This is the fourteenth essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #14: To the Brink and Back with AVTAK
by James David Patrick
When I sought volunteers to write about their favorite Bond movies as part of the “My Favorite #Bond_age_” series, I received requests to write about all but four Bond movies. I never even needed to beg to get not only one, but two volunteers to write about their affection for Diamonds Are Forever (shocking). What was the first movie in chronological order that failed to find a proponent? A View to a Kill. Not even nostalgia could rescue it. I didn’t necessarily find this surprising. It wasn’t like anyone was going to write about the killer Duran Duran music video instead of the 57-year old Roger Moore vehicle about which Moore even said in a 2007 interview “I was only about 400 years too old for the part.” Aside from Moore’s age, one might cite a bounty of various narrative missteps and curious creative decisions. Casting Tanya Roberts. The “California Girls” snowboard gag. Of the 23 official EON-produced James Bond films, A View to a Kill checks in with the lowest rating on Rottentomatoes.com at 36%. Roger Moore has made it clear that the film was his least favorite. Despite a number of stories about on-set difficulties corroborated by John Glen and other crewmembers, Moore won’t cite specifics (being the ultimate professional and gentleman) about his troubles with co-stars Roberts and Grace Jones. Taking into account its bad reputation and isolated buffoonery, A View to a Kill still offers plenty of fodder for discussion, not necessarily just criticism. Fish in a barrel and all that. This #Bond_age_ entry will be more about the progressive elements that ultimately flail and flounder, like Tanya Roberts from the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Goldfinger Connection
Unless you were rendered tone-deaf by Tanya Roberts’ incredible line delivery and constant wailing for help, you probably noticed that A View to a Kill is a convenient retread of the Goldfinger narrative. Auric Goldfinger wanted to increase the value of his own gold by blowing up Fort Knox. Max Zorin wants to increase the value of his microchips by blowing up Silicon Valley. They both win games (card games and horse racing, respectively) by cheating and have greater loyalties to power and money than the women in their lives. Operation Grand Slam. Operation Main Strike. Zorin peddles his scheme to a gaggle of investors using a scale model of Silicon Valley. When one grows uncomfortable with the plot he’s dispatched out the bottom of Zorin’s blimp. Now you’re thinking, “Goldfinger used a model too, but he dispatched his wary investor using an elevator! It’s totally different!” And I’d be like, “Yep. You got me there.”
I do have to wonder: Is it clear that EON made a specific creative decision to broadcast the similarities to Goldfinger as homage to classic 007? I’m not so sure we can make that assumption. Certain aspects of the film, like that aforementioned business meeting around a scale model, make the similarities impossible to ignore, but did A View to a Kill intend to pay homage rather than just borrow a convenient and formerly successful narrative? Reference to past 007 exploits has become commonplace in recent films. Die Another Day all but used VH1 Pop-Up Video bubbles to call attention to its litany of forced references. Quantum of Solace offed Strawberry Fields by dunking her in oil (rather than gold) and Skyfall drops more references than the bible’s got psalms. What all of these movies have in common is that they weren’t borrowing full narratives, only moments, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink for the benefit of the audience. Not so in the case of A Goldview to a Killfinger. Certainly it’s possible AVTAK wanted us to notice the seams, but I will suggest it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t create the distance necessary from the source material to provide any kind of commentary on the original movie or the franchise altogether. And because Goldfinger is often considered the I Ching of the Bond formula, the potential was there to turn the formula on its head. I think the answer is clearly “no.” AVTAK didn’t go far enough. So what was to be gained from the narrative similarities other than the convenience of pedigree and participating in an environmentally-friendly recycling program? A View to a Kill had ample opportunity to do more with the Goldfinger narrative but it recoiled from indulging in the unique advantages of its position of 20 years of hindsight.
In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost writes:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
While I am not particularly a lover of Robert Frost beyond his omnipresence as a Jeopardy answer, this well-trodden poem about a well-trodden path (and a not so well-trodden path) speaks to one of the glaring weaknesses of the Bond franchise and A View to a Kill in particular – though the Bond series was born of risk takers and mad men, it has since become an exercise in trepidation. By and large, the Bond franchise, should we transfuse it with the narrator in Frost’s poem, takes the same path over and over and over. And when it has dared to tempt fate down the “less traveled,” e.g. in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, EON has for one reason or another, immediately course corrected to the familiar, the trodden. But that isn’t necessarily a whole-sale criticism – the Bond formula works because the movies entertain even when it all goes pear-shaped. Focusing this analogy on A View to a Kill, I warn you, may create fits of hysteria at what might have been. The missed opportunities, the unfortunate casting, initially daring to travel a subversive path, a path that could challenge and rise above the formula, but ultimately fleeing after the first bramble pokes through Roger’s Sansabelt slacks.
