Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Roger that!

When it comes to James Bond movies, Sean Connery gets all the glory. As the first Bond, he still sets the standard by which all others are measured. He’s considered the essence of 007, playing chemin de fer in his tuxedo or sipping a vodka martini, hairy-chested and marble-mouthed.

It doesn’t seem quite fair.

I grew up in the ‘70s, so my Bond was Roger Moore. Poor Roger is roundly and routinely dissed for being a sort of campy Austin Powers-type Bond, wrestling giant snakes, blasting off into outer space, cavorting under the ocean with Ringo Starr’s future wife. It’s true that Bond movies in the ‘70s flirted with - OK, plunged into - absurdity. But that’s hardly Roger’s fault.

So let me set the record straight: Roger Moore was a good James Bond, easily as good as Connery.

When I was 12 years old, I went with my siblings to see “Moonraker,” one of the more outrageous Bond films - that of the journey into outer space. As I recall, we were dropped off by my dad and stepmother at the Varsity Six theater in Tampa, and we sat through two showings of “Moonraker” and started a third. (I can’t imagine why our parents dropped us at the theater for five hours, but whatever.)

I loved it. LOVED it. I loved the hallucinatory Maurice Binder opening credits, with naked women tumbling and soaring in silhouette. I loved the haunting Shirley Bassey title song, and immediately asked for the soundtrack for my 13th birthday. (I know, I know - how gay. I can’t believe I ever had to come out to my parents.)

And I loved the movie’s exotic locales: Rio de Janeiro, Venice, even California. I’ve always had an infatuation with Rio, and I think that’s when it started.

In the middle of it all, there was Roger - fighting Jaws in midair after tumbling from a plane with no parachute, driving a mechanized Venetian gondola with wheels onto dry land, slugging it out atop the cable car to the Sugarloaf. And, of course, flying the space shuttle.

Yes, it was stupid. No question about it. But it was fantasy, and it was fun. It did what a movie is supposed to do, filling those boring hours until our parents turned up again to take us all home.

Since then, I’ve seen all the Bond films based (some more loosely than others) on Ian Fleming’s books. I stopped after “Octopussy,” in 1984, which was Roger Moore's final Bond outing. I skipped all the pretenders that followed, until the new “Casino Royale.”

I recently read a book called “The Man Who Saved Britain: A personal journey into the disturbing world of James Bond,” by Simon Winder. Winder reflects on Ian Fleming’s books and the movies they inspired, pointing out that they were produced at a time when postwar England was suffering through a crisis of identity and national pride. Fleming’s Bond was a strong, sexy Englishman, swaggering across the landscape at a time when England needed him.

Winder had some interesting opinions about the best Bond films - he mentioned “Dr. No,” which I subsequently watched again and found unremarkable. Ursula Andress was a knockout, but the movie itself was hardly riveting.

I think Winder liked it for its relative realism. Boats didn’t turn into cars, and James Bond didn’t fly off in a rocket. In fact, Winder pointed to the scene in “Moonraker” when Bond’s gondola becomes a car as perhaps the moment when the whole franchise finally lost its bearings.

I recently rented “Moonraker” to watch it again, and OK, I admit it - it’s not very good. But it’s entertaining. It’s especially entertaining when you’re 12.

And in the middle of it all, once again, there was Roger - slugging it out, well into his 50s and looking quite dapper. He gave Bond a winking sort of levity, yet didn't allow all the silliness to completely capsize his movies. Even in his youth, he didn’t have the sexual swagger of Daniel Craig, the newest (and easily the hottest) 007; he was more about being suave and stylish, less about being buff and desirable.

But Roger Moore was still a good James Bond.

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