Monday, January 16, 2017

Better In Your Head?--MOONRAKER

Ian Fleming

"They want us dead. So we have to stay alive."

Set over the course of one week, entirely within the confines of England, Moonraker is one of the best Bond novels. It takes its time applying its grip, but good luck extricating yourself once it does.

And it all starts when M suspects a man cheating cards at his club.

The man is mystery-shrouded millionaire businessman Hugo Drax. He's a hero to the English, a legend, builder of the "Moonraker," a nuclear defense project that will show the Reds and the Yanks and whoever else that the Queen's own are not to be trifled with. The missile is outstanding in the field thanks to the magic of columbite, a mineral that affords the weapon expanded range and increased heat resistance. (As well as a mineral that Drax has a monopoly on.) Both M and Bond speak admiringly of the man, so the revelation that Drax really is a cheat leaves both men a tad disillusioned.

Once the Moonraker project's chief of security is murdered, M inserts 007 as his replacement. People are strange, when you're a stranger--every man on the missile-building base (save for the best and worst of them) rocks a baldie and a stash, and Bond is one of only two non-German workers. The other is Gala Brand, a Scotland Yard agent doing undercover biz as Drax's assistant. She's dedicated to her duplicity, and not very interested in flirting with Bond.

Other characters flit round the periphery; one, Willy Krebs, comes much closer. When Bond and Brand share their suspicions that he is snooping around with Drax, they nearly don't live to regret it.

In the end it's Brand who shows her snoopy muscles, hijacking Drax's launch trajectory measurements. There's no out-lifting Krebs, however, and Gala finds herself restrained in the back seat of Drax's Mercedes.

They don't call James Bond "The Original Commander Save-A-Bird" for nothing! For the second time in three books, our hero gives good chase only to find himself tied up in a car, next to a female ally. (I'm not entirely convinced Bond didn't plan it that way.)

In the time between having her cover blown and Bond's pursuit, Brand has figured out Drax's actual plans for the Moonraker missile. With the help of a nuclear warhead supplied by the Soviets, England's great benefactor is set to blow its crown jewel into oblivion under the guise of a test launch. After tying the infiltrators to chairs (three out of three there), Drax delivers a B+ "motive rant," revealing himself as a former Nazi who stole a British soldier's identity after being horribly injured in the last war. He's been building his fortune, accruing a country's goodwill, and the time has come to cause calamity. Since his days as an awkward German boy stuck in the English school system, he has loathed the Limeys. He has their love and gratitude, but soon enough, he will have their animosity and fear.

It is this insecurity Bond pounces upon, taunting "Sir Hugo" into a frothing unbecomingness. Drax's voluble, violent reaction drains half his brain power, causing him to leave behind a key component to Bond and Brand's (protracted) escape.

Bond sucks it up and resigns himself to self-sacrifice. Brand flicks her nipples and reminds him the melodramatic twat that she was on this base long before him, working diligently on the Moonraker project, fully immersed in her assignment, and other options exist. Options that will not result in one or both of them leaving a permanent shadow.

With Drax and crew evaporated in an official "tragic accident", Bond sits in M's office and reflects on his beloved London. The people, the pigeons, and how close they all came to "no new memories" status. And would have, indeed, but for one avaricious man's insistence on cheating at bridge in a club owned by the head of MI6.

Fleming's direct, focused prose paints the pages in bleak blue and stark gray. The card game between Drax and Bond is easy to read, if difficult to recall, but once the news breaks that the Moonraker's security chief has been murdered, the suspense rockets.

Director-Lewis Gilbert
Writer-Christopher Wood

"I think he's re-attempting re-entry!"

Book series, film series…when you reach ten of anything, inertia is perhaps inevitable. Creative types will look to the untapped and/or unlikely well to draw from. In the case of the James Bond franchise, slipping in prestige and no longer a trend-setting cultural phenomenon, Eon Productions followed up one of the most divergent book adaptations in film history with another "Nice title, let's take that and nothing else!" entry, For Your Eyes Only.

