Grace Jones. There’s a really gross scene where Bond seduces her and they sleep together. That’s something nobody needs to witness. Apparently, this was Moore’s least favorite film both to watch and to make, and he and Grace Jones vehemently hated each other on set. It’s abundantly clear. The villain behind the story is Nazi-turned KGB agent-turned billionaire industrialist Max Zorin, played with nearly-white blonde hair by Christopher Walken. Does he have even the slightest hint of a German or Russian accent? No, of course not; it’s Christopher Walken, so he just talks like a weirdo from New York like he always does. I like Walken as an actor, but he’s totally unbelievable in every aspect of the character aside from being insane.
The film’s plot is infuriatingly stupid. Zorin is a microchip manufacturer who is working for the Soviets (of course, it’s the 80s) to put the chips in munitions, but he goes rogue and hatches his own scheme to corner the market on computers. How does he hope to achieve this goal? Well, he of course plans to destroy a “geological lock,” which may or may not be a real thing, that keeps the Hayward Fault and San Andreas Fault from rubbing into each other. For what reason? So that the two faults will collide and create an earthquake so large that it will flood the entire Silicon Valley – you know, where they make all the computer stuff. The film culminates with James and Stacey fighting with Zorin and his boring, uninteresting henchman in a zeppelin, which crashes into the Golden Gate Bridge. And the shot is entirely composited, of course, because they wouldn’t actually allow a zeppelin to fly that close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s painful to see, from start to finish it makes no sense.
So that’s the 80s; two boring films on either side of a terrible one. You can look at the five films as being on a gradient scale of quality with For Your Eyes Only being the least bad, flowing into Octopussy, and then right in the middle you have the awful A View to a Kill and following it we get slightly less bad again with The Living Daylights and then finishinjg off with Licence to Kill which is actually pretty good, misspelled title notwithstanding. This is the John Glen era. He’s not a bad director, but I certainly wouldn’t call him a visionary. If you’re going to watch any of these movies, a) have low expectations, and b) pick the ones at the very ends of decade. Next, we’re hitting the home stretch and heading into the 90s and Pierce Brosnan’s turn to be 007. Brosnan did four films and we’ll be looking at all of them, despite the last one actually coming out in 2002. It just seemed the most appropriate way to group them. So get ready for me to rave about GoldenEye and then make fun of the other three.