Moonraker (1979, Lewis Gilbert)

“Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?” (from the song Moonraker, profound lyrics by Hal David, belting vocal by Shirley Bassey)

I first saw Moonraker when I was a delightfully inquisitive five-year-old. And it made about as much sense to me then as it does now, thirty years later. This is some avant-garde shit right here. Godard et al’s experimentation with the cinematic form in the late 50s and 60s doesn’t come close to mid/late period Roger Moore Bond. There is nothing in the nouvelle vague to compare with the tonal switches, stylistic lurches and complete disregard for narrative coherence you get in Moonraker, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. (For Your Eyes Only is slightly more in touch with reality and, as a result, slightly more tedious.)

So what’s the plot of this heady brew? It goes something like this…

Evil beardo Hugo Drax secretly builds a space station just off Pluto, where he assembles a group of perfect human specimens, transported there on his Moonraker space shuttles. His dastardly scheme is to wipe out the Earth’s entire population with nerve gas and then repopulate the planet with his master race. (Clearly the ‘5 GCSEs at grade c or above’ threshold wouldn’t cut it with old Hugo.) Drax’s motivation for doing this remains fascinatingly unclear, but it does sound like a great origin story for a new religion. Bond, naturally, is out to stop him. He does this with the aid of a bracelet that shoots poisoned darts, a deadly ballpoint pen and a woman.

But the thing about Moonraker is a synopsis of the plot doesn’t begin to convey the insanity that was committed to celluloid. For a start there’s the character of Jaws, last seen at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me besting a shark with his metal teeth and then swimming off to bite another day. As his previous employer, Stromberg, has shuffled off this mortal coil, Jaws is out for new challenges and throughout Moonraker moves between different employers like some kind of agency worker henchman-for-hire. By the end of the film, this fair-weather foe has made peace with JB and even got himself a girlfriend. They meet in Rio after Jaws has ploughed into a building with a cable car and somehow managed to survive with just a bit of dust on his shirt.

One of my favourite scenes in Moonraker is when Bond runs into Jaws while driving a speedboat down the Amazon (Bond’s looking for the origin of a rare orchid, since you ask). Jaws and some underlings ambush 007 in several speedboats of their own, which they’ve parked behind some river foliage. But how did they know Bond would be there? And how long are they supposed to have been staking out this particular stretch of river, hoping 007 might come by? Maybe sportsmanlike James placed a phone call to Jaws in advance, letting him know of his planned route and a rough estimate of the time. Anyway, after an exchange of hardware, Bond escapes on a hang glider built into the roof of his speedboat.

I have a theory about how to read Moonraker. Like the work of those new wave Frenchies, Quentin T, and many others, its subject matter is cinema itself. The basic plot turns a spy thriller into sci-fi, but there’s more to it than that. This movie jumps genres and styles with a thrilling disregard for logic or sense. There are scenes that jar so much with one another at times it’s like you’re flicking between channels as you watch.

Example: a scene of Bond dispatching a would-be assassin (who looks like an aging French poacher) which concludes with a moment of classic Roger comedy+eyebrow raise is followed directly by a – no bullshit – “release the hounds” moment. This turns the film briefly into some kind of Hammer horror pastiche but played totally straight.

Much later in the film, a scene of Bond escaping a dangerous paramedic aboard an ambulance is directly followed by a sequence of our hero dressed in cowboy hat and poncho, riding a horse, accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven.

Oh, and there’s a bit when a Venetian gondola turns into a hovercraft.

I’m not making this stuff up.

ITV4 is having a Roger Moore Bond season for a couple of weeks. I have no idea why. Possibly because it’s summertime and the schedulers are lazy. But, whatever their motives, this decision should be applauded, and I’d like to make passionate love to all involved in making it.

Moonraker is showing Wednesday 12th August, 9pm ITV4

Sam Bowles


New Release

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)

One need only be a cursory viewer of televised professional sport to be aware that words such as “astonishing”, “amazing” and “incredible” are bandied around these days with farcical abandon. Apparently, just about every Premiership football match justifies these descriptions. It’s rarely the case. But the new Mad Max movie unquestionably astonishes, amazes and…er…incredibles. It explodes off the fucking screen.

The director, George Miller, recently turned 70. Bloody hell, I hope I’m still alive and vaguely lucid at that age, let alone able to marshal the troops and resources required in bringing this maelstrom to the big screen. The last Max installment, Beyond Thunderdome was released thirty years ago, so it had long been assumed that Miller had taken this idea as far as he could. Also, Beyond Thunderdome was a bit shit. The peak of the series until now was the final truck chase from Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior (if you’re American or a wanker). In Fury Road Miller manages to top this sequence. Twice.

