One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
The Films of 1985: A View to a Kill
Roger Moore’s final cinematic
outing as James Bond, A View to a Kill (1985), is not
generally considered one of the better titles in the 007 canon. In fact, the critical consensus suggests precisely
the opposite. Most aficionados consider the film to be Moore’s worst title, and
place it in the (dreadful) company of Diamonds are Forever (1971), Sean Connery’s
last canon film, and Die Another Die (2002), Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond film.
One reason that folks tend to
dislike the film involves Moore himself. Even he acknowledges that, at 57 years
old, he was likely too old to play 007. Moore's age is usually the elephant in the room when critics discuss this film, and yet I think there's a counterpoint worth making. First, I hope I look as fit and handsome at the age of 57 as Moore does, in A View to A Kill. We should all be that fortunate. And secondly, I actually prefer Moore's Bond with a little age on him, when he's less the smirking, somehow arrogant pretty boy. Yes, Moore is sort of leathery and grizzled here, and yet, with age also comes experience. We look at Moore's deep-lined, but still-attractive visage here, and we can see life experience all over his face. His 007 has been to the rodeo before (six times, actually...), which is important to consider because experience is, perhaps, the one advantage Bond has in a battle against a brilliant sociopath: Max Zorin. Lest we forget, the posters for A View to a Kill asked, specifically: "Has James Bond finally met his match?" If this tag-line is the movie's chosen thematic terrain, then the character of each combatant in this contest is significant, as I'll write about further. Moore's humanity (reflected in his graceful, but obvious aging) thus plays into the movie's central juxtaposition of genetic perfection/moral emptiness vs. humanity/morality. Critics complain so much about Moore's age because -- let's face it -- it's an easy target. I remember back when Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home(1986) was released, critics were calling the Enterprise crew "the over the hill gang." Well, what I wouldn't give, in 2017, to have four or five moreStar Trekfilms, today, featuring that particular "over the hill" crew.
Broadly speaking, I would hope people could judge a work of art on more than just the superficial quality of age, and looks. But that hope is, frankly, in vain. Critics often go for the low-hanging fruit.
Despite the brickbats, I have -- since first seeing A View to a Kill in theaters in 1985 -- found myself frequently
re-watching the film, as though checking in again to see if it remains such a poor
effort. I always return thinking that there is something -- something -- there.
But on re-assessment, I absolutely see
the same deficits.
And yet A View to a Kill still intrigues me quite a bit. In fact, I would argue it is not nearly as bad as the
other two 007 films that I name-checked above. Moore’s final outing carries
such an endless fascination for me, I suppose, because it is all over the map. The tone is wildly inconsistent, for example. It is a film of notable highs, and dramatic
Consider that A View to a Kill features -- courtesy of Duran Duran -- one of the most memorable title tracks in the
whole franchise (right up there with Goldfinger , Live
and Let Die , and Skyfall [2012).
Consider, also, the film’s (generally) superior casting. The film features Christopher Walken, Grace
Jones, and Patrick Macnee. That’s an “A” list supporting cast. (Let's just not talk about Tanya Roberts, yet).
In addition, many of the set pieces
include amazing stunt-work and beautiful location photography, all scored to thrilling
and lugubrious perfection by John Barry.
Still -- quite clearly – there’s
something amiss with the film overall. Sir Roger Moore himself reported his
dislike of A View to a Kill. It’s his least favorite of all his 007 appearances. He
found it too violent, too sadistic, and, as noted above, judged himself too old
to play the part.
Drilling down further, I suspect that
what fascinates me about the film is precisely what troubled Moore. The film is
darker than most of the other Bond films from this era, and in that way, an absolutely appropriate lead-in to the reality-grounded Timothy Dalton era.
Yet for every foray into darkness
and sadism, A View to A Kill hedges its bets with an unnecessary and silly
joke, or action scene. The film keeps teetering towards an abyss of darkness,
and then keeps backing away from it, into comic inanity.
Unlike Moore, I believe the film
would have worked much more effectively if it maintained or sustained the dark atmosphere, and didn’t
attempt to play so many moments lightly. A serious approach makes more sense, thematically, given the nature of
the film’s villain: genetically engineered Max Zorin, and his plan for human
carnage and cataclysm.
