Monday, 22 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Octopussy, A View To A Kill, The Living Daylights

timothy dalton james bond 007

Today's Countdown To 007 sees the Roger Moore era go to an all-time high, before bowing out on an all-time low and leaving it to newcomer Timothy Dalton to salvage the series' dignity by taking the character back to his literary roots. Dalton is my second favourite Bond - behind Connery, natch - but is controversial for many fans, who believe his two movies abandoned much of the levity which attracted them to the character in the first place. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

These write-ups have been republished from Flixist's ongoing Across The Bond feature, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak (defiantly anti-Dalton) and I go through the series one by one. The feature is leading up to my Skyfall review on Friday.

OCTOPUSSY

octopussy roger moore james bond 007

Octopussy is among the most unjustly maligned Bond movies, mostly by people who've read the title and assumed the worst. In fact, it's possibly Moore's best, with a reasonably original plot, some terrific action sequences, interesting characters and gorgeous cinematography. '80s India might have been impoverished in real life, but through Bond's eyes is an oasis of abundant colour and beautiful women in flowing saris. The middle period Bonds have a tendency to waste their exotic locations with perfunctory photography and camerawork, but this time around cinematographer Alan Hume does stunning work in giving Bond's adventure a distinctly Indian flavour.

There's no doubt that the cheesy quips sidelined in For Your Eyes Only are given greater prominence here, but they are nowhere near as overused as in Moonraker or The Man With The Golden Gun. Moore unleashes a couple of clunkers, but proceedings are taken just seriously enough that the plot has clear dramatic stakes. Yes, Bond has a (completely nonsensical) alligator submarine, tells a tiger to sit and does an awful Tarzan cry while swinging through the jungle, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. The pre-credits sequence plays relatively straight and is fantastically exciting, with the punchline (Bond pulling up at a rural petrol station in his aircraft and asking the attendant to 'fill her up, please') more an amusing cap on the scene rather than obnoxious distraction. Yes, Bond later disarms a bomb dressed as a clown, but the scene is played for suspense rather than humour. A Roger Moore movie with a strong circus motif should be deeply concerning, but the movie mostly focuses on the more unsettling aspects of circus performance rather than the expected broad humour. 
  
Octopussy is interesting for reflecting the changing sociopolitcal landscape of its time (bet you never thought you'd read that sentence), with the Cold War gradually giving way to détente and the main danger coming from those reluctant few unable to see past old prejudices. Casting Steven Berkoff as a Russian general is an invitation for hamminess and he doesn't let anyone down, laying on the exaggerated gesticulation and syrupy accent with gusto. He overdoes it - what do you expect, he's Steven Berkoff - but is a diverting contrast to the dispassionately devious Kamal Khan and his silent, Oddjob-esque right hand man, Gobinda. Khan is a fabulous villain and Louis Jordan has great fun mispronouncing 'Mr. Bund' and giving his character the cruel stately air befitting a disgraced Afghan prince. He and Moore bounce off each other very entertainingly because the characters share so many traits. Every encounter between the two is a gem, with each using carefully trained manners to veil their dislike and undermine the other. Bond's 'I intend to, Kamal Khan' riposte has become something of a catchphrase of mine.

Gobinda doesn't get much to do other than stare menacingly and be physically imposing, but his Indian accoutrements make him a memorable addition to the henchman gallery. In one of the movie's best jokes, even he expresses concern when instructed to go and get Bond from the roof of an aeroplane in mid-flight. The second set of henchman, a pair of identical twin knife throwers called Mischka and Grischka, are among the series' most sinister. It is they who murder 009 in the story's instigating scene, hunting him through a dark forest until successfully launching a knife into his back before he can make his escape. Their red and black outfits and identical appearance double up the fear factor, an effect made even stranger by the hint of twisted affection between the sibling killers.

The show's ringleader, Octopussy, is one of Moore's most complex female foils: she's a smuggler with a sense of decency, having isolated herself from the rest of the world but not quite ready to surrender to the immorality exemplified by Khan and his cohorts. In Bond, she senses a similar soul: a killer who does what he does for the right reasons. That he has to prove himself to her before she switches allegiance makes a positive change, and while she requires rescuing at the end, is entirely self-reliant and intelligent until that point. Some may complain that her team of female gymnasts is too ridiculous for its own good, but I find it silly in the entertaining rather than embarrassing sense, not to mention serving double time as a sly nod to Pussy Galore's former profession (as leader of an all-female team of acrobats) in the Goldfinger novel. It's the rare Moore movie where the women generally come across well, with the stunning but treacherous Magda using her sexuality to get the better of Bond. Let's all try and forget about Penelope Smallbone, though.

