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A View to a Bond Baddie: Max Zorin

To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen, we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.

An interesting thing about Roger Moore’s Bond films is the fact that the best baddies tended to pop up in the worst films. Okay, I have a soft spot for Julian Glover in For Your Eyes Only, arguably the best of Moore’s outings as James Bond, but I’m thinking of Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun and Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill. In particular, Walken’s Max Zorin stands out – in my opinion – as one of the best villains of the entire franchise. He’s a character who really stands at the half-way point between the classical Bond villains and the characters we’ve seen since, positioned half-way between Auric Goldfinger and Franz Sanchez. It also helps that Walken is having a whale of a time, and that fun is contagious.

Hang on in there…

Kingsley Amis argued that the best Bond villains provide stern father figures for our hero to rebel against. There’s an argument to be made that his observation applies perfectly to Fleming’s novels, but that the films are set against a very different backdrop. Ian Fleming passed away the year that Goldfinger was released in cinemas. At that time, the franchise was relatively young. Many would argue that Goldfinger was perhaps the most influential film in defining audience expectations for the films that followed. even if it wasn’t, there’s no doubt that the Bond of 1985 was living in a very different world to that of 1964.

The British Empire had been in decline, with Britain striving to remain a power on the world stage. By the time A View to a Kill was released, the Falklands War was still a recent memory. James Bond was a symbol of British nationalism, a hero who stood for the old values in a rapidly-changing world. Despite the fact that America and Russia were really steering global affairs, the Bond films presented a world where British Intelligence was the most important secret service on the planet. Roger Moore’s James Bond seemed to cheekily play with that expectation, a proudly patriotic British hero with a conspicuous Union Jack parachute.

Double trouble…

I’d argue that some of the best villains on film play to the archetype of the cheeky child, the upstart stepping out of line an in need of a good spanking by Bond as a stern authority figure. In an age of global uncertainty with all manner of crazy villains ready to shake things up, Bond was a comforting old-world influence, a character who existed to sort everything out and to prevent the more vindictive bad guys from causing all manner of chaos.

As such, Max Zorin feels almost like the perfect villain for the time. He’s an enfant terrible, a child for the post-national era.There’s a scene in the film where the KGB find themselves completely unable to control Zorin. “You refuse to answer your control,” Gogol insists at one point, as Zorin refuses to acknowledge any obligation to the people who set him up in business. It’s implied that Zorin has the kind of impulse-control problems we expect in children, unable to focus or prioritise, his interests easily distracted. “Your racing activities attract unnecessary attention, but more disturbing are your unauthorised commercial ventures.”

Bond doesn’t share his point of view…

Part of why A View to a Kill feels so weird is because the movie doesn’t know quite how to deal with the end of the Cold War. Octopussy, the previous instalment, had fallen back on the archetype of a mad Russian general, so it must have seemed strange that this era was ending. Bond had been flirting with the Russians since From Russia With Love, and the Cold War represented a clear and obvious status quo. The end of the Cold War was terrifying because it represented change.

A View to a Kill is, as a film, maddeningly inconsistent. There are several passages where it feels like a silly Roger Moor film, punctuated by incidents of horrific violence from Max Zorin. It’s telling that the campier scenes, those involving the more comfortable surroundings and lower bodycounts, see Bond interacting with the Russians. The opening features the truly bizarre sequence of Bond snowboarding to the tune of California Girls.

Where does Zorin get his kicks?

Later on, the movie takes a surreal left turn where – for some reason – Bond seduces a beautiful Russian agent. It’s remarkably casual. The pair talk like old friends, and admit to being old lovers. It’s so personal and comfortable. “Detenté can be beautiful,” the Russian agent coos in an accent sexy enough to make you forget that this is a weird tangent. The pair mess around in a hot-tube, and their games are polite and good-natured. There’s no hint of violence or bloodlust, in contrast to Zorin’s bloodthirsty nature. The film even ends with M and Gogol sharing a drink together, what would have been a surreal image only a decade earlier.