Lacking thematic and tonal
consistency, A View to a Kill is a sometimes satisfying, sometimes
inadequate Bond film, but ceaselessly fascinating. I understand why so many
scholars and critics count it as Moore’s worst, while simultaneously feeling
that there is also much to appreciate here.
Perhaps a better way of enunciating
my point about the film is to say that I can view how the movie, with a few
changes, could have been one of the strongest entries in this durable action
series, especially as Bond prepared for a big transition to another actor, and to another style and epoch of action filmmaking.
“Intuitive improvisation is the
secret of genius.”
In Siberia, James Bond, 007 (Roger
Moore) follows up on the investigation of the deceased 003, tracking down a
computer microchip, produced by Zorin Industries, that can withstand an
electromagnetic pulse. The Soviets also
want the chip recovered, and attempt to kill Bond before he makes a successful
escape (in a submarine that looks like an ice berg).
Back in London, M (Robert Brown),
assigns Bond to investigate Zorin (Christopher Walken), a former KGB agent, now
entrepreneur. Zorin’s interests are varied. Beyond his tech company (which
produces microchips), he breeds and sells horses. At Ascot Racetrack, Bond, Moneypenny (Lois
Maxwell), and M16 agent Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee), observe Zorin’s
newest colt, Pegasus, an animal that may be the result of genetic manipulation, like
Zorin himself is rumored to be.
Bond then heads to Paris to meet an
informant, Aubergine (Jean Rougerie), at the Eiffel Tower, who possesses information
about an upcoming horse auction at Zorin’s extravagant French estate. The
informant is killed by Zorin’s hench-person, the imposing May Day (Grace Jones),
who flees Bond by parachuting from the Tower. Bond pursues, and sees Zorin and May Day escaping together in a boat.
Bond then goes undercover, with
Tibbett at his side, as a wealthy horse buyer, at Zorin’s event. There, he
confirms that Pegasus is the product of genetic manipulation and steroid use.
He also encounters a mystery woman, Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), whom Zorin
pays five million dollars.
The next phase of Bond’s
investigation leads him to San Francisco, where Sutton lives, and where Zorin
is planning Operation Main Strike, a man-made earthquake that will destroy
Silicon Valley, and leave Zorin the sole world provider of computer micro-chips.
After Bond teams with Mayday to
stop the earthquake, Zorin abducts Stacey, and flees the city by blimp. Bond pursues, and the nemeses fight to the
death atop the Golden Gate Bridge.
“What’s there to say?”
A View to a Kill feels so schizophrenic
because it vacillates between extreme seriousness or darkness, and then moments
of ridiculous humor. Instead, the film should have stayed with the serious tone, which
benefited Moore’s Bond immensely in my favorite from his era: For
Your Eyes Only (1981).
Why should the jokey moments have
been downplayed, or jettisoned, and the darker moments, highlighted? For a few reasons. Consider, first the sweep or trajectory of film history. Overall, it might be
viewed as a shift from the artificial and stagey, to the naturalistic and real, or gritty. Certainly, that is the direction the Bond films have headed in, moving
to Dalton, and then, finally, to Craig. Modern audiences apparently seek more reality,
and less theatricality and camp in their thrillers. A
View to a Kill demonstrates the damaging juxtaposition of these two approaches,
and should have settled on one.
I choose the darker, more serious
approach for this film, because of the gravity of the conflict. Here, Bond
challenges Zorin, a sociopath, and a person not bound by morals or laws. Zorin is also
engineered (by his mentor and father-figure, a Nazi scientist named Dr.
Mortner) to be physically strong, and, frankly, a (mad) genius).
