Sunday, February 15, 2009

James Bond review: Moonraker (1979)

CUT TO THE CHASE: The rot sets in.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The black silk shirts are very cool. The gaucho poncho is not. Having sex while weightless is cool. Constantly raising his eyebrows in mock surprise is not. Stealing a parachute off a guy during freefall is cool. Letting himself get trapped in a g-force simulator is not. And so it goes in this dog of a Bond, by far the worst in the series to this point. If only we could say it wouldn’t get any worse. But it would.

The film has two huge problems, as well as a bunch of minor ones. It has a few minor charms, as well, but nothing to offset its flaws.

The first problem is that, after a brief fling with letting Bond be Bond, in all his louche glory, they’re back to imitating other varieties of action film. The first two times they did this it was not a fatal flaw, but third time’s a charm, I guess. In Moonraker they’re trying to cash in on the sci-fi craze—this is two years after Star Wars changed everything—and the results are just wrong. Avert-your-eyes wrong.

The second problem is that they’re doing everything they can to turn 007 into farce. The gondola that turns into a motorboat and then into a hovercraft; the return of the Italian guy who sees Bond and thinks he’s been drinking too much vino; the pigeons doing a double-take. The aforementioned gaucho interlude. The fact that Roger Moore’s characteristic facial expression is no longer a smirk, but raised eyebrows, Moore’s answer to the pigeons’ double-take.

What Makes Bond Bond: When he’s trying to shoot the poison-filled globes with the space shuttle’s laser beams, the automatic firing system fails, and he has to switch to manual. Yes, James Bond has the Force.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: The white suit he’s wearing when he arrives in Rio. He owns it – you never once think he looks like John Travolta.

BAD GUYS: Drax. For the second film in a row the villain is a madman who’s trying to kill everyone on earth so he can reshape the world into his personal idea of paradise. Must have been something going around.

More critically, for the second film in a row the actor playing the villain tries to keep it low-key. Michael Lonsdale at least tries to find the humor in it; I think he’s attempting to create dread through drollery. But the impression he leaves is predominantly one of oddness. There’s something unbalanced about his physique, boffinish about his face, that makes him a very weird choice for the Dr. No meets late-period Charles Foster Kane vibe of the character as written. All told he’s not one of the great Bond villains, but he might be the strangest.

Take his henchmen, for example. His first, Chang (why does he bear a Chinese name but dress in Japanese kendô gear the whole time?), might be the lamest of all the henchmen in the series. His trump card is to attack Bond with a wooden practice sword. Why don’t we just have Jaws put on boxing gloves while we’re at it?

Then Drax hires Jaws (“well, if you can get him, of course…” – nice line). An unwelcome return, certainly. He was good in The Spy Who Loved Me, but not good enough to excuse making him a recurring character. His presence here is basically an excuse to show Bond trying to punch him in the mouth once again.

All of this is silly, when Drax already has the scariest enforcers of all – the supermodels who wander his estates striking magazine poses in silence. Downright eerie.

It’s worth noting how incredibly formulaic Drax is as a villain, just like Stromberg before him. The producers started the Moore series by ditching SPECTRE, but so far, except for Scaramanga, all they can come up with to replace it is ersatz Blofelds. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the best Bonds to come would also center around ersatz Blofelds. But it does go to show how good a literary/cinematic creation Blofeld was. Or, more probably, how good a creation Goldfinger was – the original ersatz Blofeld.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Corinne Clery as Corinne Dufour, Emily Bolton as Manuela (Our Man in Rio), and Lois Chiles as Dr. Goodhead, for a GS of 3. Chiles is fine; the character is written with more grace than sex appeal, but that’s about right. She’s the first in a long line of attempts to soften Bond’s misogyny by forcing him to ally himself with capable professional women. Chiles is at least more credible in that capacity than Denise Richards would be twenty years later.

