Alas, in our grand journey across the history of the cinematic James Bond we have come to what for many, including myself, is its lowest ebb. Beating up on A View to a Kill is rather like kicking a puppy, and plenty of bandwidth has been devoted already to tearing apart its myriad flaws. It’s clear, based on the general plot, that the filmmakers were trying to remake Goldfinger with another megalomaniacal, commodity-obsessed villain – in this case, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) and, with a nod to the burgeoning era of personal computing, microchips. For 1985, a computer-wielding bad guy would have been groundbreaking – think of all the many thrillers that have been released in the last twenty years involving hackers wiping out the hero’s identity, credit rating or what have you. But apart from one brief scene where Zorin uses a digital camera to deduce Bond’s true identity, A View to a Kill keeps computers very much in the background. In a way, the movie’s major mistake is that it is trying to dangle a toe two minutes into the future while keeping its other foot anchored firmly in 1964, failing to recognize that audiences, and James Bond, have grown up. They want more than outlandish gags and double entendres, but unfortunately, that’s all A View to a Kill is serving.
With suspicions aroused that industrial magnate Zorin is leaking secrets of electromagnetic pulse-resistant microchip technology to the Soviet Union, Bond is put on the case, traveling to a horse auction at Zorin’s French estate where he bandies wits with the bad guy and his henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) and finds that Zorin is using his microchips to cheat at horse racing. After narrowly escaping a drowning in a Rolls Royce, Bond journeys to San Francisco, where with the assistance of geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who harbors a grudge against Zorin for having destroyed her father’s oil business, he discovers that Zorin is planning to manipulate California’s fault system to create a double earthquake that will flood and destroy Silicon Valley, leaving him as the sole purveyor of all microchips on the planet. As with most basic Bond plots, when they are outlined briefly like this they seem like a solid basis for a thriller. However, given Roger Moore’s advancing age (he was 57 at the time of filming) and his inability to perform action scenes without excessive use of stunt doubles, the decision was made to treat said scenes as comedy and play everything tongue-in-cheek – a tragic misjudgement that mars the entire experience. Gone is any sense of danger, of suspense, of doubt that Bond will survive the day. In its place are broad double-takes, wild, emphatic gestures and hammy acting by bit performers; in essence, the worst of 1920’s-era silent movie slapstick. Director John Glen cheekily describes it as “James Bond meets the Keystone Kops,” but the problem is, the Keystone Kops aren’t and never were funny. Humour has its place in Bond but should be kept dry, like his martini. A View to a Kill is 007 as a broad parody of himself, the classic hero of yore reduced to stumbling buffoon. Indeed, given the tone, one could simply swap out Moore for Leslie Nielsen. (Moore’s own comments in hindsight suggest that he might have preferred that option.)
What is doubly frustrating is that many of these scenes (like the extended sequence with the San Francisco police cars falling off the lift bridge) could be lifted neatly out of the movie without making a dent in the integrity of the narrative. I’m throwing down the gauntlet here to an ambitious Bond fan with ready access to editing software to do a “Phantom Edit” of A View to a Kill that rids it of some of the less inspired choices on display, like the screaming and gesticulating French cab driver running after Bond, or the applauding drunken homeless man watching Bond carry Stacey down a ladder from the burning San Francisco city hall, images I only wish I could expunge from my memory as easily.
For his part, Moore is not helped by the other actors, none of whom seems to understand what to do with the weak script. Walken, while delivering his lines with the same peculiar cadence that has generated fodder for impressionists the world over, is subdued and lacking in his usual charisma; it’s almost as if he is worried about coming off as camp so he dials it back, regrettably to a less interesting level. Despite an extensive history revealed as the film goes on (Zorin turns out to be the result of a Nazi doctor’s experimentation with steroids on pregnant women) we never get a sense of who he is or what drives him, beyond the simple motivation of greed. (Ian Fleming’s villains always received detailed personal histories as he attempted to examine the nature of evil.) Tanya Roberts’ dressed-down part as Stacey, bikinis exchanged for long, demure dresses, consists largely of shrieking “James!” as she lands in one peril after another. And Grace Jones as May Day seems to be on another planet entirely. Bond himself is uncharacteristically neutered in this movie – he wears dowdy brown suits, flirts like a creepy old uncle and, in one of the most stereotypically emasculating moments of all time, bakes a quiche. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to both acknowledge and ignore the age of their leading man, probing way too far into his tender side and keeping him from coming off like a lecherous senior citizen without completely abandoning the ruthless ladykiller of the past. But it’s a shaken and stirred concoction that simply does not gel. He who tries too hard to please everybody will end up pleasing no one.
Is there anything worthwhile to be found? Well, Duran Duran’s theme song, which remains the only Bond song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, is terrific. The story goes that guitarist John Taylor, somewhat in his cups, approached Albert R. Broccoli at a party and asked when Broccoli was going to hire someone decent to do the title track. The sound is Duran Duran at their peak, yet it’s indisputably Bond, and it remains the movie’s most enduring feature, still achieving regular radio airplay almost 30 years later.
The fundamental error common to the worst Bond movies is the failure to develop the character of James Bond – failure to give him an arc to follow or a journey of personal evolution to undertake. Failure to give the actor something to sink his teeth into. Throughout his lengthy but controversial tenure, Roger Moore was rarely given any substantial material to play, which is a shame, because when he was, he proved he was up for it (see: The Spy Who Loved Me.) Bond instead became merely a vehicle for propelling the plot, a cog in the grand wheel of an elaborately choreographed action sequence, and the filmmakers abandoned the qualities that make him unique. (Until Christopher Nolan took over, the Batman movies suffered the same problem.) The reason James Bond is popular is not because audiences bust a gut watching him drive half a car across Paris or dangle from a loose fire engine ladder as he careens through the San Francisco streets. He is not popular because he can snowboard away from hapless Soviet soldiers while a bad cover of “California Girls” plays in the background. He is not popular because of the women he tangles with or the villains whose schemes he foils. Set all the elaborate accoutrements aside; he remains popular because he is James Bond. And any filmmaker approaching a new 007 adventure who forgets that, as happened here, does so at his peril.