As such, Zorin feels like an upsetting element, a chemical compound that upsets a delicate equilibrium, a wild card in a gentlemen’s game. Zorin isn’t violent in pursuit of an end, he’s needlessly violent just because. He doesn’t follow the rules of engagement that Roger Moore’s Bond has grown comfortable with. Even the Russians abhor his strategy. “You did not request approval before eliminating 007,” Gogol protests, almost admitting his casual fondness for Bond. “Reprisals might jeopardise operations.” In a way, Zorin still feels ahead of his time, the almost anonymous violence and random brutality of the twenty-first century.

Subtle…

Roger Moore has voiced his own concern about A View to a Kill in the years that followed. “I am happy to have done it, but I’m sad that it has turned so violent,” Moore bas been quoted as saying. “That’s keeping up with the times, it’s what cinema-goers seem to want and it’s proved by the box-office figures.” In a way, it’s clear that Roger Moore’s Bond has a similar opinion of Zorin. Bond would typically banter with bad guys, but Moore’s Bond seems to be too disgusted with Zorin’s brutality to trade barbs.

“You amuse me, Mr. Bond,” Zorin states at one point. There’s no witty retort, Bond just states, “Well, it’s not mutual.” Stacey is about to tell Zorin where to shove it, but Bond seems to consider it a fruitless endeavour. “Don’t bother, Stacey. He’s a psychopath.” Whenever Moore’s Bond looks at Zorin, you can sense his disdain and disgust. It’s actually a rather nice touch from Moore, who was always a finer actor than his scripts might let on.

“You’re fired!”

In many ways, Zorin feels like a spiritual successor to Goldfinger. And not just because he borrowed the guy’s approach to briefing random criminals, only to render the meeting even more extravagant by hosting it… in a blimp. Like Goldfinger, Zorin represents the stateless villain created in the wake of the Second World War. Zorin, like Goldfinger, has no higher loyalty than to himself. He might ally with other interests when they serve his, but he refuses to be bound by loyalty or agreement.

When M briefs us on Zorin’s history, he sounds quite like the kind of bad guy Ian Fleming would dream up, a pan-national nightmare. We’re told he is “a leading French industrialist” managing an “Anglo-French combine” working with both English and Russian intelligence. “Born in Dresden,” M explains. “Fled from East Germany in the sixties. French passport. Speaks at least five languages, no accent.” He forgets another key detail that contributes to Zorin’s ambiguous origins: he sounds like Christopher Walken.

I think we know exactly where Zorin gets off…

These add up to a rather mixed up and confusing national background, reflecting the confusing geo-politics in the wake of the Seond World War. However, like so many modern dangers, it’s explained that Zorin is rooted in that conflict. Goldfinger was associated with Nazi Germany through the casting of German actor Gert Fröbe and the use of Nazi gold to lure him out. Max Zorin has an even more direct link. His blonde hair is apparently the product of a Nazi super-soldier experiment, a legacy of a lack of scientific ethics evident during the conflict.

He’s like a living, breathing, thinking nuclear weapon in that regard, a terrible weapon from an old war casting a shadow over the peace that followed. You could argue that Zorin reflects the fear of a Nietzschean superman, a person who doesn’t feel bound to conventional morality. Like Goldfinger, however, the film also paints Zorin as a member of the nouveau rich, those industrialist who came into massive amounts of money following the terrible conflict. “The old rags-to-riches story,” Roger Moore’s Bond muses.

Dressed to kill…

Bond has always been staunchly conservative. In Goldfinger, Sean Connery joked about the pains of listening to the Beatles without earmuffs. Perhaps it’s telling that Zorin’s physical appearance was modelled on Sting and the producers sought David Bowie for the role. He’s a young turk, the fear of a generation growing up in an era of moral relativity. Christopher Walken even looks remarkably younger than Bond or Moneypenny, one of the few instances in the film where Moore’s advanced age proves a benefit to the production.

Indeed, it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. Walken is a decade-and-a-half younger than Moore, but the movie is wary of playing that up, leading to cringeworthy scenes if Moore bedding young actresses or wearing an ill-advised leather jacket. If we accept that Timothy Dalton’s Bond in the next film is another character, rather than the same James Bond, there’s a faint hint of poignancy here. Zorin exists to demonstrate that the older, gentler era of Bond is over, and I think that it offers an in-universe explanation for the shift in Bonds between films. Zorin’s brutality led Roger Moore to decide not to return to the role, and I like to imagine he had a similar impact on Moore’s James Bond character.

Pretty slick…

Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan would not be as surprised by Zorin’s brutality. In fact, they seem like a response to the shift in cultural norms that it might represent. In a way, the murder of Sir Geoffrey is symbolic. Patrick McNamee had starred as Steed in The Avengers, the iconic British spy show. It was relatively light-hearted, and he’s of a similar era and sensibility as Moore. The murder of his character signals that those relatively light-hearted days are over. It’s a shame the script never capitalises on this, as it’s one of the more interesting aspects of Zorin and the film.

Despite his firmly modern thirst for brutality, you could argue that Zorin is the most distinctly “Fleming” of the post-Fleming Bond villains, even evoking elements of certain characters that never made it to the screen. In her fascinating essay, He Who Eats Meat Wins (collected in James Bond and Philosophy), Sue Matheson suggests that Zorin is “arguably Hollywood’s best example of the madness that is a trademark of the Master-Animal as Overman in the Fleming novels.”

Walken has style, he’s got Grace… and he never knows his place…

Zorin takes what he wants because he’s bigger and stronger and because he can. He justifies the murder of the Mayor of San Francisco as a demonstration of his “intuitive improvisation”, apparently “the secret of genius.” He has no underlying philosophy save his own wants, and he feels that he has every right to everything he wants. He has no other attachment or loyalties, save perhaps to the doctor who created hem. He even discards his lover May Day when it becomes convenient.

Speaking of the doctor, Zorin expressly touches on an aspect of the Bond villains frequently glossed over in the transition from page to screen. In Jeremy Black’s The Politics of James Bond : From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, the author suggests that Zorin can be firmly linked to other eugenics-associated villains from the source material. In particular, Black cites Moonraker, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Live and Let Die. While the films may have touched on the point briefly, Zorin represents those ideas pushed to the fore.

Top of the world, eh?

Zorin is represented on John Barry’s superb score by the roaring electric guitar, a remarkably modern instrument on an orchestral soundtrack. You can hear it blaring in the background like a warning siren, advising us that something terrible lurks on the horizon, approaching like Zorin’s silent air ship. We are all Tanya Roberts, oblivious of the fast-approaching danger coming right at us. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it’s really the only way to justify that absolutely terrible shot.

On a slightly more serious note, as far as the movie is concerned, Zorin seems especially evil because his finances are rooted in computers, the advanced science of tomorrow. Given the film opens with Q and Bond providing a public service announcement on EMP’s and microchips for the audience, it reinforces the conflict between an older wise generation and the younger reckless one that followed. Indeed, Zorin at one point boasts how he couldn’t live without a computer, at a time when they were only being introduced to the public at large.

Let’s spend the night together…

The movie even builds upon some of the same themes as Goldfinger, with regards to the villain. Again, it’s a strange narrative distraction that works better thematically than in practice. Zorin’s horse-racing scam exists to eat an hour of screen time, but it also allows the film to raise some questions about Zorin’s breeding. In Goldfinger, Bond and Fleming make several none-too-subtle jabs at Goldfinger’s breeding. It seems to imply that the character is so crass because he came into money rather than inheriting it.