Clery, meanwhile, is a really interesting casting choice, I think. Her claim to fame before this was The Story of O. Eroticism in Bond films is all about the tease – the frosted glass in the shower that blurs the image of the Bond girl inside, the artfully shot silhouettes in the credit sequences. Partly this is to preserve the PG or PG-13 rating so high school boys can go see the films, but it’s also because the series has always been, as we noted from the outset, a fantasy, and fantasy works best with suggestion. It’s one thing to see Barbara Bach nearly falling out of her gown, or Ursula Andress almost overspilling her bikini, or Daniela Bianchi barely snatching up her sheet in time – but if we ever actually saw anything, the magic would disappear. They hold to that principle with Clery, too, but casting someone from such a notorious erotic film introduces (for those who recognize her) an unexpected note of real sex into the Bond fantasy world. Curious.

AND VIOLENCE: A couple of bright spots here. The skydiving without a parachute in the precredit sequence is exciting, even if it is a bit too self-conscious an attempt to outdo The Spy Who Loved Me. And the fight on the cable cars in Rio is well done. Any goodwill these generate, though, is squandered by everything that happens after Bond finds Drax’s Amazon hideout. I shiver with horror just thinking about it.

This is perhaps the place to note that this film does contain one scene, a very brief one, that I find to be one of the highlights of the entire series. In Rio, Bond and Manuela are casing one of Drax’s warehouses, and Bond leaves Manuela in the alleyway alone. In the street in the distance we can see samba dancers and other revelers go by, but the alley is dark and quiet. Then Jaws shows up, dressed in this oversized clown costume with a huge mock-up head. As he nears Manuela he takes off the head to attack her. As ridiculous as anything else in the movie, of course, but there’s something accidentally indelible about this image. Something about the lighting, the sound, but most of all Richard Kiel’s head coming out of that droopy clown costume, that achieves a dignity that approaches poetry. It’s like a horror-movie version of one of Picasso’s saltimbanque pictures. Very strange.

BOYS WITH TOYS: The scene where Bond goes around Goodhead’s hotel room and spring all her CIA gadgets is amusing. And some of Bond’s own gadgets are cool – the cigarette-case safecracker, for example, is a witty update of the briefcase safecracker from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

On the other hand, the entire Q sequence is too silly for words, as is the speedboat/hovercraft gondola. And of course, with the laser-firing space shuttles and the hidden space station, this film contains the most ridiculous gadgets of all. I don’t mind a little science fiction in my 007, but this is just egregiously bad.

Why is it so bad? I think it goes beyond the fact that it’s a Star Wars knockoff, and even beyond the fact that it just looks stupid, with everybody pretending to be weightless. It’s the laser guns: this means that they’re not even trying to make it believable. Usually the gadgets in a Bond film are at most a couple of generations removed from what’s possible at the moment. They’re the kind of thing that you could sort of squint and believe, and somehow that’s important for the kind of fantasy the series creates. It has to be sort of, more or less, within reach. By arming those space shuttles with blasters the producers are kissing the Bond fantasy goodbye.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The California stretch is short, and it was really filmed in France, but it’s still enough to invoke my rule against Bond visiting the U.S. After that we get Venice and Rio, which are nice, before we go to – outer space. I’m toying with an axiom that says you can judge the appropriateness of a 007 location by how likely it is that it’ll call for Bond to wear a tuxedo. Outer space is, well, right out.

ETC.: The Binder sequence is good enough, again with the trampoline girls. Lush and romantic, a good match for the Shirley Bassey title song. As for the song, it’s got great atmosphere, but it lacks the sultry quality of Bassey’s two previous outings. Even the disco mix over the closing credits can’t heat it up… Lois Maxwell is officially too old to play Moneypenny here. It’s just depressing to see Moore flirting with her now. The producers were in a tough position, no doubt, because Moore was getting a bit old for his role, too, and replacing Maxwell with a younger actress would have underscored how old Moore was starting to look. Unfortunately we’d have to endure both for another three films after this… Other things about this movie that suck: Jaws’s girlfriend. Jaws turning into a good guy at the end. How noticeable the product placement is getting. The assassin in the coffin in Venice. The business about Drax feeding his dogs in Bond’s presence – like we’re supposed to be scared because he has his dogs well trained? I could go on…

RATING: 002.

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