VHS Revival attempts to revitalise a cruelly maligned addition to the Bond Canon
A View to a Kill gets something of a bad rap. Sure, there are plenty of things to decry in regards to Roger Moore’s seventh and final outing as the irrepressible James Bond, but there is also a lot going for the movie, and in my opinion a large percentage of those who panned it beyond salvation are invariably children of the 50s or 60s — people who can’t look past Sean Connery as the one and only 007. That’s understandable. We all have our favourite Bond, and more often than not the decision is tied to childhood memories and nostalgia. But times change, and as we would all one day discover, so would the actors who went on to play cinema’s best-loved super spy. As a universal concept, it doesn’t get much bigger than Bond, and with a few minor tweaks the character would transcend generations, tapping into the various fashions, cultural movements and sociopolitical issues along the way. Like any secret agent worth their salt, 007 was wired to adaptation.
Moore’s Bond had been criticised before, despite appearing in some of the better instalments, but by the time Roger creaked his way to his final appearance those critics finally felt justified in pushing him towards retirement, and very few of us could argue otherwise. Playing James Bond is the ultimate emblem of cool, one that guarantees actors the kind of lavish persona they’re tasked with portraying, both onscreen and off, and regardless of how burnt-out those actors may become, it must be difficult to relinquish that status. Being Bond is an honour bestowed upon very few people, but time catches up with everyone, and after more than a decade of safari suits, transparent Star Wars cash-ins and ridiculous gorilla costumes (and his fair share of outstanding moments too), it was finally time for Moore to step down after years of “keeping his end up”.
Unsurprisingly, A View to a Kill was widely panned by critics, and you know that the majority had made up their minds long before seeing the film. This could have been Moore’s finest outing and it probably wouldn’t have made a difference; the stocks had been rolled out for the actor, the custard pies had already been lined up. Some of those reviews were absolutely scathing and deeply self-satisfied. The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio, who had lead with the headline ‘As Bond, Moore is Less’, would write, “Moore isn’t just long in the tooth — he’s got tusks, and what looks like an eye job has given him the pie-eyed blankness of a zombie.” Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was just as damning in her criticisms, explaining, “The James Bond series has had its bummers, but nothing before in the class of A View to a Kill. You go to a Bond picture expecting some style or, at least, some flash, some lift; you don’t expect the dumb police-car crashes you get here. You do see some ingenious daredevil feats, but they’re crowded together and, the way they’re set up, they don’t give you the irresponsible, giddy tingle you’re hoping for.” Even the great Sean Connery would chime in, declaring, “Bond should be played by an actor 35, 33 years old. I’m too old. Roger’s too old, too!”
It would be delusional of me to deny much of what those critics wrote. Moore himself would later admit that A View to a Kill was his least favourite instalment in the series, and was just as scalding about his suitability for a role that was undoubtedly meant for an actor many years his junior, particularly after discovering that, at 57, he was older than female co-star Tanya Roberts’ mother, but once you get past the sight of a creaking Roger there’s so much more to enjoy about A View to a Kill, which in many ways is more attuned to action movies of the mid-1980s. Bond historian John Brosnan actually went on record as saying that A View to a Kill was Moore’s finest entry, and others were objective enough to see past the movie’s flaws and find the goodness beyond.
As American critic Dannis Peary would write, “Despite what reviewers automatically reported, [Moore] looks trimmer and more energetic than in some of the previous efforts … I wish Bond had a few more of his famous gadgets on hand, but his action scenes are exciting and some of the stunt work is spectacular. Walken’s the first Bond villain who is not so much an evil person as a crazed neurotic. I find him more memorable than some of the more recent Bond foes … [The film] lacks the flamboyance of earlier Bond films… but overall it’s fast-paced, fairly enjoyable, and a worthy entry in the series.”
Roger had been set to leave the series after The Spy Who Loved Me — his third and for many best outing as 007 — but the financial cherry that was Moonraker, that year’s most successful worldwide release, was too big of a payday to turn down. The actor was then tempted back for John Glen’s debut For Your Eyes Only, the sober antithesis to Moonraker‘s gaudy spectacle. Whichever incarnation of Bond you prefer, in terms of staying loyal to Ian Fleming’s vision, Connery and eventual Moore successor Timothy Dalton can both be considered superior, but with For Your Eyes Only Moore showed that he could do serious too, and though 1983’s Octopussy would give us more of a mixed bag, combining Cold War espionage with the overripe flamboyance of previous instalments, Moore wasn’t all self-awareness; at least not as much as we tend to recall. Bond is a series that inspires great loyalty in the actors who portray him, and having played Bond when he was still very much a novelty, Connery was always going to be a tough act to follow. After all, it was he who had helped establish the kind of franchise never before undertaken, and never to be seen again.
