Roger Moore saved my evening once. I took a friend for a drink at Elaine’s, near where I lived on the Upper East Side. My friend knew that celebrities congregated there, and refused to leave for our appointed dinner until we saw one. I sighted a New York character actor, but no go—it had to be a name-above-the-title star. For a seeming eternity, none came into our orbit. Then, when I could stand the waiting game no longer, who should enter but…Beau Maverick. Simon Templar. James Bond. There could be no argument: Roger Moore was the real deal. Dinner was served.
Karmically speaking he did me a good turn, given how thoroughly he had ruined another evening of mine in May of 1985. I was 19 years old, the film critic for the Daily Northwestern, and eager to convert another friend into Bond-age. (I was a fan since my dad took me to see a double feature of Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die in 1974 or thereabouts.) Things were looking up: 1983’s Octopussy, with Moore, was divertingly silly, and Never Say Never Again later that year was a more-or-less satisfying one-off for the returning Sean Connery. A View to a Kill, which we were seeing at a preview screening at the Esquire Theater in Chicago, should have clinched it, and brought another fan into the fold.
The use of “California Girls,” to underscore the pre-opening snow/ski sequence, set off a little tremor. Thanks to Duran Duran’s chart-busting title song, the only Bond theme to hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts, and Maurice Binder’s blacklight-bathed babes we were on solid ground for a few minutes. Afterwards, earthquake; the big one, the disaster that the megalomaniacal Max Zorin fails to wreak upon Silicon Valley in the course of the movie, erupted in the theater. A View to a Kill, the 14th Bond film, is hands down the worst in the series—worse than the homage-happy curtain to Pierce Brosnan’s forgettable tenure in Die Another Day, worse than Moore’s debut as 007 in Live and Let Die, the cut-rate blaxploitation Bond, which bored me so much as a kid I made my dad cut short that fateful double bill. I suspect numerous fans deserted the series in its wake.
I hasten to add that I didn’t really blame Moore. As Reagan was the Teflon president, Moore was the Teflon actor; nothing stuck to him. Rarely called upon to emote, he just had to be handsome and unflappable, neither shaken nor stirred. On the commentary track for the MGM Ultimate Collection DVD of A View to a Kill, which I dutifully watched, he recalls that 1971’s The Man Who Haunted Himself “was one of the few times anyone asked me to act.” That film was about doppelgangers; Bond was about doubles. “I love watching the pre-opening scenes, as I never had anything to do with them,” he laughs as the stunt team covers for him as View opens, adding later, “Half the challenge of playing Bond was finding people who looked like me.” Moore has always been pleasantly self-deprecating, and in on the joke of his relaxed stardom. A scene in The Tall Guy (1989) that gets a big laugh is when, after struggling actor Jeff Goldblum commiserates to agent Anna Massey about his plight, she responds, “Oh, I know, and Roger Moore still gets work.” But A View to a Kill leaves Moore cruelly exposed. At age 57, and with six Bonds under his expanding waistline, he wanted out, but loyal to a fault he took one for the team. Thankfully, in retrospect; a new actor, and the series itself, may have collapsed under the dead weight of an exhausted script, penned by old series hands Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum.
On the surface, core competency is in evidence. The locations (Iceland, the Ascot Racecourse, Paris, San Francisco) are handsomely shot in widescreen by Alan Hume; the stunt doubles earn their keep; and, not for the first time in his stellar career, John Barry saves the day with a score that manages to add tension and dynamism to a laborious fire truck chase that puts a squealing Tanya Roberts behind the wheel as Moore, stuck on the wayward ladder, barks orders in process shots. A Bond movie that fails to generate good vehicular mayhem is a Bond movie in serious trouble.
Prior entries had their fair share of dodgy moments. A View to a Kill is a cascade of them, a jumble of half-baked ideas (and a lousy send-off for Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, sent packing in an unflattering horsey outfit). The plot reworks Goldfinger, substituting microchips for gold, and the series’ most iconic villain for Zorin, who has, if not a God complex, then a Lex Luthor one. Up to this point Christopher Walken was careful not to let his vaguely otherworldly persona slip into caricature; this is his first banana peel, complete with a shock of platinum hair. His whiteness is contrasted with Grace Jones’…Jonesness. In an array of vampy costumes as May Day, Zorin’s henchperson, she makes a continual first impression without putting her signature on the underwritten part, which calls for an eleventh hour change of heart that is one of the film’s weakest contrivances. I’d accuse John Glen, director and Cubby Broccoli factotum, of trying to disguise the ragged scenario with with-it casting, but busy with the fire trucks he hardly seems to know that Walken and Jones are there. Interacting with Moore it’s like a split screen is in place, between a clock-punching Bond when the films were on a biennial cycle and a potential happening that no one knew how to exploit. (Best to draw a veil over the trysting of Moore and Jones, which has you fearing for his life, and to note, on the upside, his much more congenial relationship with Patrick Macnee, fellow spy-in-arms and frequent co-star, here petulantly assisting Bond.)
That routine is what kills Kill. Invention, shock, and surprise are at a minimum. The movie is scaled to Roberts’ teensy performance. Finding Walken “extraordinary,” Moore has nothing to say about his last Bond girl than to praise her “extraordinary eyes.” American women have a checkered history in Bond pictures, and Roberts is a constant blight, a screaming ninny to rival Denise Richards’ questionable nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough (1999). Why Zorin, his plan thwarted, would want to go back for her as the finale grinds on is one of the mysteries of the film’s conclusion, which, already compromised by dubious science (explosions triggering earthquakes—really?), tacks on the foolish ascent of the Zorin zeppelin. Airships are retro-neat, but the presence of one in a live-action feature is a reliable flop indicator (The Hindenburg, Black Sunday, The Rocketeer, The Golden Compass, etc.) and A View to a Kill, which underwhelmed at the U.S. boxoffice, is no exception. Its getting ensnared in the Golden Gate Bridge, a would-be monumental event that conspicuously fails to stop traffic, makes for the series’ most embarrassing cliffhanging ending.
At the end of his disc commentary Moore, who hadn’t seen the film since its San Francisco premiere, admits that he doesn’t like it very much, for a reason that we may take for granted today. Toward the end, Zorin, the product of Nazi experimentation with steroids, opens fire on his work crew. What offends me is the typically lousy storytelling, which gives a character pegged as a psychotic something conveniently psychotic to do, to live up to an origin that’s otherwise meaninglessly baroque. What bothered Moore was the impersonality of the mass slaughter, at odds with the lighter-hearted spirit of his seven-picture stint. That would become the norm in ’80s action-adventure, thanks in no small part to the agent of change that was Rambo: First Blood Part II, the lean, mean, turbo-charged fighting machine that opened two days before A View to a Kill and sprinted past the most arthritic 007 of them all. He’d met his match, and it wasn’t on the Golden Gate Bridge with Tanya Roberts and the Zorin zeppelin.