For Your Eyes Only (1981) presents us with a slightly more grown-up James Bond. Having been to outer space in his previous adventure, 007 this time around is a little more grounded, a little more weary, a little more staid. He’s still embroiled in international silliness and is attacked by assailants on skis, on dune buggies, in bulbous underwater suits and on hockey skates but gone is Bond’s boyish enjoyment of it all. He used to storm mountain-top fortresses as if he was visiting on vacation; now it’s just a job. He even turns down sex because of a moral conflict. He must be tired.
This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t fun, just that its hero is less cheeky than we’re used to and more determined. Roger Moore, who with For Your Eyes Only was entering the role of James Bond for the fifth time, is the funniest Bond, but as he aged, his performances became more sophisticated. In this one he seems fully serious for the first time, totally committed and devoid of mugging winks. The movie makes an interesting companion piece with The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), which had many faults and one of them was its severe tone that ran counter to the youthful humor that marked Moore’s first few goes at the character. In For Your Eyes Only the mood is once again resolute but Moore is up to the task and actually excels in it. Perhaps it’s fitting that Moore, the most impish of Bonds, would put together his most complete performance in such an incomplete film.
For Your Eyes Only starts right off on the wrong foot. The pre-credits sequence presents the death of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s nemesis in five previous episodes, in a cartoon sequence in which Blofeld takes remote control of the helicopter Bond is traveling in. Bond regains authority of the craft and chases Blofeld down, lifts him up by running the copter’s skids through Blofeld’s unexplained wheelchair (he was walking just fine the last time we saw him in Diamonds Are Forever ) and dumps him to his doom in a smokestack. This ignoble end to the franchise’s most prominent villain not only reduces a central character to the level of a throwaway gag, but it also stands in stark contrast to the tone of the rest of the movie, which is much more subdued and realistic.
Establishing tone early and definitively in an action movie is essential because the set–pieces require a focus that is resistant to shifting styles. Further, while it’s achievable to begin an earnest movie and gradually devolve into flippancy, it’s much more difficult to establish lightness at the start and gain credibility like the one For Your Eyes Only strives for. After the frivolous Blofeld sequence and the cheesy credits that follow, the audience is prepared for a bloated, dippy Bond adventure; when an austere thriller emerges, it’s cheapened by what went before it (and after—the movie can’t resist a stupid epilogue where Margaret Thatcher talks to a parrot that, while campy fun, is doubly out of place).
That’s not to say that the movie would be a masterpiece with a better opening. More damaging than its tonal issues is its script, which is a mixture of dry, overcomplicated exposition and unimpressive romantic or threatening exchanges. When they are delivered well, in Moore’s case or in the case of an ally played by Topol, they aren’t so bad. But when they’re not, as with the love interest played stiffly by Carole Bouquet or the villain played with no interest by Julian Glover, it’s brutal. The plot involves Bond’s pursuit to track down a missing piece of intelligence equipment that a Greek black marketer is after to sell to the Russians. The search takes Bond around Europe from Spain and the Italian Alps to the Greek isles but never quite into our imaginations. Bond is determined but his energy is misused because his mission comes with poorly defined stakes. We’re told that the equipment is valuable, and that in the wrong hands it can be dangerous, but we aren’t given demonstrative evidence of that. Plenty of pieces of spy paraphernalia are used as macguffins in these movies, but in those cases tension gets built elsewhere; For Your Eyes Only never creates any narrative propulsion and becomes just a series of action scenes.
It has some good ones. The director is John Glen, who took over the franchise after a few entries from Lewis Gilbert, who had a taste for ribald puns but not for competent set–pieces. Glen would direct every Bond movie of the ’80s and unlike his predecessor Glen has a respect for comprehensible action and puts it to good use here. There’s an excellent wordless rock–climbing sequence near the end and an early car chase, but the best is Bond’s inventive tour through an Olympic village in which he must elude assassins on a ski course, a ski–jumping ramp, a bobsled track and finally a hockey practice; it’s very exciting but begs the question of how the villain was able to find so many henchmen that were also world–class winter athletes. Unlike the chaotic quick cuts of the Gilbert pictures, much of these chases are shown in long takes (the stunt work is quite good), with the clearly established relational definitions that I crave. Glen also possesses some of Gilbert’s love of visual puns, and many of the chases are punctuated with humorous sight gags to add a little levity to the measured proceedings. My favorite occurs when a car flies off a cliff onto the top of a tree, to the delight of the menial workers who are collecting dates below it, as the automobile fills their nets.
The problem is that ultimately none of the good things in For Your Eyes Only are put to any worthwhile purpose and so they remain disconnected as parts that, when added up, equal less than their sum. It has a lot of grit but no goal.