By the time Moore finally took the mantle the Bond formula was becoming just a little tired, as was Connery’s enthusiasm for the role, and the prospect of imitating a much loved and overexposed cultural icon would have been tantamount to career suicide for the actor formerly known as The Saint. Physically, Moore was cut from a silkier cloth. Slight and almost smarmy in demeanour, he would never be the hard-edged Bond of days gone by. For that reason the series took a more ironic approach, but this was also due to changing times. By the 1980s audiences had matured along with the action movie formula, irony replacing the sombre mood of 70s cinema, and people would find it increasingly difficult to accept the grandiose caricatures that were once central to the Bond recipe, something that was tackled by Glen’s relatively muted entries.
Roger was Roger, an actor who had made Bond his own with his repertoire of eyebrow-raising quips, but by the time A View to a Kill came around the joke was wearing just a little thin, and if 1981‘s For Your Eyes Only was aware of the increasing age of its star actor, making a point to depict him as too old for the young and persistent Bibi Dahl, what chance did we have of accepting the same man canoodling with the avant-garde Grace Jones almost five years later? Roger was 58 when he finally drew the curtain on his Bond career, and 007’s salacious antics, in particular, were becoming a little embarrassing, stooping closer to the lecherous granddad than the sophisticated stud. Equally embarrassing were the various battles and stunts we were expected to swallow, particularly A View to a Kill‘s camp pre-credits salvo, one that saw the ageing Moore (his stunt double anyway) snowboarding and surfing to a getaway to the ironic sounds of The Beach Boys ― a rather flat version of California Girls performed by tribute band Gidea Park. Rather than handling his age in a respectable way like For Your Eyes Only, the film went for the wholly self-aware approach, a defiant acknowledgement of the actor’s growing list of detractors. Utterly ludicrous, and purposefully so, but it’s still a fantastic set-piece to thrill audiences as we enter the gorgeous, neon-scorched credit sequence.
James Bond: Well my dear, I take it you spend quite a lot of time in the saddle.
Jenny Flex: Yes, I love an early morning ride
James Bond: Well, I’m an early riser myself.
As Bond plots go, A View to a Kill also features one of most subdued. When ranking the most extravagant schemes for world domination, the flooding of Silicone Valley for the purpose of controlling the microchip market is hardly the most striking of spectacles, but this is Glen moving away from that kind of Austin Powers kitsch, and while the film’s central villains carry shades of that late-Connery/early Moore megalomania, they’re very much characters in the 80s mode. A View to a Kill may not be classic Bond in this regard, but it gives us two of the most memorable villains in the series. We have the freakishly strong May Day (Grace Jones), a cultural enigma ready-made for the Bond formula, and Christopher Walken’s deliciously insane Max Zorin, the latter the product of a Nazi experiment which developed steroid-fuelled super-children who possess the kind of extraordinary intelligence that can only lead to world domination — or regional domination in this case. Walken bounces around with a mad effervescence and flip sense of entitlement that gets the best out of Moore’s Bond (his aloof reaction after uploading 007’s real identity is just priceless), and despite the usual repertoire of cheap double entendre and sexual innuendo, Moore can be untypically serious this time around, particularly when his faux-servant and CIA cohort Sir Godfrey (Patrick Macnee) is ruthlessly murdered.
Bond’s love interest is the positively smouldering Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), the granddaughter of an oil tycoon locked in a lawsuit with Zorin. Sutton may not be the greatest actress, her character may come across as somewhat helpless, proving something of an anomaly in Glen’s five entries, but she is dazzling enough to fit the bill, maintaining a conservatism that keeps Moore’s ageing sexuality firmly in the shadows. Roberts was one of the biggest victims of the infamous ‘Bond girl curse,’ struggling for roles thereafter. The actress would next star as Candace Vandervagen in cult wrestling movie Body Slam, a huge comedown following the overnight status of the universal Bond series. Roberts would then star in a smattering of direct-to-video efforts, her last feature-length appearance released as early as 1994.
On the fallout from her once in a lifetime experience, Roberts would say, “I sort of felt like every girl who’d ever been a Bond Girl had seen their career go nowhere, so I was a little cautious. I remember I said to my agent: ‘No one ever works after they get a Bond movie.’ And they said to me: ‘Are you kidding? Glen Close would do it if she could. I thought to myself, well you can have regrets if you wish, but what’s the point? At the time I didn’t know what I know now, and to be honest, who would turn that role down, really? Nobody would. All you have to think to yourself is: ‘Could I have been better in the part?’ That’s all you can say to yourself because turning the part down would have been ridiculous, you know? I mean nobody would do that, nobody.”
A View to a Kill also lacks a little glamour, failing to match some of the lavish locations and heady set-pieces of previous instalments. Though it does have its aesthetic moments, the film’s true sense of sophistication arrives in the form of its musical contributions. John Barry’s superlative score lends the film a sweeping elegance, particularity an orchestral variation of the movie’s title track entitled Bond Meets Stacey (A View to a Kill), a sumptuous and befitting introduction to the character and a reminder of just how important Barry was to Bond’s glamorous reputation.
