If you're the best they've got, they're more likely to try and cover up your embarrassing incompetence.
A View to a Kill
One has to recognise the good intentions for A View to a Kill. There was a will to break new ground, to try move with the times. Hinging the plot on Silicon Valley was clear enough an example of such thinking. Casting villains who were actually recognisable to contemporary audiences was another. Requesting Duran Duran for the theme song (even if they had just passed their peak) was even more so. So why is the result such a slack-jawed mess? In part it’s down to having a good idea but no means to structure it into a coherent story. In bigger part it’s having a past-it star struggling even to go through the motions. Whenever I revisit A View to a Kill, I think I might enjoy it this time because it has left so little impression on previous occasions. And I’m always mistaken. Bond hasn’t been this tired since You Only Live Twice.
Conversely, re the validity of bright ideas, the tenure of Michael G. Wilson as co-writer on the series (throughout the ‘80s) was a hit-and-miss affair. For every Silicon Valley there was a Halley’s Comet knocked out of orbit to destroy it (an early draft). So it should come as little surprise that Nazi genetic engineering gets a look-in. Quite why Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) needs to be a product of failed experimentation at producing a master race is anyone’s guess; as a plot element it contributes next to nothing – other than Walken’s blonde rinse.
If the series had gone down a Boys from Brazil route, AVTAK might have at least felt different. Instead, Zorin’s background looks like lazy comic book doodling. He is never given an actual character to peg his heritage upon (there is a clinch with his creator, Herr Dr Mortner (Willoughby Gray), but it’s too little to late). Walken plays up the maniacal chuckling – as only he can – but the nods to his existence as a mad aberration come only when he is mowing down now-extraneous mineworkers. It’s a sequence that comes across as clumsy and tonally out-of-place. Moore’s misgivings over this scene might sound like the naysaying of an lead actor exiting under a cloud, who has to justify his mutually agreed departure with some healthy criticism of how it isn’t the way it used to be, but he has a point. The sequence is jarring because the film has not taken the time to build a scenario where a sudden grim massacre can be narratively affecting. In a Bond movie lightweight by even Moore standards, it’s merely gratuitous.
The title was taken, like For Your Eyes Only and Quantum of Solace from Ian Fleming’s 1960 short story collection. There is scant connection to the story itself (which sees Bond on the trail of stolen documents and the murder of a motorcycle dispatch rider) aside from using France as one of the locations. Instead, we are served up one of those Bond plots where the seams show particularly untidily; ideas for set pieces and locations announce themselves with little regard for plot appropriateness.
Zorin: For centuries, alchemists tried to make gold from base metals. Today, we make microchips from silicon, which is common sand, but far better than gold.
The MacGuffin of a microchip, which remains unaffected by an electromagnetic pulse, is actually not at all bad (better than yet another doomsday device), but the establishing investigation is a virtual retread of Moonraker (others have pointed to Goldfinger as a key influence on the story, with the villain’s intention of monopolising an industry); Bond identifies his suspect within minutes, who happens to be a heavyweight in his field (Drax in space exploration, Zorin in computer technology). Then Bond goes to France (well, France doubling for the US in Moonraker) and enjoys a laidback introduction to the villain on his estate.
The drugged horses subplot is tenuous to say the least, which makes it all the more surprising that it is the best part of the movie (much of this is down to the interaction between Moore and Patrick MacNee). It appears the equine inclusion was a form of deference to Cubby Broccoli, who owned racing horses at the time. Yes, that’s always the best way of designing your plots (although being at the whim of ego-laden producers can have worse side-effects, especially if that producer is Jon Peters). One can just about connect horse doctoring with the computer-tech and medical experimentation, but it’s really weak.
Zorin’s blimp is similarly non-integral, so it’s fortunate that it seems like just the sort of grandiose transport a Bond villain would use. It’s curious that the US portion of the film feels so disconnected, as it finds 007 cemented to one location for much longer than he has been in recent efforts (since the also US-set Diamonds are Forever). This might have presented an opportunity for some proper investigatory work for Bond, particularly since the scenario devised by Zorin has more than a whiff of a steroidal version of Chinatown’s dodgy industrialists. There’s even corruption at City Hall. But it’s only by chance that is Bond deduces Zorin’s scheme (Stacey happens to be there during an earth tremor).
