No, I promise, despite Christopher Walken's presence, that I will not make that joke. He's playing Max Zorin, not legendary producer Bruce Dickinson. Bond movies are a serious matter, and I won't cheapen this with trite references to pop culture catch phrases and late night comedy routines. I owe you, my committed reader, that much.
Still, VTAK desperately needed something, as the Roger Moore era comes to an end with a whimper, not a bang. It's not a good movie. In fact, I think it's the second worst Bond movie. But it can be a little tough to put your finger on why. What it come down to, mainly, is that the movie needs more...well, more cowbell, dammit.
It's not as if the filmmakers aren't trying hard...but almost every decision they make seems ill-conceived. And as a result, the movie plays as pedestrian, even boring at points. It's as if they forgot they were actually making a James Bond picture, and settled for giving us a bunch of standard action movie cliches.
The shortcomings of this movie can best be summed up by one shot:
A aged Nazi trying to throw a lit bundle of dynamite at Bond. Really. That's our final crisis? That's not Bond--that's Die Hard Meets The Road Runner.
Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson team up for their third consecutive Bond script, and Wilson is a full producer at this point. But it's almost as if these two have forgotten what makes Bond Bond. Of course, they have very little Fleming to work with here, just (part of) the title of a short story. In From A View To A Kill, Bond must track down a hidden sniper who is ambushing NATO dispatch couriers in France. Not a lot to build a movie upon, obviously. (Note: I have yet to hear any explanation as to why they dropped the "From" in the title...What, you can't have a Bond movie start with the word "From?")
So instead, they crafted yet another Goldfinger knockoff as a plot. The similarities are even more striking...and far less subtle...than Octopussy. Bond investigates our villain for smuggling, but stumbles upon the villain's plot to destroy the U.S. supply of gold/microchips to make himself rich. The producers show no shame whatsoever in completely duplicating the famous Goldfinger study scene, down to the map rising out of the table and the one objector being escorted to his death.
But that's not the real problem...we Bond fans have proven very forgiving when Eon borrows from itself. No, the real flaws in this movie become apparent when you look at the action sequences they choose to surround this framework with. They give us lot of set pieces that are, frankly, completely underwhelming and pedestrian. Let's look at just a few:
- Bond rousts a few of Zorin's thugs at Stacy Sutton's crib. There's not anything wrong with this scene, but it's just a lot of punching. It's all very standard, from the rock-salt filled shotgun to the ashes-filled urn Stacy smashes a thug with. There's no pizazz, nothing that says this is a James Bond production...nothing that, frankly, couldn't have turned up on an American P.I. television series of the era.
- Bond rescues himself and Stacy from a burning elevator shaft. Again, competently done, but where's the Bond? Watching 1 full minute of Bond carrying Stacy down a ladder isn't what I've come to expect from a 007 movie.
- The firetruck chase through San Francisco is no Bullitt, that's for sure. For 90% of it, Bond isn't even driving. They're in SF and don't use the hills?!? The jump over the drawbridge isn't a jump...they use clever editing to conceal that the firetruck doesn't jump AT ALL! And the Keystone Cops, let's smash as many police cars as possible finale belongs in the Blues Brothers, not a Bond movie.
Part of the lack of glamor comes from the surprising decision to once again have Bond go gadget-less. But unlike For Your Eyes Only, they don't give this gadget-less Bond realistic villains; heck, Zorin is practically Gadgets 'R' Us. And unlike FYEO, they don't compensate by putting gadget-less Bond in exotic situations, and letting him show off his superiors skills and thinking. There's no "watch Bond outdrive the bad guys with a Citroen!" Instead, Bond is in mundane situations, doesn't show impressive skills, and lets Stacy do the driving.
Another factor might be the San Francisco locale that dominates the second half of the film. Because of all the American movies and television shows set there, I think it's just difficult for San Francisco to come across as exotic or intriguing to audiences. We have a "been there done that" feeling, and because of the familiarity we're comparing the film to Bullitt and Dirty Harry and every TV show that made better use of the locale. And when the best they can give us is a non-exciting fire truck chase, well, the comparisons aren't going to help our opinion of VTAK.