Many viewers and critics are snobbish about action films; they’d prefer an earnest drama in which “complex characters” discuss “serious” stuff. But what they’re missing is that action moviemaking at its best can be a form of pure cinema. Miller has said that he wants the film to work even if you don’t understand English, like a silent movie. After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, imagine for a second someone trying to tell the same story using a different medium. Would it work as a novel? A play? Even a TV programme? It’s big, it’s loud, it barely requires any dialogue; it belongs on an enormous cinema screen.

A quick caveat…

Is this film really feminist? Many people seem to think so. Like Terminator 2 and the Alien movies, Fury Road has been praised for having a “strong” female character; in this case Charlize Theron as Imperiosa Furiosa (great name). Furiosa is virtually the protagonist of the film – she has the clearest arc and goals – and Theron gives a great performance. But is depicting a female character driving fast, shooting guns and hitting people really enough to praise a film for being feminist? Or, is it just having a female character behave in ways we normally expect of male characters in action movies? It’s not just action films that are over-populated with male characters and their concerns; it’s ALL mainstream cinema.

Still, it is nice to imagine there might be a follow-up in which Charlize Theron is officially the lead, and the film takes her character’s name: Furious Furiosa maybe?

Sam Bowles

The Most Overrated Film on TV this Week

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Why? Why did people get so excited about this flick? WHY?! Because most films are so bad? Because people take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he clearly takes himself? Or, have people just forgotten?

Forgotten what? About the Tim Burton Batman films, of course. Yes, there was already a darker, more brooding, graphic novel-inspired take on the Batman myth, with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). These films also managed to retain a sense of humour and remembered they were supposed to be based on a comic strip. (And they didn’t involve Christian Bale.)

Batman Begins (2005) started a trilogy of superhero movies within which Christopher Nolan appeared progressively more in denial that he was making superhero movies. Thus, Batman is almost never called “Batman”; he is either “The Batman” (apparently a definite article confers depth and maturity) or, even better, “The Dark Knight”. These films are entertaining and extremely well shot, but also riddled with flaws, the fatal one being an attempt to make the Batman myth realistic. I’m sorry, this is a story about a dude in a rubber suit with pointy ears on his head. The more Nolan and his cohorts get caught up trying to make a Batman movie which is “grounded in reality” or some such cobblers, the more they paradoxically highlight how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It would appear Nolan was watching a little too much Michael Mann at the time and tried to remake Heat as a superhero movie.

Everyone knows the highlight of not just The Dark Knight but the entire trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. What’s notable is there is no equivalent performance (that combination of danger, comedy and charisma) in any of Nolan’s other films. One can’t help wondering if Ledger pulled off this performance despite Nolan’s direction rather than because of it.

The Dark Knight is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV 2

Sam Bowles

The Most Disappointing Film on TV this Week

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

It was a letdown from the first shot. I had waited nearly 20 years to see what Spielberg’s next transition from the Paramount mountain logo would involve. And as the screen dissolved to the opening image, I was hit straight in the retina with the unmistakable sight of…a fucking rodent. (Apparently a prairie dog for anyone interested.) Initially this might seem like a reasonable visual gag, playing on an unexpected switch in scale – big mountain, small animal. But it just didn’t seem in keeping with the other three films. The original trilogy was always comic, but here we were being offered a total cartoon.

Things did not improve from there… Harrison Ford’s croaky voice. Shia LaBeouf’s existence. And most of the action isn’t up to much. There is one good sequence – the motorbike/car chase in and around the university campus – but, otherwise, the film is a succession of disappointments. Cate Blanchett is a great actor but not one per cent scary as a villain. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are embarrassing.

And couldn’t Lucas and Spielberg have just committed to making the creature things aliens, instead of ‘inter-dimensional beings’? Most viewers thought they were aliens anyway. Some people didn’t like the introduction of a sci-fi element at all, but I don’t see this as a problem per se. It fits with the film being set in the 1950s, a time when alien invasion films were all the rage.

As the film neared its conclusion – and I had to avert my eyes from the sight of old Shia fencing with some Russians on a moving tank – I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Then the final scene completed the tragedy. SPOILER ALERT (for people who give a toss about that kind of thing): Indiana Jones gets married. Married?! MARRIED?! He’s Indiana Jones for fuck’s sake. That’s like James Bond getting married.

Sometime later I awoke in the night convinced my memory of the film was just the remains of a bad dream. I was wrong.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Bollock is showing tonight, 8.05pm BBC 3 (Is that a real channel?)