“Tell me, why do Zorin’s horses beat others with far superior bloodlines?” Bond asks an expert at one point. Given Zorin’s confused and muddled background, it Bond could easily be asking the question about the man himself. Bond even acknowledges this later on in a conversation about horse breeding, as the breeder notes the importance of certain traits. Bond asks, “Are you talking about people or horses?” Zorin’s problem, like so many classic Fleming villains, is deeply rooted in his messed-up DNA, an example of breeding gone horribly wrong. Or horribly right. Fleming had a strange preoccupation with his villians’ genetic origins (with Bond frequently trying to deduce his foes’ ethnic roots). Max Zorin takes that implicit recurring theme and makes it explicit.

“I wanted to call it Operation: Grand Slam, but my lawyers tell me that’s taken…”

Zorin is the next logical evolution of the Bond villain. Like Timothy Dalton’s Bond seemed to foreshadow Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, the calm and calculated psychopathy of Max Zorin seems years ahead of the curve. He seems to enjoy violence for the sake of it. Compare the shots of Zorin viciously gunning down his men to those of Xenia Onatopp climaxing during the massacre in Siberia. I imagine that Zorin and Xenia would have got along perfectly.

Zorin very clearly seems to link sex and violence, something that was emerging as a media preoccupation at the time. His wrestling with Mayday seems distinctly sexual, as they seem unable to decide whether to bite or kiss one another. Witness his intense frustration when their session is interrupted, as if his urges will have to go unfulfilled. “I told you not to disturb us!” he yells when he gets a phone call.

In business, he’s making a killing…

However, that same evening, Zorin seems quite happy to send Mayday, his bodyguard/girlfriend, to bed with Bond. He even smiles while doing it, as if it’s giving him a perverse thrill. We’ve seen Bond villains tempt him with female henchmen before, but none seemed to get such a kinky sexual kick out of it. If Bond is a little confident in his sexuality, flirting and seducing with impunity, Zorin’s sexuality is downright perverse.

It helps that Walken, apparently a life-long Bond fan, is having the time of his life. Unlike Hugo Drax, Zorin seems to love his random and meaningless violence. Witness his gleeful laugh as he helps Mayday escape in Paris, the playful wink after Mayday disposes of a former business associate or the look of release on his face as he machine guns his men. Once he’s allowed himself that pleasure, his calm and controlling demeanour returns almost immediately. “Good,” he notes, checking his watch. “Right on schedule.”

A couple of kooks…

All this makes the bizarre affection he shows to his “father” all the more surreal. Walken smartly plays the interaction as genuine, as he seems to silently long to prove his worth to the evil Nazi scientist who created him. He seems to shout “daddy! look what I’m doing! aren’t you proud?” Talk about “daddy issues.” It seems surreal to see the pair hugging in something approaching love, given the violence we’ve seen Zorin inflict. It humanises him, but in a distinctly unpleasant way, the same way that Robert Davi made Franz Sanchez a completely despicable and yet understandable human being.

Special mention must be made of Zorin’s henchwoman, Mayday. The pair make a rather surreal couple, walking together while drowning Bond inside his car. Grace Jones isn’t nearly as capable an actor as Christopher Walken, but she doesn’t need to be. Mayday isn’t really sketched out in too much detail – except that she loves violence just as much as Zorin. She seems to have a lower threshold for murder – she balks when she recognises Jenny as one of Zorin’s victims – but she has the same sense of fun about brutality. Notice how she murders Sir Godfrey and then wears his silly hat like a trophy.

Raising the standard…

If Zorin represents the looming threat of nihilistic violence from a younger and more vicious post-War generation seeping into the franchise, Mayday is perhaps the first truly liberated “Bond girl.” The early Connery films featured a wealth of female archetypes and characters who seemed at least well-imagined. In contrast, Moore frequently found himself flirting with female leads who may as well have been cardboard cutouts. You could argue that Zorin represents the end of an era for Moore’s typical “gentleman villain”, and Mayday perhaps represents the end of the one-dimensional Roger Moore Bond girl. Compare Mayday to Stacey, for an illustration.

