After Moonraker pulled in more money than God, James Bond’s producers could have pushed the envelope even further into self-parody and silliness. Thank your personal gods they didn’t and the Guy Hamilton/Lewis Gilbert aesthetic of tension-free action scenes, idiotic Bond girls and villains unworthy of their gorgeously sets/lairs finally checked out with the Carter Administration. It was so past time to go back to basics even the producers knew it. For a second, it looked as if they were going to go all out and hire a fourth actor for their lead roll, just to top everything off.
Makes sense when you think about it. By this point, James Bond was a bonafide icon and the movie-going world seems to like its icons young. Roger Moore was fifty-four at this point, over a decade older than the First Bond when he quit for the second time. Despite this, For Your Eyes Only is as heavy on the action as anything we’ve seen in this series. It’s also the first straight-up Cold War spy thriller we’ve seen since From Russia with Love. No supervillains! No international extortion! No plots to start World War III! What the hell is going on here? Is this even a James Bond film?
Of course it is. From Russia with Love proved Bond can chase MacGuffins as well as anyone. Who needs all the extraneous garbage? Sure, this film features a computerized mug shot database that takes up an entire room and runs on magnetic reels, but at least there aren’t any moon buggies or metal-mouthed assassins with secret hearts of gold. The only out-there piece of nonsensical “spy” technology is a device called the ATAC, which the Royal Navy uses to transmit launch orders to nuclear subs. Bond has to find it after a secret Navy code ship not-so-accidentally sinks off the coast of Greece. Everything else is a permutation of that set-up. It’s still bare as the bones of a lost cow in the middle of the Mojave…but we’ve seen what happens when this series tries to complicate things. All it does is sow confusion.
Example: there’s a scene in this movie where Bond kicks a car off a cliff as one of Our Henchmen, Emile Leopold Locque (Michael Gothard) struggles to escape it. Moore went round and round about this with co-screenwriters Richard Maibaum and (future series producer) Michael G. Wilson, admitting the act was “Bond-like” but “not Roger Moore Bond-like.” Whatever that means. We’ve seen the Third Bond slap women around for info, kill guys with all manner of exotic weapons, throw the disabled from moving trains, and go through human shields like were standard issue. I think Moore’s reluctance showed a growing conflict within the actor himself, though I could just be reading too much into his most reserved Bond performance ever. Some view this performance as an odd anachronism in Moore’s run but, personally, the more taciturn and bloodthirsty Bond becomes, the more he resembles the proto-Terminator of Fleming’s early novels and the more interested I become in him: the professional killer in high class sheep’s clothing. I don’t like him (anymore than I like the snarky class clown Moore occasionally morphs into – the Saint in Bond’s clothing from Live and Let Die) but I am at least interested enough to put up with him for two hours of movie.
So For Your Eyes Only proves to be the most interesting Bond movie since Moore assumed the role because it’s another rare Bond film that keeps getting better…after a brief moment of oddness in the beginning. Despite their eventual reputation, pre-credit sequences that had nothing to do with the rest of the movie were the exception at this point, not the rule. This one only makes sense if you’ve watched at least five of the previous films and/or know something about the behind-the-scenes legal battles between Bond’s production company, Eon, and one-time Thunderball co-writer Kevin McClory.
Because McClory sued Eon over the use of the evil international organization SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Blofeld, For Your Eyes Only begins with an unnamed (and largely unseen) bald man in a Nehru jacket trying to kill Bond with a remote controlled helicopter. In possibly the last heartfelt moment of series continuity, Bond’s abducted from beside the grave of Countess Tracy di Vicenzo Bond (1943-1969, “We have all the time in the world.”) At least he gets to leave her flowers.
Eventually gaining control of the helicopter, Bond spears Our Villain’s motorized wheelchair with his starboard strut and lifts the bald bastard off to the most unintentionally hilarious Villain Death in the franchise (so far). Fact is, Blofeld meets the same end a certain clone of Spider-Man once met: unceremoniously dumped down a smokestack by a hero who’d already moved on with his life. The man who once stole Space Capsules and the identities of the super-rich with equal aplomb here pleads for his life over the subdued roar of a movie helicopter. “I’ll buy you a delicatessen!” He screams, “In stainless steel!” Whatever that means.