The third factor is the constantly changing MacGuffins--the movie has absolutely no idea of what it wants to be about. See if you can follow. In the teaser and the opening scene, Bond is supposed to track down the source that leaked secret British microchip technology to the Russians. Someone stealing microchips hardened against electromagnetic pulses could be interesting, except for one thing--after the scene in M's office we NEVER hear those chips mentioned again. At all. Nada.
Somehow, instead, Bond gets side-tracked into investigating Zorin's horse racing interests. There seems to be no way that line of inquiry could answer the question of who's leaking classified microchips. Nonetheless, VTAK proceeds to spend the next 40+ minutes in a pointless horse doping exercise (even if he proves that Zorin is cheating at horse racing, how, exactly, does that help them catch the microchip thief?). It's not a good sign when only 12 minutes in, the script completely forgets what Bond's goal was.
Not to worry, though. Once Bond leaves France, we never hear about the horses again. Not a SINGLE WORD. The movie's ADD turns Bond's attentions to Zorin's oil wells, which have absolutely nothing to do with either the leaked microchips OR the horse scandal. So once again we're onto a completely irrelevant line of inquiry. Fortunately for James, this one just happens to stumble upon Zorin's big plan.
Don't get me wrong--we've seen digressions from 007's main investigation before. Bond started out investigating gold smuggling in Goldfinger, diamond smuggling in Diamonds Are Forever, and octopus smuggling--oops, Russian art treasure smuggling--in Octopussy. But in each of those cases, that investigation directly led to the villains' real plan. In VTAK, none of it connects. It's almost as if Bond is taking random paragraphs from Zorin's Wikipedia biography, investigating it, dropping it, picking another...And, in those other movies, Bond succeeds at his initial assignment, and solves the smuggling problem. In VTAK, he never does find any evidence linking Zorin to the leaking of the microchips. No closure there.
Another sign that the writers had no confidence in their story was the large number of sacrificial lambs they load into the script. 003? Dead. Achille Aubergine, the French detective? Dies. Sir Godfrey Tibbett? Dead. Chuck Lee? Dead. The sacrificial lamb is a venerable concept in the Bond series. Having a close friend or ally killed gives Bond extra motivation and increases the audience's emotional investment in Bond's quest. But if you have to do it 4 times--and 3 of those times we have virtually zero emotional reaction--you're just flailing around. And don't get me started on the way Tibbett and Lee are killed in the exact same fashion. That's just plain laziness, compounding the laziness of giving us multiple sacrificial lambs to "advance" the plot.
The final plot deficiency I'll discuss (for now) is the complete lack of tension resulting from Zorin's plot. We're never shown a single building or inhabitant of "Silicon Valley," we don't get any close-ups of citizens about to die. Nope, all the movie can give us is (repeated) shots of a lone fisherman on Lake San Andreas. That, and lots and lots of shots of mine shafts. In Goldfinger, we saw the soldiers who were going to die, and Fort Knox. In Octopussy, we saw some of the potential victims of the nuclear bomb at the circus. But in VTAK it's all remote and abstract and uninvolving. Some people we've never met in a place we've never seen might die--so let's spend more time in the quarry! There's just no tension in our crisis situation.
Enough of the bad. Let's talk Christopher Walken. Max Zorin is given a back story that requires him to be both a genius and a psychotic, and Walken plays it to the hilt. Does he overplay it? Sure. But the pedestrian antics and meandering plot required someone to come through with a high energy performance, and Walken brings the cowbell. In a lot of ways his performance is similar to Klaus Maria Brandauer's as Largo in Never Say Never Again--a lot of self conscious ticks and mannerisms, and a bemusement at his own "superiority." But I think Walken does a better job of connecting to the rest of the cast than Brandauer did. Zorin enjoys showing off his intellect, and loves to berate those around him. I don't know that I can say that Walken makes Zorin into top-tier Bond villains. But he's in the top-tier of Moore-era villains, and his antics were appreciated by this viewer.
