Monday, October 8, 2012

Moonraker - Dir. Lewis Gilbert (The Bond Project #11)

Moonraker (1979)
Dir: Lewis Gilbert

By Jay Maronde
               Sometime after the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond producer Albert Broccoli said to himself, “This Star Wars movie is crazy popular, I should do a Bond in space flick.” Luckily for him Ian Fleming had already written a Bond in space book called Moonraker, which, while bearing almost zero resemblance to what would become the finished film, was originally written to be produced into a movie. Director Lewis Gilbert was contacted, set designer Ken Adams was brought on board, and even though he had originally only signed on for three films, the most recent Bond, Sir Roger Moore was re-signed, and work began on Moonraker. Round about this same time the British Government levied a huge new tax on film productions, so production was quickly relocated to Paris, under the condition that the production team could literally occupy every single soundstage and production facility in the whole city. This greatly irritated numerous French filmmakers, but in the end, money talks. The result of all this is yet another fantastic globe-trotting (and orbiting) James Bond adventure which quite a few of my cohorts claim to be their favorite Bond.
                The plot of this movie is quite simple, even though most of the first half of the film is spent on Bond investigating what is going on. Drax is an evil villain of tremendous character played superbly by the perfectly-cast Michael Lonsdale. Lonsdale exudes a very particular Hitler-like evil: he is almost always seen entertaining not one, but two, extremely lovely and much younger women, he keeps Dobermans almost exclusively to “release” them and torture/murder his perceived enemies, and most revolting of all, he is planning to exterminate the human race and re-populate the earth from his space station with his uber-society of “perfect” people.  Drax is also super mega rich, (as all good villains should be) lives in a French ch√Ęteau which has been imported to southern California, and has facilities all over the world (which leads Bond to a few delightfully beautiful filming locations).
Drax is literally crazy evil. He’s not ransoming anyone; he’s just bent on “wiping the slate clean.” Drax also has two extremely notable henchmen: Jaws (with Richard Kiel reprising his role as the near-immortal, monstrously-sized, metal-mouthed assassin) and the-always-kimono-wearing Chang. Chang is notable because during his Kung Fu fight with Bond in Venice, the two literally destroy an entire glass museum.  This scene, which Gilbert had originally planned for TSWLM, turns out to be record breaking (pun intended); as to this day, it is the single most amount of breakaway glass used in any movie ever.
                The character of Jaws is far more notable in this film. The previous film had featured Jaws extensively and the audience had loved him so much that the producers decided to bring him back. In fact, the director received so much fan mail from small children asking him why Jaws had to play a “baddie” instead of a “goodie” that he was eventually inspired to re-work the end of the film so that Bond and Jaws become allies to save the world. Further, Bond’s line towards the end of the film as Jaws is falling back to earth in a shard of the crippled space station of, “Don’t worry, Jaws will be alright, it’s only 100 or so miles back to the earth,” was directly intended to imply Jaws’ survival, and while he doesn’t re-appear in any Bond films, he does make several appearances in the James Bond video games over the years including a prominent role in 007: Everything or Nothing,  which happens to be one of my favorite Bond games.
                Roger Moore finally deserves more than a cursory glance from me in this review as he really seems to have grown into the character of Bond. His suave is unmatched, he’s not going for the rough-and-tumble Bond, but more of a smooth-sophisto-Bond. He only fires one bullet in the entire movie, and he looks, well, a lot less old. It’s apparent that he had some work done in-between this film and last, as his face looks so tight you could bounce a quarter on it.
Next to Bond are cast three very beautiful Bond Girls. First while touring Drax’s compound, Bond is escorted by the lovely Corrine Dufour. The French production location caused the management to choose a French actress/model, the radiant Corrine Clery. Corrine has the distinction of being the only Bond girl ever to have the same name as the actress playing the role. Speaking of names I’m always extremely pleased when the Bond girls’ names are rife with double entendre and this movie might take the all-time cake with Dr. Holly Goodhead. Goodhead is an undercover CIA agent who teams up with Bond to stop Drax. She is played magically by the renowned actress Lois Chiles, who was originally offered the role of Agent XXX in TSWLM but refused, having declared a retirement. Luckily, her retirement was short-lived and by her good luck she happened to be seated next to director Lewis Gilbert on a plane, and he decided that she was perfect for an undercover CIA agent. Also worth a brief mention is Bond’s south American contact, the very beautiful Manuela, played by the gorgeous Emily Bolton, who, while only appearing briefly, is too ravishing to not acknowledge.
                Again however the real stars of this film are Ken Adams’ incredible sets. As I’ve mentioned before most of this film was shot in France or on various other locations to avoid new British taxes. France is not necessarily known for its filmmaking industry so to this day the Moonraker sets are still the largest sets ever built in France. Initially there were tremendous problems with the French set builders union, as the foreman informed Adams and Gilbert that the French do not work overtime in the production of films. After extensive negotiations, the production team managed to convince the workers of the magnitude and importance of the task and hand and the workers relented (for more money of course) and agreed to work on the weekends, under the condition that they were allowed to bring their families to work so as not to miss their weekend family time. In the end the final space station set required more than 200,000 man hours, two tons of nails, over 10,000 feet of steel construction work, and a staff of more than 220 builders.
Attention should also be paid to the special effects coordinator, Derek Meddings, who was nominated for an Academy award for his work on this film. Much like the sets, the effects in this film are otherworldly. To this day the film Moonraker holds the record for most actors in weightlessness (on wires) ever, used during the massive outer space battle at the end of the film. The effects weren’t just limited to outer space, the beginning of the film features an extremely famous scene where Bond is pushed from an airplane with no parachute, he free falls, and then manages to wrangle a chute off the back of a henchman. This particular shot took over 80 skydives to complete as they could only film for a few seconds and the way down, and in fact the actor from whom Bond removes the parachute from was cast to look like the stunt man who had to perform the aerial work. Also of note is that the stunt man was almost killed when he lost his footing on top of the real cable car in Rio while the cameras were rolling.
                Lewis Gilbert delivers a classic in his final Bond entry, and his work is only enhanced by a wonderful cast of actors and an amazing production staff. Moonraker, while suffering from some initial critical complaints about being too “outlandish,” would go on to make more than $210 million dollars, which made it the most profitable Bond until 1995’s Goldeneye.

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