As for Zorin being a former KGB agent, it adds too many layers to the cake. When did he find time for this and why? Like his genetic modification it feels redundant, as nothing is done with it; it appears to be included to enable General Gogol (Walter Gotell) to reappear in the series with some purpose (but didn’t he have that anyway, depending upon how and where the Soviets got the chip Bond retrieves during the opening sequence?) If the plan to sink Silicon Valley takes some credulity to swallow, it’s no more hare-brained than the average super villain scheme; indeed, having a Grade-A giggling nutjob as the mastermind lends the craziness a daft believability. But no one has bothered to make this feel like a coherent movie. It has the ramshackle approach of the Lewis Gilbert Moore entries, but with none of the fun.
Speaking of fun, the aging elephant in the tux is guilty as charged with failure to deliver this time out. Moore was looking past his peak when he turned down the (dubious) charms of teenage nymphet in For Your Eyes Only four years earlier. Now he looks positively ridiculous. Curiously, unlike the previous few occasions, there is no scuttlebutt about a replacement for Moore having been in the frame. The actor turned 57 during filming of A View to a Kill; he was 59 in year the movie was released (twice the age of co-star Tanya Roberts, of whom he noted that her mother was younger than he). Moore received cosmetic surgery (an eye job) in the period prior to filming, and it has the effect of making him seem frailer, rather than rejuvenated. He has the watery-eyed look of a man who has applied too much haemorrhoid cream to his wrinkles. With that, and his bouffant-thickened hair (one wonders how much it is thickened and how much it is a toupee), he is in rather a sorry state.
John Glen and his Second Unit, rather than attempting to disguise Moore’s stunt men, appear to be actively putting their faces in shot as often as possible. At times the result is akin to a spoof of badly edited low budget fare. The only thing Moore has going for him is that ex-Avenger Patrick MacNee, his sidekick for the first half of the movie, has five years and a good few pounds on him. Elsewhere, one can’t help but feel faintly embarrassed for the duffer (this was the entry when Connery famously pronounced men in their 50s too old for the part, which should go to someone 20 years younger). As Moore noted, he has no chemistry with Tanya Roberts’ Stacey Sutton (who outbids Caroline Bouquet for the Bond girl with the least presence).
Bond: I see you’re a woman of very few words.
Worse still, there is the infamous conquest where 007 beds Grace Jones’ voracious May Day; this is surely the most ridiculous love scene in the series, and ranks up there with Russell Harty for nightmarish encounters with the singer (I’m not going to call her an actress). Moore loathed Jones, who was reportedly just as difficult as you’d think from taking a quick glance at her, and in his autobiography comments “I’ve always said if you’ve not got anything nice to say about someone, then you should say nothing. So I’ll say nothing”. A page later he reconsiders, detailing some of her more antisocial activities, and notes that she wore a large black dildo for their romantic entwinement. Perhaps as a self-conscious tonic for his greying temples, Bond is furnished with four bedroom conquests this time out. It says something about how leaden and unspirited the whole affair is that you barely notice.
Far worthier of comment is the evidence that Bond is a dab hand in the kitchen. Further still, his dish of choice is quiche. Could there be a more blatant statement that the red-blooded carnivore has become a pipe and slippers, retiring fellow deep down?
Mayday: And I thought that creep loved me!
The rest of the cast are such a mismatched bunch, it evidences how the producers knew they needed to strike out in new directions but were so hopelessly unhip that they made a complete botch up of it. How do you appeal to a new generation? Sign on Grace Jones, whom that generation aren’t especially partial to anyway. Great move. She guarantees headlines, though, which could be seen as job done. Jones is quite dreadful, mainly because she can’t act for toffee. She’s fine in something like Vamp, which is all about posturing, but Mayday is actually intended to have a vague emotional arc (she believes Zorin loves her). The script doesn’t help Jones either; Mayday changes sides… because she gets wet?
When Mayday exits the picture, it’s entirely a relief. This kind of stunt casting can work for a scene or two, but any longer and it causes permanently damage. Perhaps I should mention Jones’ then squeeze Dolph Lundgren, who makes his movie debut as Gogol’s bodyguard. If it helps, Moore reports that Dolph was an absolute darling.
Zorin: Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.