If you know about the behind-the-scenes hubbub, the scene makes perfect sense as a gigantic “Fuck you, Kevin. We don’t need a damn thing you created. Just watch us dump it all like so much industrial waste. Suck dose nuts.” If you don’t know…well, I just told you…and this sequence is our first example of where all that Moonraker money went: into practical stunt work. The midair Bond v. Jaws fight from the beginning of the last film and the long ski jump from the film before that were already the best moments in either, but this movie easily surpasses them both here. Not by creating larger, more elaborate set pieces (that rock’s for future films to bash their heads against), but by making the set pieces they designed integral to the story.
Hard to believe that’s something I have to italicize for emphasis but every Bond film this side of Thunderball tells me, yes, I do. As simple as the core story is, Maibaum and Wilson complicated it in just the right way. Instead of adding Odious Comic Relief, which Gilbert and Tom Mankiewicz so loved, our writers and director John Glen shore up two of the franchises perpetually underused stock characters: the Local Contact and the Good Bond Girl.
Last one first, since Carole Bouquet’s Melina Havelock has more screen time and I can say more about her before spoiling things…for a thirty-year-old film. After the ATAC ship sinks, England contract Melina’s marine archaeologist father (Jack Hedley) to retrieve it on the down-low. Melina flies out just in time for the plane that dropped her off to straif the boat, killing both her parents with a Gatling gun. With more than enough motivation to become Greece’s Batwoman, Melina embarks on a film-long Quest for Vengeance, bringing her afoul of Bond and the movie’s various villains.
Standard stuff, since Women with Traumatic Pasts are apparently the only kind of women Richard Maibaum feels comfortable writing. Made all the more resonant for the fact we see Melina’s Defining Element of Tragedy…and the fact Glen fills the frame with a close-up of Melina’s face. Identical shots of a young Bruce Wayne litter all but the most frivolous strata of Batman media, though Melina’s fetish for crossbows puts me more in mind of a post-Crisis Huntress…which is fine. (And just as fitting, given Helena Bertinelli’s backstory.) I’ll take whatever I can get.
And what I get in Melina is a Bond Girl who, at last, doesn’t care about Bond until he gets in her way. Bond doesn’t spend the whole film trying to bed her, either…just the last act or so. (What else should I expect?) There’s no on-the-job flirting, like their was with Agent Triple-X, or outright abuse, like there was with Andrea Anders and Solitaire. If anything, Bond spends the film trying to push Melina off the Path of Vengeance…possibly remembering a certain Masterson sister he watched die back in the middle-60s. The hypocrisy of this is never in doubt (at least, not to me) given how we just saw Bond avenge himself upon Blofeld…but at this point, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the series even attempt to discuss a theme, never mind this one.
And where was all this “you must first dig two graves” stuff back in The Spy Who Loved Me, where it might actually have been appropriate? That film twisted the old formula around by making Bond the object of revenge, only to drop it by the end and resolve everything with the Magic Cock for the…what? The sixth time in eleven movies? The opposite happens with Melina, who I’ll admit is little more than Honey Rider v. 5.1.0…only more useful and less sexualized: her skimpy bathing suit is a one-piece! And while Bond keeps leaving her behind, she always pops up somewhere in the next scene, having either tracked him down or beat him to the next lead all by herself. I guess growing up in a household of archaeologists/spies is kinda like being a British Secret Service Agent. Plus she’s half-Greek and uses that to justify her quest. As if seeing your parents die isn’t motivation enough. Next you’ll tell me she has her own mansion somewhere, complete with a butler and robot builder/Tech Support Wizard.
She does not, however, have an actress worthy of her character. Carole Bouquet’s got the big forehead and sad eyes for the part, and I get that she’s supposed to be playing a recent trauma victim…but her flat, affect-less voice and unwillingness to act with her facial muscles makes what could’ve been a great Bond Girl bland. At first I feared the film would position her as the New Tracy, but it doesn’t have those kinds of balls. In the end, she winds up being the New Honey: initially interesting, but ultimately forgettable. Much like the lesson about vengeance Bond keeps giving her, which he’ll keep forgetting as this series continues.
