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The Bond franchise is a bit like the slasher genre: it’s been going so long that certain rules or tropes have emerged and solidified over its unending run in cinemas. There has to be a one-liner when he kills the bad guy, the ‘bad’ girl from the first act has to die, and the fourth film in every actor’s tenure is where the series peaks at being the franchise at its most bloated and/or deranged pile of madness. Thunderball is too long and quite plodding because they had the money to shoot extensively underwater seemingly in an attempt to kill the audience with boredom. Moonraker is near indescribable as the film where Bond ends up amidst a laser battle in space and that’s not even the weirdest part of the five screenplays they Frankenstein’d together to produce a shooting script. Spectre as you may recall officially beat out Thunderball by succeeding where it left off with its Tolkien-esque runtime and being an inexplicably expensive budget-eating hole of a film. Then there’s Die Another Day.
The important thing about the fourth film rule is that while it’s likely to disappoint at the time, with the benefit of hindsight it becomes either one of the “boring ones” (Thunderball and Spectre) or one of the ones you make people who don’t know the franchise watch because it feels like an inadvertently expert parody of everything people think these films are. Moonraker is the platonic ideal of that concept but as the years have gone, Pierce’s swansong has proven itself a true contender for that throne.
Despite the precedent for something resembling this film’s weirdness in Moonraker, this still somehow feels un-Bondian even after all this time. It’s hard to precisely quantify but the signifier is that this film fails what I call the “Daniel Craig Assimilation Test”. This is based on the videogame 007 Legends. Released to coincide with Skyfall the game imagines that all previous adventures happened in some capacity to Craig’s Bond and lets you play through a modernised, Craig-ified version of one of the stories from each of the actor’s runs. The weirdest thing is it works for the most part with Craig fitting in fine among the iconic moments and characters for four of the five. The one that sticks out is ‘Die Another Day’. In a game that somehow convinces you to accept Craig in space as you play through ‘Moonraker’, Mr. Rachel Weiz just feels wrong sneaking around an ice palace, dodging the ‘Geostorm’ space laser and fighting shitty Iron Man as he tries to reclaim South Korea.
On that note, we do have to discuss the plot at some point, it may as well be here. After being betrayed and captured in North Korea, Bond is held and tortured for over a year – thus giving the film enough real world time to have had Bond conveniently not be around when 9/11 happened and thus not have to address it in the movie. Well, until the next film when it’s implied that Mads Mikkelsen caused 9/11 to win money on the stock markets. ANYWAY. Bond goes rogue, vows vengeance, finds out there’s a wealthy industrialist who’s actually the NK baddie from the start who has been plastic surgery’d white, built a space laser and an a ice palace, and is planning to space laser his way from North to South Korea. Halle Berry is also there, his car isn’t because it’s invisible, and the CGI is rough throughout.
It’s endlessly amusing to me to see the promotional features for the current Bond films and see Craig espousing how they always do Bond stunts for real – hence the ballooning budgets one assumes – while immediately before his tenure, they were doing as little as possible for real. The CGI isn’t just bad to look at now, it looked terrible at the time, which is rare for big budget films as they used to at least pass in their moment. The now infamous tsunami kite-surfing (a phrase you feel would have retained infamy with or without the bad CGI) is Scorpion King-level bad. Watching Brosnan’s visibly confused acting as he fights wind machines and his own impulse to break out in tears/laughter while the score heroically swells is comedy gold given the cinematic hubris before your eyes.
The film is also a fine example of another Bond staple; that of arriving too late to a fad that’s just passed out of public interest. See also: the endless non-sequitur ninjas during Sir Roger’s era, the Miami Vice-but-with-Bond of Licence to Kill and the hiring of A-ha. In this case, it’s the CGI-heavy, large-scale destruction of disaster films that rampaged around and peaked in the late nineties. While we had basically seen Bond vs. a volcano in Dante’s Peak (featuring Pierce), we hadn’t seen the officially licensed version. So instead of running from lava, he speeds away from a space laser in a dragster. Instead of a skyscraper collapsing, Bond has a car chase through a melting ice palace. And instead of a tidal wave, Bond – bears repeating – kite surfs away from a tsunami caused by the space laser melting a wall of ice. Not only was it pandering ‘me-too’ nonsense, it was the loudest, stupidest version that even Emmerich would be embarrassed by. (That said, Geostorm is effectively a spiritual sequel to this film, highly recommended.)
And then there’s Madonna. While she still to this day has a level of clout for her prime output and era, by the early naughties that was largely gone. Her weird cameo in the film – marking the only time the performer of the title song would be in the film itself – is strange and distracting, not to mention slightly embarrassing as herself and Pierce trade awkward erection jokes while manhandling literal swords. The song itself was rough at the time and has aged like a bad wine becoming irresistibly shit aural vinegar now. Ah for a time when such badly implemented autotune was considered cool and one could get away lyrics as arbitrary as “Sigmund Freud; analyse this”. And the music video could warrant a whole article in and of itself… )
Bond is an odd franchise in that the most fondly remembered ones are often the worst. The ones that age best had already aged badly upon initial release. No one cares for the respectably decent For Your Eyes Only but people have nothing but good thoughts about A View to a Kill where Grace Jones and Christopher Walken want to destroy Silicon Valley and enjoy fun-sliding businessmen to their deaths from blimps. The point is, while all the above is a case for why this is a very bad film and one which lingered sourly as an aftertaste to audiences, enough time has passed that it’s come around to being fun again. Terrible, expensive, likely quite problematic fun.
Halle Berry kills Rosamund Pike by stabbing a copy of The Art of War through her heart and yelling “read THIS, bitch”. It’s a wild ride. If you’ve not seen it before, definitely watch it. And if you’ve not seen it in a while, lessen your cognitive functions and dive back in. In a time when people question if the Craig films might be a bit too dour, return to a simpler era where Bond fights a Korean man with diamonds in his face who was in the process of being surgically turned Caucasian. “Analyse this” indeed, Sigmund.