Robin’s Underrated Gems: Ffolkes (1979)

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We recently did a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about the James Bond franchise, and our discussions indicated that I was a much bigger fan of Roger Moore’s work as 007 than my colleagues. While it’s undeniable Moore starred in the silliest Bond films and played the role longer than he should have, I would argue that his portrayal of James Bond was perfect for the material he was given. When Moore took on the role of 007 in the 1970s, the series was far removed from Ian Fleming’s original creation and became a lot more cartoonish, campy and larger-than-life than Fleming had ever intended. Yes, it’s true more serious, down-the-earth Bond films starring Sean Connery or Timothy Dalton probably would not have worked well at all with Roger Moore, his lighter, more comically deadpan approach to playing 007 was perfectly suited for the films he appeared in. As renowned as Sean Connery is for his portrayal of James Bond, he probably would not have well-suited at all for the campier Bond vehicles, such as Live and Let Die and Octopussy, but Moore was very adept at playing that material with the right mixture of sincerity and self-aware humour. Anyway, Roger Moore is so associated with playing Bond that people tend to forget that he did plenty of other entertaining projects throughout the course of his career. In between playing 007 in Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only, Moore decided to appear in an underrated little British thriller called Ffolkes and decided to play a character that was similar to James Bond in some ways, but much different from him in others. Like Bond, the title character in Ffolkes is very adept at fighting bad guys and saving the world from catastrophes. However, instead of being a suave, debonair ladies man, Mr. Ffolkes happens to be a cranky, embittered misogynist. Yes, I guess you could argue that James Bond himself is a bit of a misogynist, but could you imagine him preferring cats to women?!

The main protagonist in this story is Rufus Excalibur Ffolkes (Roger Moore), a very eccentric and arrogant counterterrorism expert. He works as a freelance consultant who spends all his free time devising contingency plans that be used in the event of terrorist attacks, and then trains a team of commandos to enact them. Ffolkes’ services are desperately required when a Norwegian supply ship is taken over by a group of terrorists, who are lead by the unhinged Lou Kramer (Anthony Perkins) and his shifty sidekick, Harold Schulman (Michael Parks). Kramer takes the crew hostage and uses the ship to find a pair of British oil platforms in the North Sea and rig them both with explosive mines. He then contacts the British Prime Minister (who happens to be female since this film was made around the time Margaret Thatcher went into office) and demands a ransom of 25 million pounds. If the ransom is not paid by a certain deadline, he will blow up the oil platforms, and while the deaths of the innocent workers on those platforms is bad enough, the loss of oil would also cause catastrophic damage to Britain’s economy. Kramer has also rigged the supply ship with the bomb and is willing to blow himself up should anyone make an attempt to attack him. Of course, the British government is reluctant to negotiate with terrorists and pay the ransom, so they decide that their best chance of success is to hire Rufus Excalibur Ffolkes to devise and launch a tricky counterterrorist attack on the ship before Kramer has a chance to blow it up. Navy Admiral Brinsden (James Mason) is assigned the task of working with Ffolkes and helping him coordinate the attack and is less-than-thrilled to be working with such an odd individual. When Ffolkes shows up in the opening moments of the film wearing a striped Where’s Waldo-esque toque, you know he’s going to be a far cry from James Bond.

Ffolkes is based on a novel by Jack Davies called Esther, Ruth and Jennifer (which are the names of the supply ship and the two oil platforms) and was originally released in the United Kingdom under the title, North Sea Hijack. While it’s common for titles to be dumbed down for release in North America, distributors went with the surprising decision to get rid of the generic-sounding North Sea Hijack and name the film after its protagonist… and I can see why such an awkwardly spelled title like Ffolkes might not have compelled audiences to rush out and see it. It should be mentioned that those expecting a non-stop action and stunts extravaganza like the Bond films will probably be disappointed by Ffolkes as there really isn’t much action in the film at all until the last act. Even though the original poster art makes Ffolkes look like a Bond film (featuring a bunch of bikini-clad women who aren’t even in the film!), the story functions more as a cat-and-mouse game between the two sides and works pretty well in that regard. Director Andrew V. McLagen (who, believe it or not, made the movie that formed the basis for my favourite Mystery Science Theater episode of all time: Mitchell) does a very good job at building tension, and while the film isn’t action-packed, it is very well paced and never boring. Of course, the film works largely because of the entertaining interplay between the characters, and because both its hero and its villain aren’t exactly traditional archetypes for this type of film. In spite of his clever terrorist plan, Kramer is never portrayed as a smooth, sophisticated super-villain. He often seems more awkward than confident and is capable of losing his head at a moment’s notice… which, of course, is highly dangerous when he can blow things up at the push of a button. The casting of Anthony Perkins is very effective because this is pretty much how you would envision things if Norman Bates decided to became a terrorist. The character of Ffolkes is one of the more unique action heroes you will ever see and Roger Moore plays against his 007 image quite nicely. In one priceless scene, Folkes says that he’s going to cut all his female relatives out of his will and leave everything to his cats! Ffolkes’ contempt for women is so high that the character could easily be off-putting, but Moore manages to turn him into a pretty entertaining and likable jackass.

What’s also funny is that Jack Davies’ original novel was published before Margaret Thatcher was elected into office, but changing the Prime Minister into a female for the film adds an extra element of humour to Ffolkes’ character, since he clearly is not overjoyed with the idea of having to answer to a female in such a high position of authority. The movie does provide a brief backstory that explains Ffolkes’ rampant misogyny and even though they never explicitly state it, there are subtle hints dropped every now and then that Ffolkes may be a homosexual. Not only does Ffolkes hate women as people, but he seems to have ZERO sexual interest in them at all! In addition, the movie also drops a few hints that Kramer and his sidekick, Schulman, may be homosexual partners as well. How many other action films are you going to find where three out of the four main characters are gay?! However, little character touches like that help distinguish Ffolkes from the Bond franchise and place it a cut above your average terrorist thriller. I would have loved to see the character of Ffolkes get his own series of movies, but of course, Roger Moore would go right back to playing 007 again, and the film’s lack of success at the box office would pretty much guarantee that, unlike James Bond, Rufus Excalibur Ffolkes would not return . However, Roger Moore has gone on record as saying that he believes Ffolkes to be a better film than any of the Bond flicks he made. It’s worth noting that after Ffolkes, the Bond series transitioned from the ridiculous, over-the-top lunacy of sending 007 to space in Moonraker to a more grounded, traditional spy thriller in For Your Eyes Only and I have to wonder if Moore’s appearance in this film helped influence that decision. All in all, Ffolkes remains an underrated thriller that is very difficult to find these days, but it is well worth seeking out. While its plotline sounds pretty standard, it’s still a very entertaining way to spend 100 minutes and an opportunity for Roger Moore to show that he really was a much better actor than people gave him credit for.

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