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James Bond at 53: The ’80s

James Bond at 53: The ’80s

As the James Bond film series entered its third decade with eleven films under its belt, it had already solidified itself as one of the most profitable and popular in history. However, the 1970s, to my mind anyway, had produced some of the silliest and most eye-rolling of the entire Bond oeuvre. Despite a truly terrific entry, The Spy Who Loved Me, the ’70s ended with Moonraker, a movie so ridiculous that it contained Oscar-nominated space battle effects and a pigeon doing a double take. The 1980s produced five more Bond films and, in response to the previous decade’s erratic entries, they featured a return to a more “realistic” style of Bond-ing.

In the ’80s, we get the final three Roger Moore films and the only two of Timothy Dalton’s, and despite the actor change, these films are incredibly consistent in tone and style, due in no small part to being directed by the same person, John Glen (an editor on some of the previous films). Consistency is good to a point. It ensures there won’t be the kind of genre-bending experiments from the ’70s. All five films in the ’80s are straight-up, big stunt action movies and they never get too silly or stray too far from the main throughline. However, if the films are uniformly bland, confusing, and forgettable, consistency isn’t so good. Such is the problem with the Glen Years.

For Your Eyes Only

After Moonraker went off the rails stylistically — it incidentally made more money than any of the other movies in the series to date — new series director John Glen made a conscious decision to ground the next film in reality, or as much of reality as a James Bond movie could have. For Your Eyes Only (1981) got rid of much of the winking goofiness of the previous few installments and almost exclusively used practical stunts and effects. There also seemed to be the sense of putting the previous films firmly in the past. The film’s cold open shows Bond visiting the grave of his wife of ten minutes, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 12 years earlier, and getting attacked by his arch nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here played by some bald guy and only seen from behind. After some fairly ridiculous helicopter antics, Bond picks up the wheelchair-ridden Blofeld with the landing ski and dumps him into a factory’s smokestack, putting a final, yet brief and pretty dumb, end to his oldest foe.

Aside from this legally obligated dumb scene, the rest of For Your Eyes Only is very straight forward from an action perspective. In fact, the action in all the films in the ’80s exist in a kind of heightened reality that all action movies inhabit. A tiny car probably couldn’t off-road down a mountain, nor could a man in his mid-50s hurl himself around the way he does, but it’s a movie and it’s not so far-fetched. Glen’s visual style is pragmatic. Nothing gets too showy, but everything is in frame how it needs to be. But is merely competent filmmaking enough for such a storied and varied franchise? At the time, it must have been. These five films look like the bulk of action movies from the decade, and that may be what the creative team was going for, but there is nothing remarkable about any of them. With the exception of A View to a Kill (1985) which is abysmally stupid, they’re all pretty watchable. So why exactly are they so bland, and what makes A View to a Kill so repulsive? For all the reasons the ’60s and ’70s were interesting.


First, we’ll discuss the not bad but boring entries, For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), The Living Daylights (1987), and Licence to Kill (1989) [sic]. The action scenes in them are well executed, and fairly fun, but there’s no sense of outdoing the last one. For all their ridiculousness, the speedboat chase through the bayou in Live and Let Die and the boat/car chases in The Man with the Golden Gun were visually distinct and contextually new. We’d never seen Bond in these situations before. In both For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, Bond is in a chase in a small vehicle through crowded streets. Big whoop. In The Living Daylights, Bond has a car chase in the snow followed by a fairly silly sled chase with Bond and that film’s requisite Bond girl (Maryam d’Abo) going downhill on a cello case. Both chases are executed very well. However, they were essentially done already, and for more thematic impact, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

There really comes a point, and the filmmakers knew it I think, where you’ve seen 007 in every permutation of fight, chase, exotic locale, and sexy rendezvous. It’d become a formula, as had been established in earnest by the 1970s: Cold open, criminal plot, Bond on assignment, Q gadgets, sex with a hot woman who gets killed, meeting the villain, meeting henchmen, sex with bad girl, meeting good girl, big set pieces, Bond almost dies, huge finale, Bond sleeps with good girl, snappy quip, the end. It’s the same in every movie, but what can and should make them entertaining are the characters he meets and the situations he enters, and to a lesser degree the plot.

