Upon revisiting it, I’m afraid I must conclude that A View to a Kill is the low point of the Roger Moore James Bond era. Some might prefer this to an equally poor Bond outing like The Man with the Golden Gun, but for me that film’s high points are higher and Moore himself was at least in top form. It’s clear that by 1985 Moore was just too old and too tired to credibly play the world’s greatest secret agent—something he himself has admitted. It’s a shame too that he should go out on such a number. While I consider myself firmly in the Sean Connery camp of James Bond fans, revisiting the Moore era in context has given me a renewed appreciation for his contributions to the series. It’s additionally disappointing how the film wastes some potentially intriguing elements, including the eccentricities of Grace Jones and Christopher Walken as the villains. A View to a Kill lacks the panache and style of the best Bond films. Rather than deliver consistent entertainment it feels overstuffed and undercooked.
While Moore had wanted to bow out two films earlier, he was kept around with a big cheque to challenge Connery’s non-Eon production, Never Say Never Again, with Octopussy. Keeping Moore around for one film further is even more of a misstep considering the way that A View to a Kill attempts to bring the plot of the film into the digital age. The movie concerns the attempt by the wealthy industrialist, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), to corner the market on world microchip production by destroying Silicon Valley. This gesture toward a potential post-Cold War plot would have marked a good opportunity to introduce a new Bond, facing a very different global-political climate. Instead, A View to a Kill tries to be everything and ends up as almost nothing. It aims to be high-tech and up to date, both in its computer plot and blandly frantic 80s-style action, while at the same time it clings tightly to the past, bringing back the aging Moore for one last outing and repeating too many of the same old beats without the same inspiration.
One example of this poorly calibrated mix of old and new proving a lack of inspiration is the film’s opening, pre-credit sequence. Once again, in a call back to both the superior On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me, we have Bond in a snowy setting, skiing and outwitting Russian agents in Siberia to recover a microchip from a deceased 00 agent. Bond must escape over the snow and ice, though this time he utilizes a kind of proto-snowboard, surfing over the snow and water. A cover of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” plays at one point during this sequence, just another example of the Moore Era’s preference for defusing the stakes of any action with ill-timed gags. Bond escapes in a submarine-boat disguised as an iceberg, immediately drawing his young, attractive assistant into bed as the opening credits play. The creators want to have their cake and eat it too, as the film is awkwardly perched between embracing the future and holding on to the past, long beyond its expiry date.
One positive of the film’s being so of its time is its neon-lit opening credit sequence, scored to Duran Duran and John Barry’s titular theme song. It’s one of the best Bond themes, purely because it’s a great 80s pop hit on its own, even apart from its function as a Bond theme. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor supposedly asked Cubby Broccoli at a party if they could do the song, and he took them up on it. “A View to a Kill” manages to both fit the Bond style, as much as anything in the film does, while being solidly a Duran Duran song.
Unfortunately the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the fantastic credits sequence. The rest of the film follows Bond as he investigates the microchip, and industrialist Max Zorin on whose design it’s based. The film takes Bond to Paris and then to Zorin’s massive estate, accompanied by the horse expert Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee). While in Paris we have the spectacle of May Day (Grace Jones) parachuting from the Eiffel Tower and Bond gives chase—in an action scene which includes the absurdity of Bond’s car being sheared into smaller and smaller pieces until he is driving just the two front tires. This kind of combination of action and slapstick humour becomes de rigueur at this point in the series. I’m sure it’s meant to be both exciting and funny, but any suspense is killed by the absurdity of the image.
Bond and Tibbett then investigate Zorin at his home, posing as horse purchasers. The teaming up of Moore and Macnee should have been something special, having James Bond and the former spy John Steed of the 1960s TV series, The Avengers, team up. But Macnee’s Tibbett is played more for the joke of Bond making an aristocrat pose as his servant. Tibbett is then dispatched fairly quickly by May Day, making what could have been a fun bit of 60s British spy nostalgia into a one-note gag.
