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 more Star Trek films, 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 lows.

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 [1964], Live and Let Die [1973], 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 certain degree.

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 [1983]) 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 without reservation.

Could the movie have -- with that approach -- gotten beyond Tanya Roberts’ grating performance as Sutton? 


Would 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.

7 comments:

  1. When Octopussy came out in 1983, I felt that it was kind of a victory lap for Roger Moore and the campy style of his tenure as Bond. It was silly, but it worked. I was dismayed when he said that he was returning for another, and I disliked the film for all the issues you illustrated here. Surprisingly, the one thing I was worried about, Moore's age, really was not a factor. I thought he carried himself well, but the story was a muddled mess, largely ripping off the plot of Goldfinger. I think the producers were caught in the middle, wanting to provide the silly moments audiences had come to expect, but also wanting to seem relevant in the hyper-violent era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. They did much better with Dalton.

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    1. Neal I also felt that Octopussy was a great swan song for Moore, and wrapped up his era well. A View to a Kill was a strange fusion or hybrid, trying to push the franchise into "modern" territory while keeping the Moore 1970's touches.

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  2. Anonymous11:24 AM

    John,

    Great perspective, as always! I, too, don't find this to be Moore's worst Bond. Uneven? Absolutely. But certainly not his worst. I remember the "he's too old" arguments back then and was resigned to agree that it was probably time for him to retire his 00 status. But I laugh at the thought now that a 57 year old man is "too old." Especially now that I'm also in my 50s! :-P

    My problems with the film is three-fold. One, is Tanya Roberts. Yet another beautiful Bond girl with no acting ability whatsoever. She drags down every scene that she's in. I found Walken's Max too over-the-top. I prefer my Bond villains a little more realistic, like Goldfinger or Kananga. In retrospect, I wonder if it's just too much scenery chewing or too much Walken weirdness. :-) And finally, the S&M nature of Grace Jones' love scenes was just...odd...for a Bond film at least.

    Still though, the film probably falls in the middle of my list of favorite Moore Bonds. Like you, For Your Eyes Only was his best outing.

    Cheers my fellow friend in Bondage!

    Terri Wilson

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    1. Hi Terri,

      I totally agree with you about Tanya Roberts. No offense to her, but she is really grating in this movie, and drags it down. I like Walken, I think, better than you did. He's just so quirky and off-the-wall.

      I also agree with your perspective. It won't be that long before I'm 50, and I know how hard it is to keep in good shape. Roger Moore looks pretty damn good to be pushing 60...

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  3. Many thanks for this. Couldn't agree more. (Or Moore.)

    First off, I have to say that Moore is my favorite Bond -- particularly older Moore. I think Octopussy is a great Bond film (and spy film and train film and circus film). I abhor Moonraker, but think Moore is terrific in it. And, of course, For Your Eyes Only is one of the best Bond pictures.

    Fleming would've been the first to tell you that, while his books were 'serious,' his intent never was. He would seldom re-read what he had written, and thought the whole thing a lark. Moore brings that same sense of insouciance to his derring-do, and I have always appreciated his lightness of touch.

    Also ... Connery's Bond always struck me a singularly one-note, while Moore manages (within the limits he's allowed) to incorporate numerous grace notes. His Bond is the more interesting man, and certainly, of all the Bonds, the only one I would want to know.

    Love your site. I just nominated you for a Rhondo.

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    1. Thank you, Bob! I appreciate that so much. Very thoughtful of you.

      I also loved Octopussy and felt it was the perfect capper for his era. View to a Kill is weir, but endlessly fascinating to me...

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  4. I'm late to the party here (how'd I miss your review when you posted it?), but I wanted to weigh in because, like you, John, I've been tormented over what's wrong with this movie! I think you articulated much that I've identified about where and how A View to a Kill went wrong. It seems to me that when he said he was too old for the role, Roger Moore intended to express that he was too old for Bond *as they tried to film him*, not for the role. And when he said the film was too dark, I think he must have meant the script initially gave him too little room to maneuver tonally, but that didn't mean he wanted them to insert silly gag sequences! I think, in a nutshell, the filmmakers misunderstood completely WHY Moore's lighter touch served the character, and thus they assumed inserting "fun Bond" sequences was all that was required.

    How much better it would've been if the filmmakers had just created a little space between the lines to give Moore something to grab onto and trusted him to find a way to play Bond organically as less dark than the material and setting. Moore's age is really irrelevant to the problem, I agree, just as Cary Grant's age is unimportant in North by Northwest. Written adroitly, Moore could have turned age to his advantage instead of having it highlighted in a way that made him seem out of place. Moviegoers could have been trusted, I think, to realize that middle-aged people do espionage work!

    It all comes out as if the screenplay were written by committee, with undeveloped elements that could have been interesting to explore (and served the characters and story) and inappropriate shifts in tone and mood. You're right that it would have helped if Grace Jones' character had let us in on the reason for her sudden change of heart instead of it coming from out of nowhere. It would have been great to have Moore's Bond express his trepidation about how to counter this nihilistic construct of a villain and highlight the contrast between them. Instead, we get a moody film relieved by cartoon moments.

    I have to agree with Bob above: Roger Moore is underappreciated as Bond simply because he contrasts so sharply with Connery's style. Moore could be tough himself, yet his airy urbanity quite believable considering the circles in which Bond moves. After all, real-world espionage has called upon people like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Leslie Howard, Christopher Lee, Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich--all of whom were intel operatives.

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