“Before setting out for revenge, you first dig two graves” – Chinese proverb.
Thus speaks Roger Moore’s James Bond to the beautiful and bereaved Melina Havelock as she prepares to avenge the murder of her parents by mysterious henchmen. As with the latest instalment in the franchise Quantum of Solace, revenge is a major theme of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, a film which consciously sets out to reject the extravagance of its predecessor (Moonraker) while providing its hero with something approaching a back story.
We begin, as ever, with a short but key pre-title sequence, in which we find 007 standing beside the grave of his late wife. This may come as something of a surprise to non-Bond aficionados, who might understandably hold an image of Bond as the ultimate bachelor boy (Cliff Richard notwithstanding). However, we were introduced to Teresa “Tracy” Bond in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who was murdered on the orders of arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld within hours of her nuptials. Just as the demise of Vesper Lynd at the end of 2006’s Casino Royale provided context for Bond’s driven, misogynistic coldness, this early reminder of his dark past offers an explanation for the revenge thriller to come in FYEO.
Our first taste of that which is best served cold comes immediately afterwards, as Bond is entrapped in a remote control helicopter at the mercy of the very same Blofeld (or so we assume – legal complications left the producers unable to use that character’s name and we never see his face; however, his bald head, wheelchair and clear affection for cats give the game away). Sitting atop a tall London building, which we can only assume has outstanding wheelchair access, “Blofeld” produces his usual over-egging of the assassination pudding, allowing 007 to regain control of the situation and dump the villain down a Beckton chimney stack.
John Glen, making his directorial debut, clearly realised that attempting to top the unparalleled absurdity of Moonraker (see PPH passim) would be a fool’s errand, and the plot of FYEO is infinitely more low-key, concentrating on character development and several very impressive stunt sequences, literally bringing the series back down to earth. A British spy ship is sunk, allowing a top secret system which controls the Royal Navy’s entire fleet of Polaris submarines to fall into unscrupulous hands. Bond is sent to investigate, at which point he crosses paths with Melinda (Carole Bouquet) who has already begun her campaign of revenge, taking out a suspect with a crossbow (apparently the weapon of choice for both female assassins and teenage psychopaths).
One signal of the shift in emphasis from previous films is the sheer lack of sex in FYEO. Far from bedding every skirt that moves, Bond is gently affectionate and almost fatherly towards Melina. At one point, faced with a young, naked blonde in his hotel bed, he insists she dresses and leaves the room. The blonde is sexually-terrifying Olympic ice-skating hopeful Bibi Dahl, played with perfect annoyance by real-life skater Lynn-Holly Johnson (not to be confused with the singer from Frankie Goes To Hollywood); her relationship with Bond is fairly absurd, but thankfully brief. The only woman with whom 007 actually becomes ‘intimate’ is fake-Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Casandra Harris), who amusingly transpires to hail from Liverpool. Even in this case, we are spared the gory details, though the Countess soon falls foul of the Bond curse as the victim of a beach buggy hit-and-run (Bond fact: at the time of filming, Harris was married to future 007, Pierce Brosnan).
Also mercifully missing from the film are Moonraker’s raised-eyebrow ‘humour’ and punning asides, along with that film’s globe-trotting location switches and over-reliance on gadgetry. Proof of this comes when Bond’s Lotus explodes, leaving him and Melina to flee armed pursuers in a battered 2CV - a car usually favoured by 1970s schoolteachers - during an enjoyable chase through the Spanish countryside. Indeed, the less over-the-top nature of the stunt set pieces is a strength of FYEO, with a lengthy pursuit through the Alps particularly impressive. The sequence sees Bond pack at least five Winter Olympic events into the space of ten minutes and should perhaps have seen the film re-titled The Spy Who Went Out in the Cold. Throughout the scene, 007 is pursued by lackeys on motorcycles, surely not the ideal mode of transport when going off-piste.
The major weakness of FYEO is the villains themselves who are fairly underwhelming. Bond’s main nemesis is Greek businessman Aris Kristatos, played by Julian Glover (earlier pipped by Moore for the role of Bond himself). Though a fine actor, Glover doesn’t bring the necessary maniacal oddness that we have come to expect of a super-villain, while the fact that his character is looking to make a quick buck from the cold war arms race, rather than achieve galactic domination, is another example of the film’s reigned-in ambition. This makes the arrival of the reliably larger than life Topol, as Kristatos’s pistachio-obsessed former colleague Milos Columbo, extremely welcome.
FYEO reaches its climax with another stunt sequence; having tracked Kristatos down to a mountain-top monastery, Bond and his companions proceed to scale an enormous cliff face in order to reach him. One is tempted to suggest that, with national security at stake, MI6 could have sent a fleet of SAS helicopters in to reclaim their hardware, rather than four Greeks in a basket, but that would be churlish. Perhaps we should just put it down to cuts in defence spending (though evidence suggests that this could be solved by simply sending 007 to a casino with what remains in the Treasury’s coffers)?
Despite the relatively straight tone of the film, perhaps the most bizarre scene in the entire series comes at the conclusion of FYEO, as our hero is patched through to the Prime Minister. Rather than portray a fictional character, impressionist Janet Brown is employed to impersonate Margaret Thatcher in a comic vignette involving husband Dennis, some biscuits and a talking parrot, which seems more suited to Not the Nine O’Clock News than a spy drama. Limited space prevents me from making any comments about Maggie proving the most convincing villain in the film.
Overall, this is mid-table Bond, never touching the heights of the Connery years, but avoiding the self-parody of Moonraker. The action is returned to sea and slopes and is all the better for it while Moore, despite advancing age, gives one of his better performances. The impressive stunt sequences aside, perhaps the most interesting things about For Your Eyes Only are the themes of revenge and the attempt to present Bond as a more rounded character, something which would anticipate the wounded, human secret agent that Daniel Craig has brought to our screens in recent episodes.
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