Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Best Worst Bond Movie, Round 2

In the comments on my Diamonds Are Forever post, there was some controversy over my statement that Moonraker is the dumbest James Bond movie ever. A couple of people pointed out that that title should go to Die Another Day, and they have a point, but here's my rationale: I cannot watch Die Another Day enough to really know how dumb it is. I know it's dumb. But it's also unwatchable, so the full extent of its stupidity is not accessible to me, because I can't get through the whole thing. Whereas Moonraker is entertaining, so I can watch it and drink in its beginning-to-end dopiness, from the bird doing a double-take to Jaws finding romance (as Mad magazine pointed out, we're apparently expected to forget that he viciously murdered several people in the last movie) to the disco version of the theme song. So let's say that Moonraker is the dumbest Bond movie that you can actually stay awake through.

As you can tell, I have a real fondness for Moonraker even though I know it's bad. Unlike Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker doesn't have a plot that makes no sense; the plot is simple, not hard to follow, and exactly the same as the last Bond movie. The success of The Spy Who Loved Me was important for the franchise: not only was it the best and most successful Bond in several years, it kept the series viable in the new era of blockbusters, it finally restored the series to the cutting edge in at least some areas (stunts and set design), it showed Roger Moore finally coming into his own as Bond, and it proved that Cubby Broccoli could continue the series without his ex-partner Harry Saltzman. So, wanting to repeat the success of TSWLM, Broccoli and the TSWLM team -- headed by director Lewis Gilbert, the only Bond director of the Broccoli era who had made a major hit movie before Bond -- made the same film, beat for beat, while eliminating even the slight bits of substance or toughness that TSWLM had. Of course, even TSWLM was essentially a remake of Gilbert's You Only Live Twice -- villain captures American and Russian spaceships/submarines and brings them to gigantic lair with jaw-dropping Ken Adam design, plans to launch all-out nuclear war between America and Russia -- but most of what it takes from Twice, it does better, which is reason enough for doing it again. But really, all three of Lewis Gilbert's Bond movies have exactly the same plot and the same opening, and if you don't believe me, look at this little video I made:

But back to Moonraker. It doesn't even pretend to be an actual movie, insofar as an actual movie has characters and conflicts and tries to integrate its set-pieces into the plot. Instead it has the bare threads of TSWLM's plot, and uses that as a pretext for set-pieces that just sort of come out of nowhere and end without much rhyme or reason.

It doesn't even have some of the fringe benefits of other bad Bond movies. Except for the opening skydiving sequence, the stunts are not up to the best of the series. Nor does it have the kind of T&A compensation that other Bond movies do; this is one of those Bond movies where the women in the posters are more seductively dressed than in the film itself. (Poor Lois Chiles, already struggling with the problem of disguising her Texas accent -- if you've seen the DVD special features, have you ever noticed how much better and less stilted she sounds when she's using her own accent? -- is also saddled with some really unflattering jumpsuit-y outfits.) The special effects are okay, but space battles have the same problems as the underwater battles in Thunderball, except worse: slow battles by floating people aren't inherently exciting. And the final video-game zap-the-barrels sequence may be the most unsuspenseful climax ever, and, of course, it's yet another ripoff of TSWLM, which also had a scene like that (but had the sense not to make it the very last bit in the film). Except for the bit early on where you're wondering if the stuntman is going to be able to strap his parachute on, there is not a single moment in this movie that's even remotely suspenseful or gripping; it's just a two-hour parade of Ken Adam sets, like a fashion show with bad costumes where you're focusing on the excellence of the runway instead.

But, like I said, it's still watchable, unlike Die Another Day. Partly because it's the last Bond movie designed by Ken Adam, and there just isn't any substitute for Ken Adam at his most extravagant. (I think even movies as good as From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service suffer a bit from Adam's unavailability.) It's also in my opinion John Barry's last really good Bond score, including his last use of his wonderful "007" theme, and that helps pull me through it. And it's just so very good-natured and unpretentious in its desire to do anything to entertain; it wants you to like it so badly and will do anything to be liked, whether it's repeating the plot of a movie made two years earlier or turning a psychotic killer into a kid-friendly romantic comedy lead. I can't help but be a little charmed by a movie that's so anxious to be loved; today, when a blockbuster movie is bad, it's just loud and obnoxious, demanding our attention rather than giving us beautiful things to look at. Moonraker is like Lewis Gilbert's home movies reel of cool stuff Ken Adam built; that's enough to keep it out of Die Another Day purgatory.


Ricardo Cantoral said...

LOL ! Okay, I see why you rank MOONRAKER as the dumbest Bond film. DIE ANOTHER DAY I have only sat through twice and that was a six year gap between viewings. I pretty much agree with you about MOONRAKER. I enjoy the film esepecially because of the sets and the locations were some of the best in the series. That was some of Ken Adam's finest work. I really wish he stayed a little longer in the series. Still, I regret a loyal adapation of Fleming's novel was never made. I think Alfred Hitchcock would have turned it into a very gripping thriller. Drax is a far more interesting and ruthless villian and the love interest, Gala Brand, was one of finest Bond girls. The plot of Fleming's Moonraker was rather simular to GOLDENEYE and DIE ANOTHER DAY.

"It's also in my opinion John Barry's last really good Bond score"

Hmm, I beg to differ. He did some great work for two out of his last three films, OCTOPUSSY and THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. The latter was some of his finest work. A VIEW TO A KILL was a very good effort too but not his best.

Jon88 said...

Sidebar: "Hello, Houston" and nobody noticed the actor pronounced it "WHO-ston" instead of "HYEW-ston"?

Will said...

The Bond movies, especially in the 60's, routinely had British actors trying, and failing, to use American accents.

Anonymous said...

DAD surely gets the prize for dumbness by virtue of the stupidest attempt by a villain to kill someone ever: they lock Halle Berry's character in a room made of ice and then melt it with a death ray from space so she'll drown.

None of the Austin Powers send-ups of villainous moronicness ever sank that low.

Edward Hegstrom said...

When it comes to bad but watchable (or at least bearable) Bond movies, I'd like to put in a word for A VIEW TO A KILL. Yeah, it's mostly dull, but it has the same pleasantly out-of-time feel as THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN--it may be the Bond franchise on autopilot, but it at least feels like the real thing. I'd never seek it out, but if I stumble across it on cable, I usually stay with it.

Incidentally, when it came out, I absolutely hated LICENSE TO KILL. Everything about it--from the this-time-it's-personal storyline to the strutting Mexican drug lord to the Michael Kamen score made it feel like a typical eighties action movie, not a Bond picture. Watching it now, it seems like GOLDFINGER compared to DIE ANOTHER DAY.

Anonymous said...

When you think about it, however, most of the Bond movies are essentially remakes of DR. NO: Bad guy is gonna do a Big Bad Thing in order to start a world war. THUNDERBALL is the variant where he won't do the Big Bad Thing if he gets paid off first.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is the only big exception to this formula since it was worked into OHMSS and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN as sub-plots (MAN's plot of hit man vs 007 could have been one of the very best Bonds; too bad they screwed it up so royally).

When it comes to bad/dumb Bond movies, nothing beats OCTOPUSSY, however. Why? because they PUT JAMES BOMB IN A FRICKIN' CLOWN SUIT!!!!!

Anonymous said...

...uh, make that "James Bond" not "James Bomb"...

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Edward: I thought AVTAK was okay too. Unfortunetly, the plot was a blantant rip off of GOLDFINGER.

Buzz: More like remakes of GOLDFINGER. DR.NO was far more of a low key thriller. As for OTCOUPSSY, I thought that was one of Roger Moore's best films. The problem was the supporting characters were all forgetable.