Including Roger Moore in a post about style icons on a menswear blog wouldn’t seem like a stretch. But here at A Suitable Wardrobe (actually in my study thousands of miles away overlooking the woods and trying to surmount the writer’s block that has kept me from executing the last few handstitches that will bring the material of this piece together), we seek to bring out the unexpected, especially when it is hiding in plain sight.
Let’s get this out of the way: obviously, James Bond is a style icon, and so, by association, is every actor to play Bond, at least to the lazy men’s fashion writer (well, leaving aside poor Timothy Dalton). However, after the exuberance of his Gucci loafered, safari-suited debut in his first two Bond films, Moore’s outfits subsided into impeccably tailored forgettability courtesy of the bespoke tailors Doug Hayward and Dimi Major. Like much else in the later part of the Bond franchise, Moore’s clothes were carefully made but knowingly out of place in a 1980s world. His Bond films post The Man With the Golden Gun sent up this clash, putting Moore in clown makeup and a pirate shirt in Octopussy, but couldn’t hide the creaky weariness Moore had begun to telegraph. After all, Sir Roger is three years older than his Bond predecessor Sean Connery. As to Moore’s earlier flair as Bond, he had done 1970s louche better in The Persuaders opposite Tony “Yonda is da castle of my fodda” Curtis.
Instead, the 1996 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle The Quest allows Roger Moore to rise to the level of its own gleeful lowness, and he seems more youthful here than he had eleven years earlier in his last Bond film, A View to a Kill. Playing a naval officer turned pirate, a debonair soldier of fortune and self-titled English lord in a vaguely 1930s Southeast Asia, he carries off a British Navy-style beard and dirty whites with grizzled panache. More to the interest of our readers, however, are the various Englishman Abroad-type outfits that the conceit of the film gives him an excuse to wear as he cuts a swath through interwar Bangkok en route to a spurious Lost City run by monks (is there any other kind?) in Nepal: Resplendent at a muay thai match in full white tie rig, including what looks like a real detachable collar comme il faut (no other kind of wing collar stands up appropriately), sporting a variety of Panamas and other hats with the antecedents of his 1970s wear, British Empire-era tropical outfits that could have come from Airey & Wheeler, as he travels the Silk Road towards a karate-filled date with destiny, if by “destiny” you mean Jean-Claude Van Damme at the height of his career. Here, Moore appears to be able to relax, knowing that the weight of a franchise is not resting on his shoulders. The verve and charm he originally brought to his role as Bond are all he needs here, and it’s a joy to see him do his best impression of a raffish David Niven in this gossamer-thin claptrap, a lovable rogue in a foppish wardrobe, after all, the classic Roger Moore mode.
Other reasons to watch:
Van Damme, who directed, said that the lavish scenery and details of the movie were inspired by Tintin, and indeed the screenplay could have come from the pen of Tintin’s creator, Van Damme’s fellow Belgian Hergé, if he had received a patented Van Damme spin kick to the head beforehand. The film features plenty of picturesque and whimsical imagery (prior to its chop-sockey climax), such as its 1930s colonial hotels, stilt-walking pickpockets and airship-riding, pickle-helmeted Germans, that could recall Tintin, but probably nod to more direct sources like the Indiana Jones movies.
Future Silk Stalkings guilty pleasure Janet Gunn plays the requisite lady reporter, while Jack McGee as Moore’s sidekick channels Roy Kinnear, no faint praise in my book.
Still, ultimately, despite its coating in the finest Belgian cheese, this is a movie about kickfighting, and all the rest of the film builds up to its monk-sponsored martial arts tournament. Aptly described by the greatest writer on teh internet, Seanbaby, as “Bloodsport only with Bloodsport elements,” The Quest lacks that earlier Van Damme movie’s novelty and low-budget thrills, including the Dim Mak “death touch” hokum, Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds and baddie Bolo Yeung and his DD dancing pectorals. The Quest’s fight scenes are mildly entertaining but in today’s blasé MMA-attuned world, perhaps less entertaining than the rest of the film. And obviously entirely predictable.
In the end, The Quest took itself a bit more seriously than it should have. It should have taken a lesson from Roger Moore, who from his first appearance treats every moment on screen as an excuse for Munchausen-level fantasy (involving the aforementioned airship) and escapist costume and pageantry – in the way that Moore's Bond films were supposed to be at their best.
‑ Réginald-Jérôme de Mans