The movie draws surprisingly heavily on Fleming, and not in the expected ways. The literary Octopussy is a short story collection, and two of its entries are clear influences on the plot. The brilliant auction scene at Sotheby's near the beginning is an adaptation of Property Of A Lady, where Bond attends an auction to spot an undercover KGB agent pushing up the price of a Fabergé egg to pay off a female mole in the British secret service. More interesting is how the movie essentially operates as a follow-up to the story of the same name. In Fleming's Octopussy, Bond is sent to bring home a WW2 officer who has eloped with stolen Nazi gold, but allows him the chance to commit suicide rather than face the humiliation of having his reputation dragged through the mud on trial. In the movie, Octopussy (the character) is the officer's daughter and trusts Bond because of the respect he paid her father. This intelligent use of the source material gives Octopussy some moving backstory informing her character's view of the world - it's clear where she gets her distrust of governments and law - and the nuances of her underlying morality.

Octopussy isn't perfect by any stretch and has a bit too much campy humour, but is easily the most rewatchable of Moore's movies. For every blunder, there are three or four great scenes to make up for it: for one, the fight inside and above a moving train looks to have been a significant influence on Skyfall's opening action sequence. The characters are memorable and enlivened by terrific performances, with Vijay being in the top tier of Bond's non-mustachioed allies and his death genuinely affecting. Q gets to save the day and be swamped by grateful, lithe women, and though Rog is looking a little old in the tooth, at least the object of his affections is closer in age than the usual twenty-somethings and a worthy character in her own right.

A VIEW TO A KILL

christopher walken grace jones a view to a kill james bond 007

Roger Moore had been threatening retirement from the Bond series since Moonraker, and while returning for For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy produced two of the more confident movies in his run, it's a shame he chose to stick around one movie longer. A View To A Kill is one of three movies which, on any given day, would have a strong claim to representing the low point of the EON-produced Bond series. If Rog was already pushing towards pensionable age in Octopussy, here he looks older than history itself. Aged fifty-seven at the time of filming, even Moore was later quoted as saying he was 'at least four hundred years too old for the part', and that's underestimating by a factor of infinity. Any scenes involving physical activity come across as laughably ridiculous when Bond is involved, doubly so when a stuntman is required to perform some feat of athleticism - snowboarding, or jumping onto a raising drawbridge - which would likely make the decrepit Moore's joints disintegrate. Even his trademark charm takes a hit, seeming more forced with every passing minute.

None of this holds a candle - and it's a relief Bond doesn't in this movie, as his face seems melted enough already - to any interaction between him and a woman, which escalates excruciating embarrassment to whole new levels. In Octopussy, Maud Adams - who makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-her background cameo in this movie, making her the only woman to appear in three Bond movies* - was close enough to Moore's advancing age that their relationship was at least credible. Watching Moore flirt with Tanya Roberts, who is almost thirty years younger than him but looks several ice ages more, is genuinely horrifying. The fact she, along with several other nubile young blondes, later throws herself at him only makes matters worse, and her climactic (urgh) 'Oh James!' in the shower would be among the worst moments in the series' history were it not salvaged by also marking the movie's end. As for Moore's dalliance with Grace Jones, well... I don't even know what to say. Does it sound right to you? If so, check yourself into the nearest prison immediately.

*The nerd in me would like to point out that, technically, Martine Beswick also featured in three Bonds. She was on-screen as a gypsy girl in From Russia and Paula in Thunderball, but only her silhouette was used as a dancer in the Dr. No credits sequence, so technically didn't 'appear'. You can stop looking at me like that now.

