As many news outlets reported this past week, actor Roger Moore has died. A touching anecdote made the rounds, reproduced here.
More recently the NYT published a piece including brief video clips, a one-line review and a link to the full contemporaneous review of each of Moore’s outings as British secret agent James Bond. Please do click through for the videos and full reviews. My thanks to the Times for publishing their walk-through.
My friends know me as an inveterate Bond fan, and some know which Bond(s) I describe as “best.” I tend to be picky about what I like, and I’m often harsh on the parts of otherwise entertaining films that suck. I’m going to excerpt the Times article’s one-liners and drop in a comment or two about each, because it’s been quite a while since I devoted any time to watching a Bond film starring Roger Moore. These quickie reviews and the video clips brought back memories. Some were good.
I should begin by saying that Moore did not play my favorite Bond. Though he portrayed the character with a certain panache, his take on the role pales in comparison to Sean Connery’s dated, yet still bracing action hero or Daniel Craig’s brooding, contemporary killer. I’d put Moore’s Bond one hair below Pierce Brosnan’s first effort. Brosnan was widely anticipated as the next Bond after Moore retired from the role.
Remember Remington Steele? Brosnan’s television contract kept him out of the Bond role through Timothy Dalton’s two outings.
Brosnan’s Bond roles started out well enough with GoldenEye, but went downhill over the next three films. He looked a wee too aged by the time he was done, a fate shared with Moore.
I put Dalton’s Bond a hair above Brosnan’s. Dalton played Bond more in the mold of Daniel Craig’s grim killer, but suffered from a poor set of scripts to work from and a tired director. John Glen was on his fourth and fifth Bond films by then. Dalton’s take on the role was headed in the right direction, though.
George Lazenby took the role in the same direction as Moore: a bemused civil servant, who appeared surprised he’d been set loose with a gun and a paycheck. Refusing a multi-film contract, he was not to be heard from again among well-known film actors.
Of the role I’ll say that spies should not be known, or even suspected, lest they be offed or simply sent packing. Bond is an assassin, no more, no less. His mission is to kill in the name of the Queen. Moore’s Bond was far too well-known wherever he went, and far too public in his actions. Blame the screenwriters for that, though, not Moore. He played it as-written. So Bond films are not spy stories, they’re thrillers, or action films.
Despite all that, many regard Moore’s as their favorite rendition of James Bond. Reading through Moore’s epitaphs it dawned on me why. Though I don’t share their optimism for his portrayal of the character, I understand it now.
Moore’s tongue-in-cheek tone made for an action hero who could also amuse. Compare and contrast to Daniel Craig’s tone in each of his four outings as Bond – Craig knows he’s playing a government-sanctioned killer, and lets you know that he knows it – and it’s easy to see the appeal in Moore’s lighter approach. Most folks aren’t looking for ugly geopolitical truths in their fiction.
I prefer my spy stories more subtle and austere, more grim, more consequential. John le Carré’s George Smiley comes to mind. Edward Wilson, the protagonist of The Good Shepherd, too. I’m looking for intellectual stimulation more than action, and true-to-life characters more than cartoons. That said, I appreciate Moore’s Bond for what it was: an English version of Hollywood fluff.
Finally, a little gratuitous appreciation. Moore, quoted in 2012:
I loved Casino Royale and Daniel Craig. He is a wonderful actor, certainly the best actor to play Bond…
Now to the Times quotes:
Live and Let Die (1973)
Moore’s first outing as James Bond. Enough color and zing, if no house afire.
Nothing sticks in my mind more than self-sub-titling this film Bond v. the Black People. Bond’s antagonist is a crypto-strongman/diplomat known as Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto), and Big’s entourage, all African-American, are wrapped around a beautiful, innocent-seeming tarot card-reading white woman (Jane Seymour).
Yes, there’s a plot that has not much to do with race, but after Bond’s initial scene riding a cab uptown through Manhattan into Harlem, and the sub-plot of every black character communicating his location to every other, it’s hard not to see the black v. white subtext. The story assumes the racist notion that all black folks know each other, which is one step away from saying, “you all look the same.” This script is racially tone-deaf.
That’s what screams out to me from this film. I couldn’t un-see it once I saw it. Your mileage may vary.
