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The Series Project: James Bond (Part 3)

The Roger Moore era continues with Bond's dumbest movie to date and one (just one) bona fide action classic.

 

We are now ensconced firmly in the Roger Moore era of James Bond. This also now officially marks my longest foray into The Series Project, my all-in-one analyses of entire movie franchises. The longest franchise I have covered to date has been Star Trek, which, if you count the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot, numbers at 11 films. With James Bond, though, I have now crossed into 12 films, and I show no signs of stopping. Mark my words, you're getting 25 out of this mother. And this week, we'll have some rocky terrain to cover. Get on your hiking boots, my friends, as James Bond is on the march.

This week, we'll be covering the 9th through the 12th Bond movies, and enter into a new tonal landscape for the franchise. That is to say, a lot sillier, perhaps too self-aware, and strangely beloved. We'll be covering not only the worst in the series to date, but also, dare I say, one of the best. I will also spend a lot of time defending Roger Moore in the role, as he seems to exemplify what we mean when we talk about James Bond. Sean Connery, of course, invented the role, and was possessed of the sexual masculinity that built Bond into such a pop culture powerhouse and the wish-fulfillment hero of millions of men. It was Moore, however, who lent Bond his easygoing unflappability, but without losing the sexual charm that Bond requires. Connery seemed like a horny and above-the-line efficient cop. Moore seems more like an actual spy, and much more comfortable with the increasingly ridiculous situations he finds himself in.

And, trust me, this week things will get plenty ridiculous. In the two previous entries in The Series Project: James Bond (here's Part 1, here's Part 2) I pointed out plenty of times that the action scenes are unrealistic, and the situations are unbelievable. Well, just wait until we get to Moonraker, and we'll have entered an entire new plane of bugnuts goofiness that the series will never see again. Well, maybe until that one with the invisible car and the ice castle.

Our first step into this week's adventure will have us battling a three-nippled sharpshooter with a dwarf butler. Maybe we're starting off on a strange foot.

 

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton

Bond: Roger Moore

Gadgets: An untraceable golden bullet used by the bad guy. A fake rubber nipple (!). That's it. Seriously.

The Babe: Mary Goodnight, played by Britt Ekland

The Bad Guy: Mr. Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee

Location(s): Macau

Theme Song: Sung by Lulu

Bond Directly Kills: Mr. Scaramanga

WTF Moments: Bond wears a rubber nipple. The bad guy has a third nipple. The bad guy has a holodeck-like funhouse. James Bond actually swallows a naval ring, and recovers it later (ew). James Bond dispatches of a sumo wrestler by tightening his thong. MI-6 lives on a ship that remains at a 45° slant. James Bond fights alongside a pair of karate schoolgirls. In one scene, James promises 20,000 baht to a young boy, and then pushes him into a river rather than pay him. James traps a dwarf in a suitcase. Do James Bond's 1970s leisure suits count as a WTF moment?


 

By the mid-1970s, action films had evolved into something we recognize today. Looking at films like Goldfinger, you may notice the vast difference in staging, pacing and editing. With The Man with the Golden Gun, you may recognize the actual process that goes into making a modern action sequence. I'm glad I'm watching these in chronological order.

The titular “Man”is Mr. Scaramanga, played by the stentorian Christopher Lee. Mr. Scaramanaga was raised in the circus, and, as a hobby, lures super-criminals into an odd-ball house of mirrors on his remote island mansion and hunts them to the death. He is fond of a large blocky golden gun that fires soft golden bullets. I'm not sure of that would actually work. The soft metal makes for a bullet that cannot be traced, although I'm sure the use of a golden bullet would be a dead giveaway. Mr. Scaramanga employs a dwarf butler, played by Hervé Villechaize. The scenes of these two together give the entire film a wonderfully delirious carnival quality, and make the film often surreal. I could usually only think of the cult 1980 musical Forbidden Zone.

