Thursday, December 22, 2011

Should have banned it: Time Bandits For Your Eyes Only

Warning: what follows is a load of bull.
It's 1981. Bond isn't just a film any more, it's a palimpsest, where when we read the story we can discern layer upon layer that was there before, and scrubbed out or painted over to make space for the latest edition.

(Please don't ever call the Bond films a "franchise". They're a series. A "franchise" sells joyless fried food to people living in cities, with more or less adeptness. No man wants to be Ronald McDonald, no woman wants to be with Colonel Sanders. Bond films may have been coopted from their very beginning to advertise lifestyle products of little practical use, but they've never been as utilitarian as "franchise" suggests. Leave that to Michael Bay and the rest of the usual suspects.)

For me, this is where one of the loops is closed. I couldn't distinguish Bond's Turkish mate in From Russia With Love with his Greek chum from For Your Eyes Only. I know this must annoy anyone from that area of the Mediterreanean, but Bond films are hardly a paragon of cultural sensitivity, and probably assume anyone from that side of France is All The Same. Maybe that's why I thought Roger Moore was shooting people climbing out of faces in 1963, and didn't understand why it wasn't Timothy Dalton kicking a car off a cliff in the late 80s.

So it's a series, not a franchise, and it's also busily learning to eat itself for sustenance. And this is one of the Bond films that feels like it's a drunken dream, from which I awake to find I've scrawled "What's Jeremy Clarkson doing on a boat? Underwater Mr Staypuft!" on a notepad on my nightstand.

If you ignore the start of For Your Eyes Only, then For Your Eyes Only starts quite well. That is to say the titles are good and the song isn't bad, after the tastelessness of more Benny Hill sound effects accompanied a man in a wheelchair being dropped down a chimney. Let us speak no more of this.

For Your Eyes Only is a film of firsts: the first Bond film where a man gets into a vehicle with Bond, and then dies. OK, it's a helicopter, not a car, but it feels as though the stars are strange tonight. Sadly, I recall no furniture based assaults in this film, which sows how low it's sunk.

It's also arguably the first film to give up on plot. OK, The Man With The Golden Gun had an absent-minded Roger Moore dicking about with golden bullets in some bint's navel when he should have been going straight after Scaramanga, but the plot of For Your Eyes Only lurches so drunkenly that you can't really say it exists at all. A beardy man sends a woman to spy on James Bond, and then sends an evil man in a beach buggy to run her over - did that make any sense, apart from to make an excuse for some set-pieces? Therefore rather than bother recapping the script, I'll just spend my time pointing out some of the idiocies in this film, and those things that stayed in my memory the longest, sadly resonating somehow with me.

Pay attention Bond, you put the detergent in here, and the fabric conditioner on the right...
This is a film with many strange sights. When we first see the Identigraph, it looks more like Q has had a top-loading washing machine recently installed in his laboratory. If that was too prosaic, there's also a swimming pool that's been borrowed from Boogie Nights:

And don't forget the evil henchmen playing Swingball. This is hardly Spectre Island, is it?
Never mind though, all the guards are too sexed-up to watch out for British secret agents...

There's also the strange sight of a Bond film with winter locations that doesn't look very good. Usually if there's any snow then the films can't help but look wonderful, but I felt let down here. Maybe it was the lack of a stock-car race in the snow, or the ice-hockey fight that (though it made my Canadian wife very excited) didn't really amount to much, but probably it's Bond turning into a prude when presented with a randy ice skater, rather than the Lothario we've come to expect.1 Between that, a ski jacket even more regrettable than the previous sartorial low of Thunderball's bright red condom wetsuit, and Bond being too cheap to pay for the roses he's bought, the snow has lost its romance. And to think, a stuntman died for this?

(Come to think of it, has somebody been slipping bromine in Grandad Bond's tea? Earlier on, he's far more happy getting an eyeful of a security guard getting some action on the job than he is for getting his own end away.)

A line of skiers all fall over together. Was I not paying attention earlier, or is this the first foreshadowing of all those cyclists falling over in the first car chase of Goldeneye? Is that any stranger than us meant to be threatened by a biathlete, and a German one with silly hair, no less? You begin to worry that the next henchman will be a Belgian heptathlete, or a bloke from Birmingham called Ron who competes in triathlons and wants to conquer Walsall.
There's the strange, sad sight of Moneypenny's make-up. This isn't the fresh-faced, happy spinster of the first few films: it's now been decided that Moneypenny is going to be a symbol of regret, ruing lost opportunities with Bond. There's a whole worrying academic paper about what Moneypenny symbolises for feminism, but I'm not going to go into that here.

Once again, there's a man letting slip that he's evil by choosing the wrong wine. There's the awe-inspiring sight of somebody's grandad running up an awful lot of steps before kicking a car off a cliff.

That shot of the car hanging on the precipice is one of the redeeming features of For Your Eyes Only; between that and the madcap ludicrousness of the downhill car chase earlier, it seems that maybe the film only falls flat when it's not on an incline - ice rinks rubbish, bob-sleigh runs ok, boat trips and keel hauling ... perhaps I'm stretching too far.

And of course, there's lots of messing about underwater. A few questions are raised here, like why didn't they learn anything from those terrible Moonraker costumes when they were working on the submarine uniforms, and why doesn't the oxygen helium mix make Bond's voice all squeaky? And why are everyone's underpants so bad?

Nice pants

Mmm, more nice pants.

No, that must have been something else that's been troubling me. Maybe it's the socio-political intrigue, and the implication from the warring smugglers that British spies are bumbling fools. No, not fools, tools. It's a strange agenda to smuggle into a putatively pro-British film, but For Your Eyes Only begins to suggest the Brits are irrelevant. Their only use is to be used to bump off your business rival, and they're too stupid to realise they're being played. Sure, they're good at dropping paraplegics down industrial erections, but what else are they really good for? This jawdropping admission of irrelevance is just the start, mind: the apotheosis of it will be at the climax of the next film, but let's not spoil that until we get there. I hate it when somebody spoils the ending.

Which brings me to Time Bandits, a film where you don't need somebody to spoil the ending for you, when the director is man enough to do that. Time Bandits is a wonderful, inventive film with the cojones to base the cast around some shorter-than-average people without ever becoming condescending. It has Sean Connery being beaten up by a big lad with a bull head, and it has possibly the most amazing last line of any film made in 1981, but ... well, the wheels do come off towards the end. The final fight between Evil and everyone else feels as though it should have been epic and incredible and awe-inspiring, and instead it feels like Gilliam was bored by then and was just throwing lots of ideas at the wall in the hope something would stick. Strange, eh?

The other strange thing about Time Bandits is how jarring the ending is. We finish the film, floating up into space away from an identikit commuter dormitory village, leaving Kevin looking at two smoking scorch marks where his parents used to be. In any other film of the 80s, you'd expect Kevin to hop aboard the fire engine and ride off with his old friend Sean Connery into the distance, but Gilliam doesn't soften the blow; there's no happy ending here.2 I suppose that's entirely consistent with the man who'd go on to Brazil, but it's odd, hmm?

Both Time Bandits and Bond have strange father figures who don't really care that much, although M is absent from this film because he's dead. A shoddy excuse, all things considered. Both have learned that audiences need to be fed a succession of exotic locations, but to bracket them with the prosaic (and perhaps there's a monograph to be written on the parallels between Maggie Thatcher's kitchen and Kevin's) and they're both, despite being a little ramshackle and blundering from set-piece to set-piece, usually quite fun. Bond isn't too busy punching women, and when the bandits go back to Napoleonic times, it's not the bloody violence porn of the Duellists from a few years ago.

You can still see the joins at times; Time Bandits really feels like a bit more money for the final sets would have been really appreciated, and For Your Eyes Only could have done with a proper script, rather than set-piece after set-piece, and it's tragic that there's no memorable dialogue. They even muffed the perfect opportunity when Bond's implacable foe says "The Chinese have a saying" for Moore to scoff "what, 'All you can eat dim sum, twelve quid'?"

Go on, you doddering old fool, say something funny about my beard, I dare you.
Oh well, maybe next time, huh? Bond's mutation from exciting thriller to Bank Holiday entertainment for all the family is almost complete, after all. Where can we go from here?

(India, apparently.)

1Come to expect. Fnaar fnaar.
2Speaking of happy endings, do you think there's a director's cut of The Man With The Golden Gun with Rog in a cut-price rub-a-tug joint? I sincerely hope not.


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