by Paul Deines
In the past few years, we’ve seen a preponderance of action franchises lamely attempting transitions to a younger generation. There was Indiana Jones passing the baton to his son, Shia LaBeouf. Batman willing his lair to Robin in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne provisionally passed the baton to Jeremy Renner.
How did any of those transitions work?
I bring this up because the fourth Daniel Craig Bond picture has hit theaters. The 007 franchise has definitely been rejuvenated by Craig, (and multiple screenwriters, as well as director Sam Mendes) and these recent films – with their ground level fists-up action and serial format – hew pretty close to the Dark Knight model. Yet with Craig shouting that he’s finished with the role, one could get a little antsy that some studio hack might retire 007 and attempt and concoct a double-0 protégé.
Thing is, though, that won’t happen. It took a full five decades, but Bond is somehow different. Times change; Cold Wars end; so, too, do gender dynamics. James Bond’s essence cannot be altered. Over a half century and many failures, the series had opportunities to badly overcorrect its course, but the producers have always made measured calibrations. Saltzman, Wilson and the Broccolis have always been able to tailor 007 to the time, but they have enough faith in the series to trust its root appeal.
No era of Bond had wider variance in quality than the Roger Moore era. Moore’s casting tenure was a direct reaction to Sean Connery, who had starred in five of the first six films. It’s worth noting that Connery, while a fine actor, is an awful person, but his awfulness informed his Bond. Connery, at the time of playing Bond, had a massive working class Scottish chip on his shoulder, bedded just about every young woman who shared a screen with him, and had no qualms about hitting a woman.
In short, we bought James Bond as a brutal, seductive, chauvinistic operative because the first man to portray him embodied that completely.
So, when the producers needed to permanently recast the role, they went with The Saint, Roger Moore, who clung to 007 for more than a decade. He altered the character’s DNA. He was always closer to your goofy playboy uncle, which paired well with the bourgeois sensibilities of the 70’s and 80’s. I cannot picture Moore’s Bond without a white dinner jacket and flared black tuxedo trousers. His hallmarks: the ingratiating smile and arched eyebrow, cigars, and he tended to twist the arms of duplicitous ladies.
Roger Moore plain straight loved playing the role, which explains why a) he clung to the series long beyond his sell-by date, and b) why he went along with the most egregious indignities Bond ever endured. Yet for folks of my age, Moore was the first James Bond, and his influence on the role is as strong as Connery’s.
So, today I have a mind to dig into the fourth outing by Roger Moore, one that encompasses many of the charms and still more of the flaws of the era. I’m talking 1979’s Moonraker.
Roger Moore entered the series with the garish but entertaining Live and Let Die, followed by one of only two 007 box-office flops, The Man with the Golden Gun.
But the series rebounded with one of the finest entries in the franchise: The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s hard to overstate how well The Spy Who Love Me works. It has a clever conceit – that Bond must partner with a Soviet agent to take on a powerful madman – and series of grand action sequences. Its villain is bonkers – a marine-biologist bent on creating a perfect society under the sea – and it introduces one of the series’ most beloved henchmen: Richard Kiel’s silent brute Jaws.
The Spy Who Loved Me was and is fantastic, and its ending credits promised that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only.
That was 1977. A funny thing happened the next year: Star Wars was released.
So, the Broccolis called an audible and repurposed Moonraker, an Ian Fleming novel about a nuclear warhead, into the movie that shot James Bond into space. And they went ahead and recycled the entire Spy Who Loved Me plot. Instead of a supervillain planning an underwater utopia, this one plans a space utopia. Instead of a KGB operative, Bond teams up with a CIA operative. Both films open with a breathtaking parachute stunt. Hell, they even brought back Jaws.
The Story, such as it is…
Moonraker’s plot is begins the theft of a space shuttle en route to England. James Bond’s investigation into the crime begins with Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the aristocratic director of an aeronautics company. It’s apparent immediately that Drax is up to something: within an hour of meeting 007, Drax sends goons to kill him. Bringing Bond and the black hat together so early in the film leaves a lot of time for action excursions. He finds his way to Venice, Rio de Janeiro and into the Amazon. Then, as promised, into the Earth’s orbit. Explaining why he’s in each location is pointless, except to say he needs to be in Venice for a canal chase and in Brazil for a scene during Carnival.
All well and good: these pictures are supposed to be travelogues. The meandering in Moonraker brings a lot thrills of good and a lot of genuine nonsense.
Drax’s first attempt on Bond’s life, for example, involves an out-of-control centrifugal force machine. The aforementioned Venice canal chase involves a funerary gondola rigged to dispense an assassin’s throwing knives, and the vessel Bond is on is inexplicably retrofitted with axels for land travel. Was this an MI-6 vehicle assigned to Bond? If so, for Christ’s sake, why? Then there’s Drax’s cave grotto with a stone mechanized to dump intruders into the constrictor-hosting water. Was this the only security precaution he took? And what about the Seiko watch 007 is issued, the one that alternately shoots poisoned darts and exploding darts?
Okay, I’m picking nits, but I could pick a lot more. But when this piffle is presented with such style, I can forgive a lot.
Direction and Design
Moonraker was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had helmed the most extravagant 007 pictures up to that point: You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. He was comfortable doing spectacle, and Moonraker, I think, is the last film to look like a classic Bond picture. It’s full of buzzing electronics and sleek steel ramps. When Drax is shot from below before infinite monitors showing rocket launches, the effect is quite stirring. When Bond and his sidekick Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) escape a fiery death and bound through Drax’s compound, it looks like we’re back in Dr. No’s laboratory.
The models of hidden space stations and zero-gravity laser battles are impressive, but never enough to suspend disbelief. I might be projecting a modern sensibility on a dated product, but I cannot imagine viewing Moonraker months after the premiere of Star Wars and being terribly impressed.
