SPOILER WARNING: If you wish to avoid spoilers for these James Bond films, what on earth were you doing on all of those Bank Holidays anyway? Did you go outside? Jesus. What was the point of that?
You may be unaware that 2015 sees not just the release of the latest official James Bond film, but it’s also the 50th anniversary of Thunderball, the 30th of A View To A Kill, and it’s been twenty frickin’ years since Goldeneye hit the cinemas. As nobody has ever written about James Bond films on the internet before (except for our Skyfall review), someone here had to sit and watch them and write about what they thought. My excellent plan to tell the MostlyFilm editor to piss off and do it himself somehow foundered on the vodka-drenched rocks; so join me, gentle reader, as we take a time-travelling trip through the varied adventures of Britain’s greatest cinematic hero – a grubby little state-sanctioned murderer and rapist. Ain’t we all grand?
Like many men of my age and weight, my relationship with Bond is problematic. It’s always just been there, stuffed with action and gadgets and one-liners and girls and filling big two-hour gaps on high-days and holidays and they all had a formula that you could get behind and just let happen in front of your face. They appealed to the list-maker and completist, and there were loads of them, all just different enough to excite and reassure and entertain. Even the name seemed right, short and to the point, literally and figuratively a promise – when you signed up, the bond between you and the character meant something would happen – a fight, a kiss, a chase, a death, something you’d remember – which is more than most Bank Holiday fillers could deliver.
But as I got older, and tried to learn a bit about what made films good, and what was cool, and what girls were actually like, while I never stopped loving Bond it became clearer and clearer that big parts of the concept were pretty damn rubbish both in concept and execution. The attitude to the ladies ranged somewhere between dubious and fuck-woeful. And James Bond has never, ever been cool. (Of course, neither have I. But that’s not the point. Bond is supposed to be the very last word in coolness for a certain sort of person, and if that person is Jeremy Clarkson, then that’s fine. But nobody is Jeremy Clarkson except him. Poor bastard.)
Thunderball is a tough watch. By this point (1965) in the series, we’ve had low-budget schlock (Dr. No), a tight and brutal semi-classic (From Russia With Love) and the formula-setting Hey This Is A Proper Thing Now! fun of Goldfinger. Production shenanigans clearly affected what ended up on the screen here (and the credit attribution and rights issues involved in the creation of Thunderball was a shyster-driven clusterfuck that took decades to properly sort out) as fun is very thin on the ground, and you’re in for over two hours of murky, disinterested slog that will have you reaching for the drinks cabinet before the halfway mark.
Now, admittedly, I rewatched this while in the midst of a horrendous cold, and slipped in and out of consciousness on the sofa, requiring half-a-dozen rewinds and the odd feeling that I was in a hallucinatory recursive time-loop involving a grumpy Scotch milkman hitting people indiscriminately.
But very little in Thunderball comes across as if anyone’s having a good time – a mid-divorce Sean Connery in particular looking pissed-off that he even had to turn up and stand there. The title makes no sense, the theme’s a dirge, the story’s a coincidence-driven festival of pointless, the badly-dubbed villain and co-stars aren’t memorable in the slightest (except for Luciana Paluzzi as second-string henchlady Fiona Volpe, who’s the only one who seems to relish what she’s doing) and a good quarter of the running-time is spent underwater – meaning you don’t know what’s happening or who’s fighting whom. (It’s not helped by ITV seemingly keeping their prints at the bottom of a barrel of sugar for three decades). The less said about our hero blackmailing a health-club attendant into boning him in the sauna under threat of getting her sacked the better. In fact, there’s nothing Bondian about Bond in this, no real attempts at style or elegance or sophistication, he’s just a boring, bored thug.
And yet, this damp and dubious lump of a film was, until shitty old Skyfall, the highest-grossing UK Bond film ever. Everyone remembers the bit with the jet-pack. And it’s absolutely the template for nearly all of Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery’s big riffs – the underling-execution-at-the-conference-table was pretty much stolen beat for beat. So something about it clearly clicked with people at the time – enough to fuel a shyster-driven remake eighteen years later – quite what I can’t really say, however, although boring films involving boring men punching boring villains in boring places never really go out of fashion – isn’t that right, Mr. Neeson?
I’m just glad the running-time expired before I did.
I got better, thanks for asking. Thunderball didn’t.
Two decades later, A View To A Kill opens comparatively perkily, with Bond (now Roger Moore in his seventh and last shot at the gig) retrieving a stolen microchip off a dead colleague and dodging Soviet goons in Iceland.
Happily inventing snowboarding while killing people to the sound of the Beach Boys, he escapes in a popsy-driven cream-leather-banquetted submarine disguised as an iceberg. “Five days to Alaska!”, Roger purrs into his conquest’s ear. Well, I don’t know if you’ve spent five days in a tiny, airtight fuck-palace with a fifty-seven year-old man, but I have, and the smell gets pretty funky by day three, let me tell you.
