Saturday, June 23, 2012

No Wonder Few Americans Celebrate May Day

A VIEW TO A KILL

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond reviews. 

I have a certain fondness for A View to A Kill.  It might be because this is the first James Bond film I can remember watching (perhaps not the first one I saw, just the first one I remember).  On a certain level, I still carry a certain positive feel for AVTAK.  However, when I saw it again with the mind and eyes of a film reviewer/adult, even I, someone who thinks well of the film, realize in so many ways, A View to A Kill is one of the lower-level Bond films, if not one of the worst films in the franchise.

From what I followed of the plot, James Bond (Roger Moore) is investigating the theft of a microchip that would make British machines impervious to a nuclear attack.  It is suspected that the leak is one Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), billionaire industrialist who apparently had fled from East Germany.  Bond begins investigating Zorin and his henchwoman May Day (MISS Grace Jones), with the help of racing expert Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee).  Zorin is suspected of using microchips to help him breed master race horses, and it's no surprise. 

Zorin, apparently, is himself the product of biological experiments during the Holocaust (seriously, this is the story).  The Doctor Mengele-like scientist, Dr. Carl Mortner (Willoughby Gray) had been injecting his special concoction into pregnant women in concentration camps, and one of the few that came out was Max Zorin.   Bond discovers that Zorin has a plan called Main Strike, and with state geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who herself has a vendetta against Zorin, discover Zorin's master plan.  He will destroy Silicon Valley by combination earthquake/drowning, and he will corner the market on microchips: a view to a kill, one might say.  Now they must stop him from killing millions (including, I imagine, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg).

Oddly, the plot I've described makes A View to A Kill sound much odder than what one sees on the screen.     

Things started going wrong in AVTAK almost straight from the beginning.  Director John Glen's decision to use a cover of the Beach Boys' California Girls in the opening (which has Bond snowboarding in Siberia) was not only distracting and illogical but turned things into farce.  What could have been a good, even great action scene to open the film turned into a joke.  After that, few things could have save AVTAK

Longtime Bond screenwriter Richard Maimbaum and Michael G. Wilson's screenplay made one bad decision after another.  A long sequence involving horse racing/breeding that was marginally related to the story of Zorin's microchip maneuvering is one.  Killing off Tibbett is another.  Having Bond use not one but TWO pseudonyms (James St. John Smythe, horseman, and James Stock, reporter for the London Financial Times) is remarkably out of character for someone who almost expects everyone to know who he is.

I personally don't mind that near the end of AVTAK, the henchwoman joins Bond (that part of the story made some sense).  I do think it is a wasted opportunity to either have her follow in the true henchman's code of fighting on to the bitter end or to at least keep her alive to the closing credits.  More on that later.

What I will fault the film for is a remarkable lack of taste when it comes to the San Francisco sequence.  As part of the plot, Zorin and May Day capture Bond and Sutton in San Francisco City Hall.  In order to get Bond and Sutton out of the way, Zorin shoots the Chief City Geologist in his office at the San Francisco City Hall then sets the place ablaze.

I cannot understand how Maimbaum, Wilson, Glen, or anyone involved in A View to A Kill could be so unaware as to set an assassination in the San Francisco City Hall.  Granted, as a primarily British production they might not have been aware that San Francisco City Hall was the location for the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 (a mere seven years earlier).  It is surprising that city officials wouldn't have raised at least eyebrows, if not full objections, to the idea that their seat of power, already the scene of a shocking political crime, would be the setting for another murder of a government official in a feature film.  I imagine it was thoroughly unintentional, but it does make seeing a city official shot in his office a bit uncomfortable. Yet I digress.

Again and again, A View to A Kill had one wasted opportunity after another.  The worst moments are when Bond and Sutton escape from the police when they are threatened with arrest outside the burning City Hall.  The chase scene with the fire truck could, again, have been a tense and exciting one, but there were one too many gags (such as the ladder ripping open a truck that finds a couple in the act of lovemaking) that is less funny than groan-inducing.  Further, for some reason the cop chasing after them was too reminiscent of Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live & Let Die/The Man With The Golden Gun.  And he wasn't that funny to begin with.

Zorin has a group on his blimp and shows them his model of Silicon Valley and what he plans to do with it (as well as how he dispatches one person who isn't up for his scheme), we get echoes of Goldfinger.  Even the names of their plans are eerily similar (Goldfinger's Grand Slam vs. Zorin's Main Strike).

Going a bit further into the 'being a bit repetitive' business, May Day kills two important characters (both of whom, coincidentally, help Bond in his investigation), in the same way: strangling from behind while they are in the driver's seat.  Again, another wasted opportunity.  Here's what I mean.