Then Star Wars happened. And, like a GIF of the Truffle Shuffle, kept happening until it threatened to subsume the entirety of humanity.

How could the Cold War, with its implicit threats and garish propaganda tactics, compete with Death Stars and mind tricks and pew-pew!? Easy: James Bond in outer space! We're beyond cities and states, provinces and prefectures, countries and continents...get ready for stars, quasars, planets and galaxies!

But first: James Bond caving in to fan demand!

This plot is bullshit.

The Moonraker space shuttle (on loan to the United Kingdom from the United States, via Drax Industries) has been hijacked. Watch out now. 007 flies out to the California estate of Hugo Drax, featuring (as pointed out by lovely copter pilot Corrine Dufour) a mansion made of stones shipped one by one from France! Or, blatant footage of an actual French chateau superimposed on an aerial view of the Mojave Desert!

My great God. Just have the fucking mansion be in France. Why the trickling pee. And if Drax is going to gradually rebuild a striking structure in another country thousands of miles away, why not snatch up Stonehenge? The evil Irish guy in Halloween III did exactly that! You're telling me a malevolent Irish bastard had a grander vision than a malevolent English bastard? Well I sure hope Ian Fleming was buried in a barrel, all the cooler for him to roll around!

Drax! Ah ahhhh! Star Conqueror! Bond! Space Station Seizer!

The box-shaped fiend speaks like he's holding a swinging solid gold wristwatch, he looks like Peter Dinklage dressed up as Eddie Munster for Halloween, but hey--the role could have been Sinatra's. So let us all count our blessed chickens. (How many movies am I gonna review that Ol' Blue Eyes just missed out on, anyway.)

At the shuttle-manufacturing complex, Bond makes the acquaintance of astronaut/scientist/CIA spy Dr. Holly Goodhead (high up on the list of Bond movie jokes I didn't get as a young lass). She's played by Lois Chiles, whose two facial expressions are one more than a woman that gorgeous needs, but four less than a qualifiably "decent" actress needs. Further, she and Roger Moore share the sexual chemistry of a mermaid and a porcupine.

Bond being Bond plays a game of musical broads, and enlists the pilot Dufour to help locate vital blueprints before she gladly gives up the goods. 007 travels to Venice, where Drax maintains a secret lab and oh man, if reading about all this leaves you shaky and gobsmacked, imagine watching it!

Wait, Jaws is back? Motherfuckers, Jaws never left. After two spectacular failures, he at last nabs Bond (and Bond Girl), directing them to Drax just in time to hear his recitation of "My Awesomely Insane Plot, And Why It Will Actually Work Unlike All Those Other Plots You Foiled." This one's named "Operation Orchid," and guys, it's bulletproof. Drax wants to create "a new master race," so he's shuttled a few dozen winners of the genetic lottery to his space station, where the breeding will begin in earnest after fifty globes of nerve gas disseminate in the Earth's atmosphere and wipe out all the 9s and down.

(That's where Hitler messed up--keeping the Holocaust terrestrial.)

Jaws pulls off the most gratifying Big Man face-turn since Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania VI once he realizes that Drax's utopia will not have room for the likes of he or his lovely little blonde girlfriend. He rebels, and what else should ensue but a laser battle fit to make the ghost of Ed Wood squeal. Drax gets shot, shot out, and then it's time for Luke and Han I mean James and Holly to laser blast three already-launched globes of sinister gas before they can reach Earth.

In summation: Bond works with a female foreign agent to stop a corrupt corporate ogre from destroying the current world to allow for a new one. Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me with a more memorable villain and a more forgettable everything else.

Oh, and Drax stole his own Moonraker shuttle. Fascinating.

Bond films should always contain a dollop or two more than the daily recommended amount of gravitas. Moonraker doesn't even measure a thimble's worth. The movie's so goofy, Drax should have worn a turtle neck and a vest instead of a Mao jacket. "Flimsy, inconceivable, but not without a modicum of charm" is the best blurb I can provide--perhaps I was silly to expect anything more? (The ending credits even boast: "Shot on location--Italy, Brazil, Guatemala, USA and Outer Space!")