Then there’s Walken, bringing Oscar winning prestige to the Bond villain (eat that, Skyfall). Apparently the script modelled the villain on Sting. David Bowie was first pick, though. Reasons for his refusal are varied; one take has it that he picked the Goblin King in Labyrinth over Zorin. Alternatively, there’s an entirely understandable quote that “I didn’t want to spend five months watching my stunt double fall off cliffs”. Zorin is a wholly undercooked villain, and any impact he has is entirely down to Walken’s idiosyncratic style and delivery. In terms of iconography, he and Jones admittedly make a strong impact, but otherwise they lack any weight. Walken can make a nothing line like “Ha ha. You amuse me, Mr Bond” weird and funny, but he can’t work miracles. As for Zorin’s accent, given that he is a leading French industrialist who speaks five languages, it’s anyone’s guess (it’s one thing to say he reduced all trace of his accent, but why he replaced it with an American one is a different matter).
Patrick MacNee is great fun as Sir Godfrey Tibbet, and it’s rather a shame that he didn’t remain throughout the movie; a geriatric buddy Bond movie would at least have some cachet. As it is, old muckers Moore and MacNee display great chemistry (if only it had rubbed off on the leading ladies), and the comedy value of Tibbet being consigned to the role of Bond’s manservant is almost entirely improvised by Moore.
I mentioned Roberts, who is a complete blank. She caught Broccoli’s eye when she appeared in Beastmaster a few years earlier. Evidently, it was the coy nudity rather than acting prowess that worked its magic on him (she had a similar scene as Sheena, which failed to trouble 1984’s box office). Alison Doody makes more impression for her character’s name (Jenny Flex) than anything she does on screen. And Grace Jones gets mystifyingly upset over her death. Doody would, of course, go on to her most visible role a few years later when she was cast as the female lead in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Moore: Détente can be beautiful.
Pola: This is not time to be discussing politics.
It’s a shame then that the best Bond girl in AVTAK appears for barely more than a scene; Fiona Fullerton is Pola Ivanova, whom Bond shags in a bubble bath. Their tryst gives rise to one too many détente jokes. A tentative return by Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova was planned, but coming back for a quick lay probably wasn’t that enticing to her. Fullerton makes a bit of a meal of her Russian accent, but she has crucial chemistry with Moore. It also helps to have Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack, lending a much-needed layer of class to the proceedings (short-lived as that may be).
M: Where is he? What’s he doing?
Q: Just cleaning up a few details.
As for the regulars, they’re as sorry sights as Moore. Q arses about with a toy robot, which is presumably introduced in the early briefing scene to explain why he’s using it to be a Peeping Tom at the climax (more appropriate to Q Branch would be Zorin’s facial recognition software). Robert Brown is the least memorable of Ms (four appearances, but would you be able to name the actor?) He could be any government official.
Gogol is reduced to gormlessly double-taking in response to the old standby of the swapped-tape routine. And poor old Lois Maxwell is decked out in an unbecoming frock for a day at the races. It’s all rather depressing. Felix Leiter was due to make a return, but he is replaced by TV’s The Chinese Detective, David Yip, as Chuck Lee. EastEnders' Big Ron (Ron Tarr) has a scene as a big guard.
Gogol: You will come back to us, comrade. No one ever leaves the KGB.
The pre-credits sequence suggests Glen et al will be consciously trying to repeat the overt campery of Gilbert’s Bonds. 007 stages an escape from some Russkies, accomplishing some daring snowboarding to the sound of a cover version of The Beach Boys’ California Girls. It’s appealingly silly but, the derring-do of Willie Bogner aside, the sequence fails to hang together. The joins between the Iceland and Swiss locations are plain for all to see, and the back projection placing Moore at the location is painfully lazy. Additionally, by this point the de rigueur emblazoning of the Union Jack across our super spy has gone from being a witty sensation (the parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me) to an annoyingly mindless bit of anglophilic backslapping.
This is followed by the most lacklustre of title sequences from Maurice Binder, who evidently couldn’t muster inspiration from the plucked turkey he was proffered. Some weedy ice sculptures and a bit of face paint do nothing to reinforce the punchy vigour of Duran Duran’s theme song (it seems the BBFC demanded cuts to the titles due to blatant nudity); it’s another example of the strange pull between where the producers know the series needs to go and the absence of anyone with the freshness to take it there. John Taylor reportedly approached Cubby Broccoli at a party and drunkenly suggested he get someone decent to do one of the theme songs. I know the use of boy bands in the mid-80s has its naysayers, but they came up with a strong tune (which also proved a resounding hit on both sides of the Atlantic). Their accompanying video is absolute shit, however. It has been reported that John Barry wasn’t keen on a pop group coming on board (his difficulties with A-ha on the next movie suggest this is more than likely), but he integrates the theme into the main score with his usual ease.