Moore's age is a serious problem, but even had another actor taken the part instead, the movie is lousy enough to sink itself without the help of a doddering pensioner. Octopussy had some silly humour, but for the most part kept it under control. A View To A Kill allows it the run of the place, and while there isn't a character as singularly awful as J.W. Pepper in The Man With The Golden Gun, there are chases in fire trucks, a woman called Jenny Flex, a snowboarding sequence set to 'California Girls', a robot dog from Q, Grace Jones dominating Roger Moore in bed (AAAAAAAARGH!)death by fishing hook, a car chase in which the back half of Bond's vehicle is torn off, a villain who is the product of Nazi genetic testing and friends with a monocled mad scientist, Tanya Roberts as a geologist ('That's incredibly dangerous!')... it's as though the writers decided to take all the worst excesses of the previous six movies, mix them up in a big jug, then drown the film stock in the resultant rancid ooze.

As with any Bond, there are a handful of elements saving it from being an unmitigated travesty. While the movie's ridiculousness generally undermines it at ever turn, Christopher Walken's Zorin is the exception. You could hardly call his character deep, but the performance is oodles of fun, with his manic charisma and line deliveries ('I'm happiest... in the saddle! Ha!') setting a delightfully energetic contrast to the rigid Moore and vacuous Roberts. Grace Jones, regardless of the horrors she's asked to perform (see paragraph two), isn't much of an actress but has a terrific Amazonian presence, making her a striking entrant into the pantheon of Bond villainesses.

I also can't ignore Patrick Macnee as Tibbett: though he's as old as Moore, making the entire MI6 contingent look like the populace of a retirement home, the debonair affability which made him famous as John Steed in wonderful British '60s spy-fi TV series The Avengers remains. Having two codgers running around isn't ideal, and he'd have made a much more interesting foil for a younger Bond, but is still an endearing presence, making his death one of the few moments when the movie achieves a connection. The scene which follows, where Bond manages to stay alive underwater by breathing air from a sinking car's tyres after Zorin attempts to drown him, is also the only time Bond appears remotely competent. Duran Duran's title song is also pretty catchy in a decidedly '80s way.

It's no surprise Fleming's short story was ignored entirely, as it's a slender, badly dated affair - Bond hunts down an assassin who is killing motorbike dispatch riders carrying top secret information - and by far the least interesting entry in the For Your Eyes Only collection. It's nowhere near as painful as the movie, though, whose few redeeming elements don't even begin to disguise how out of touch and out of time the exaggerated spoof stylings of the Moore era had become. With critical reception at an all-time low and box office returns over $50m lower than Moonraker six years earlier - the culmination of a consistent downward trend - both the actor and producers finally saw sense and decided a new direction was needed. While the man they brought in never quite managed to set the box office alight, the series would never have survived without his taking Bond back to his roots and pre-empting Daniel Craig's rougher interpretation of the character by almost twenty years. Enter Mr. Dalton...

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS

living daylights james bond 007 timothy dalton maryam d'abo

The Living Daylights is a taut, exciting thriller with a strong political plot and a compellingly earthy performance from its leading man. Gone are the flickering eyebrows, never-ending quips, slow-moving kung fu and queasy relationships between twenty-year old blondes and a geriatric spy. In its place is Ian Fleming's cultured killer, a man at once master of his craft and unashamedly indulgent of the finer things in life.

In some respects, the Living Daylights pre-titles sequence is faintly ridiculous, involving a training mission (with paintballs, a la GoldenEye 007 video game!) on the Rock of Gibraltar and Bond getting startled by a barbary macaque. If this were a Moore movie, comedy sound effects would be running rampant, there'd be at least one 'monkey business' pun, and J.W. Pepper would be running around shouting racist obscenities about the Spanish. With Dalton at the wheel, though, the sequence opens with a cool skydive (no idea why M thought it would be a good idea to set up an office in the back of a plane though), sends an agent to his death and ends with Bond clinging to the roof of a speeding jeep, before parachuting away as it crashes over the side of a cliff. It isn't once played for laughs, at least until Bond lands on the private yacht of a bikini-clad young woman bemoaning the lack of real men in her life (which is genuinely pretty funny), and I can't tell you what a relief that is.

Dalton isn't as nuanced here as he is in Licence To Kill, but still gives a startlingly assured debut performance. He's often criticised for lacking humour, but it's more a case of his wit being dry (especially compared to Moore) than non-existent. His grizzled delivery makes his best one-liners that little bit funnier by not playing for the laugh, such as when he justifies the destruction of a police car he's just lasered apart as 'salt corrosion' to his baffled passenger, fugitive cellist Kara Milovy. During the same chase scene, he comes across a roadblock and activates crosshairs on his Aston Martin windscreen HUD. 'What is this?' Kara asks. 'I've had a few optional extras installed,' Dalton growls, turning the line into one of the most badass ever uttered as he clears the road ahead with a pair of missiles.

