The James Bond Chronicles: Three 007 Films Hardly Worth a License to Kill
I know, I know. I haven’t kept up with the James Bond series I started last year for Big Hollywood. I had to take a hiatus because I just couldn’t face the Horrendous Trifecta listed below and lose six hours of my life in the process. I finally gave in.
Rather than just list all the ways in which this trio makes for the three worst films in the entire series, I am committed to finding good things about each.
It isn’t easy.
"Octopussy" does have a few strong moments and, had certain choices not been made, might have turned out to be a decent Bond film. The opening sequence demonstrates a collision between the tightly structured thematic hallmarks of a Richard Maibaum script and the campy sensibility that had overtaken the series. You can find Mr. Maibaum’s influence peppered throughout the film, and in the opening sequence it appears in the form of 007 impersonating a Cuban general. I can’t prove it, but I’m guessing that the establishment of a theme regarding doubles/twins/doppelgangers is pure Maibaum, as evidenced by the theme having been present in several other Bond films with his name attached. Regrettably, things devolve into silliness, with a mini-plane stashed in a very fake-looking horse trailer, which ends up rolling into a gas station and Bond asking to “fill it up.” Sigh.
The doubles theme reappears as 009, dressed as a clown, is pursued by twin assassins. Of course, Bond himself later ends up dressed as the exact same clown. Later we see Bond switch a Faberge egg with a fake. We also see the détente-minded/dovish Russian General Gogol (whom we’ve seen in three previous movies) mirrored by the hawkish General Orlov, who reveals his plan to launch an invasion of Western Europe. This smells like Maibaum to me, plus the film is actually well-structured and fairly well-plotted.
There are some good moments, as when Orlov reappears towards the end and meets his fate. I also really liked the potential relationship between Bond and Octopussy. There are very few women who would be Bond’s match, and the leader of a female smuggling cult pretty much fits the bill. Maud Adams is a babe, and the kind of rogue we can see Bond ending up with. Of course, the fact that he is entirely devoted “to Queen and country” is why he doesn’t.
I can also praise the production design, art department, and location folks, as they certainly transported us to India – where a Bond adventure had not yet taken place. The vibrant colors and locations are terrific. The stunt work on the train is impressive.
Alas, the film is just so silly. Bond in a fake crocodile? Q flying Bond onto the train by balloon? Attack of the spandex-clad smuggling girls? Bond in a gorilla costume? How does he get in and out of the costume without it moving and being seen? Bond is a clown suit? Bond doing a Tarzan yell swinging on a jungle vine? A souped-up electric taxi that does wheelies? And – GROAN – Bond telling a wild tiger to “sit”? All this did was to demean Bond and turn him into a silly caricature. He deserved better. Can someone explain to me how "For Your Eyes Only," a truly great film – one of the best of the series – could be followed by this?
"A View to a Kill"
I remember the knife that jammed in my gut while watching this film when it was in theatres. It starts out brilliantly. A helicopter tears over the Siberian landscape. Russian soldiers are everywhere, well-armed, riding around on snowmobiles and skis. We find Bond, dressed in white winter gear in order to camouflage his presence, digging up the body of 003 and finding a microchip. The helicopter flies overhead, Bond ducks – was he seen? Yes, he was. Oh no. The Russian mobilize. Bond finds what he’s looking for on the body – a microchip – and a solider finds him and opens fire. The sound causes some snow to collapse into crevasse and Bond leaps in, commencing a daring ski chase. The sequence is also told with a great economy of shot design – we see just what we need to tell the story (even that the body is on the edge of a barely-covered crevasse). Terrific use of the frame as the helicopter arcs down and around in pursuit of Bond on the motorcycle. John Barry’s music here is outstanding – one of his best themes in the entire series. It just faintly recalls the ski chase themes from OHMSS – with the melody grounded in classic late 60’s Bond but contemporized just a bit with some electric guitar. It works masterfully with this sequence. The situation is serious, Bond is being pursued – and just as the sequence hits a crucial turn –
Beach Boys music and snowboarding. GROAN.
But I digress. I’m trying to stay positive, remember? There’s some great miniature work in the opening sequences – the helicopter spinning out of control and bouncing off the ground is all miniature and I can barely tell. Let me say that Grace Jones has a great look, the wardrobe department really pulls out the stops for her, and I was left wanting to know much more about her character. No such luck. I love that Zorin was former KGB and that Gogol shows up to chide him for going rogue and (apparently) killing Bond without permission. Alas, it’s a fumbled plot point because the idea of the Russians being pissed enough at Zorin to have played a larger role in the film – possibly by teaming with Bond – would’ve made a nice twist. There’s also a nice stunt with May Day parachuting off the Eiffel Tower and a pretty good sequence as Bond races a taxi through the Paris streets – undone by it being all but obliterated and yet still driving while cut in half. Sigh.
It’s nice to see Gogol again as a recurring character. The great Danish actor Patrick Bauchau, with whom I worked on NBC’s Pretender, has a significant role as one of Zorin’s henchmen. It’s fun to see the series poach the other half of "The Avengers" by casting Patrick Macnee as Sir Godfrey. Wouldn’t you know it but that is, in fact, Allison Doody as Jenny Flex – just 4 years before she played femme fatale Elsa in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." In fact, that’s David Yip as CIA Agent Chuck Lee, and fans of "Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom" will recognize him as Indy’s ill-fated sidekick Wu Han. "Murder One’s" Daniel Benzali is here as a San Francisco city official. And yes, that’s Dolph Lundren as one of Gogol’s KGB men. And the title song is, I must admit, kind of catchy and nicely incorporates the Bond theme.
But let’s face it – Christopher Walken is totally wasted as Zorin. We all know Mr. Walken’s talents. While watching the film, all I could think is that he would have made an interesting choice for Dominic Greene in the underappreciated "Quantum of Solace" (no slight to Mathieu Amalric, whom I liked very much in that role). The writing for his character is just so leaden.
The story is all over the place and we spend far too much time at the stables and horse auction. Whereas the best Bond films gave us a villain with some psychological complexity and reason for their evil plan, Zorin apparently goes through tremendous expense in order to corner the market on microchips. I wonder if what he’ll make off microchips will ever offset the losses for his entire plan. The script spends a lot of time on the idea of Zorin as some genetically-engineered freak, yet he has no special abilities other than being a psychopath. At the very least, pressing some subtext about how he feels about being a freak – not unlike "Man with The Golden Gun’s" Scaramanga—might have given him additional motivation to, y’know, wipe out Silicon Valley.
Tanya Roberts. Enough said.
Fire engine chase through San Francisco. Enough said.
Moore is too old for the role, and even he admitted it years later. Enough said.
"Never Say Never Again" is … you know, I’m exhausted. They say you can learn just as much from a bad film as you can from a good one. I feel like I’ve learned enough. Read the Wikipedia entry because it pretty much says how I feel.
I am pleased to say, however, that the series finds new life next time around.
"Octopussy," "A View to A Kill" and "Never Say Never Again" all are awarded 1 star.
To recap all the films:
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"
"Never Say Never Again"