Bond, by contrast, is the product of
natural biology, and bound by laws and some code of ethics or morality. But 007 has
his experience and training to benefit him, and make him a contender. This is a conflict of two very unlike
men. In a way, the dynamic is not entirely unlike Khan vs. Kirk in Star
Trek, except for the fact that Kirk is much more up-front about his
deficits than Bond is. Except for rare occasions such as Never Say Never Again
(1983), the films do not acknowledge Bond’s aging. In the Roger Moore films,
furthermore, audiences don’t really know Bond’s deficits as a human being. Instead, he’s
a bit of a plastic-man in this incarnation, able to undertake any physical
challenge with perfect acuity. Because Bond's aging is not acknowledged in A View to the Kill, the real nature of the conflict between Zorin and Bond is lost to a
Moore’s age could have worked for
the picture, instead of against it, had it been acknowledged with Moore's sense of humor, and again, his grace. Imagine an older, more world-weary, less
physically “perfect” Bond being forced to confront a kind of superman with no
sense of morality or humanity. It could
have been his greatest test, and acknowledging Bond’s age would have created a
greater contrast between the two characters and their respective traits.
Still, the grave or serious
attitude in A View to a Kill is justified. One can dislike the sadistic violence,
of course, but the violence makes sense given this tale. Zorin possesses as little
regard for underlings as he does for his enemies. People are just a means to an
end to him. They may be loyal to him,
but he doesn’t care. His lack of caring, of empathy, is what gives him his power. Zorin can gun down his employees without caring, and then offhandedly quip that his operation
is moving "right on schedule." He can kill a million people in Silicon Valley for
his own ends, and not see how evil his plan is. He can achieve his ambitious ends because he possesses no sense of his limitations, and no sense that other people matter.
These qualities make Zorin
different from the Bond villains of recent vintage, who were more grounded in
reality. Kamal Khan (Octopussy ) was a glorified jewel thief who became
enmeshed in the Cold War plot. In the end, he was still a jewel thief.
And before him, Kristatos was, similarly, a grounded-in-reality “agent” for the Soviet
Union, attempting to conduct an act of espionage (acquire the ATAC and return
it to his KGB masters). Zorin represents a dramatic return to the Drax/Stromberg school of villainy, but in far less cartoon-like terms. The camp elements of Drax and
Stromberg’s stories are mostly absent here, at least in terms of Zorin’s world, and so he
emerges as a dire, physical and mental threat to Bond’s success.
Christopher Walken brings his
patented weirdness -- and brilliant unpredictability -- to the role, making Zorin a
dramatic and legitimate danger to 007, and the world at large. Significantly Drax and Stromberg were no physical match for Bond, and their megalomania
had a kind of predictable movie villain logic to it. Zorin is determinedly different. Scene to scene, the audience is uncertain how Zorin will react, or respond to challenges. Walken brings the character to life in a
dramatic way, and contrary to what some critics claimed, does not take the role
lightly. Instead, Walken's Zorin is an almost perfect (crack'd) mirror, actually for 007. He is a fully developed individual with
sense of humor and mastery over his world, but one who lacks morality,
humanity, and empathy.
May Day fits in too with the idea of A
View to a Kill as a grave, serious, violent film. She works for a
sociopath, and is attracted to him; to his power and strength. But ultimately,
May Day possesses something Zorin lacks:
a conscience. How do we know? Because she
makes emotional connections to people (like Jenny Flex), that Zorin can’t make,
or can't even understand. Unfortunately May Day’s conflict could also have been
developed far more than it is. Her
decision to fight Zorin plays more like a third-act gimmick than a credible
character development, even if the seeds for that character development are
right there, in the script, and on screen.
A View to a Kill should have been the supreme
contrast between a man who kills for reasons of morality (Queen and Country,
essentially) and a man who kills for no moral reason whatsoever. The other characters, like May Day, are the
collateral damage in their contest. Instead, however, the movie’s essential schizophrenia -- perhaps cowardice
-- diminishes its effectiveness.
Let’s gaze for a moment at the
(almost...) fantastic pre-title sequence in Siberia, which highlights some of the
most amazing (and well-photographed) stunts of the entire Moore era…and that’s
saying something, given the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me, or
the mountain climbing sequence in For Your Eyes Only. Barry’s score
here is moody and serious, the matters at hand are absolutely life and death,
and then…in the middle of it, we get a dumb joke to break the mood: California
Girls by the Beach Boys (but performed by cover band) gets played as Bond uses
one ski (from a bob-sled) to surf a lake. The tension of the set-up -- so assiduously established -- is
punctured, and we are asked, as we are asked frequently in Moore’s era, to laugh
instead of legitimately invest in 007's world.