Sam Bowles

The Worst Film on TV this Week

Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Hollywood action movies don’t come much more compellingly offensive than the clunkily-titled Rambo: First Blood, Part II. This hymn to Sylvester Stallone’s glistening upper body is repugnant; yet I can’t help rather liking it. Or, at least, I find it grimly fascinating: a bombastic opera of violence porn.

John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran with some massive demons and even bigger biceps. He’s sent back into ’Nam to rescue some POWs and generally finish the genocide. The Hawkish message goes thus: we didn’t lose Vietnam; the pussy bureaucrats in charge wouldn’t let us win. Rambo even says at the start, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, is ridiculous but vaguely interesting. It begins with Rambo going to visit an old army friend, only to discover that he’s died from the effects of Agent Orange. There are also shades of Taxi Driver in its story of a lonely Viet vet unable to engage with society. The sequel, however, is a macho cartoon from the word go.

This is a WEIRD film, particularly considering who’s behind the camera. The cinematographer is Jack Cardiff! He worked with Michael Powell and Hitchcock, and here he is training his astonishing eye on Stallone’s muscles and Rambo’s weaponry.

There are bizarre scenes of Rambo being tortured. Stallone, like Mel Gibson, seems to have a narcissistic/masochistic desire to see himself suffer on the screen. If Stallone had played Indiana Jones, he really would have had his heart ripped out by Mola Ram. And then he would have mumbled something self-pitying before replacing the organ and pulling out a bazooka.

But the weirdest thing about an action film that made $300m at the worldwide box office is this: the action isn’t even any good. The first time I saw Rambo I remember being amazed that no individual action scene stood out. Only a few days later my memory of the film was a vague blur of random gunshots and explosions. Potentially good ideas, such as a bow with explosive-tipped arrows, are wasted on unimaginative sequences. The great action films – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard – contain setpieces so well-conceived that they remain thrilling even when you know every shot before it comes.

The director, George P. Cosmatos, went on to fashion further masterworks such as Cobra (Stallone as Dirty Harry) and Leviathan (Alien underwater, starring RoboCop, but not half as much fun as that sounds).

Rambo: First Blood, Part II is showing tonight, 10.40pm ITV 1

Hopefully you’ve got something better to do on a Friday night. (I haven’t.)

Sam Bowles

The Best Film on TV this Week

Apocalypto (2006, Mel Gibson)

Can we separate the art from the artist? The movie from the moviemaker? Mel Gibson is clearly, at the very least, a massive twat with some deeply offensive views. He’s also a solid actor with a limited range but a reasonable amount of charisma. Far more significant than his acting ability, however, is his talent behind the camera – he’s a bloody brilliant film director.

That last statement is based purely on the strength of Apocalypto. I’ve tried to watch The Man Without A Face, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ (which has faced accusations of anti-Semitism) but am yet to see any of them through to the end credits. Apocalypto, on the other hand, held me in its grasp from first moment to last. It’s one of the best films of the 2000s. Had this film been made by an established art house director (Werner Herzog, say) no one would hesitate to call it a masterpiece.

But could/would anyone else have made this bonkers work of art? Gibson used the profits from The Passion of the Christ to fund a $40 million epic about tribespeople in 16th century Central America, with dialogue in the language Yucatec Maya (gracias, Wikipedia), and, unsurprisingly, no stars. At first glance, you’d assume it’s a worthy foreign language historical drama. It’s not. It’s a full-on-relentless-hardcore-fuck-you action film.

The hero is Jaguar Paw. (That name kills me.) His village gets raided and he and many others are taken to a Mayan temple to be sacrificed. (There is some controversy about the historical accuracy of this.) Jaguar Paw has to escape and get back to his pregnant wife and son, who are stuck down a well.

Gibson stages more thrilling and imaginative action scenes than in all the Lethal Weapon films put together. He also combines the kinetic with the beautiful; this film is full of memorable images, many coming on top of one another in the (no hyperbole) astonishing climax. I won’t describe these shots in detail – I could never do them justice.

So, we have a masterpiece made by a twat. Does this make me uncomfortable? A little. In the same way I feel a twinge every time I watch a Woody Allen (and there’s a lot of them). But if we only consumed culture by people whose ideology and behaviour we approved off, we’d doubtless be left with some pretty dull stuff. If only Aung San Suu Kyi could start making films…

Apocalypto is showing tonight, 10.50pm BBC 2 (Hopefully it’ll come on the iPlayer)

Sam Bowles