Tag Archives: San Francisco

Skyfall Countdown Day 9: A View to a Kill

“Hmm… he looks like James Bond, but…”

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.

Tomorrow:  A new Bond, an old attitude.

Advertisements

Tanned, rested and ready

Feels awful. And it works.

As my better half has pointed out to me on many occasions, men are the ultimate wusses when it comes to getting sick.  Even a mild cold – as it was my oh-so-grave misfortune to suffer over the past few days – is the tribulations of the damned.  What’s more ironic is that it has been ages since I’ve been struck down with a truly dreadful case of sniffles.  I’ve always had a pretty strong immunity; never have I been one to spend a week confined to bed, my head oozing snot from every orifice.  The occasional illness, every six months or so, is overcome within a matter of one or two days, if not hours.  The problem is that when one is accustomed to more or less perfect health, one loses the capacity to endure discomfort of any sort.  Hence the infrequent stuffy nose turning into a harbinger of the apocalypse.  In any case, I think I’ve hit upon a pretty reliable recipe for licking that pesky rhinovirus (at least, it works for me; this should IN NO WAY be misconstrued as any form of medical advice, as I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television):  copious amounts of Vitamin C, orange juice and oregano tablets (bring on the spaghetti burps), washing the nasal cavity frequently with a neti pot and the kicker, the “cook it out” method:  basically, wrap yourself in as many sweaters and blankets as you can endure, dope yourself with NyQuil and go to bed, and let yourself sweat.  If you can stand it, the heat basically fries the virus out of your body and dramatically shortens your recuperation time.  The bad news is you have to go back to work that much sooner.  Anyway, I’m back and I’m ready to kick April’s cruel arse into May.

Nirvana at last.

As one of my many forays into the digital world, I’m on Foursquare, the social media platform where you earn points and virtual badges by “checking in” at different locations throughout the world (an expensive hobby if you travel frequently and don’t have a good roaming plan on your mobile).  One of my Foursquare contacts lives in San Francisco, another in Washington, and speaking of illnesses, I’m always struck with “square envy” when the cool places they’re visiting pop up on my notification board.  When friends are crisscrossing the continent checking in at places like embassies, monuments and concert halls, your long-held mayorship of the local grocery store doesn’t feel that impressive.  Call it a social media variant on the old “grass is always greener” saw; one of the drawbacks of this new phenomenon of ambient awareness, where everything everyone is posting as their status update seems a lot more profound than what’s going on in your ordinary life.  Then again, it’s all relative – something that seems unique to the first world is our ability to be dissatisfied with abundance, to see existential emptiness within the horn of plenty and to always crave more, or at the least, to crave the idea of not appearing boring to the others around us.  The Buddha was probably on to something with the whole concept of suffering being related to unfulfilled desire.  (Now how is that for a train of thought – from Foursquare to Buddhism in less than 200 words.  If that doesn’t qualify me for the “Downward Facing Dog” badge, I don’t know what does.)

One final random note for today – finally saw the Season 2 premiere of Game of Thrones and had forgotten that all the Men of the North and the Night’s Watch sound like they should be playing bass in 60’s Merseybeat bands.  I gather that since Sean Bean was cast first as patriarch Ned Stark, they needed to find actors with a similar Sheffield patois in their speech to reflect the idea that they are all from the same family.  Yet it’s interesting how the British accent (and its many regional and even neighborhood variations) seems ideally suited to the fantasy genre (the Lord of the Rings series being another prime example), and how actors speaking about kingdoms and dragons in American midwestern dialects yanks you out of the story faster than you can say “You betcha!”  Indeed, there is a conceit that any period piece, no matter where it is set, seems more genuine when the actors sound like they just graduated from RADA.  It was such an unusual choice of director Milos Forman, when making Amadeus, to allow the actors to speak in American accents, when the safer, more traditional bet would have been to go with the Queen’s.  The movie is set in Austria so British accents would be no more logical for the setting than say, Spanish ones, but still, something still feels a bit off in how people are speaking (then again, you couldn’t exactly have the genuine Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mozart).  Of course, the champion of mishmashed dialects still has to be one of my personal favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October, where you have a crew of Soviet submariners captained by a Scot (whose character is actually supposed to be Lithuanian) and made up of Englishmen, New Zealanders, Germans, Swedes, Italians and Frenchmen, with one token Russian-born actor providing a lonely hint of verisimilitude – not that he has any lines in Russian, of course.  I guess what matters most is internal consistency, so if the entire cast of Game of Thrones was Icelandic it would make just as much sense as having them all hail from working-class Northern England.  Wonder if one of the Starks will have to warn the others that “one on’t crossbeams gone owt askew on treadle”?