The teaser is fairly lame. It's not bad, per se. But it's yet another winter sports extravaganza, and haven't we had enough of those? We don't see anything here that we haven't seen before (multiple times), and things fall especially flat when they try to get trendy by having Bond improvise a snowboard from a snowmobile ski (apparently, snowboarding makes it impossible for Soviet troops to aim at...). Adding insult to injury is the Beach Boys song. This is especially heinous for 3 reasons. 1) The Beach Boys in a winter scene? Please, irony that cheap isn't worth doing. 2) If you are going to do a Beach Boys song, why California Girls? It's a "snow surfing" scene that has inspired the use of the Beach Boys, so why in heaven's name not use one of their surfing songs?!? California Girls means nothing to the plot or scene!!! Choosing that song looses whatever weak irony you actually had. 3) It wasn't even really the Beach Boys!! The song was performed by Gidea Park, a Beach Boys "tribute band!!" Good gravy, if you can't get the real thing, what's the point?!?
Ahh, but the theme song, that's another matter. Duran Duran got the gig when their bassist John Taylor drunkenly went up to Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked, "When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?" I've got to try that sometime...The song is the first attempt at any kind of rock in the theme since Live And Let Die, and the first uptempo song since The Man With the Golden Gun, and the first stab at anything resembling "New Wave." And it succeeds spectacularly. Who knew John Barry had it in him? Suffice it to say, I love the song to pieces, ranking it as the #2 Bond theme song ever. It's also the ONLY Bond theme to ever hit #1 in the Billboard charts, and the ONLY one to reach as high as #2 in the British singles chart.
Tanya Roberts is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and very, very sexy. Very very very sexy. She is not, however, a particularly good actress. Perhaps I'm a bit nuts here, but I will say that her performance, while bad, was better than the non-performances given by some other Bond Girls of the era (I'm looking at you, Lois Chiles). At least Roberts is capable of actually portraying emotion, albeit badly, and actually reacting to events around her in a human fashion. It might just be a quirk of mine, but I tend to prefer a bad-but-actually-human performance to someone who is just a mannequin for 2 hours.
With that being said, she is pretty bad, and even worse, she makes Stacy into a screamer. She screams so much, I felt like I was watching 1960's Doctor Who at times. Which is not what you want from your Bond Girl. Stacy's not much use in a scrap, her knowledge isn't particularly helpful, and she's so dim that a blimp can sneak up behind her. But damn, she is easy on the eyes...
Obviously, this was Roger Moore's last go round as 007. As he himself acknowledged, he was getting very long in the tooth. Others will say unkind things about the "work" he supposedly had done, the stiffness of his face, etc. I won't go there, because I really don't know enough about such matters. But I will say that, for the most part, Sir Roger seems very low energy in this film. Perhaps his advancing age (and abilities?) was the reason he has fewer stunts, and Bond seems much less active, than in earlier films. On the flip side, there is nothing as embarrassing for Moore as the "Sit!" or the Tarzan swing from the previous movie. And while this isn't his finest outing, it's not his worst, either. Salutations, and thanks for 7 movies, sir.
The team of director John Glen and writers Maibaum and Wilson did 5 consecutive movies together, and (in my opinion) those movies follow a curious U shape in terms of quality, starting at a peak in For Your Eyes Only, bottoming out a VTAK, and building back up to another peak by Licence To Kill (your mileage may vary, obviously). I've always wondered why this is, and I upon this current watching of the films, I think it's clear that they were struggling to find out how to handle the franchise with the stream of Fleming material mostly dried up. Fleming's material was so generally so strong that adapting it was usually "easy;" but everyone involved was still trying to get the feel of how to create original Bond material.
And in VTAK they clearly came up short. Too much of the film is standard American action movie material (or even TV movie material), and unfortunately succeeds in dragging Bond down to that level. The fantastic, the unfamiliar, the amazing "something you've never seen before" we've come to expect from Bond movies just isn't there for the most part. The problem is not a lack of effort, or coasting, but a lack a proper vision for the series. VTAK needed more cowbell.
Would things improve? Yes, they would. But that's a matter for next week...
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Farewell, Lois Maxwell. Thank you. (Especially appreciated was her little homage to My Fair Lady at Ascot...). You'll always be Moneypenny to me.
**Isn't it the tiniest bit embarrassing that the British Minister of Defence is completely unfamiliar with even the concept an electromagnetic pulse and the military ramifications? Isn't that sort of, you know, his job?