Just as notable is A View to a Kill’s left-field title theme. Performed by 80s pop mainstays Duran Duran and written by Barry, the track was produced by onetime Chic bassist Bernard Edwards. Known for his ‘chucking’ bass technique, ‘Bernie’ would become a real-life mentor to Duran Duran bass player John Taylor, the two ultimately forming pop super group Power Station, who are perhaps most famous for Commando‘s end credits funk-rock power surge ‘We Fight For Love’, and Chic’s production style is more than evident in one of the freshest Bond themes ever produced. A heady mix of synthetic urgency and funky mainstream pop, ‘A View to a Kill’ offered the franchise something entirely new, embracing the MTV new wave and a then pioneering sense of chic that was further punctuated by the inclusion of Jones to the film’s marquee. Like all the greatest Bond themes, ‘A View to a Kill’ is successful both as an accompaniment and as a standalone track. If Roger was looking just a little dated, the theme did everything possible to lend him an air of modernity.
James Bond: My department knows that I’m here. When I don’t respond, they’ll retaliate.
Max Zorin: If you’re the best they’ve got, they’re more likely to try and cover up your embarrassing incompetence.
James Bond: Don’t count on it, Zorin.
Max Zorin: [laughs] Ha ha, you amuse me, Mr. Bond.
James Bond: It’s not mutual.
If we were judging A View to a Kill on its first two acts, I genuinely believe we would be talking about one of the better instalments in the series. Not only do we get May Day parachuting from the Eiffel Tower after fleeing the scene of a very 80s, butterfly-orientated assassination, we have Bond pursuing her in the front half a taxi, crash-landing a boat-based wedding and fleeing the wrath of some machete-wielding French caterers who clearly have no idea who they’re dealing with. Bond’s stay at Zorin’s country mansion is also a lot of fun, featuring an unlikely, late-night rendezvous with Moore and Jones and a heavily rigged steeplechase of ferocious whipping and sly booby traps. Even the chase with the fire engine has all of the action/comedy balance of classic Moore, even if it does emit shades of Cannonball Run silliness. Ironically, Moore would star in Cannonball Run the same year he headlined For Your Eyes Only, playing a blatant parody of the 007 character in a move that only heightened his growing reputation as a camp has-been.
For many, it’s that pesky final act that damns A View to a Kill to the realms of mediocrity. Bond is all about the final act — the elaborate spectacle to cap it all off — but the movie just seems to fizzle out without any real enthusiasm for the plot or its characters, with mundane sets, pseudo-spectacles and a climax that hardly signals the end of the world. As much as I adore A View to a Kill, not even nostalgia can prevent my attention from waning as Bond and Stacey infiltrate a mine and lay waste to Zorin’s explosive wet dream (Ms. Sutton in a pair of high heels no less). Walken is a hoot as the truly psychotic Zorin, laying waste to his fleeing lackeys with the cartoon insouciance of Hank Scorpio, but it’s all a little low-key, a huge drop from the movie’s superb second act. When Jones uses her strength to remove the bomb from harm’s way, it seems like something of an anticlimax. Having Mayday turn and side with Bond is a hasty development that doesn’t feel earned. Only days earlier she was cackling maniacally on the drug of pure evil, gorilla pressing Russian soldiers and dropping suspicious investors out of Zeppelins (another priceless moment). It’s a little unconvincing since she had shown herself to be nothing but pure evil, though killing a woman may have proven a step too far for a character of Bond’s moral integrity.
The movie’s final battle is also something of a let-down. It’s understandable that Glen chose a relatively action-free scuffle on the Golden Gate bridge. For one thing it disguises Moore’s dwindling mobility in the same way as the fire engine chase, making the scene much easier to swallow. Zorin’s death is also a little muted. It’s a spectacular setting, but this traitor deserved the meanest, most elaborate death in the series, and instead we watch him plummet into the bay with little more than a whimper (albeit it a wonderfully deranged one). Barry’s score does a fine job of raising the spectacle, and the sight of German geneticist and Zorin ‘father’ Dr. Carl Mortner flapping after a bundle of dynamite is a deeply satisfying one, but it all seems just a little conservative.
Did Glen have any other choice when framing his near 60-year-old star? It’s not like he could have hung him from the back of a cargo plane as he would Dalton two years later. I mean, he could have, but would we really have accepted it? In many ways, A View to a Kill was Roger throwing in the towel, a fact punctuated quite literally during the actor’s final scene; the last time we would ever witness Moore uncomfortably kissing a beauty less than half his age. There is also closure in the form of the similarly departing Lois Maxwell, her teary-eyed final appearance as Miss Moneypenny proving rather poignant all things considered. Some may feel that none of this was necessary, that Moore should have retired quietly and gracefully long before, but if you’re one of those who condemned A View to A Kill to the scrapheap and have since refused to revisit the film, go back and give it a second chance. Moore may have been well past suitability for the role of a deadly philanderer, but the movie is much better than most give it credit for.