May Day is a brilliant creation: a physically powerful and intimidating murderess who is an expert at assassination.  One would have hoped that she would have found a more elaborate method of murder (or that these guys would have noticed something in the backseat). 

Curiously, I was reminded of another film altogether while watching how Zorin attempted to kill Bond.  He cajoles 007 to ride a dangerous mount named Inferno.  I couldn't help but think of all things Auntie Mame, when someone tries the same trick with a horse called Meditation.  One does seriously begin to wonder if all these Bond villains simply find it too hard to just shoot him.

It's a curious thing about Bond girls: you never know which ones you will remember.  Ostensibly, it's Tanya Roberts' Stacey Sutton in A View to A Kill who is our Bond Girl.  While she is the one who is there to help James Bond, she isn't the one we remember from A View To A Kill.  Rather, tis' that force of nature, MISS Grace Jones as the murderous May Day that is simply unforgettable.  Though not the first black Bond Girl (that honor goes to Gloria Hendry's Rosie Carver from Live and Let Die), Jones' sheer presence overwhelms nearly everyone in A View To A Kill.  Her May Day is a fierce Amazonian warrior, one who is viciously tough to where any man would be frightened to take her on.  Even in the scene where she goes to bed with Bond, May Day has a powerful physical force that is almost intimidating.

Walken's Zorin is actually one of the better Bond villains, one who is frightening in his evil.  Unlike other Bond villains, Zorin is not afraid to get his hands dirty.  He kills, and kills with pleasure.  One also has to add that with Walken's distinctive cadence Zorin is more menacing whenever he faces off against Bond or is calmly telling the Chief Geologist that he has to die.  Also welcome is Patrick Macnee as Bond's right-hand man.  He brings, yes, a touch of class to A View to A Kill (even though his character is only important to the first storyline of horse-juicing, which doesn't quite mesh with the destroying Silicon Valley storyline that dominates the second half of AVTAK.   One actually feels bad when he's bumped off.

As good as Jones, Macnee, and especially Walken are, the two leads are all wrong.  Later in his career, Sir Roger Moore realized that he was past it to be 007.  It brings to mind a phrase my mother uses, which translated from Spanish says, "He's too old for those types of dances".  By that, she means that at a certain point, people of a certain age look silly trying to act as if they were younger.  This is the case with Moore, who just wasn't believable as the suave ladies man.  Even worse, Sutton (who actually was old enough to be his granddaughter) looked bored, or at the very least, confused in every scene.  She wasn't enthusiastic in any of her scenes, and add the fact that she spoke so softly and that she is so gullible to believe anything told to her and you end up with one of the worst Bond girls in the series.

Now, I once was one of A View To A Kill's few defenders, but even I recognize that Moore was simply too old to play the part.  Sadly, no one recognized that Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny was likewise at 58 far too old to have these endless flirtations with a 57-year-old Moore.  No one, I imagine, wants to see their grandparents throwing sexual innuendos at each other.  It is good that the franchise was loyal to Maxwell, but given she had been 34-35 when Dr. No premiered, one wondered why she was by now a middle-aged if not senior spinster forever waiting for James.

A View to A Kill therefore, was not just Moore's final turn as James Bond but Maxwell's last turn as Miss Moneypenny, and we thank her for her service, but she should have been recast by now.

Again, there were some good things in A View to A Kill.  There are the aforementioned trio of Macnee, Jones, and Walken.  There is also a remarkably thrilling chase from the Eiffel Tower (sadly losing something in its efforts for comedy).  Then there is the title song.  This is the first time a band has done the title Bond song since Live & Let Die (though one can argue that it was really Paul McCartney, not Wings, that did the song, but that's a point of debate).  Duran Duran's A View to A Kill is the first one that got away from the lush romantic ballads that had populated the James Bond franchise since  Nobody Does It Better in The Spy Who Loved Me in favor of a harder rock sound (again, up to you if you want to define Duran Duran as a rock or pop band).  Still, A View to A Kill stands up remarkably well and it even suggests A View to A Kill will be a harder, even edgier film than some of the more romantic predecessors. 

The fact that both the villain, the henchwoman, and the title song are wasted in silly, self-consciously pseudo-comic action scenes and two plot lines barely related are a strong indicator that A View to A Kill is a mess.

I can't lie and say that I didn't find A View to A Kill entertaining.  As I've said, it has some great things: the song, Walken's evil villain, a powerful aide in Grace Jones' May Day.  However, as a film, A View to A Kill leaves so much to be desired people will watch it and think the whole thing is silly, overblown, and rather a waste.  In short, A View to A Kill is no San Francisco treat.

Next James Bond Film: The Living Daylights

DECISION: D+ 

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