The Dalton Trilogy That Wasn’t
So let’s ignore the chatter about Moore’s age. Where’s the sport in criticizing geriatric Bond? We know he was too old. He knew he was too old. Moore said he panicked on set when he learned that he was older than Tanya Roberts’ mother. Hell, Cubby knew he was too old. That said, I’d suggest that Moore looks far sprightlier in A View to a Kill than he did in Octopussy two years earlier. And I’m not just saying that because he looks dashing in riding gear. His performance here is confident, restrained. It is perhaps Moore’s finest effort at showcasing the human element of 007.
Inevitably, however, the discussion of Moore’s age in A View to a Kill forces us to play “What if…” But let us engage in this “What if…” without the aforementioned prosaic argument about Moore’s age. After all, Moore had been prepared to quit the role (and it is suggested that Dalton had all but signed the contract) even before For Your Eyes Only but decided to return one last time at the 11th hour. Then EON wanted Moore back in Octopussy to maintain consistency of character in the “Battle of the Bonds.” Then after the triumphant success of Octopussy over Connery and Never Say Never Again, it is suggested that Cubby wanted to reward the longest tenured Bond with one more spin around the block for nostalgia’s sake. Dalton had been passed over three times in five years due to an assortment of circumstances. Consider the possibility of the 80’s Bonds belonging entirely to Dalton. As a huge fan of the intangibles Dalton brought to the role, I’ve already refashioned an alternate 1985 (minus the Biff megalomania and high-rise condo, though consider alternate 1985’s Biff Tannen a Bond villain). In this alternate 1985, Dalton hits his stride in this, his third Bond film. Subversive critics call him “the best Bond.” He’s no longer the doormat of the franchise. Dalton’s name is celebrated in the same breath as Sean Connery. I should probably scale back my enthusiasm. Let’s just pretend Dalton had first appeared as 007 in A View to a Kill and go from there.
So. What if? First, the movie would have needed a bit of a rewrite to fall in line with Dalton’s sensibilities, sensibilities he demanded from the producers when he assumed the role in The Living Daylights. As one example, the scenes of Bond as stodgy old English gent and fledgling horse racing entrepreneur James St. John Smith (otherwise known as Syngen Smythe) would not have carried with a younger actor as written. Rewriting this character into a millionaire playboy spending family money on the ponies would have offered Dalton an exciting chance to play a caricature of such frivolous ways and means, a stark contrast to his darker Bond persona. And now that I’ve considered this option, I’m crestfallen we never got to see it come to fruition.
Most specifically, Dalton would have made Bond’s physicality in A View to a Kill believable. The fights with Mayday and Zorin would have conveyed the intended brutality. Grace Jones’ May Day could have become one of the great henchmen of the entire series. But without an adversary worthy of her Body-by-Jake physicality it’s all a Punch and Judy routine. I believe this is why Producers believed she had to turn tail at the end of the film. A View to a Kill had been steamrolling toward a tête-à-tête between James Bond and May Day, but the scenario in which Roger Moore could overcome May Day proved elusive. “Hello, merciless murderess of imposing physicality! I get into movies for half price on Wednesdays per my senior discount. Would you like to join me for a matinee and the early bird at Denny’s for some Moons Over My Hammy rather than cold-blooded assassination?” (Oops, I did promise no quips about Moore’s age, didn’t I? Mea culpa.) Dalton could have matched this on-screen physicality and his vision of Bond as a conflicted sociopath would have aligned with the film’s grimmer subject matter, but more on this in a minute.
In the series chronology, Timothy Dalton then would have made his third Bond movie in Licence to Kill. Bond actors have traditionally owned the role in their third entry. Connery realized his ideal version of Bond in Goldfinger. Likewise for Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me and Daniel Craig in Skyfall. Even Pierce Brosnan gained added nuance in The World is Not Enough despite the lackluster script and, well, the scene-killer Denise Richards. While we can argue the relative merits of these films, it is the comfort level each has in Bond’s skin that is currently being considered. What we’re left with is idle conjecture and this ideal, elusive version of A View to a Kill that doesn’t even account for the film’s poor editing and ill-conceived action set pieces. But doesn’t this fan poster art give you a little bit of the chills?