Mr. Scaramanga is also a crack assassin, and the world's most expensive. He was a trickshot champion back in his carnival days, and rarely misses. James Bond has, of course, been hired to investigate a recent assassination, and soon finds himself on the wrong side of Mr. Scaramanga's golden gun. On the way, he accumulates another spy, played by the pretty and brick-headed Britt Ekland. You'll find that, with only a few exceptions, the famous Bond Girls are all supernaturally gorgeous, and few of them can actually act. Britt Ekland seems like a clumsy spy who wants to bed James but ends up having to hide in closets a lot, just like in a Three's Company episode. Later in the film, when she's been (inevitably) kidnapped by Mr. Scaramanga, he forces her to wear a bikini. “I like a woman in a bikini,” he says, “they cannot hide any weapons.” Why do I take so much pleasure in hearing Christopher Lee say the word “bikini?”

There's also an ancillary babe, in the form of Maud Adams, who plays Mr. Scaramanga's moll, and who was the evil witch matron in Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4. She'll get shot in the chest. Maud Adams, curiously enough, will return in Octopussy. We'll have to wait to see if she plays the same character.

What else? There's a creepy statue garden scene, wherein the statues come to life and attack James Bond. There's also a reappearance by Clifton James, reprising his role of the sh*t-kicking redneck cop from Live and Let Die. Did the filmmakers actually think this character was entertaining? Does James Bond, often considered the bastion of class and charm, really need a chimp sidekick like this obnoxious tobacco-chomping hick? He was bad enough in the last film, but they brought him back. The Bond films are not really known for their continuity, so perhaps we should be grateful when we get a recurring character like Sheriff J.W. Pepper. But, man it stung to watch that guy. I've taken a brief look over Clifton James' filmography, and he has played a hick sheriff several times, including in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. If you wanted some Good Ol' Boy white trash in your James Bond film, your wish has been granted.

I have to admit, a lot of the details of this film are vanishing from my mind. Through this film and the next one, I almost feel like I've hit a James Bond wall. The stories, as I have indicated in the past, are totally inconsequential to a James Bond film, as they are largely defined by their locations and their bad guys. Around this film, the 9th in the series, I found myself going a little cross-eyed.

Luckily, we have the bugnuts weirdness of the wacky three-nippled villain, Britt Ekland in a bikini, and Hervé Villechaize tooling around the margins. His character, by the way, is naked Nick-Nack. By the time James has boated to Mr. Scaramanga's funhouse hideaway, and begins having an elaborate shootout with him, I was interested again. Mr. Scaramanga has been building a super-laser, by the way. Can't be a rich eccentric three-nippled ex-circus assassin without a superlaser.

My hazy indifference will reach an unfortunate surge with the 10th James Bond film. Onto…

Next: Introducing the best Bond character ever…


 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert

Bond: Roger Moore

Gadgets: A ticker-tape watch. A gun hidden in a ski-pole. Knockout gas hidden in a cigarette. A portable microfilm viewer. An underwater supercar. A portable jetski.

The Babe: Agent XXX, played by Barbara Bach

The Bad Guy: Karl Stromberg, played by Curt Jurgens

Locations:Cairo, Sardinia

Theme Song: “Nobody Does it Better,” sung by Carly Simon

Bond Directly Kills: A bald guy he throws off a roof. An evil babe in a helicopter. A diver with a missile. Three or four guys in red suits.

WTF Moments: James Bond skis off a cliff and opens a parachute. The parachute has a Union Jack on it. Stromberg is the third James Bond villain to have a shark tank. James Bond wears a Lawrence of Arabia costume, and is accompanied by the Lawrence of Arabia music. A giant thug named Jaws rips apart a car with his bare hands. MI-6 seems to have set up shop in an ancient tomb.


James Bond seems to be smoking less. I guess by 1977, cigarettes on screen weren't as sexy as they were in 1962, which James Bond smoked like a chimney.

So while I can recall details from this film, and I can talk about a rather impressive car chase in the middle, The Spy Who Loved Me seems largely inconsequential in the series proper. Like it was merely flexing its James Bond muscle. Maybe it was just the state of mind I was in when I watched it. Maybe I was in a James Bond haze, staggered and light-headed after nine films of spy mayhem. Maybe it was because I watched the film late, late at night, fueled only by caffeinated tea and my own steely resolve. But The Spy Who Loved Me seemed perfectly plain.

The thing I liked most about the film: Jaws. Jaws, presumably named after the shark movie, is a 7'2” thug in Stromberg's employ who kills people with his gigantic metal prosthetic teeth. He never speaks. Jaws is played by the 7'2” Richard Kiel, who, despite having no lines in the film, is very funny and is possessed of an ample screen presence. Indeed, he is more charismatic than Stromberg. Jaws is the best thug in all of the James Bond movies, barely nosing out Oddjob from Goldfinger. Fans will like him so much that he'll return in Moonraker.

So Stromberg is essentially Captain Nemo for the modern age. He lives in a gigantic spider-looking sea-bound homebase, and has been using a specialized aircraft carrier to swallow up nuclear subs from the U.S. and from Russia. His ultimate plan will be to blow up Moscow and New York, precipitating WWIII, killing all the people and keeping the oceans to himself, where he'll live in what is essentially The Nautilus, which is overrun with monorails. What is it with bad guys and monorails? All of the bad guys in the James Bond movies have not only had enormous techno-labs, but they get around said labs on monorails. Another vague pet peeve of mine: Whenever we see a gigantic techno-lab in a movie, it will inevitably blow up. Why must all that computer equipment go to waste? The techno-lab doesn't even need to be used for evil. Even if it is good, it will explode. There must be something in the average person's mind that yearns to see huge amounts of technologically advanced equipment explode. I don't understand it.

I digress. To investigate the matter, James Bond has to go to Cairo, where he teams up with the Russian agent XXX (a.k.a. Anya Amasova) played by Barbara Bach. Bach continues the grand Bond Girl tradition of looking nice in a nightie, and not acting very well. James also tries to catch a thug at the Pyramids of Giza. The pyramid scene takes place at night, and there seems to be some sort of concert going on near the Pyramids. But it's not a concert so much as it is a poetry reading. Someone is reading dull-sounding new-age poetry while they shine psychedelic lights at the Pyramids. That's a WTF moment right there.

What else? Oh yeah. That car chase. There's a pretty spectacular car chase in this film where James is chased by a helicopter. His car ends up diving into the water and turning into a submarine. That's kinda neat. XXX also knows how to drive it. “I stole the blueprints for this car two years ago,” she fliply remarks. I also liked the scene immediately following the chase where James drives up out of the water onto the beach.

Jaws is thrown into a shark tank during the course of the film, and he eats the shark. I'll repeat that: Jaws eats a shark. That's so damn cool.

Would Sean Connery have driven an underwater car? Maybe. He used a jetpack in Thunderball. I think some people reject Roger Moore because of scenes like the underwater car scene. Keep in mind, though: times are changing. This is 1977. Technology is advancing. You have to hand it to the James Bond series for trying to keep ahead of what's out there. In a few films, the computer equipment may seem quaint by today's standards. But from 1977's perspective, this stuff was way futuristic. I think it all still works.

Eventually James, with a crew of American sailors, sneaks aboard Stromberg's aircraft carrier and, in an extended action scene, blows the place up. James cannibalizes a detonator from a nuclear missile. James then jetskis to Stromerg's home base and blows that up too. The sea-bound homebase looks a lot like the restaurant at LAX. Oh yes, and Barbara Bach was kidnapped at one point, so she's also rescued. And, as is the case with many James Bond films, we exit while he's having sex with her.

Again, not much to it. I wish there was more texture or story to The Spy Who Loved Me, but it kind of stands as a perfectly average James Bond film. It's like a baseline reading. Something to use as an introduction. The chip without any dip. The only flavor, really, comes from Jaws.