Our eventual villain, Kristatos (Julian Glover), is less stock by virtue of the fact he starts out as Bond’s Local Contact. Not so much the Smooth Pimp as Tiger Tanka or poor, dead Kerim Bey…but Glover’s personable enough to pull off the Double Agent role…it worked on me the first time, so I have no trouble believing it works on Bond. Hell, not having seen this film in over ten years, Kristatos’ reveal as Our Villain worked on me this time. I totally bought his line about a random business rival and former Civil War compatriot being a supercriminal called “The Dove” because that’s the kind of world Bond lives in: a fucking weird one. Where people move from A to B to C in narrow, straight lines that often point toward World Domination. Seeing a heroin smuggler just want to sell something to the KGB and maybe get one over on an old rival…well, it’s as refreshing as seeing Bond face off against a Poppa Doc pastiche.
Kristatos even steals an Unusual Method of Disposal right out of the novel Live and Let Die, keelhauling Bond and Melina through sharp coral so that they might be ripped apart before they’re eaten by sharks. Yet this kind of threat can’t help but feel small after two movies worth of Bond taking on whole armies (with his own army behind him). The film tries to compensate for this by piling on the henchmen, but Locque, the East German agent/triathlete Eric Kriegler (John Wyman) and the Cuban hitman Gonzales (Stefan Kalipha) are too one-note. And much like Wint & Kidd or Nick Nack, the note’s not interesting enough to sustain a film.
Some feel that describes For Your Eyes Only as a whole. It’s undeniably slower-paced and nowhere near as crazy. What crazy’s on display here is of a slightly different breed, still verging on self-parody. I think this is the first time I’ve seen Bond consciously turn down sex…from a tiny, tiny figure skater I’d be afraid to break named Bibi (played by amateur competitive skater-turned-actress I’d be afraid to break named Lynn-Holly Johnson)…but still…I thought the mere act of telling a woman, “No, thank you,” would’ve caused him total cerebral shutdown.
So it was nice to see a Bond film that didn’t shut me down. It’s first hour is reasonably strong, despite falling back on Formula while Bond plays into Kristatos trap: bedding the so-called “villain’s” special lady, being unable to prevent her death, and having yet another ski chase through the Alpine wilderness. I swear, these movies are really trying hard to give me a complex about snowy mountains.
This time, there are guys on motorcycles, so obviously I’m supposed to be appreciating how EXTREME it all is. Except it’s anything but: little more than channeling On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Except, here, I really could care less who gets to nuke what, when. I mean, I *care* care, because I’m not a Terminator, but the stakes aren’t all that clear. Kristatos wants to sell this ATAC thing off to Russia…but what could they possibly do with it? Nuke London? Why? What would that accomplish, besides starting World War III?
With all that, though, the series is improving. John Glen’s a better action director than Lewis Gilbert after years of shooting second unit and/or making Gilbert look good in editing. The car chase through Madrid (with Bond and Melina in the latter’s Citroën 2CV) is the perfect example of his talents. Bond’s climb up the side of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Meteora, and his fight with a henchman at the top, is another…and the point where Bond almost free falls to his death is the first honestly tense Bond-centric moment I’ve seen in this franchise since that laser scene in Goldfinger.
Still, there are some basic story questions that can only be answered with “because we had to drag this out somehow.” What stopped Kristatos from pulling the ATAC out as soon as Gonzalez killed Melina’s parents? What’s so special about the ATAC, anyway? Yeah, it can send coded transmissions: so can any decent, working radio. Why doesn’t Bond just blow the damn thing up while he and Melina are crawling around the wreck? Why does Kristatos send a henchman down to kill the both of them when waiting for them to surface would put the ATAC in his hands? Why is there a submarine fight (prefiguring The Abyss by eight whole years) in the middle of this movie? What is it with this reliance on underwater fight scenes that aren’t nearly as dramatic as they think they are? And is Bond immune to sharks? Seriously, this is like the third time one’s swum right past him.
All that, and a pair of mediocre, non-professional actresses, push For Your Eyes Only down the rungs. It’s not the smash hit everyone hoped after Moonraker, but it is a return to things like a competent script and exciting direction, all of which this series needed badly. It’s not nearly as good as the films it apes (From Russia and OHMSS, just so we’re clear), but nowhere near as bad as what came before. We, like the Bond films, seem to’ve left the Land of Mediocrity behind us…but let’s not get cocky. We can still see it from our balconies and we’ll visit there again, soon.