In 1978, the Bond franchise released Moonraker, which was the franchise’s answer to Star Wars. Like The Spy Who Loved Me before it, it was big, epic, and very broad in scale; unlike TSWLM, it seriously pushed the limits of believability, I mean really pushed them, but it is an entertaining romp, so it was forgiven. However, fan reaction was quite loud; it became the highest grossing Bond film ever at the time, topped later by Goldeneye, seventeen years later.
However, many Bond purists (whose opinion I take with a grain of salt) and some critics did not like the larger than life direction, as well as the Bond-in-space angle, that Moonraker took the franchise, and they had good reason to be concerned. The Bond producers had a history of running with successful trends, and sometimes running them into the ground; you saw that with an excessive use of gadgets in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, after the success of Goldfinger, and the use of cheap gags in Live and Let Die, taken to the Nth degree in The Man With the Golden Gun (easily the series worst outing), after the success of Diamonds Are Forever.
However, there was a new regime in place. Michael G. Wilson, the stepson of Bond franchise founder Albert R. Broccoli, noted that to follow the direction of Moonraker would lead them to a place that was “very silly,” and possibly ruin the franchise. Now, don’t get me wrong: everyone was proud of their achievement in Moonraker; and it is a fantastic film, as well as the only Bond to have a science fiction angle, but after something that enters the sci-fi realm, they needed to bring Bond back to Earth.
The new regime that came into place to do just that would remain in place for nearly ten years. John Glen, who had been an editor and second unit director on many previous Bond films, was promoted to director. Richard Maibaum, a longtime Bond screenwriter, began working with Michael G. Wilson, and the two of them would ultimately form a successful writing team. Albert R. Broccoli, the long time producer, eventually promoted his stepson from executive producer to full producer, and his daughter, Barbara Broccoli, to associate producer, thus paving the way for the next generation.
This team would lead the Bond franchise back, although not all their ideas were immediately popular; Roger Moore did not like the direction his Bond took in the follow-up to Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, stating that a few scenes “Bond, but not necessarily Roger Moore Bond.” However, what even he respected was that those scenes, indicative that the franchise was returning to its roots, as less of a spectacle and more of a thriller, helped bring the franchise back to Earth. While the implications of For Your Eyes Only are not directly as big as those of the previous two films, the return to the Cold War backdrop gives the film a realistic tension; for the first time really in the series, it is not the United Kingdom against a terrorist organization, smugglers, an egomaniacal madman, or some rogue assassin, but it is East vs. West, with the head of the KGB, an ally of Bond from time to time, an enemy, even if a friendly one.
For Your Eyes Only, in a broad view of the Bond franchise, can be easily overlooked as the bridge between Moonraker and Octopussy, which were two hugely successful Bond films. However, that view ignores that Octopussy wouldn’t have been possible without the dramatic foothold that For Your Eyes Only established.
Octopussy was a slightly bigger Cold War thriller than its immediate predecessor, but despite all that, it is still a thriller, complete with a scene where Bond, dressed as a clown, and literally in a circus, disarms a nuclear bomb. Unlike For Your Eyes Only, which toned down the spectacle in favor of more modest locations to make the film a tad more realistic (also to provide a contrast with Moonraker), Octopussy got the formula right: real threat, Cold War threat, with a lot of dazzle, and speculator locations (India amongst a few) mixed with more modest ones (West Germany, Berlin).
The franchise took a step back with A View to a Kill, although not a really bad one. The film has some bad dialogue, the plot works on the whole, but fails in individual scenes and sequences, including some scenes that are derivative from past Bond films, and the film wastes one of Bond’s best villains, played brilliantly by Christopher Walken, and one of the most intriguing women in the history of Bond, played by Grace Jones. Even the majestic setting of San Francisco can’t salvage the film, which was Roger Moore’s last. However, the film maintained the realistic feel, providing a solid segue into Timothy Dalton’s tenure.
The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill did two things Broccoli, Glen, Wilson, and Maibaum wanted; bringing Bond back to his thriller roots. However, in the process, they managed to bring him back to his roots, as their writing, coupled with Dalton’s more serious take on the character, led to Dalton’s Bond being referred to as the first true screen appearance of the novel Bond.
Granted, Living Daylights is not a perfect film; the bad guy is over the top, the bad guys’ plot is a bit complicated, and the opening sequence, designed to introduce audiences to a new Bond for the first time in over fifteen years, is a bit much. However, the film is successful in doing what so many Bond films have done; showing why cooperation between the East and West is necessary, whilst also playing off of residual Cold War tensions.
Licence to Kill, akin to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is a bit of an an anomaly. For starters, Bond is not in MI6, he is a rogue agent. There is brutal violence (with even more brutal acts implied but shown off screen). The villain, for all his brutality, is quite charming (to be fair they often are); he is also a drug lord, who effectively controls the government (similar to Noreiga in Panama at the time). Did I mention that Wayne Newton plays a corrupt fake priest?
However, Licence to Kill, and yes, I am spelling it properly (it’s British), is a great thriller, with ups, downs, and a sense of awe that only a Bond film can really get away with. However, the film’s lackluster US box office performance, coupled with MGM and EON’s legal issues with producer Kevin McClory that delayed the next film, Goldeneye, until 1995, meant several key people would leave the franchise. It also marked the last film directed by John Glen, the last film written by Richard Maibaum, who unfortunately passed away a few years later, and the final film produced by Albert Broccoli, whose health began declining soon thereafter. It also marked the end of Timothy Dalton’s Bond, which although short (2 films total), was memorable as being as close to Ian Fleming’s Bond as any actor had come to that point (Daniel Craig has gotten pretty close in the last few years), as well as just being a brilliant actor, who assumed the unenviable task of replacing Roger Moore as James Bond.