Bond: I’m happiest… in the saddle.
Accordingly, with a Bond who is only present for the close-ups, it’s impossible to be engaged by the set pieces. Of course, we always knew he wasn’t; it’s that now there seems active disinterest in disguising it. The half-car chase in France is a neat idea, but it lacks any pep. Mayday’s leap from the Eiffel Tower is another worked-backwards sequence that fails to really engage; it’s too obvious that’s how it was conceived. There’s a promising horse race that suddenly peters out. Throughout, the action sequences come off half-cocked. There’s also something disappointingly mundane about their conception. This Bond film is shorn of exotic locations, and is left with uninspired chases with an annoying comedy policeman in attendance (think Sheriff Pepper, but without a personality).
There’s a lift rescue, complete with cables that burn through astonishingly easily and Stacey screaming for Bond like she’s bidding for the least capable Bond girl ever; even the round of applause as 007 carries her to safety seems stale.
A fire engine chase follows, in which Bond clambers out onto the ladder, for reasons best known to himself, and is then imperilled for the duration. The big expensive set, Zorin’s disused mine (what was mined?) has to be the poxiest of budget-consuming constructions in a Bond movie. I guess the flooding sequences are well done, but all that effort has been put into anti-spectacle.
This is where Zorin mows down a load of helpless minions, whooping callously. As an idea it’s not necessarily a bad one, but Glen brings zero faculty to the carnage. His work on ‘80s Bonds is curiously inconsistent. Obviously, he’s an indistinctive yet safe pair of hands, devoid of any stylistic flourishes but capable enough to point and shoot. But, with an early career dabbling in editing, he should at least have a sense of how a scene hangs together. It’s curious that he is so askew here, yet his next outing is easily his most consistent; The Living Daylights is contrastingly lean and coherent.
The big climax, as the Zorin blimp heads for the San Francisco Bridge, is laughable in conception and execution. The name Zorin was similar enough to fashion design company Zoran Ladicorbic Ltd that a disclaimer note was inserted at the start of the picture. Somewhat unnecessary really; who the hell has heard of them? And, if you have a tendency to mix up a fictitious microchip entrepreneur with the latest catwalk styles, you’re in deeper waters than can be remedied by an advisory tag.
The unwitting hilarity of Bond blimpdom begins as a ludicrously oblivious Stacey completely misses an airship creeping up behind her, enabling Zorin to snatch her aboard. Incredible! Further such antics follow, as Bond grabs hold of a trailing mooring rope. He proceeds to hang on for the next half hour or so, in a most relaxed fashion, as it makes for the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s one thing for Bond to leap on the back of an airplane, but here he is at his most common-sense-free. I know, I know, it’s just a Bond movie. Logic takes a back seat, but there’s a point where (due to insufficient playfulness of approach, despite Bond’s near-miss involving his goolies) you lose the goodwill. Things don’t improve when the Bridge is reached; or rather, a studio mock-up, with obliging front-projection. The result is slightly less obvious fakery than the cable car fight in Moonraker, but only slightly.
Mayday: Wow. What a view.
Zorin: To a kill.
A lack of wit is A View to a Kill’s biggest crime. We thought we could count on a strong sense of humour from Moore’s Bond. Indeed, we relied on it. But the lines throughout are feeble at best. The schoolboy smut doesn’t even raise a smirk. Only in the improvised scenes between Moore and MacGoohan is there any spark.
Moore was right to retire, but to do so gracefully would have meant exiting at the end of Octopussy. His appearance in A View to a Kill invites only ridicule, not least from himself (he says he was only about 400 years old when he made it). The movie did solid business, despite a critical mauling and an over-the-hill star, but it failed to hit the year’s Top 10 at the US box office. It was the beginning of diminishing fortunes for the series. Inflation-adjusted, it nestles near the bottom of the Bond pile.
As a result of the imminent OAP status of their leading man, Eon was forced into casting a new Bond. The critics would contrastingly embrace the next entry. But Timothy Dalton was to prove a problematic choice; the Bond purists loved him, general audiences were indifferent. It’s interesting that, throughout the legal disputes that kept the series of the screen for six years, Dalton was pencilled in for a third outing. It showed loyalty, if not financial clarity. Roger Moore had departed, after seven movies, and with him the security that come rain or shine 007 would be back in cinemas every other year. As if pre-empting this, A View to a Kill was the first occasion on which the series would adopt the non-specific closing credits promise “James Bond Will Return”.