Zorin is revealed fairly quickly as not a mere industrialist, but rather to have sinister plans for Bond. On paper the idea of Christopher Walken playing a Bond villain sounds great and Walken invests Zorin with plenty of quirky menace. In a sequence featuring KGB head General Gogol’s fifth appearance in a Bond film, it’s revealed that Zorin is a former KGB agent gone rogue, and potentially was the product of Nazi medical experimentation. Thus, Zorin represents a combination of all kinds of stock spy villains: he is the evil capitalist megalomaniac, but also a former communist spy who was simultaneously a Nazi experiment. This back story fits with the kind of cartoonish spy series that Moore’s films were evolving into, but at the same time the film does nothing with it. Zorin’s plot to destabilize and corner the world microchip market by destroying Silicon Valley in an engineered super-earthquake is insanely complicated and also kind of silly (are we to believe that even at this point, East Asian industries in Japan and Taiwan didn’t handle most microchip production, even if the headquarters and research was done outside San Francisco?). There are some nice moments when Walken does his best with the role. His evil laugh is one for the ages, and the moment when he and May Day awkwardly shoehorn the title of the film into the dialogue—“What a view!” “…to a kill!”—is hilariously forced.
Grace Jones as May Day fares slightly better than Walken, bringing her idiosyncratic pop iconography to the character. No one is going to bend Grace Jones to their vision, and May Day remains one of the more memorable Bond villain henchmen despite her late film turn to hero, which ruins much of the character’s menace and danger. May Day and Zorin have a strange kind of relationship, a master-servant, psycho-sexual dynamic that could have been exploited to more interesting results. Still, Jones is a credible threat to Bond as well as possessing a dynamic screen presence. The potentially troubling subtext of having the Nazi-originating Zorin bossing around a black servant is avoided through the sheer force of Grace Jones’ performance. As pop culture theorists have noted, Jones has long used her performance and appearance to fight back against the colonial and racist positioning of black women, not by recuperating her blackness or ambiguous femininity into something more palatable but by embracing her difference and threatening the status quo. In the film it’s clear that if May Day were to decide to betray Zorin she could and she maintains an independence and agency of which, I suppose, her late film turn to Bond ally and ultimate self-sacrifice is meant to gesture toward.
In the second half of the film the action moves to San Francisco. As Bond races to foil Zorin’s plot he teams up with a geologist, Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) and is framed for murder by Zorin. This leads to one of the film’s worst action sequences: a blandly staged fire truck-car escape through San Francisco. However, the film climaxes in a showdown upon the Golden Gate bridge, the second time in the film that a key set piece takes place upon a major city’s iconic architecture. It’s a much better sequence of spectacle, complete with an airship and a battle on top of the bridge.
What the themes of A View to a Kill are meant to be, aside from the perpetuation of the franchise into the future, is somewhat unclear. There’s an interesting techno-scare aspect in both the microchip plot and in Zorin’s genetically engineered past. But the film mostly fails by not being as much fun as it should. The plot is too detailed, too muddled, but most damning is that poor Sir Roger Moore is looking out of his element. He’s too tired, frankly too old to play the role. Moore’s Bond always had a glibness and lack of fear that in the early films played as a display of the character’s supreme self-confidence. But now that he looks too old to be a credible agent and most of the stunts are clearly done by doubles, that lack of urgency translates into just not caring. Even more creepy is the fact that his Bond is still romancing women less than half his age—to his credit, Moore was horrified to learn that he was older than his co-star Tanya Robert’s mother.
With A View to a Kill it is clearly time for Roger Moore to move on. His contribution to James Bond’s popularity and the conception of the character were substantial, and he shouldn’t be dismissed. However, it’s sad that he couldn’t have had a more worthy finale for the suave and dangerous agent he portrayed going back to Live and Let Die. A View to a Kill’s weaknesses sum up some of the worst elements of the Moore era: a lack of energy and danger despite massive plots and an emphasis on gags that disarm some great ideas. Ultimately, the fact that this film is watchable at all is a testament to some of the talent involved, particularly Walken and Jones, and the durability and sustaining power of the character of James Bond himself.
4 out of 10
A View to a Kill (UK, 1985)
Directed by John Glen; screenplay by Michael C. Wilson and Richard Maibaum based on the character James Bond created by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, Patrick Macnee, Tanya Roberts, featuring Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell.