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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1979)

11. Moonraker

Eon Productions lied to us. At the end of “The Spy Who Loved Me,” they promised that James Bond would return in “For Your Eyes Only.” That didn’t happen, not immediately anyway. What did happen is “Star Wars." Since this was the era of the James Bond series chasing popular movie trends, Bond would be launched into space for his next adventure. At the time, “Moonraker” received some extremely positive reviews and became the highest grossing member of the series up to that point. Over the years, though, the film has acquired a reputation as the Poochie of the Bond universe. Many fans consider it too outrageous, too campy and not just the worst of Moore’s run but of the entire series. Spoiler alert: I like this movie, quite a bit actually.

An experimental Moonraker space shuttle, on loan from America to the UK, disappears suddenly, leaving the wreckage of an airplane in its wake. MI6 assigns James Bond to the case. He heads to Drax Enterprise, the private air-space company who designed the shuttle. Immediately, Bond realizes something is up, Drax repeatedly attempting to kill him. Stealing plans from his vault, Bond heads to Italy and discovers that Drax is designing a specialized nerve gas. Teaming up with NASA’s Dr. Holly Goodhead, Bond attempts to stop the mad Drax’s plans for world-wide annihilation.

Shirley Bassey was called in at the eleventh hour to record the theme song to “Moonraker,” a last minute replacement for Johnny Mathis. Because of this, Bassey doesn’t consider the song one of her best and it didn’t make much of an impression on the pop charts. Personally, “Moonraker” is one of my favorite Bond themes. Instead of stretching her voice to its limit, Bassey swoons romantically, intoxicating every word with romantic longing. The song, about someone searching for an impossibly perfect love, doesn’t have much to do with the movie. I like it a lot anyway. I can’t say the same for Maurice Binder’s latest opening credits sequences. The silhouetted nudes leap and bound through the air. More then once, one shoots across the screen, arms and legs out, like a kid playing Superman. One model does bicycle kicks atop a disco ball. It’s one of the few times when Binder’s style extends into campiness.

“Moonraker” was obviously influenced by “Star Wars” and other popular sci-fi films of the time. (The theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is used to open a door, for example.) What the film copies most directly is Bond himself. “The Spy Who Loved Me” was a defining hit for the series. For the next installment, Eon Productions decided to give the people more of what they want. That film’s aquatic theme is switched out for a space theme. In both, the villain is an industrial billionaire and a genocidal maniac. Both plan to destroy the world and create a perfect utopia in its wake. In both films, Bond is paired up with a beautiful, capable agent from another country. “Moonraker” maintains the comic book tone of the previous film, with a big villain, lots of humor, and even more globe-trotting, gadgetry, and action then usual. Heck, Jaws is even brought back. It comes dangerously close to being a retrend.

However, “Moonraker’s” Hugo Drax is a more compelling enemy then “The Spy Who Loved Me’s” Stromberg. Stromberg was serious in his diabolical intentions. Drax, while no less dangerous, seems to be having a lot more fun. He invites Bond to his chateau, attempting to kill the agent during a round of duck hunting. His plots to eliminate Bond are more joyous. Michael Lonsdale really sinks his teeth into the villainous dialogue he’s given, having at least two monologues devoted to his evil plan. Lonsdale’s resonant voice makes him an ideal Bond villain, having the right mixture of true sinister intents and smug superiority. He’s a mean bastard too, feeding a disloyal henchwoman to his pack of hunting dogs. Drax also swipes Blofled's Nehru jacket, so that’s fun too.

Most every movie in the series has Bond being placed in some sort of death trap. “Moonraker” really doubles down on these. First, while testing out a centrifuge at Drax’s compound, one of the villian’s henchmen sneaks in and turns the dial all the way up to eleven. Bond nearly gets his face torn off before being rescued. After infiltrating Drax’s jungle lair, Bond is tossed into a lake by a spring-loaded rock. Instead of using the by-now cliché sharks, Bond tangles with an anaconda. Lastly, the villain leaves the spy and his love interest in the pit below a space shuttle, hoping they’ll be incinerate by the rocket’s flames. This isn’t even counting the various henchmen sent to eliminate Bond. Of course, our hero escapes each time. Drax even lampshades this by saying, “you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.” After a while, it starts to make the movie feel like an especially violent episode of “Tom & Jerry.” It’s all fairly ridiculous but stays on the right side of the “just-campy-enough/too campy” divide.

Speaking of how cartoonish the movie is… Jaws is back! Richard Kiel’s giant bad guy enters the film suddenly, pushing Bond out of an airplane. His indestructibility is ratcheted up even further, as he survives a drop from the plane onto a circus tent. Later, he lives through a cable car crash and plummets off a waterfall. Jaws is played more for comic relief. After stepping through an airport metal detector, which he naturally sets off, one flash of his steel teeth is all it takes to dissuade the security guard. He attempts to corner a Bond girl during Carnivale, disguised under a big clown head. Instead, a crowd of celebrators wander over, carrying the killer off unwittingly. Kiel’s facial expressions recall silent film comedies, such as when he eyes a giant gear that won’t stop moving or crashes into a wall. Most infamously, “Moonraker” has Jaws fall in love. He carries his girlfriend, who is similarly mute and accepts all his flaws, throughout the rest of the film. (The girlfriend is short with glasses, blonde pigtails, and a plunging neckline, which means Jaws and I have the same taste in women.) After Bond convinces the giant killer that he doesn’t fit into Drax’s utopian plans, Jaws switches side. This sudden story shift reportedly happened because Jaws was so popular with children. I know its fairly ridiculous and drains the character of any menace he once had. I like it anyway, partly because it’s funny but mostly because Kiel is such an appealing performer.

“Moonraker” also has an excellent line-up of Bond girls. Lois Chiles’ Dr. Goodhead is immediately appealing. (Must I pause and acknowledge that name of her’s?) Her slightly sarcastic dialogue makes her likable. She has great chemistry with Moore. Moreover, she’s a capable character all her own. Her hotel room is full of gadgets, perhaps provided by the American equivalent of Q. She’s judo-flipping and laser blasting goons in the last act. She’s not above using her feminine wiles to survive either, distracting bad guys twice with a smile and a glance. As you’d expect, she’s also beautiful. Corinne Clery, as the similarly named Corinne, also has solid chemistry with Roger Moore, which makes her early exit some one disappointed. Emily Bolton, as the Brazilian girl Bond seduces, isn’t given much to do but look pretty. And that she certainly does.

Aside from Goodhead’s array of gadgets, Q provides Bond with some helpful tools. The neatest one, which we wait the whole movie to see paid off, is a wrist watch that fires a poisonous dart. I’m surprised the movie didn’t use it more but it does provide a great death for the main villain. Mostly, Q’s genius is displayed during two boat chases. That’s right, “Moonraker” features two chase scenes on the water, because that apparently became a trademark of Roger Moore’s films at some point. The first is set in Italy, Bond steering a supped-up gondola through the canals of Venice. It’s a really cheesy sequences, with lots of casual sight gags, and concludes with the ridiculous image of the gondola riding up onto land, thanks to a hovercraft attachment. The second boat chase is a lot less silly. Racing up the Amazon river, Bond dispenses mines and missiles at his enemies. When forced with a waterfall, the boat sprouts a hang-glider. Obviously inspired by the Lotus Espirit from the last movie, it’s nowhere as impressive. However, it’s a decent action scene anyway.

The action is “Moonraker” is solid in general. “The Spy Who Loved Me” allowed Roger Moore to be more physical, getting into closer scraps with the bad guys. This one continues that trend. The airplane fight that opens the film has Bond dangling out of a door. After being pushed out, the fight continues in the air, Bond stealing a parachute away during freefall. While in Italy, Drax sends his Japanese henchmen after Bond. Swinging a Kendo sword, which seems like an odd murder weapon, the two take their fight into a store full of precious glass. Naturally, there’s plenty of smashing, escalating into the bad guy getting tossed out a clock tower window. The rumble between Bond and Jaws atop the cable cars is an exciting moment, both hero and villain nearly falling from the height. This leads into another close quarters fight inside an ambulance. That scene ends with the dizzy sight of a killer rolling downhill into a billboard. It’s all fairly exaggerated but wonderfully entertaining.

In the last act, Bond and Goodhead fly into outer space, sneaking onto Drax’s space station. The initial sequence, of the two sneaking around the space station, works well enough. Eventually, reinforcements are called in. At this point, “Moonraker” goes nuts. We have the accustomed battle between two armies over the antagonist’s secret lair. That happens here too… in space. Thus, we have astronauts on jet packs shooting laser beams at each other, their bodies tumbling into outer space. Inside, the good guy and villains alike also pick up laser guns, zapping each other with beams of light. It’s extraordinarily silly. Does space fights and phasers push Bond pass the point of believability? Probably. Certainly. Yet it’s not much sillier then a man with metal teeth or a car that turns into a submarine.

As is required by now, the production design in “Moonraker” is, ahem, out of this world. Drax’s various lairs are handsome sights. His Amazon hideout is seemingly carved out of natural rock, with huge hallways built at slanting angles. The space station itself is impressive looking, obviously being a sci-fi construct while still seeming plausible. That all of his chosen people wear flowing white robes is a nice touch too. The exotic locals in “Moonraker” are well picked too. Bond flies from California to Italy to Rio to the Amazon rainforest, a setting I can’t believe the series hasn’t used before.

I understand why “Moonraker” is so divisive. It’s easily the silliest of the entire series. The film’s humor is arguably overdone, with Roger Moore cracking a one-liner in almost every scene. The story is outrageous, even by series standards, and obviously pushes pass the point of plausibility. However, the movie maintains the same sense of comic book fun and exaggeration present in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” It’s not as good as that film, with weaker action, a less compelling love interest, and a sillier finale. However, for being such a blatant copy, it comes surprisingly close to it. Maybe I’m on the wrong side of history but, for me, “Moonraker” is pure popcorn fun. [Grade: B]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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