The best part of this film was its theme song over the opening credits, Wings’ Live and Let Die. It’s among my top-three favorite Bond themes. Kotto and Seymour are accomplished actors, and Kotto’s Mr. Big’s assistant Tee Hee (Julius Harris) amusingly fleshes out what’s an otherwise limited role. Watch for them, if nothing else.
The plot itself is forgettable – I’d forgotten it – and devolves into Bond working to ensnare Mr. Big, a heroin smuggler. My first thought about that angle was, ‘they needed a secret agent for that?’, but Mr. Big’s organization did try knocking him off in the opening scenes, so ….
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
James Bond in Asia. No powerhouse but O.K.
Christopher Lee is mildly intriguing, if not questionably sedate as Francisco Scaramanga, the world’s greatest assassin, who charges an even one million dollars (say that in Mike Meyers-as-Dr. Evil’s voice) per hit. His next target is James Bond. Same writers and director as Live and Let Die, similar result. Basically, meh. Not even a memorable theme song from this one.
The one memorable character in this film is Hervé Villechaize as Scaramanga’s assistant, butler, and sometime antagonist, Nick Nack. The scene where Scaramanga pursues a simulated Bond through a hall of mirrors as Nick Nack shifts the scenery and verbally antagonizes him is, in retrospect, pretty well done and is re-interpreted in the opening credits for Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond in Skyfall.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
James Bond teams up with Russian agent. Still percolating at this point.
Karl Stromberg’s faux oil tanker is gobbling up US and Soviet nuclear submarines. Bond is dispatched to work with a Soviet agent and figure out what’s going on. The Moore-led plot is becoming well-worn as a standard action thriller, without much thrill.
Richard Kiel makes his debut as the villain “Jaws,” the man with a mouthful of steel teeth. I never liked this character.
Compare and contrast Jaws with Mads Mikkelsen’s villain Le Chiffre, or Le Chiffre’s largely silent, efficient flunky Kratt, or Christoph Waltz’s villain, Blofeld.
James Bond goes intergalactic. Very zingy, though not the crest.
Or, Bond in Space. Ugh.
Michael Lonsdale was the standout in this one as the villain Drax, who lives in a castle and steals a space shuttle. Where do you land a space shuttle so that no-one sees? And how do you … oh, never mind.
Jaws makes a return and falls in love with a cute blond woman in pigtails, never to return. I wonder what their kids look like.
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Moore retains an ageless cool. Not the best of the series by a long shot, but it’s far from the worst.
Bond is dispatched to find the encryption device sunk aboard a British spy ship, and links up with Carole Bouquet’s Bond Girl Melina Havelock as she attempts avenging her parent’s death by the same villain who stole the encoder. The film ends with Bond tossing the device off a cliff as a Soviet general holds him at gunpoint. “That’s detente, comrade; *You* don’t have it, *I* don’t have it.,” he explains. Not bad.
At least I liked one of Moore’s outings.
Bond adventure No. 13, with fake Fabergé egg and threats of WWIII. Formula still working.
Or, Bond at the Circus.
A nuclear device is set to trigger at a NATO base by circus folk. No standouts. Double-meh.
Thus began the descent of Moore as Bond.
A View to a Kill (1985)
Wicked financier plans to destroy Silicon Valley. Moore’s last Bond, and probably just as well.
Wow, this one was bad, Moore’s least watchable Bond flick.
The only stand-out was Christopher Walken as Max Zoren, because, Christopher Walken. I wish they’d written more into his one-dimensional character.
Zoren is plotting to do what so many modern right-wing whack jobs would love: detonate explosives along the San Andreas fault, plunging much of non-agricultural California into the sea. Or flooding San Jose’s Silicon Valley. Or something like that, allowing Zoren to corner the market in microchips. From his blimp.
Do not waste your time on this one. Triple-meh.
Moore made an iconic run as the British “spy” James Bond. As has been written elsewhere he was, for better or worse, the Bond of my generation, and his characterization epitomized the times. It’s not often an actor becomes an icon – think Leonard Nimoy as Spock – and even rarer that they embrace that cultural elevation. Moore played his lifetime role well, in that regard. Rest in peace, Commander Bond.
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