The Challenge to the Bond Hierarchy
While we were all too busy laughing at the film’s intermittent nonsense, A View to a Kill actually assumed a rather subversive and sinister tone, easily the darkest of the Moore films. Consider the origins of Max Zorin, played with trademark panache by Christopher Walken. He was the product of Nazi experiments into steroid treatment on pregnant women. This explains his ticks and peculiar speech patterns beholden only to Christopher Walken. (That’s some pretty shady experimentation that creates Chris Walken.) Zorin massacres miners for sport and offs innocents with the deadpan enthusiasm rivaled by the grimmest of cinematic sociopaths. He’s disowned by the KGB when his actions are deemed too radical. In contrast, Auric Goldfinger’s financial motivations almost appear shallow by comparison. Sure he had the laser pointed at James Bond’s testicles and he pursued with a single-minded obsession but Goldfinger always appeared hinged and calculating. A View to a Kill uses Goldfinger as the base for Zorin’s character but layers sadism, masochism, megalomania and chemically enhanced intelligence and physical prowess. Not to pull any punches, Maximillian Zorin is a monster unlike any that Bond has encountered… if only in theory and empty dialogue.
Despite his superior intelligence, Zorin succumbed to oversights similar to his predecessors in Bond villainy. His blind pursuit of his ultimate goal, in this case the destruction of Silicon Valley by triggering a massive earthquake in the San Andreas Fault at high tide, incites him to neglect his subordinates. He massacres the miners digging his trench and he flippantly sacrifices his girlfriend/right-hand woman for the sake of expediting his plan. This is not unlike the nature of Goldfinger’s undoing. He alienates Pussy Galore thus causing her to assist James Bond in foiling the assault on Fort Knox. Goldfinger, however, was billed as a garden-variety criminal mastermind, not a genetically enhanced freak of nature. A View to a Kill never truly reveals the breadth of Zorin’s intelligence, but one could naturally assume that because the movie makes certain to inform the audience that this villain is far and away Bond’s most formidable opponent yet, he’d have some grasp on how neglecting interpersonal relationships might come back to bite him in the end. Of course, the counterargument here is that the same experimentation that blessed Blond Walken with this heightened intelligence also graced him with a couple of loose screws. And then, well, anything goes with loose screws.
By the end of the film, the brilliant, psychopathic, ruthless Zorin becomes no more fearsome than any other Bond villain. Sure, he waxed some faceless minions, but has he somehow differentiated himself from Stromberg, the forgettable megalomaniac eclipsed by Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me? The character becomes memorable as a result of Christopher Walken’s on-screen presence and little more. Here again we’re faced with a failed narrative: the cursory involvement of the Soviet Union that amounts to little more than a red herring (more on this further down). If not for Blond Walken, Zorin would also have been eclipsed by his far more memorable henchwoman.
Within the Bond franchise Grace Jones’ May Day is a fascinating and dangerous anomaly. She is, however, much maligned partly because of her characters’ 180-degree switchback after being spurned by her lover and partly because Grace Jones is the antithesis of “the Bond girl.” One might also cite her non-existent range as an actress, but did we also similarly condemn Richard Kiel or Harold Sakata for turning their roles into caricatures?
Grace Jones’ May Day threatened the entire foundation of the Bond formula. A powerful black woman with a clear physical advantage over James Bond. Within the movie, her physicality is arguably placed on par with the golem-like Jaws. What she lacked in brute strength, she gained in technique – martial arts, stealth, speed. May Day has been presented as a likely unstoppable physical superior, billed in the film’s advertising as Bond’s true test of mettle. “Has Bond finally met his match?” the ads asked. And that is why she is ultimately erased in a loathsome narrative twist. The movie could not allow her to live. Ah ha! We’ve returned to the much beloved land of film theory. It’s 73 degrees in here all lovin’ day.
Grace Jones’ May Day challenged the Bond series’ longstanding order and hierarchy. Gender. Race. Sexuality. A woman could never become a true equal. Even women presented as equals will eventually need rescuing (Anya in The Spy Who Loved Me. Melina in For Your Eyes Only), their confident exteriors dissolved by film’s end. Villainous women, if not killed, must be turned, won over by Bond’s sexual prowess. See: Galore, Pussy or King, Elektra. James Bond does indeed bed May Day. The scene itself is awkward, and intentionally so. Each is performing according to a suggested script. If this were a police-procedural reality show, the following would have been the re-enactment.
May Day: Soooo…
Bond: Looks like sex then.
May Day: Looks like it.
Bond: Did I mention I slept with a black girl back in ’73. A fine girl…
May Day: No.
Bond: She’s dead now.
May Day: Too much talking.