Now, I bow to no man in my admiration for Sir Roger Moore; actor, gentleman, bon viveur and UNICEF ambassador. He made a brilliant Bond for the most part, and I think I managed to type that without any Accidental Partridge. But even he later admitted that by 1985 he’d overshot his time in the role by at least one and probably two movies. It gives me no pleasure to say that in A View To A Kill he’s unavoidably too creaky for the requirements of the role – unlike Mr. Neeson, say, if you’re a beautiful youth (and Rog was) then time will take its toll more greedily than most. The action, the suaveness, the doing-it-with-girls – it all needs a much younger man.
That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had in AVTAK – indeed, compared to what we’re now going to call Fucking Thunderball it’s a veritable roller-coaster ride. A plot half-inched from Superman (if you’re going to steal, steal from the best etc), a young Christopher Walken giving it the full-on Baby Nazi treatment, a cracking theme which even managed to get a good performance from Simon Le Bon (a man who – let’s face it – would have probably been better suited for a hod than a microphone), Patrick MacNee as a jaunty Named Functionary, and Grace Jones as your main henchman.
Ah, Grace Jones. What else can you really say about Grace Jones, the second-most dangerous thing beginning with the letter ‘G’ ever to afflict Rod Hull? (after ‘gravity’)
She’s not much of an actress, true, but as Mayday, the Fiona Volpe figure here (the second-string villain who seems to really enjoy being a villain) she doesn’t need to be. Her flashing eyes and alarming cheekbones hog the screen – anything that takes away from Roger’s hairpiece is essential – and she kicks ass so effectively that I always thought it a shame that the one-two of a) being betrayed by her superhuman boss and b) a night of sweet lovin’ from Rog mean that she ultimately saved everyone. She should have gone out mean.
A View To A Kill is a mixed bag – Tanya Roberts as the main squeeze is spunky enough, and the obviously expensive location work (Paris, Versailles, San Francisco) means it feels a bit more real-world than the fallback Generic Bahamas the series relies on. This possibly meant that budgets were squeezed elsewhere – the SF car-chase feels very telly, and the big climactic mine-based set shows previous Ken Adam production work for the genius it was. Bond even takes five minutes of down-time to make a quiche, from scratch, for goodness sake! The villain’s signature blimp might deflate completely before the credits, but A View To A Kill never quite does.
It was tired, though. Everyone was secretly pleased that Rog made it to the credits before keeling over, the essentially conservative nature of the series meaning it never misses a chance to take things too far. For a series that makes a big show of changing things all the time, the take-no-chances family-run nature of the project means proper reboots never really happen, which is a shame.
Unlike Doctor Who (where the show’s history is properly tracked via changes in producer and story-editor) with Bond you’re forced to go with the actors, and if you created a playlist of everyone’s first Bond movie (We’re nixing Dr. No here, because it didn’t know it was A Bond Movie) then you have From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live & Let Die, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye and Casino Royale – perhaps as decent a cinematic quiche as it’s possible to create from a pile of possibly-iffy ingredients. It makes you wonder why they don’t ring the changes from soup to nuts more often, and makes the concurrent ‘reboot’-thwarting decisions (not pensioning off Desmond Llewellyn and Judi Dench before things got embarrassing) that more baffling.
Goldeneye remains the high-water mark in Bond kick-starts. Unlike Casino Royale eleven years later, which tried to change everything by making every aspect of the series slightly more unpleasant, Goldeneye forces Bond to deal with the entire point of him (kickin’ Russkie ass!) looking rather questionable to the people who have to pay for his Beluga and hair products.
Pierce Brosnan – an undeniably good-looking and charismatic man – uses a LOT of hair products in this film. Unlike AVTAK, which remains fairly timeless, Goldeneye just screams 1995, and in many ways that’s not a bad thing. It’s pre-CGI, for the most part, so the chases and fights are suitably crunchy and real-feeling. He doesn’t suck down a single tab, hardly drinks anything, bones a low-rating two (2) ladies and has his old-skool Moore-style moves sneered at by one of them. He actually gets to go to Actual Russia for the first time for some suitably Slavic high-jinks, before – as is his wont – smashing the place up in a big-ass tank. Crucially, the producers don’t forget to bring the fun whenever fun is needed, with a leading man who can do both goofy *and* competent. And there’s a Loaded-generation female second-string henchlady-who-seems-to-enjoy-what-she’s-doing which was lauded as revolutionary at the time, but as we’ve seen in the course of this rewatch <whisper it> ain’t that new.
The plot hinges on the actions of the Empire coming back to bite them on the post-Cold-War bum, with a hilariously posh-sounding Sean Bean as the main bad-guy, and for the first time Bond is forced to deal with the grubbiness of his line of work over the years. Not that he deals with it hugely well, but for a juggernaut franchise to pause and say ‘hey, maybe we were the assholes?’, especially when it had been offscreen for six years and was risking everything to be seen as a viable continuing prospect, then it was a ballsy move. For all the increase in budget, then, you think they could have spent a few quid on teaching Pierce how to run properly.
But we can only take so much introspection – it’s a Bond movie after all, and after Sean Bean is happily dead after having his Cuban satellite dish fall on his big stupid face, Pierce is moving in for a well-deserved smooch when his CIA man butts in and asks him possibly the most It Can Only Be The Nineties question EVAH!
A debriefing! At Guantanamo! Oh, James, that sounds WONDERFUL!
Ricky is on The Tweeter.