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Topic: Long-form Bond Film Reviews

A place for some various longer-form reviews and criticism of the Bond films...

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Re: Long-form Bond Film Reviews

Moonraker (1979)



Moonraker opens with a truly impressive piece of stuntwork, as James Bond falls hundreds of metres through the sky without a parachute, grappling in mid-air with deadly henchmen along the way. Expertly captured and choreographed by aerial photography teams, it’s a remarkable sequence that wouldn’t look too out of place performed by Tom Cruise in one of the more recent Mission: Impossible films. Although the pre-titles begin in excellent fashion, the scene is slightly undercut by poor slapstick humour towards the end, as returning villain Jaws flaps his arms wildly before plummeting into the billowing depths of a conveniently placed circus tent. This moment can be understood as an efficient slice of visual shorthand for how Moonraker progresses overall; despite a dazzling start, the whole adventure soon plunges into problems with all the grace and subtlety of Jaws’ desperate flailing as he falls inexorably towards the ground below.


The plot concerns James Bond’s investigations into millionaire industrialist Hugo Drax, as 007 is sent to apprehend those responsible for the theft of a stolen NASA space shuttle. Its’ certainly one of the less realistic scenarios ever constructed for a Bond film, and to call it ‘silly’ would be to do the dictionary definition of the word a basic disservice. This raises an important point. Goldfinger and Thunderball were also, in terms of plotting, manifestly ridiculous; but those earlier escapades were  anchored to reality with the aid of Sean Connery’s well-pitched performances. Connery knew when to play up the light, arch irony of the character at times, such as when delivering the quips, but he could equally lean into an earnest, serious quality when called for. Witness Connery’s genuine fear and desperation on screen as Goldfinger’s deadly laser inches closer and closer, or his wide-eyed shock as Largo’s spear gun moves towards his chest. There’s a greater emotional range and credibility to Connery’s portrayal of Bond, a sense that our hero is taking events seriously within the universe of the film even when the audience strains to do so, or falls short. In comparison, there’s no such careful balance to be found in Roger Moore’s star turn in Moonraker. The only moment that comes close is the tense scene in which Bond is almost killed by an out-of-control centrifuge, but the film badly needed more sequences like it, suspensefully handled on the part of both director and leading man, in order to inject a true sense of danger and threat. In contrast to Connery’s practiced moments of vulnerability, however, Moore generally remains coolly unruffled throughout. When an aeroplane stewardess turns traitor and pulls a gun on Bond, and later when the villainous Hugo Drax gloats about his merciless designs on the planet Earth, Moore has a tendency to react with little more than a raised eyebrow and a smirk, keeping his emotions firmly concealed throughout.  Some might call this a decisive effort on the actor’s part to project an all-conquering, sleek suavity, but without any genuinely strong character moments to rely on, Moore’s performance style here projects a one-note, detached blandness. We get the sense that Bond is not so much unaffected by the drama happening around him, but absent from proceedings entirely.  The Spy Who Loved Me, for example, wisely foregrounded character moments in the form of the central conflict between Bond and Anya, while a similar dynamic would take place in For Your Eyes Only with Bond’s uneasy alliance with Melina, and 007’s questioning of her choice to seek revenge. Moonraker lacks either the developed characterisation of those films, or the greater emotional scope of Connery’s performances in the role. When these flaws are combined with the film’s absurd plotting, Moonraker as a whole takes on a breezy, featherweight quality, and begins to feel a strangely inconsequential and lacking affair when considered within the wider context of the series.


The film’s not a complete lost cause, however. Lois Chiles brings energy and charm to the primary Bond girl role of feisty CIA agent Holly Goodhead, and while her repartee with Moore lacks depth there’s a fair amount of sparkling wit on display.  The villains are a mixed bag; while Jaws is deployed more as a comedic foil than as a real source of menace, he gets a few memorable moments, especially during the impressive cable car fight high above the bustling streets and blustering mountaintops of Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, there’s a particular scale and vigour to the stunts in this film that still feels unique, with the aforementioned skydiving jump and cable car fight among the finest individual action sequences the series has to offer. Michael Lonsdale, on the other hand, is one of the more respected actors to have played a Bond villain and he brings a disarmingly understated quality to the role of criminal mastermind Hugo Drax, effectively underplaying the character’s exaggeratedly megalomaniacal tendencies through a lens of quiet, refined courtesy. Behind the scenes, there’s a splendour to Ken Adam’s set design that renders Drax’s vast temple and outer space lairs extremely pleasing to the eye, while John Barry delivers one of his richest and most elegant soundtracks composed for the series.


Ultimately, though, a strong supporting cast and an atmosphere of sweeping grandeur aren’t quite enough to resolve the central lack of dramatic tension that troubles Moonraker throughout its running time. In an ironic sense, the other Bond film Moonraker most resembles in its lack of tonal variation is Licence to Kill; while that film aimed for a pervasive aura of violent darkness, Moonraker leans equally strongly towards a comedic, gaudy sensibility, shorn utterly of the psychological complexities and brooding traumas that would come to dominate the succeeding tenures of Dalton and Craig. Taken as pure entertainment, this Bond adventure is a sporadically enjoyable few hours; but if it’s rewarding character drama you’re after, Moonraker proves as light and fleeting as the faint shimmer of a desert mirage.

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Re: Long-form Bond Film Reviews

ajb007/cheers  Thank you, that was excellent reading. Looking forward to more.

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Re: Long-form Bond Film Reviews

This is a great read! The case is well argued here that Connery's performance as Bond is stronger than Moore's - Moore's in MR, at least - with a good choice of examples. Mind you, I would have been less kind about Lois Chiles' performance (she seems to me to complement her leading man with a similarly flat tonal range). I agree with your praise of Michel Lonsdale, who makes a virtue of mannered drollness as only a great actor can. Better than most Bond villain actors, Lonsdale conveys a sense of the 'accidie' about which Fleming often wrote - a sardonic world-weariness, interestingly at odds, in Drax's case, with what presumably would have been the visionary energy needed to plan for a 'new world order' from space! As for Moore, his charisma was surely a factor explaining his phenomenal success as Bond in the late 70s - a quality he shared with Connery, quite apart from justifiable qualms about his relative lack of range in MR.

As a staunch fan of LTK I'd want to argue that LTK's serious-minded character-driven drama *is* mitigated by humour, here and there (though less than we'd been used to.)

I like your style of long-form review and would love to read more!

Last edited by Shady Tree (11th Oct 2020 13:20)

Critics and material I don't need. I haven't changed my act in 49 years.