Again and again, the movie lunges
for the cheap gag, rather than embracing the seriousness of the affair. After
Zorin has committed point-blank, brutal murder and devastating arson in San
Francisco, and is about to detonate a bomb that will cause a massive earthquake
and kill millions, we are treated to a joke action sequence with Bond and
Sutton aboard a run-away fire engine.
The stunts are impressive, sure, but to no
meaningful, thematic, or even tonal point.
Do we really need to see a put-upon cop get his squad car pulped, while
he reacts with angst? Do we really need
the draw-bridge operator joke, as he shrinks back in his booth, recoiling from the demolition? Do we really need to see Bond swinging haplessly
side-to-side, on an un-tethered fire engine ladder?
Only minutes after audiences gasp over
Bond’s delicate rescue of Stacey from the roof of City Hall -- losing his
footing and nearly falling from a tall ladder -- we’re suddenly in The
Cannonball Run (1981), or some such thing.
As the movie leads into its amazing
finale, a legitimately tense (and very realistic seeming and vertigo-inducing)
fight atop the Golden Gate Bridge, we also have to get the requisite shot of
Bond’s manhood in danger, as the blimp flies too near an offending antenna, and
threatens his crotch.
I’ll be honest here: The Golden
Gate Bridge set-piece is one of my all-time favorites in the Bond series. The location
shooting is amazing. The score is pulse-pounding, and the dizzying heights of
the bridge rival For Your Eyes Only’s mountain-top finale. There’s a sense of
chaos unloosed too, as Mortner arms himself with a grenade, it detonates, and the blimp shift. And then there’s the physical fight, at those vertiginous
heights, between Zorin and Bond.
Zorin is armed with an axe. Bond has nothing to rely on but his wits. It’s a great, splendidly orchestrated sequence, and very few phony rear-projection shots take away from the stunt and location work. The fight's outcome is perfect too. Starting to slip from his perch, Zorin giggles a little,
before plunging from the bridge to his death. I love that little laugh, and Zorin’s brief moment of realization,
before he falls.
But before reaching that
incredible conclusion, we have to deal with such absurdities as a large, loud
blimp sneaking up on Stacey, a return visit to our put upon SF cop (now
directing traffic), and Bond’s crotch in danger from that antenna.
These gags are not only dumb and
unnecessary, they take away from the movie’s serious approach; an approach that
could have led us smoothly into the Dalton era of a more realistic, graver 007
universe. We have seen so many fan edits of Star Trek or Star Wars movies in
recent years. I’d love to see a fan edit of A View to a Kill in which some of
the cringe-worthy gags got omitted, and the grave tone of the movie, instead,
was maintained throughout.
Obviously, such an edit would not fix
some things. I would much have preferred to see a tired, bloodied Bond here,
instead of one who can run at top speed, leap on draw bridges, or ski, and surf
flawlessly through dangerous terrain. I
would have rather seen a tired, huffing and puffing Bond these challenges, using
his wits. I feel like that my preferred approach to A
View to a Kill would have made it easier to invest in the story, and
been a real proper send-off for Moore’s Bond, whom I grew up with...and love
Could the movie have -- with that
approach -- gotten beyond Tanya Roberts’ grating performance as Sutton?
the strangely brutal violence in Zorin's mine have felt more appropriate, or better justified? I suspect these deficits would have been judged
differently, had a consistent tone been applied to A View to a Kill.
Again this film fascinates me
almost endlessly. Sometimes -- such as in the Golden Gate climax -- it’s nearly
a great James Bond movie. And some of the time a View to a Kill is a
terrible Bond movie (the fire engine chase).
And the incredible thing is that
from minute to minute, A View to a Kill vacillates between those two poles. There’s no middle
ground. Diamonds are Forever is
glib, glitzy, inconsequential and dumb throughout; Die Another Die,
ridiculous and campy to its core.
But Moore’s final hour as James
Bond is an animal all its own. A View to a Kill is a schizophrenic
reach for greatness (and for the future direction of the Bond films…) that,
simultaneously, plumbs the worst depths of the actor’s tenure in the role. So, curse the bad, or appreciate the good? I guess that's your view...to this film.