Over the credits of each James Bond film, there has been a promise of the next one. “James Bond 007 will return in Diamonds are Forever!” et al. Each film has, to date, made good on its promise. The Spy Who Loved Me promised us For Your Eyes Only next. However, something happened in 1977 that threw the world for a loop. Soon, all films would be space-obsessed, and laser guns would start cropping up everywhere. Children's space fantasies and huge, huge blockbusters suddenly became the word of the day. 1977, you see, saw the release of Star Wars. As a response, For Your Eyes Only was shelved in favor of a James Bond film that will take us to the stars, and provide us with the first effing retarded film in the series (and I use the word “retarded” with the least offensive tone). Up next is…

Next: The dumbest James Bond movie ever…?


 

Moonraker (1979)
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert

Bond: Roger Moore

Gadgets: A dartgun wristwatch. A safe-cracking x-ray. A hover gondola (!). A bullet-proof superboat. A poison-tipped pen. A diary with poison darts. A flame-thrower disguised as perfume.

The Babe: Dr. Holly Goodhead, CIA, played by Lois Chiles

The Bad Guy: Mr. Drax, played by Michael Lonsdale

Location(s): Southern California, Venice, Rio

Theme Song: Performed by Shirley Bassey

Bond Directly Kills: A guy whose parachute he steals. He shoots an assassin out of a tree. He kills a guy in a kendo outfit. He blows up two boats full of thugs. He kills Drax. He poisons a snake. Calm down James. I know you have a license to kill, but killing is a privilege, not a right.

WTF Moments: Pretty much the whole film, but specifically: Jaws is back. Someone tries to kill James in a spinning g-force machine. A knife-throwing assassin tries to kill James by hiding out in a floating funeral gondola. James is attacked by a kendo guy while he's wandering the streets of Venice. A bad guy is thrown from his car into a billboard, making it look as if he's in the billboard woman's mouth. Jaws is given a love interest. James Bond breaks millions of dollars worth of antique glass. There are curious musical cues lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Magnificent Seven, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. James Bond dresses like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars for no discernible reason. Um… did I mention that there’s a hover gondola? And while James is riding his hover gondola through the streets of Venice, there's a reaction shot from a pigeon.


Some trivia: The budget for Moonraker was greater than the first six James Bond films combined. It was the biggest moneymaker in the series. Shirley Bassey sang the theme song, but it was originally supposed to go to Johnny Mathis. How cool would that have been? This was also the last film to feature Bernard Lee as M. Good show, sir. You made it through 11 James Bond films.

Someone has stolen a space shuttle, and it's up to James to find out whom. He goes to California, meets a brilliant pretty scientist named Dr. Goodhead (who, I hear, is really bad at oral sex), and learns of the space monopoly of a certain Mr. Drax. Drax is a pretty cool villain. He is collected and sadistic and everything a Bond villain should be. He has shuttles, but wants to make more. He's also been secretly harvesting orchid venom to release into the Earth's ionosphere, effectively killing off all the people, but leaving the planets and animals in tact. His plan is to wipe the planet clean of humans, and then repopulate using his carefully selected cadre of hot, hot young people he will have stashed away in his Moonraker satellite.

To find out all this stuff, James has to go to Venice and to Rio. In Venice, he has a hover gondola. Really. A hover gondola. Like he's in a gondola when bad guys start trying to kill him, he flips a switch in the gondola, and a striped balloon appears underneath it. He runs it up onto the street, and everyone stares at his hover gondola. This is easily one of the most conspicuous things James Bond has done (well, short of all those times be exploded huge technolabs). What gives? I always thought being a spy meant being covert and sneaky and taking care of secret supercriminals in the quietest fashion possible. James Bond, it seems, has no intention of keeping MI-6's machinations secret.

