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 reasons to decry Roger Moore’s seventh and final outing as the irrepressible James Bond, but is it really as bad as some make out? Roger was too old to play Bond in 1985 (this was before the likes of Stallone played action heroes into their 70s), but many had been calling for his head since he first laid hands on the Walther PPK more than a decade prior, unable to look past Sean Connery as the one and only 007. That’s understandable. We all have our favourite Bond, and more often than not our decision is tied to 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, a fact that decades of blockbuster dominance will attest to. With a few minor tweaks the character would transcend generations, tapping into the various fashions, cultural movements and sociopolitical issues in a bid to stay relevant. 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 he made his final appearance critics finally felt justified in pushing him towards retirement, and few of us could argue. With the likes of Timothy Dalton flirting with the role, Moore felt like something of a hanger-on towards the end, but it must be hard to relinquish that kind of status symbol. Bond is the ultimate emblem of cool, an honour bestowed upon very few people. He’s also a character who transcends the realms of fiction. When Christian Bale walks along he street, you don’t actually think he’s Batman, but with Bond the lines are a little more blurred. The glamour, the prestige, it spills over into reality. The likes of Roger Moore, and even the Oscar-winning Sean Connery, will always be 007, whatever else they managed to achieve.
There’s a famous story involving screenwriter Mark Haynes that typifies my point. When Haynes was a youngster, he actually ran into Roger Moore at an airport and naturally presumed he was Bond. Here’s his experience in full:
“As a seven-year-old in about 1983, in the days before First Class Lounges at airports, I was with my grandad in Nice Airport and saw Roger Moore sitting at the departure gate, reading a paper. I told my granddad I’d just seen James Bond and asked if we could go over so I could get his autograph. My grandad had no idea who James Bond or Roger Moore were, so we walked over and he popped me in front of Roger Moore, with the words “my grandson says you’re famous. Can you sign this?”
As charming as you’d expect, Roger asks my name and duly signs the back of my plane ticket, a fulsome note full of best wishes. I’m ecstatic, but as we head back to our seats, I glance down at the signature. It’s hard to decipher it but it definitely doesn’t say ‘James Bond’. My grandad looks at it, half figures out it says ‘Roger Moore’ – I have absolutely no idea who that is, and my heart sinks. I tell my grandad he’s signed it wrong, that he’s put someone else’s name – so my grandad heads back to Roger Moore, holding the ticket which he’s only just signed.
I remember staying by our seats and my grandad saying “he says you’ve signed the wrong name. He says your name is James Bond.” Roger Moore’s face crinkled up with realisation and he beckoned me over. When I was by his knee, he leant over, looked from side to side, raised an eyebrow and in a hushed voice said to me, “I have to sign my name as ‘Roger Moore’ because otherwise… Blofeld might find out I was here.” He asked me not to tell anyone that I’d just seen James Bond, and he thanked me for keeping his secret. I went back to our seats, my nerves absolutely jangling with delight. My grandad asked me if he’d signed ‘James Bond.’ No, I said. I’d got it wrong. I was working with James Bond now.
U.S. Police Captain: You’re under arrest.
Stacey Sutton: Wait a minute, this is James Stock of the London Financial times.
James Bond: Well, actually, captain, I’m with the British Secret Service. The name is Bond, James Bond.
U.S. Police Captain: Is he?
Stacey Sutton: Are you?
James Bond: Yes.
U.S. Police Captain: And I’m Dick Tracy and you’re still under arrest!
For years, Moore was one of the world’s most recognisable faces, an actor who enjoyed the status of cinema’s most idolised super spy away from the camera, 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 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, writing, “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 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 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, 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 the action movie formula 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 caveat of Roger’s advancing years
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.”
Bond is a franchise 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 yore. Connery’s successor had to make the role his own, and with the sombre 70s having changed the way we viewed cinema, the series would take a more ironic approach, audiences struggling to accept the grandiose caricatures central to the Bond formula with any degree of seriousness.
Part of the reason why audiences didn’t exactly take to A View to a Kill could be attributed to those changing times. When John Glen took over directing duties in 1981, it was a wild departure from Roger’s previous entry, and performance, under the guidance of Lewis Gilbert. Roger had initially been set to leave the series after The Spy Who Loved Me — his third and for many best outing as 007 — but the prospect of the commercially savvy Moonraker, 1979’s most successful worldwide release, was too big of a payday to turn down. Glen steered clear of Moonraker‘s spectacular, space-bound antics, embarking on a series of relatively muted entries more in-line with 80s action cinema, but he wasn’t done with Moore; not by a long shot. In fact, it was he who tempted the actor back into the fold for serious espionage thriller For Your Eyes Only, resulting in the most hard-edged performance of his tenure and the closest thing to Ian Fleming since From Russia With Love way back in 1963.
Glen’s next instalment, Octopussy, dipped back into the old Bond formula to some degree, but when you consider that the whole Tarzan debacle was a throwback to The Man With The Golden Gun, the emphasis on quips screen test determined, and events catered to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indy fever, it’s somewhat understandable, and there’s plenty of Cold War sobriety to go around. Glen would truly leave the traditions of Bond behind during the Dalton era, particularly action spectacular Licence to Kill, but Moore’s lack of mobility notwithstanding, A View to a Kill wasn’t far behind. With it’s relatively grounded plot, new age villains, modern action sequences and lack of otherworldly spectacle, it was very much in the urban action mode, particularly a fire truck chase through the streets of San Francisco. The film even forgoes the prerequisite, Q-led gadget display, scenes usually underpinned by the kind of suggestive comedy Moore had become synonymous with.
Max Zorin: [the morning after Bond sleeps with May Day] You slept well?
James Bond: A little restless but I got off eventually.
A View to a Kill has its silly moments, not least during its spectacular pre-credits sequence, one that sees Bond skiing, and snowboarding, to the sounds of Beach Boys tribute band Gidea Park as he escapes a rabble of goons in pursuit of a microchip. It’s a thrilling scene, but as much as I don’t mind Moore’s camp extravagances, this seems just a little too self-aware, like we’ve fallen so comfortably into formula it’s become a little complacent. It’s borderline parody, another reason why so many lament A View to a Kill as the series nadir. The water vessel Bond then escapes in, disguised as a block of floating ice, even has a Union Jack covered entrance hatch, Moore sticking his tongue down the throat of a waiting beauty half his age. It’s a somewhat kitsch and antiquated punctuation mark that must have left naysayers rolling their eyes in despair ― this was everything they loathed rubbed impudently in their faces ― but then we get that gorgeous, new wave credits sequence, and all thoughts of antiquity quickly fade.
Roger still seems a generation detached from A View to a Kill‘s 80s chic. Naturally, much of the movie’s implausibility is a result of the actor’s age. The amount of times he’s substituted for a stuntman is jarringly noticeable, and the use of rear projection effect has never been less flattering. Bond’s sexual exploits are borderline weird, particularly when outmatched by alpha female Mayday, a physical specimen who only highlights Moore’s age when 007 slips under her sheets to cover up for some late-night sleuthing. If 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? Glen originally took steps to cool Bond’s libido before completely abandoning the idea for Octopussy, a film in which Moore flirted with the hotel help. A View to a Kill lands somewhere in the middle, but the actor’s salacious antics stoop closer to the lecherous granddad than the sophisticated stud.
As Bond plots go, A View to a Kill also features one of most subdued, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, more a sign of the times. 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, San Francisco a far cry from the lavish locations of classic Bond, but this is Glen moving away from the kind of Austin Powers megalomania synonymous with that era, a fact personified by two of the most memorable villains in the entire Bond canon.
There are hints of the megalomaniac in Christopher Walken’s deliciously insane Max Zorin, the product of a Nazi experiment which developed steroid-fuelled super-children with the kind of extraordinary intelligence that can only lead to world domination. But Zorin is decidedly 80s villain, a white-collar criminal in the Wall Street yuppy mode fuelled by delusions of superiority and self-entitlement. Zorin doesn’t have plans to destroy the world, because where’s the fun in that? Making his fortune rigging horse races, the KGB defector flaunts his superior genetics like a replicant, the world an elaborate game of Risk with only one winner. Regular humans are little more than cattle to him, a fact confirmed when he guns down his own men for sport, wielding an Uzi like Hank Scorpio after a fistful of dextroamphetamine. Even Bond, escaping one predicament after the next, is a mere fly in the ointment as far as he’s concerned. His ego and sense of inerrancy are as inflated as a Zorin Industries zeppelin.
Walken brings such pedigree to the role of Zorin, bouncing around with a mad effervescence and flip sense of entitlement that’s an absolute joy to behold. His aloof reaction after uploading 007’s real identity, an impudent scoff of the highest order, is just priceless, and when he finally meets his maker after a tussle on the Golden Gate Bridge, he can’t believe he’s actually been outmatched, even allowing himself a slight chuckle before plummeting to his death. Zorin gets the best out of Moore’s Bond, who can be untypically serious at times, particularly when faux-servant and CIA cohort Sir Godfrey (Patrick Macnee) is ruthlessly murdered, though how he didn’t figure out Mayday was hiding in the back of his Rolls Royce is anyone’s guess (watch it back and you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from).
Ironically, A View to a Kill’s most endearing comedy comes courtesy of that very pairing. In fact, Macnee’s Sir Godfrey Tibbett, an ironic riff on his character John Steed from 60s British spy series The Avengers, is almost a replacement for the classic Q sequence. Macnee plays a horse trainer who goes undercover at Zorin’s French estate as Bond’s servant and driver, something 007 inevitably has lots of fun with. At 63, Macnee was even less suited to the underworld of dangerous espionage. Bond does seem athletic by comparison, but I’m still not buying Moore in a tracksuit meant for someone many years his junior. Other than that, the two have great chemistry, Tibbett’s quiet suffering at the hands of Bond genuinely endearing, a relationship that makes his assassination all the more cold and affecting.
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.
The movie’s first act has to be my favourite of all. There’s Mayday’s spectacular leap from the Eiffel Tower after fleeing a gloriously 80s, butterfly-orientated assassination (of private detective Monsieur AUBERGINE, no less), and Bond’s dubious but thrilling pursuit in the front half of a taxi, much to the chagrin of one of the most stereotypical French extras in all of cinema. It’s thrilling stuff, and it’s good to see Bond’s human side after crashing through the roof of a boat-based wedding and fleeing the wrath of some machete-wielding caterers who clearly have no idea who they’re dealing with. On the subject of ludicrous names, there’s also Alison Doody’s henchman, a somewhat peripheral character immortalised ― or eternally shamed ― by the moniker Jenny Flex. JENNY FLEX! At times, Glen and screenwriter Richard Maibaum set the self-awareness to rumba.
My favourite segment of the entire film has to be Bond’s stay at Zorin’s mansion. There’s the Bond and Tibbett dynamic, St. John Smythe’s (pronounced sin-jin-smythe) mind games with the seemingly unflappable Zorin, Bond’s late-night excursion and rendezvous with female centaur Mayday. There’s also a thrilling steeplechase, rigged of course, that brings out Bond’s legendary cunning, and the memorable introduction of our newest Bond girl thanks to John Barry’s superlative score. Here we’re treated to the sweeping majesty of ‘Bond Meets Stacey’, a lush variation of the film’s theme song which, like Barry himself, typifies Bond’s glamourous reputation. A View to a Kill is one of my absolute favourite scores. From guitar-driven chase cues to moments of unabashed elegance, Barry is in his absolute pomp here. He lives and breathes Bond.
Just as notable is A View to a Kill‘s left-field title theme. Performed by 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 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.
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’s dazzling enough to fit the bill, maintaining a conservatism that keeps Moore’s ageing sexuality firmly in the shadows amid so much acrid sexuality. A starring role in one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises wasn’t quite the coup the actress had hoped for, and A View to a Kill‘s critical damning no doubt played a part in that. 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 universally renown 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.”
When Bond pursues Stacey while on the hunt for clues to Zorin’s plot, the movie is at its flattest, particularly during a comical fight scene involving her grandfather’s urn (a fragile vase) and a gun loaded with rock salts that leaves Bond firing blanks (I can’t believe that didn’t use that quip). Roberts has taken something of a critical shellacking over the years, and it’s hard to refute that the film often suffers for her inclusion, but it’s mostly through no fault of her own. I always Stacey could have shown a little more guile. Her character is something of an itty bitty for someone who’s resistant to Zorin’s bullying. Maybe that’s what the actress and director were going for, and she’s the picture book beauty to Jones’ snarling beast, but she’s a far cry from Glen’s first Bond girl, the fiercely independent Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), who stands tall as one of the most memorable for possessing such characteristics (just imagine a death-defying battle between Havelock and Mayday!).
Max Zorin: You discharged her, so she and her accomplice came here to kill you. Then they set fire to the office, to conceal the crime but they were trapped in the elevator and perished in the flames.
Howe: But that means I would have to be…
Max Zorin: [shoots Howe] Dead! That’s rather neat, Don’t you think?
James Bond: Brilliant. I’m almost speechless with admiration.
Max Zorin: Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.
James Bond: Herr Doktor Mortner would be proud of his creation
The fact that Roberts was cast alongside a near-60-year-old man certainly didn’t help either. There’s zero sexual chemistry between her and Moore ― in an era of muscular heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Sutton’s saviour is a comparative grandpa. It also didn’t help starring alongside the utterly unique Grace Jones, who fits the Bond formula like a modern-day Oddjob. Jones is a huge presence who’s absolutely central to A View to A Kill’s overall appeal. Any other actress, however beautiful or talented, was doomed to life in her inimitable shadow. One promotional poster featuring Moore and Jones standing back-to-back against a pure white background tells you all you need to know about her commercial clout in 1985. She even outmuscled the likes of Walken for sheer star appeal.
Of course, Bond is all about the final act, and on the whole A View to a Kill delivers. Zorin’s plan to flood Silicone Valley involves creating an earthquake by pumping sea water through underground mines, (with a shitload of explosives for good measure). Walken is in his element during the film’s final act, but it’s all a bit low-key, perhaps a little too low-key at times. As much as I adore A View to a Kill — and it’s one of my go-to Bonds — not even nostalgia can prevent my attention from waning just a little as Bond and Stacey infiltrate a mine and lay waste to Zorin’s explosive wet dream (though nobody wore overalls and high heels quite like Ms Roberts).
When Jones uses her strength to remove the bomb from harm’s way, it seems like something of an anti-climax. It’s a heck of a way to go, but having Mayday turn and side with Bond is a hasty development that doesn’t feel earned, partly, one suspects, because of Jones’ lack of acting credentials and sparse character development (there’s a difference between presence and conveying the kind of genuine emotion audiences can buy into). Only days earlier she was cackling maniacally on the drug of pure evil, gorilla pressing Russian soldiers and dropping suspicious investors out of Zeppelins for merely refusing to accept Zorin’s crazed monetary demands. It makes perfect sense. Zorin did leave Mayday to die after all, and Bond isn’t in the business of killing ladies, but Mayday is no ordinary woman. If any female could have broken the mould in this regard it was her.
The movie’s final battle is slow-paced if spectacular. Walken is an absolute hoot as the utterly infallible psychotic who suddenly finds he’s distinctly mortal when faced with the best in the business. 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, making the scene much easier to swallow, but it’s all in the acting, and Zorin’s demise is a classic Bond moment. 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, even if his character proves somewhat peripheral for the majority of the film.
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 (in fact, he already had during Octopussy‘s blistering finale), but would we really have accepted it this time around? 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.