The re-enactment does withhold one fascinating detail about their sexual liaison. In the scene, Bond slips into bed with Grace Jones and shows her one of his C+ moves. He’s going through the motions here, appearing more like a teenager figuring out how to best cop a feel without scaring away the real girl in his bed. As Bond sidles up, however, Grace Jones forces him beneath her. She usurps the sexual hierarchy, placing Bond in the unaccustomed role of sexual submissive. At this point we’ve already witnessed Zorin and May Day’s “foreplay” – which entails a near masochistic bout of martial arts. May Day snarls and snaps her jaws at Zorin as he pins her, more shackled jungle cat than woman. When May Day undermines Bond’s sexuality, she, for all intents and purposes, castrates our hero. His sexuality has been his most consistent weapon; without his sexuality Bond is Iron Man without his suit, Batman without his gadgets, Superman sipping kryptonite tea.
Thus, we anticipate that James Bond would not have been a threat in a fair fight. Our anticipation for the final confrontation between Bond and May Day builds. How would James Bond survive May Day? Of course he must… but how!?! Bond outlasted Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me because he was smarter (unless you count the part about him repeatedly trying to punch the metal-mouthed henchman in the face) and more fleet afoot. James Bond had not youth, speed or strength. So instead of forcing the issue by, you know, coming up with a creative resolution, the narrative forced May Day to realize that her boss was a giant creep. She turned heel on the heel, thus denying us a great Jaws- (in TSWLM, of course) or Odd Job-in-thigh-boots-type showdown. “And I thought that creep loved me!” she squeals, slipping briefly into a Katherine Hiegl RomCom before sacrificing herself by helping Bond extract the bomb, putting it on a handcar and pushing it out of the mine. Not only did the movie deprive us of the much-anticipated scuttle to the death, the screenwriters had May Day kill herself. Seppuku for the sake of the Bond institution. Above all other missteps in A View to a Kill these wasted villains prove the most disappointing. Zorin’s symphony of destruction undone by May Day, a scorned lover. The wasted potential of these characters never fails to frustrate.
And speaking of frustration, this wouldn’t be an honest discussion of A View to a Kill without some discussion of the other Bond girls in the film. I shall now seamlessly segue into a section I like to call…
The “Bimbos” of A View to a Kill
I use the plural of “bimbo” because two girls must be discussed. Both could be counted as chicken scratches in the bimbo count column, albeit for very different reasons.
Tanya Roberts, the cardboard cutout with mammaries and killer legs paved the way for Denise Richards to suck the life out of The World Is Not Enough 14 years later. Roberts plays Stacey Sutton, Geologist Barbie complete with hardhat and rock hammer. Sutton aligns with Bond because Zorin turned her father into financial roadkill. Wilting flower Stacey Sutton functions as a counterbalance to the animalistic, brutish May Day but instead of a Melina Havelock, Roberts plays Sutton like a daytime soap star who wandered into Rocky & Bullwinkle. She didn’t have to play the role with cartoonish excess, but then again she didn’t just walk on-set and cast herself. And one wonders exactly who saw Beastmaster or Sheena and said, “That’s our girl!” (Some have suggested casting director Debbie McWilliams is responsible. Others cast their blame on Dana Broccoli for suggesting her to Cubby.)
In Licence to Thrill, James Chapman describes Tanya Roberts as a “throwback to the worst excesses of 1970’s bimboism.” She’s a blank slate, appearing merely as eye candy with zero character or personality. Within the narrative, she functions as a geologist to help explain to Bond (and thereby the audience) some of the more difficult science of Zorin’s plan. But there’s nary a minute in which the audience considers her a credible source of technical information. She also compounds the difficulties presented by Moore’s age. She just turned 57 in 2012. To spare you the math, that’s a 28-year age difference. One could argue that Roberts could have done a serviceable job had she been cast in a different role, perhaps as a character not requiring an advanced degree in geology. Had Tanya Roberts been given a role for which she’d previously shown some affinity – along the lines of Jill St. John in Diamonds Are Forever or Britt Eklund in The Man with the Golden Gun, roles of limited range, functioning predominantly as eye-candy in a bikini – there probably wouldn’t have been such a critical backlash against her. She was in over her head. No soft filter in the world could make this casting look right.
To remove further blame (I can’t believe I’m devoting so much space to defending Tanya Roberts here), John Glen stated reservations about her before filming even began. To recap: the director of A View to a Kill (a director not exactly known for nurturing acting talent mind you) didn’t believe Tanya Roberts could handle the role she was given. But what were EON’s other options? The only other name I’ve seen as having been considered for the role is Priscilla Presley. Now I don’t know if Priscilla could have emoted about plate tectonics more believably than Tanya Roberts, but I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt here. Casting a strong, believable woman in this role would have benefited the entire film. Beyond Priscilla, throw a dart at the mid-1980’s and you’d hit someone better suited to be Stacey Sutton.
The final Bond girl of A View to a Kill warrants more discussion than her screen time would suggest. The character of Pola Ivanova, a Russian agent played with substantial relish by Fiona Fullerton, imbues an otherwise side-note hot tub tryst with style, humor and an intensely confused political ideology. Their encounter recalls the détente narrative of The Spy Who Loved Me (“Détente can be beautiful,” she says) but each agent aims to screw the other, literally and figuratively. Pola has been sent to steal Bond’s information about Zorin. Bond engages her because, well, free hookup with Fiona Fullerton, and he’s already one step ahead of her ploy. He swaps the tapes and sends her back to General Gogol with some Tchaikovsky. At least it wasn’t Wagner?
On one hand the film remains rooted in rudimentary Cold War fears – that the Soviet Union might catch up to the technology of the West – on the other there’s this false front of thawed détente. The KGB wants Zorin stopped because they need WalMart-cheap microchips. The Soviet involvement, while somewhat less altruistic (the millions of lost lives have no bearing on their professed political interests), ends with the same success: stopping Zorin. Despite their similar goals, the KGB and MI-6 do not work together as they have in past films. It is Bond and Stacey Sutton who form like Voltron (and share Bond’s special morning-after quiche) to repel the evil forces of Zorin, thus reuniting the Western powers of the U.S. and England as the world’s great white hope.
This is arguably first Bond movie in which the Russians/KGB have been offered a complex, potentially interesting grey area (Octopussy objects), but again A View to a Kill waffles, refusing to pick a daring or direct course of action. A case could have been made for the Russian non-intervention. In this scenario, they allow Zorin’s geological terrorism to cripple U.S.’s booming computer industry, but this is touch dark and completely antithetical to the portrayal of Gogol and the KGB throughout the Roger Moore years. A greater case could have been made for their full cooperation in apprehending their rogue agent before his actions resuscitate a full-scale Cold War. In that Zorin is a rogue KGB agent that could threaten a momentarily stabilized relationship between Russia and the West, one might think they had greater impetus to merely eliminate him from the equation. Instead of either plan of attack, they appear to be semi-kinda sincerely going through the motions. Fiona’s attempt to steal the tape implies specific intent to intervene, yet they throw up their hands and go to Sizzler when the theft fails. This more implies a laissez-faire attitude that doesn’t really fit either scenario.
A Rhythm Method to AVTAK’s Madness
It would be fairly easy to write A View to a Kill off as a throwaway Bond movie, a prosaic retread of familiar territory done better in past entries. And while I’m not going to go to the mattresses to defend the film, AVTAK offers a number of fascinating ideas that never had the chance to play out to their logical or natural terminus. In many ways, A View to a Kill is Bond treated to a dose of Viagra. It gets hyped up, steamrolling toward climax only to realize it’s been two hours now and someone should probably call a doctor because, you know, that’s what the ads warned about when taking the drug. Take the movie apart and isolate its individual elements. The gonzo, if underutilized Blond Walken. Grace Jones permitted to eschew acting in favor of playing jungle cat. The opening ski-sequence and iceberg submarine. Duran Duran, a global pop phenomenon, playing the title track (and wouldn’t this have made more sense as an opening to a more youthful Dalton movie?). The James St. John Smith scene with Bond as a proper English gent seeking to break into the pony-racing business. But the movie takes each of these things (save the Duran Duran song) and tarnishes them through hedged bets and empty promises. The opening ski chase felt overly serious? Well, let’s play the Beach Boys for a laugh, just in case Bond on a snowboard isn’t enough. May Day’s too scary? Tame the beast by making her a romantic at heart. Does Russia change the game or sit idly at the controls and await the outcome, pretending that’s what they wanted all along?
A View to a Kill inserts itself, at great length, into many meaningful conversations about the nature of the Bond formula, Cold War politics, feminism, etc., but just when it all seems to get exciting, the movie pulls out. We’re disappointed, angry. Is it us? No, poor confused soul… it’s just AVTAK, an ultimate waste of a great final performance by Roger Moore and a lackluster swan song for the longest tenured Bond. But cheer up, old sport. We’ll always have Duran Duran and the arguments that A View to a Kill is a delicious (if not completely bonkers) “guilty” pleasure.
Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall