Movie review: ‘Moonraker’

Today I’m posting my most critical review of a “James Bond” flick. I have to say that “Moonraker” was the beginning of the end for Roger Moore’s “007” that would last through another three films. “Moonraker” has all the best elements of “Bond” movies, but just comes off … kind of hollow – you know, like hollowness from a vacuous expression … and fans would see that later from Daniel Craig as he sank the franchise to an even deeper low. Still, no 007 movie is really, really bad. So, let’s take a ride in this one on the Concorde (remember that?) and then a space shuttle (remember that?) and then take off with my review of “Moonraker” …

‘Moonraker’
(1979; 126 minutes; rated PG; directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles and Michael Lonsdale)

ROGER MOORE NOT AT HIS BEST IN THIS ONE

I’m a big fan of the “James Bond” franchise, but not of all the films. With this review of “Moonraker,” I’m taking a few shots at the fourth 007 movie with Roger Moore, who is the second-Best “Bond, James Bond” in all 25 films, as he gives a mostly lifeless effort as he battles an end-of-all-humanity villain and the killer called “Jaws,” who’s after 007 in his second “Bond” flick.

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Moonraker” has all the good things you expect to find in each film in the franchise: A globe-trotting 007, who goes in this one from London to the U.S. to Italy, to South America and then into orbit (it doesn’t get any more international than that); a villain who wants to kill everyone on the planet, but his motivation isn’t profit, such as the SPECTRE villains; and it has the second-best boat chase in the franchise (it’s only behind the one on a Louisiana bayou in “Live and Let Die” – click here for my review) and you’ll get a second boat chase (first in chronological order) in a gondola through the canals of Venice.

So, what happened with “Moonraker?”

I don’t know any back stories about “Moonraker,” but Moore, after beginning his seven-film run as 007 three memorable efforts, almost appears tired in this one as if were his last and he was just squeezing a final paycheck out of the series. Still, he’s OK, but once you’ve seen him work in “The Man with the Golden Gun” (click here for my review), you’ll ask yourself what happened here.

After a nice aerial sequence opening “Moonraker,” where Moore gets shoved out of an airplane by “Jaws” while he’s not wearing a parachute, the early part of the film just drags as the villain is introduced – “Hugo Drax,” played by Michael Lonsdale – and you meet the woman who joins him against “Drax” – Lois Chiles playing CIA agent-astronaut “Holly Goodhead.”

And in that one character, you can spot the lack of “Bond-ness” in the film. Where the franchise once had Honor Blackman as “Pussy Galore” in “Goldfinger” (click here for my review) and Maud Adams as the title character in “Octopussy” (click here for my review) in typical “Bondian” double entendres, the filmmakers and screenwriter mailed this one in and called Chiles’ character “Goodhead.” Sigh.

Ah, well.

As for the plot, you’ll find that Lonsdale’s “Drax” wants to kill everyone on the planet except for the humans he’s chosen to take into orbit. They’ll wait there while Lonsdale’s satellites drop poison across the globe and kill all humanity. Whew! Just like all good villains in the 007 world, “Drax” works on a grand scale and this is a creative part of the film.

Moore is soon on his trail and does the globetrotting thing; gets help from Chiles; and winds up conquering the villain and saving the day for Earth. All-in-all, just what you’d expect from “James Bond.”

Now, here’s my look at the only four members of the cast worth writing about …

  • Like I’ve already written, Moore isn’t at his best “Bond” in this one. Still, he’s the second-best 007 in the franchise behind Sean Connery and his body of work in the franchise overcomes a couple of missteps (such as this one and the equally milquetoast “Octopussy”). He spins off his one-liners in this one with aplomb and actually works surprising well with “Jaws,” whose actor had just one line (in this one) in his two “Bond” movies. Moore has also been in the simply putrid “ffolkes” (click here for my review), the equally putrid “The Wild Geese” (click here for my review) and spoofed his Bond character in “The Cannonball Run” with Burt Reynolds (click here for my review). Moore died in 2017 at 89 of cancer.
  • Chiles is smooth in this role, but she really wasn’t given much of a character with which to work. Her character is pretty much two-dimensional and Chiles never found a way to elevate it. In the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and she was in the early sci-fi thriller “Coma” from the novel by Robin Cook. Chiles also did 25 episodes on TV’s iconic “Dallas” and did an episode of “L.A. Law.” She stepped back from acting after 2006’s “Kettle of Fish” as she battled cancer. Chiles married in 2005 and now paints instead of continuing an acting career.
  • I’m not sure how Lonsdale could have done his character any better, but he just comes off distant rather than the cold, cruel villain he portrays in “Hugo Drax.” The villain has all the great makings of a “Bond” bad guy, but something just never clicks between him and the camera. I like Lonsdale best as the good detective in “The Day of the Jackal” (click here for my review) and he’s also been in “Ronin” with Robert De Niro as well as “Munich.” He’s notched a prolific 238 acting credits through doing everything – TV, TV movies, movies and voicing – from Hollywood to foreign cinema. His career has spanned seven decades with his last acting credit in 2016.
  • The character of “Jaws” is enjoyable especially when he hooks up with a pig-tailed blonde who follows him into space! Kiel, as I already noted, has one line in two 007 films, but he’s fun to watch. The character “Jaws” had its roots in a character with steel teeth named “Reace” in “Silver Streak” (click here for my review) with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor from 1976 (the year before “Jaws’” debut with 007 in “The Spy Who Loved Me” – click here for my review of that one) and doesn’t disappoint in this one. He also has to become Moore’s ally at the end! Kiel was also in the terrible “Force 10 from Navarone” and had a small part in Adam Sandler’s classic golf comedy “Happy Gilmore” (click here for my review) and did TV including as “Voltaire” in several episodes on “The Wild Wild West” with Robert Conrad and even on “The Monkees” in an episode titled “I was a Teenaged Monster” (he played “Frankenstein Monster” and used the nickname of “Dick” instead of Richard). He even played “Famous Big Guy with Silver Teeth” in the 1999 movie “Inspector Gadget” with Matthew Broderick. Kiel died at 74 in 2014 of possible acute myocardial infarction.

An Oscar nominee (not for this one), director Lewis Gilbert was in the last of his three efforts behind the camera in the 007 franchise. The other two were “The Spy Who Loved Me” and 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” Gilbert does a workmanlike job with “Moonraker,” but doesn’t manage to get any exceptional performances from the cast. At best, you can say he did OK. Gilbert was nominated for 1966’s “Alfie” as producer for best picture (the movie earned four other nominations) and he received a Golden Globe nomination for directing “Alfie.” Gilbert also directed “Educating Rita.” Michael Caine was nominated for Oscars in both “Alfie” and “Educating Rita” under Gilbert’s direction. Gilbert died at 97 in 2018 in Monaco.

Oh, “Moonraker” also has a bunch of shameless product placements. Of course, product placement has (had) a long history in films, but you’ll find it onerous here. One scene has a guy on a stretcher roll downhill and get stuck in the billboard of British Airways and 7-Up logos are large and visible in several scenes.

Moonraker” was the ninth-ranked film at U.S. theaters for 1979 with $70.3 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was “Superman” with $93.2 million and the No. 2 flick was “The Amityville Horror” with $86.4 million. Strange – “Superman” was No. 1 for 1979, but was released in December 1978. Ah, well. Here are the other films from 1979 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The cost of production for “Moonraker” was reportedly $30 million, which would have been more than the first eight 007 films combined.
  • The cable that “Jaws” bites was made of licorice – just the same as some chain he bit at the pyramids in “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Bernard Lee‘s final appearance as M. The actor died when For Your Eyes Only (1981) was in pre-production.”
  • Moonraker” is the only film in which 007’s Walther pistol is not seen.
  • Broccoli asked for and received permission from Steven Spielberg for use of the notes from the alien contact scene from “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.”
  • Frank Sinatra was reportedly offered both the role of “Drax” as well as the chance to do the movie’s theme song. Obviously, if the story is true, he refused both.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In his original novel, Ian Fleming described Drax as ‘a Lonsdale figure.’ Twenty-four years later, after James Mason, Stewart Granger, and Louis Jourdan were rejected for the part, Drax was portrayed in this movie by Michael Lonsdale. Jourdan played Kamal Khan in Octopussy (1983).”
  • 007 doesn’t drive an automobile in “Moonraker.” He drives a form of utility vehicle and the only film in which “James Bond” doesn’t drive a car (or any other kind of vehicle, for that matter) is “You Only Live Twice.”
  • The space center scenes were all shot at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • Maybe this is why Moore didn’t do great in this one … finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Sir Roger Moore arrived a few days late for the shoot in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, due to a kidney stone attack in France. Moore had also had a renal colic attack while filming Live and Let Die (1973). Once he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, he literally walked off the plane, went into make-up and hair, got fitted out, went back onto the plane, and was then filmed arriving in Rio de Janeiro as James Bond for this movie.”
  • Click here to read IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film …

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2020.
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