What does work are the stunt sequences.
In the last entry, I discussed how well integrated the action and plot are in The Living Daylights. I can’t say the same of Moonraker, but there are several fine standalone scenes. The first is a magnificent aerial opening involving James Bond skydiving without a parachute. It was accomplished with stuntmen and cameramen leaping through the sky. It’s totally thrilling – viewed now, in the CGI era – to see a huge stunt accomplished by practical means. Yes, there are plenty of insert shots of Moore in front of a green-screen, but mostly it’s real bodies freefalling.
Not quite as spectacular but still entertaining is a cat-and-mouse chase between Bond and Jaws atop two elevated cable cars over Rio de Janeiro. Richard Kiel’s Jaws is less menacing here than in the previous picture, but he still elevates every action scene he’s in. And this particular sequence ends with Jaws finding love.
Moonraker has surprisingly lovely art direction. Consider this fight within a Vetigo-esque clock tower.
Or this bit that seems like it was pulled from an early Polanski picture.
None of these scenes are really connected to the main plot, but it hardly matters because the plot of Moonraker is tenuous to the point of nonexistence.
What can I say about Hugo Drax, the sullen megalomaniac whose aeronautics company is a front for a Darwinist death cult planning to poison the planet?
Well, it’s not an awful idea for a villain. As stated before, it’s essentially the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me. And Drax is played by the wonderfully droll Lonsdale. A luminary of the French New Wave, he’s a great choice for a Bond baddie – in face, 25 years later he played a more coyly frightening character in Munich – but he’s got very little to work with here. In the ostensible source novel, Drax is a bombastic industrialist without a past (something closer to Toby Stevens character in Die Another Day). Screenwriter Christopher Wood embraces the no-past element, but beyond this he turns Drax into a fairly detached tyrant.
Lonsdale, for his part, plays the role solely with his sonorous baritone, chewing on some wonderfully corny lines (“Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”). All the while, he maintains sleepy eyes and keeps his hands locked behind his back like a soldier at ease. It’s pretty goofy, like Drax decided to form his space-colony so he could finally have friends for his awful dinner parties. Anyway, he’s still fun, which is more I can say for other elements of Moonraker.
Odds and Unfortunate Ends
I feel a little awful dismissing Lois Chiles out of turn, but Moore’s tenure wasn’t a great time for Bond actresses. There were some that maintained their dignity (Jane Seymour) or stole a couple scenes (Grace Jones), and Maude Adams managed to craft strong, engaging characters in both Octopussy and The Man with the Golden Gun.
For the most part, though, this period marks an unfortunate time. Screenwriters tried to write Bond girls with some modicum of agency, and producers cast woefully ill-equipped actresses to play them. The result was somehow more patronizing than the porcelain dolls and busty bombshells of the Connery pictures. You can’t help but shake your head in defeat watching Barbara Bach try to credibly play a KGB operative or Tanya Roberts, a geologist.
Chiles is better, but her solution to embodying a CIA agent with astronaut training is a throaty monotone and an expression frozen somewhere between a scowl and a smirk. She doesn’t embarrass herself, but she doesn’t do much beyond that.
This was also the beginning of sleepy love ballads filling as Bond Themes. It worked admirably in The Spy Who Loved Me – which has, arguably, the best theme of any film – but from Moonraker to For Your Eyes Only, we had nothing but saccharine lyrics against strings and keyboards. On the plus side, the Moonraker theme is sung by Shirley Bassey, but it’s a real bummer for her final 007 song.
In Summation …
Moonraker was the highest grossing Bond picture in the series until that point. Monetarily, it was Moore’s high-water mark.
Yet Albert Broccoli was prudent enough to see that the film’s slapstick and reliance on absurd spectacle took the franchise in a wayward direction. Two years later, Roger Moore returned in the belated For Your Eyes Only, a stripped down affair involving Greek smugglers and some good old Cold War spy-gaming. It was the right course correction.
Yet there’s a sort of high camp charm to Moonraker. It commits to its goofiness and lets Moore run wild. He’s all one-liners and smirking swagger: There’s not a serious note to him. This isn’t a good film, but I love it more unambiguously than any other bad 007 outing. In fact, I wish the Daniel Craig movies – during this time of deathly series action films – had a little of this unhinged joy.
- This film has pretty much nothing in common with its source novel have, except that there is a character called Hugo Drax. It’s a killer Fleming novel, though, a great mystery set in a remote corner of England. It also has a wonderful early passage detailing what Bond’s job is like when he’s not in the field.
- In said novel, the heroine is called Gala Brand. In the film, she’s called Holly Goodhead. Stay classy, screenwriters.
- Lonsdale played Hugo Drax. In Quantum of Solace, the wormy French actor Mathieu Amalric played main villain Dominic Greene In the aforementioned Spielberg film Munich, Lonsdale plays Amalric’s father.
- I said this is the last Bond picture to look like a classic. That’s probably because it was the last 007 production designed by the estimable Ken Adam. Adam effectively invented the Bond aesthetic in Dr. No and designed the best-looking sets in the series’ run. He also designed Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon.
- I mentioned how much less intimidating Jaws is in this film than in The Spy Who Loved Me. In fact, he doesn’t actually kill anyone in Moonraker, and you might scratch you head that at a couple lines of dialogue indicating the he and his paramour survived the space station’s crash into Earth. Evidently, the producers had a mind to include them in For Your Eyes Only but decided later it would be too goofy. Another sensible recalibration.
- In my memory, Jaws’ girlfriend has braces. How did they not give her braces?
- In the next couple weeks I'll be posting my review of Spectre. It's taken a while to process.