The classic Bond opening – eyes down the barrel, Bond turns, we fall, bleeding – iconizes him instantly. Bond is on top of things. He kills us. More importantly: we are not Bond. Bond is another type of man, practically another species. This is true even of the bad ones. Moonraker is not the first bad Bond film, but it’s the first in which not being him is a relief.

Connery had a ferocious temperament (more so for being concealed). He was this gallant beast that could turn on you in an instant. Daniel Craig, Bond’s most recent avatar (people represent him, you see, but they can’t alter the icon), is the opposite and the same: a blunt thug that threatens to turn, at any moment, into a gentleman. Against these two, Roger Moore seems like he just doesn’t take it all that seriously. And at fifty-two in Moonraker, it doesn’t look like he has much choice. Occasionally there’s a fire in his squinty gaze (does he have something in his eye?) but the rest of him is less than dreamy. I wouldn’t say he putters. I would say he should.

The admirable side to Moonraker is that if Moore doesn’t take it in with much gravity, neither does director Lewis Gilbert or producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who lined up with everyone else in the post-Star Wars 70s to scrape together a space picture. I’d like to call it an active farce, but the work is implicit, and sadder, like Bond is devolving on his own through over-processing into self-parody, baby food Bond. He is Bond, but also Matt Helm, and also Flint, and Austin Powers – they are tones of one color starting, I think, with Moonraker.

The worst before it (1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun) was merely bad. Through regularity (there were eleven Bond films from 1962 to 1979, between Dr. No and Moonraker) Bond was watering down, until the stakes were so low that their pretensions at global catastrophe rang cute, not dramatic. Was anyone bruising their date’s forearm in suspense when Bond discovers that Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) is actually a global terrorist leader? Moonraker skips the part where all is as it seems, a noble approach for a film in a formula series (they might have made it stick as self-aware humor, but even that would have been too “wink-wink” with Moore at the Helm). “You appear,” says Drax after Bond’s fourth miraculous escape, “with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” Here is an oddity: a franchise that doesn’t know it knows itself.

Bond has this acidic rhetoric, for instance, that follows him like body heat and turns every action into a veiled sex position. With Connery it’s disarming through suavity; with Craig, it’s almost cruel. Moore, always but especially in Moonraker, is boyish in a way that demeans sexuality. His puns are practically an open ridicule on class, striking no balance between the chivalric and the crude. Everything is a single entendre: Moonraker is full of lines that really sound like lines. Bond and Dr. Goodhead (my favorite Bond girl, behind Nurse Lonelyheart and Madam Dickstroke) bounce around like they’re roleplaying in a treehouse. Meanwhile, the villain is gesticulating (Orson Welles would have brought enormity to this role) with phrases like “untamed cradle of the heavens” and you really wonder what movie he’s in. At least Dr. Evil got the joke.

There’s a scene where Bond fences in a room introduced to us as a gallery of ancient glass treasures. Of course Bond throws them around like a cranky TV housewife. There’s a bowl worth a million dollars that busts up nicely over his masked opponent’s mug and I remember wincing and thinking that I felt more suspense over the bowl than anything up to that point, as it teetered on its pedestal, promising to shatter. It reminded me that this was the most expensive Bond film to date (and the most profitable) and it reminded me how callow the character becomes without a conscience to rein him in.

There’s a girl early in the film for instance who dies by proximity to Bond (not a rare thing). But he never regards her again, as Connery looked glumly (guilty or cockblocked?) at the gold-dipped statuette that was last night’s conquest (Craig does the same thing in Quantum of Solace, with the added accuracy of the sentiment provided by Dench, who snarls, “You see how well your charm works.”). Moore’s attitude is too cavalier – the love em’ and leave em’ act seems blithely predatory when there’s no regret furling over his aging face, or Dench’s staunch reprimand, to remind him that his exploits come at a cost. I think from the start, Moonraker and its Bond-on-the-backlot tone wanted me to forget that (it begins with a brawl in mid-skydive against Jaws, whom Richard Kiel portrays as though he can somehow protract every human feature out of proportion at will). But that glass bowl brought it all into focus, and the one word that should never describe Bond crept into my mind, as it does into this review: irresponsible.

The one thing that should remain constant is our desire to be Bond. We should never feel like scolding him. But poison-tipped wristwatch darts should be doled out more carefully. By the time astronauts are floating by their nylon umbilicals shooting lasers to music strangely funereal (one dies screaming as his tether breaks, and he tumbles into the void like Frank Poole in 2001) I feel like slapping Bond’s wrist, as he bumbles around Drax’s orbital city, spouting one-liners and copping a feel. The spaceships are beautiful (Derek Meddings does the model work after bringing Gerry Anderson’s toybox to life on the Thunderbirds show) but they are not more weightless than anything else in Moonraker.

Had Drax’s evil scheme been to make Moonraker the very last Bond film, he could not have said better than his last words, “At last I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.” The only one here who should be knighted is whoever wrote that line.

Cast & Crew

Lewis Gilbert

Christopher Wood (screenplay)
Ian Fleming (novel) (uncredited)
Gerry Anderson (screenplay) (uncredited)
Tony Barwick (character creator) (uncredited)
James Bond Roger Moore
Holly Goodhead Lois Chiles
Hugo Drax Michael Lonsdale
Jaws Richard Kiel
Corinne Dufour Corinne Clery
M Bernard Lee
Q Desmond Llewelyn
Frederick Gray Geoffrey Keen
Miss Moneypenny Lois Maxwell

Official Trailer

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