Licence to Kill

First, the Bond girls in the decade are incredibly uninteresting. For Your Eyes Only’s Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) has a fairly interesting reason for being in the movie – wanting revenge on the arms dealer who killed her family – but beyond that, she doesn’t standout in any way; Bibi Dahl (played by Olympic figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson) is just annoying. In Octopussy, I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the characters beside the fact that Octopussy herself (Maud Adams) is apparently the head of a smuggling ring. The Living Daylights has Kara Milovy (the aforementioned d’Abo) who is a concert cellist who’s trying to help her Sovient boyfriend defect. I guess. And in Licence to Kill, we get the bad guy’s girlfriend, Lupe (Talisa Soto), whose whole purpose seems to be to sleep with Bond and turn on the bad guy, and CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) who just complains about Bond not treating her like a strong, independent woman, whimpering when Bond hits on other women. All of them are a mixture of strong and weak and as a result come across as uneven. Go figure.

The villains are even more flat, if that’s possible. They all seem to be powerful tycoons who are set on world domination for some reason or another. Part and parcel to their being uninteresting is the complete and total incomprehensibility of their evil schemes, i.e., the plot of the films. I literally just watched these movies and I’m still foggy about what actually happened in any of them. None of the villains seem particularly interested in being in the movie very long, and all just wear suits and look menacing. Joe Don Baker plays a renegade U.S. general turned arms dealer in The Living Daylights and is only fun because, well, he’s Joe Don Baker (MITCHELL!). The villain who comes out the best is Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill, a frothing Colombian drug kingpin who pisses off Bond by sicking a shark on Felix Leiter. Good reason for our hero to want revenge, no?

Living Daylights

Bond himself is equally flat. Roger Moore is in his 50s when the decade begins and his age is very evident. His boyish charm has faded away into licentiousness. You can’t help but find him lecherous as he’s paired with 20-something models and actresses. He does an okay job with the stunts, but he’s certainly not doing as many of his own as he did, and the stuntman is much more visible. When he’s replaced by the much younger Timothy Dalton in the final two films of the ’80s, there’s hope that the series would regain some of its youthful appeal, and to a degree it does, however, the actor never feels comfortable in the role. In The Living Daylights, he’s essentially just a stand-in for Moore as the script has him cracking a number of jokes and looking coy, which Dalton isn’t suited to. It’s a bit better in Licence to Kill. While there are still a few silly one-liners, which Dalton does his best to make land, it’s the scenes where he’s being serious, pained, or angry where we see a glimpse of the kind of Bond he could have become if given another chance.

I promised earlier to talk about why A View to a Kill is so stupid. Well, where should I start? Nearly every aspect of the production doesn’t work, even though it probably has the most interesting locations in any of the ’80s films, with most of the action taking place in Paris and San Francisco. Roger Moore was 57 years old when they shot the film and it’s his seventh time in the role. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d attempted to reflect the actor’s aging in the script, but he’s expected to just be the same old (young) James Bond and we’re supposed to accept him in that way. The Bond girls are nothing short of awful. The good one, Stacey Sutton, is played by former Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts who we’re supposed to believe is a California State Geologist. She and Roger Moore have zero onscreen chemistry and by the 50th time she shrieks “Jaaaames!” in the burning elevator, I wanted Bond to let just her fall to her doom. There’s also the bad girl, May Day, played by terrifying artist/musician Grace Jones. Apparently, this was Moore’s least favorite film both to watch and to make, and he and Grace Jones hated each other on set. It’s abundantly clear. The villain is Nazi-turned-KGB-agent-turned billionaire industrialist Max Zorin, played with nearly-white blonde hair by Christopher Walken. I like Walken as an actor, but he’s totally unbelievable in every aspect of the character, aside from being insane.

A View to a Kill

The film’s plot is infuriatingly stupid. Zorin is a microchip manufacturer who is working for the Soviets (of course, it’s the ’80s) to put the chips in munitions, but he goes rogue and hatches his own scheme to corner the market on computers. How does he hope to achieve this goal? Well, he of course plans to destroy a “geological lock,” which may or may not be a real thing, that keeps the Hayward Fault and San Andreas Fault from rubbing into each other. For what reason? So that the two faults will collide and create an earthquake so large that it will flood the entire Silicon Valley – you know, where they make all the computer stuff. The film culminates with James and Stacey fighting with Zorin and his boring, uninteresting henchman in a zeppelin, which crashes into the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s painful to see — from start to finish it makes no sense.

So that’s the ’80s; an okay movie and a boring movie on either side of a terrible one. This is the John Glen era. He’s not a bad director, but I certainly wouldn’t call him a visionary. If you’re going to watch any of these movies, A) have low expectations, and B) pick the ones at the very ends of decade.

Next, we’re hitting the home stretch and heading into the ’90s and Pierce Brosnan’s turn to be 007. Brosnan did four films, and we’ll be looking at all of them, despite the last one actually coming out in 2002. So get ready for me to rave about GoldenEye and then make fun of the other three.

Images: MGM/Sony

Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Follow him on Twitter!

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