**It's a good thing that Britain and Russia now have microchip technology that is immune to electromagnetic pulse, right? So now, no one could ever use EMP technology, say, via a satellite, against them? Right?? They'll never have a problem with that again...
**Nothing personal against Fiona Fullerton, but wouldn't casting Barbara Bach in the small role have been worth 10,000 bonus points? Pola Ivanova is just fine, but a cameo by Agent XXX would have been the coolest thing ever...
**I wish they had done more with Mayday, perhaps given us a tiny bit of background or such. Of course, they rarely do that with henchmen...but I would have appreciated even a sentence or two about where she was from, or what her deal was. Like Walken, Grace Jones brought the cowbell to an otherwise overly calm affair.
That being said, like Jaws before her, her redemption came much too easily. She was knowingly complicit in everything Zorin did, a willing partner in mass murder. Would James really say "OK, you killed Tibbett, you killed Chuck Lee, but all is forgiven now?" Plus, her outrage at Zorin is a bit much. She watched him eliminate every other ally he had--did she seriously think she was immune?? She helps stop the bomb not because it's the right thing, but because she's pissed at Max...hardly noble. When she screams "Get Zorin for me," if I had been Bond I would have shouted back "burn in hell, you murdering bitch!" But that's just me.
**General Gogol sure seems to get around for the man who is the head of Soviet intelligence. Remember, this is a time when the very identity of the real-world M was (in theory at least) classified. But in the past few movies we've seen Gogol meeting M several times...so much for classified. Plus Gogol has been gallivanting around to Greece, East Germany, France, San Francisco...I mean, I know it's detente and all, but the head of Soviet Intelligence just strolls all over America in 1985? Really?
**The cutesy ending makes little sense. If Bond is missing and they're "presuming the worst," than how do they know that Bond saved Silicon Valley? If he never reported in, no one would have even known what Zorin's plan was, let alone that Bond thwarted it. Everyone else involved--everyone!!--died, good guy or bad. So if they don't know whether Bond's alive, the KGB wouldn't know to give him a medal...
**Wait a minute...Q has a Winnebago??
**Stacy is living in San Francisco in 1985 and doesn't know what quiche is???
**Zorin's continued pursuit of Stacy makes no sense, and ultimately leads to his downfall (and yes, I'll concede that "he's a psychopath" would answer most questions about his unusual methods/motives. But please allow me to rant anyway). He brings her to France to pay her off, so she'll drop the lawsuit and end the legal wrangling over the oil company. But why? Main Strike is in 3 days, and there's no possibility that Stacy could stop it. She doesn't cash the check, yet there's no injunction or legal move that comes in time to thwart his plans. So (other than to give 007 his only lead), why bother to fly her to France, and why bother to send goons to terrorize her when she doesn't accept the money?!? It's a pointless distraction, it does nothing to advance Zorin's plans, and leads Bond straight to Main Strike....
**I'm no geologist, so I'm ill-equipped to judge some of what Stacy tells us. But where's the earthquake? We're told that flooding the faults will cause earthquakes, but both faults won't move at once because of the "key geological lock" that Zorin wants to blow up. Well, Zorin floods the fault with an ENTIRE LAKE. Even if you don't get the massive destruction he planned, shouldn't something happen? A minor earthquake, a tremor? Anything? Either Stacy greatly exaggerated the risk, or the writers hoped that we would forget.
**I'll concede right now that this is entirely me, but I don't like to see Patrick McNee reduced to mainly comic relief. He's Steed, dammit...he should be allowed to be a little more competent! Sigh...
(BTW, his appearance makes 4 former Avengers starring in Bond films: Honor Blackmun, Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley ((she was one of the allergy girls in OHMMS)) and now McNee. Tanya Roberts, of course, was a former Angel...so the count is now Avengers 4, Angels 0. Sorry, Charlie.)
**Bond score: 4. Sir Roger goes out with a bang, as it were. Kimberly Jones (the iceberg driver), Mayday, Pola Ivanova, and Stacy. Cumulative Bond score: 41.
And, as always:
What, no title for next time? It looks like the franchise is entering some uncharted territory here. Tune in next week as Barin, Prince of Arboria joins MI-6 and teaches us about safe sex...