Plot-wise, the movie takes the Fleming short story of the same title and builds a world-spanning political thriller out of it. In the story, Bond is assigned to eliminate a KGB sniper from killing a British agent as he attempts to flee East Berlin. The sniper turns out to be a beautiful cellist from a local orchestra, and Bond spares her life by shooting the rifle out of her hands, stopping her from killing the British agent but leaving her alive for her KGB overlords to deal with. Although moved to Vienna and now involving a defecting Soviet general (Koskov), the movie plays this story out almost beat for beat following the title song, but expands it into a tale of double-crossing, arms dealing and political manipulation.

Living Daylights is the first Bond since From Russia to exploit the political factions of its time (Octopussy came the closest of the Moore era, but any such elements were left simmering quietly in the background) and the global instability created by a Soviet regime gradually starting to collapse on itself. Bond teaming up with the Mujahideen is a little uncomfortable now that we have seen the catastrophic effects of Western intervention in the struggle for Afghanistan, but it's a reflection of the movie's scope and confidently gritty tone that the same series which had Roger Moore driving around Paris in half a car only one movie ago is now weaving its plot around such a thorny topic without seeming trite.

Though played less broadly, the series' traditional elements are all in play: Bond is back in a tricked-out Aston Martin and gets an all-purpose keyring (teargas, skeleton key, explosive charge, you name it, it's there) in lieu of an arsenal of exotic gadgets, there's a wide variety of locations (one moment sledging down a mountain in a cello case, the next leading a charge across the Afghan desert) and some sensational stuntwork, particularly the fight between Bond and henchman Necros while both are hanging from a cargo net dangling from the back of an aircraft in mid-flight. The set-piece where Necros attacks the MI6 safehouse is another winner, featuring a surprisingly brutal fight scene and explosive milk bottles to add that a twist of Bondian weirdness, but played for dramatic effect to prevent the scene from seeming over-the-top. The Living Daylights nails the tone of a perfect modern Bond: up to date and reflecting the politics of the time, with just enough fantasy to be fun but all delivered with the straight face of a serious action thriller. The Fleming influence is clear and respectful, without being so beholden as to seem old-fashioned.

There are a couple of flaws: considering Kara is the only Bond girl, a reaction to both the AIDS problem at the time and dialling back Roger Moore's insalubrious habit of getting with at least three women per movie, she's too naive to feel worthy ofBond's attention despite being at the centre of the plot. (I'm also not exactly sure what she thought she'd be getting out of pretending to be a KGB sniper, or how Koskov convinced her she had a purpose in his plan other than getting shot). Maryam d'Abo is very sweet in the role, but while a certain wide-eyed innocence is necessary in the character, she's almost completely passive and lacks much in the way of personality. Easy choice between her and Mary Goodnight, but she's still not in the top tier of Bond girls.

The villains are similarly underdeveloped: Jeroen Krabbé plays Koskov with too much relish considering the dangerousness of the plots he's involved in, while Joe Don Baker's war-obsessed arms dealer, Brad Whittaker, has a lot of potential as a main villain but isn't given any room to grow. Necros, despite being involved in some of the movie's best action, is as boilerplate as Bond henchmen get, right down to being tall, blond and carrying a soupy foreign accent.

Regardless, The Living Daylights is a stunning return to form for the series, driven by a formidable performance from Timothy Dalton in the lead role. It may have taken until the Pierce Brosnan era for the series to become the behemoth it once was, but had Dalton not been there to prove the character still deserved to be taken seriously, chances are we would today be living in a world without Bond - a scary notion. Anyone who enjoys Daniel Craig's performances owe it to themselves to check out Dalton's run, as while many non-fans decry his work as too violent and dark, Dalton's performance is the most faithful to the source material yet seen and his movies much better balanced than the likes of Quantum Of Solace, which turned Bond into a cold-eyed psychopath. Tomorrow, we'll look at how to properly handle a Bond on a roaring rampage of revenge in the series' most powerful movie since On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

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