Of course boffo box office was had. Gaudiest till Goldeneye nearly twenty years later.

How is a plot to wipe out the entire planet less impressive than one to wipe out a major city? It boils down to solemnity, and the lack thereof. Ian Fleming had half a mind to title his third novel Hell Is Here. Scant mystery, much accuracy. Bond and Brand are each haunted by dire visions of a devastated London. Their anxieties resonated with readers who struggled with the nagging dread that the Cold War would intensify in heat, perhaps reaching a temperature that the center could not bear, dooming life on the planet.

Merely turning London into "The Big Smoking Crater" wouldn't do for the 1970s, however. The stakes are so high, I'm surprised Eon didn't cast Tony Randall as Drax. Instead, French-English actor Michael Lonsdale won the plum gig.* I experienced no difficulty pushing his stout, raven-haired figure from my mind as I read about the red-haired, long-thumbed, scar-ridden villain of Fleming's vision, even though I rather prefer the look of movie Hugo Drax, and not simply because he isn't a ginger. Attitude-wise, both are scornful pricks who don't prepare for failure because they can't fathom the scenario.

The film contains a sickening glut of outlandish moments. Chang attempting to assassinate Bond via centrifuge chamber would have been harrowing had I not been laughing forcefully enough to rupture my spleen. The gondola chase belonged in the original Casino Royale. James Bond, star warrior. Jaws in love.

The writer made no effort to distill what made the novel a quality series of sits. Understated humor, for instance. M and Bond's first conversation about Drax runs so long that 007 misses an important lunch date. Drax's mini-speech over BBC Radio on the eve of the Moonraker launch just avoids devolving into maniacal laughter. (I promise the filmmakers would not have been so kind. Drax rubbing his hands together, eyebrows wagging, then a cut to a wino and a pigeon by a radio sharing disbelieving looks.)

Krebs is missed, along with his look-alike Panzer pals. He and his single impressive stunt are replaced by the cartoonishly indestructible Jaws (who gets two), and that pointless felcher Chang.

The Bond Girl ain't safe either. Gala Brand had a good deal of use, but Holly Goodhead was utter rubbish. I much prefer Corrine Dufour to both. She's a classic second-tier Bond babe: pretty, helpful, and destined to be killed by at least one animal.

I am one of the bigger defenders of Rog-as-Bond. I absolutely get where his detractors are coming from (and going to). Still, no matter his faults here, he had much worse on the horizon. Yes yes, Moore already looks too old for this shit, and his is still one of the most ungainly running styles ever captured for posterity, but I never got the impression he required a stunt double for scenes where Bond sits down. And that bad-ass take-down of a would-be sniper deserves at least three palm strikes. Now, his attitude here compared to Fleming's Bond? Same as any of his other turns. Moore never matched up, physically or emotionally, with the paper-bound vision. He would have bombed in a film like Dr. No. Here, saddled with the lamest script of the pre-Brosnan era, Moore is at least in his element: eyebrow raised, sigh pending, lame pun in the chamber.

The book wins, flawless victory, although a distinct lack of "double-take pigeon" is either to its eternal credit or its infernal detriment. I waffle daily as to which, and I imagine I'll die undecided.

Both versions of Moonraker concern an insecure man of tremendous wealth who yearns for ever more, who longs to be remembered in the books of history forevermore. Money is power is control, and no claws dig deeper into vibrant flesh than those attached to the (bird) of death. Only one imbues itself with any dignity.

Hugo Drax's path to his new post-war identity might rate low on the Probability Meter, but the scenario of a cryptic outsider-turned-national hero destroying the very people he pledged to protect? Will that ever seem unlikely again?


*Fleming's novel refers to Hugo Drax as "a Lonsdale figure," referring to Lord Lonsdale, the first-ever President of the National Sporting Club. Bond, according to Brand anyway, resembles American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. I would not, incidentally.

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