Indeed, James Bond never seems to have any secrets. His bosses all refer to him as “007,” but most others refer to him as “James.” Why have the code number at all if everyone knows your name? I once thought that “James Bond” was not his real name, but a further code name, but that theory doesn't hold water. It must be his real name.  Indeed, when he meets someone for the first time, he always introduces himself by name! “Bond. James Bond.” He even repeats it! When he meets bad guys, they always seem to know that he uses a Walther PPK, and they even know his favorite drink. If everyone knows who he is, and he's always driving hover gondolas around the streets in public, and often kills people in broad daylight, you'd think he'd have a hard time getting anything done. The cops would be watching his every move. Since he's so flashy and public, CraveOnline's own William Bibbiani came up with the following theory, which sounds reasonable to me: James Bond is actually covering for a more efficient, unseen spy nearby. While James is busy bedding hot women, getting into fistfights, and distracting the bad guys from the task at hand, there's a plain-looking pasty-skinned guy in a black catsuit hacking into computers, cutting wires, and actually doing the real covert spy work.

That'd be an interesting movie: The spy within the James Bond movies.

Another thing: How does James Bond strip? He's always wearing a gun, and, in Moonraker, has a special dart-firing wristwatch. I'm guessing he has other, more elaborate weapons stored in his clothing. When he goes to strip in front of his hot lady du jour, how does he hide that stuff? “Sorry about the long black wires running from my neck to my wrist. It's a special brace. I injured my arm rescuing the Free World.”

I'm sorry. I'm distracted. Moonraker. Back to Moonraker. It's hard to describe this movie without it making sound like a litany of all the goofy crap in it. There's a few scenes in Rio, and James briefly romances a woman there. James is such a smoothie that all he needs to do is open a woman's robe. Jaws wears a giant novelty Carnivál head. There's a boat chase up the Amazon, climaxing with James being fed to a boa constrictor by a dozen hot teenage girls. I refuse to elaborate on that.

I'll skip to the ending. James and Dr. Goodhead team up, find Drax' secret lair, and take a shuttle up into space to his private space station. Jaws is there too, with his new love interest in tow (she's a cute blonde gal with pigtails, played by Blanche Ravalec). The two of them turn off the space station's cloaking device (!), and MI-6 sends a bunch of people into space with phasers. Yup. We've gone to the realm of laser guns. There's a big laser shootout. At one point, the gravity is turned off, and all the people float around. I hear that Moonraker employed more wires than any other film.

The climax is definitely from the video game era. James has to use a computerized laser system to shoot down the toxin pods that have already been launched. I think he even uses a joystick. And we're not even to Tron yet!

Yeah. Moonraker. Dumb. Still, it made a lot of money. I think fans and filmmakers see Moonraker as a kind of aside. At the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, after all, we were promised For Your Eyes Only, and Moonraker was clearly a kind of Star Wars-influenced intermission. Let's get back on track now.

Next: The best James Bond movie since Goldfinger…!


 

For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Directed by: John Glen

Bond: Roger Moore

Gadgets: A car that explodes when you try to break the window. A crime computer that can make portraits of bad guys. A spiffy two-man submarine called “Neptune.”

The Babe: Melina Havelock, played by Carole Bouquet

The Bad Guy: Blofeld (sigh). Mr. Kristatos, played by Julian Glover.

Location(s):San Martin, Northern Itlay, Northern Greece

Theme Song: Performed by Sheena Easton (who is the only performer to date to appear on screen)

Bond Directly Kills: Blofeld down a smokestack. A man in a giant scuba suit. A motorcyclist. A thug in glasses. A guy he throws off a cliff.

WTF Moments: Blofeld (sigh). Bond visits Tracy's grave. Bond does battle with hockey players. Bond goes off a ski jump. Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown, below) appears at the end to personally thank James Bond.


Okay, apart from a stupid-ass opening, I can say clearly and honestly that For Your Eyes Only is the best James Bond film since Goldfinger. Seriously. This film is amazing. The action scenes are well choreographed, the characters all seem to have more, well, character, and even the story is a bit subdued. Especially when compared to the cartoonish weirdness of Moonraker. I'd even be tempted to call it one of the best action films of the 1980s. Of course, I have yet to watch the remaining Bond films from the '80s. Timothy Dalton is next week.