The script doesn’t offer us too much information on Mayday, on her origin or background, and Grace Jones isn’t the strongest actress. However, the villain remains a far more compelling character than most of the contemporaneous female Bond characters. There had been villainous female characters before (Fiona in Thunderball) and after (Elektra King in The World is Not Enough and Xenia in GoldenEye), but Mayday was the first who wasn’t defined by her sexuality. Although she hooks up with Bond, all three characters involved (her, Zorin, Bond) seem to acknowledge it as a farce rather than anything more serious.

Strange bed fellows…

Instead, Mayday is defined by her strength and her ruthlessness. Had she remained a cold and detached villain throughout, you could argue the film showed the same reactionary tendencies towards feminism that you can read into Goldfinger. Indeed, even if Bond had converted her to the cause of the just by seeing the error of her ways, you could make a case that the film was an awkward criticism and caricature of feminism.

However, Mayday remains her own actor throughout the film, making her own decisions based on the information available to her at the time. Indeed, despite her violence and ruthlessness (traditionally considered male attributes in popular culture), the film acknowledges that Mayday has always been motivated to some extent by emotional concerns (which popular culture traditionally defines as a feminine characteristic). “I thought that creep loved me,” she tells Bond. She still feels those emotions that pop culture tends to associate with female characters, but she refuses to be defined by them.

Mayday! Man overboard!

It is nice that, unlike in Goldfinger, Mayday isn’t “converted” to the cause of the just by sleeping with Bond. She promptly forces herself on top of Bond, which isn’t quite what we expect from a Bond girl. Asked about his night, Bond comments, “A little restless, but I got off eventually.” That doesn’t sound like his typical evening activity. Indeed, Mayday murders Sir Godfrey after sleeping with Bond, as if to demonstrate that she won’t be redeemed on Bond’s terms.

Instead, her turn is motivated purely by her own sense of betrayal when Zorin tries to murder her. It’s a nice illustration of the problems that Zorin’s psychopathy might cause in running a nebulous evil organisation like this. It’s also just nice to see a hench-person who objects to gratuitous murder of her fellow employees by their boss. It always struck me as odd that villains attracted such devotion with practises like that. Why would anybody work with S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? (Or, if they did, take a seat at one of their meetings?)

It doesn’t compute…

Part of me wonders why Michael Lonsdale got landed with some of the best lines of the Moore era, while Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee found themselves cast in two of Moore’s weakest films. Still, I have a soft spot for the character of Max Zorin, to the point where I’d argue he’s the strongest bad guy of the Roger Moore era. It’s just a shame about the rest of the film.

You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:

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6 Responses

  1. This was a great critique, making me question Zorin as more than a humanless psychopath in one of the much weaker Bond series. While I don’t think my opinion has swayed completely, I am seeing Walken in a whole new light.
    Than again, I never really delved into the mindset of villains, preferring the surface level as opposed to their inner workings. Most of the time, I just chalk it up to screenwriters, smoking around an old oak table, contemplating what dastardly deeds they could pull off with little inkling to character motivation.

    • Fair point. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. That said, Zorin remains one of my favourite Bond baddies, despite the fact that A View to a Kill is one of my least favourite films. (That said, I’d stillr ank it higher than most of Moore’s tenure.)

  2. Reblogged this on drndark.

  3. Quite a lot of copy you extracted from such a mediocre film! The idea of Zorin as a sort of proto-Joker — a nihilistic bad guy — holds water, though.

    • Ha! I think I’ve said it before, but A View to a Kill is my one “bad Bond film” pick. I figure most people have a bad Bond film that they love to death, from Diamonds Are Forever to Die Another Day. A View to a Kill is mine. (License to Kill is my “divisive Bond film” pick over on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.)

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