So, yeah, my suspicion is that the filmmakers wanted to scale things back a bit after the last film. We still have Bond going to an exotic locale and using hi-tech equipment to solve international conspiracies, but there are no evil technolabs, no superhuman thugs, no reality-bending hallucinations. No funhouses, no undersea kingdoms. We have, instead, a solid plot in a solid spy thriller. Even the bad guy can't be too cartoonish, as we don't know who he is for the bulk of the film's running time. That's what the mystery is: finding out who committed an assassination at the film's outset.

Before we get into the story, though, For Your Eyes Only needed to get a little bit of canon off its chest, and leave the Blofeld thing behind once and for all. If you'll recall, at the end of Diamonds are Forever, we never really saw what happened to Blofeld. James Bond trapped him in a personal submarine, and then, using a crane, swung the submarine into a wall. Now he seems to be wheelchair-bound, and still stroking a cat. We never see his face. James Bond ends up scooping up Blofeld's wheelchair in the prong of the helicopter, and dropping him down a tall factory smokestack. All this after James put flowers on Tracy's grave. I sense the filmmakers didn't really need to include all this stuff, but needed closure. Fine. Case closed. Let us never speak of it again.

After that, we get into a cool spy story. James is tracking down who killed an MI-6 spy who was one of the only people who knew the location of a computer called ATAC which could track MI-6 submarines. Joining him along the way is a smoky beauty named Melina, the dead man's daughter. She wants revenge, and is handy with a crossbow. She kills a few people over the course of the film.

Here's another refreshing thing: A teenage ice skater (Lynn-Holly Johnson) comes on to James Bond, and he shoots her down. Yup. Bond actually rebuffs sex. Roger Moore was 52 when this film was made, and the filmmakers perhaps thought it a little oogy that a middle-aged man should so readily bed an 18-year-old girl.  He makes a comment that she'll be beautiful when she's a woman. This is surprisingly mature for a James Bond film.

James Bond looks to some notorious smugglers, as they would want the ATAC machine. He narrows down his suspects to either Mr. Kristatos , played by Julian Glover from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a guy named Colombo, played by Topol. One of these two has been following Bond with an assassin (Michael Gothard), and trying to kill him. There is one chase through the Spanish hillsides in a cheap little car, and cars do somersaults down hills, drive backwards in rickety situations, and don't ever explode. Movies have taught me that cars, when turned upside-down, always explode. For Your Eyes Only flew in my face in this regard. Awesome, I say. There's another equally exciting chase later where James has to ski away from thugs on motorcycles. Then there's one even later still, where James has to fight some people underwater using scuba suits.

I know what you're thinking. “Witney, haven't we seen underwater battles and ski chases in James Bond movies, like, several times before? In fact, didn't you lambast Thunderball for having too much underwater photography?” Yes we have, and yes I did. But For Your Eyes Only has chases that are paced well, shot incredibly well, and edited perfectly. Seriously. I would show these chases in film classes. They're amazing.

The ultimate climax of the film involves climbing up a cliff face into a disused monastery to find the ATAC machine before the bad guy can sell it to the Russians. The teen skater is there, as is her trainer and all the characters from before. All the plot elements actually culminate in this film. In most James Bond films, the characters all kind of pass through the story to give information to 007, and then pass on. In this one, they actually kind of group up, and have threads that come to a close.

Wow. Just wow. Yeah, I loved it.


And that's where we'll have to leave it for now, kiddos. Twelve down. Next week, we'll be wrapping up the Roger Moore era with Octopussy and A View to a Kill. We'll also be covering the only two Timothy Dalton Bond films, so be sue to join me for the shift. The week thereafter will be an all Brosnan marathon, and those were the first James Bond films I saw in theaters, so be sure to see my passion on the matter.

Until next week, agents, keep your poison dart watches loaded, and watch out for deranged billionaires.