Skyfall Countdown Day 11: Octopussy

“The script says we kiss here.”

On an episode of The Simpsons in a flashforward to Lisa’s wedding, Homer is being introduced to her London-born fiancé and comments, “You know what I like about you English people?  Octopussy.  Man, I must have seen that movie… twice!”  Which is something of an apt observation on Roger Moore’s penultimate romp as James Bond.  It isn’t a movie that leaves a lasting impression, or indeed, much of an impression at all, at least, not a positive one.  The villains are dull, the relationship with the leading lady doesn’t go anywhere, and the visibly aging Moore is less comfortable with action scenes, resulting in an over-emphasis on slapstick.  And since the movie is set in a former British colony, where would we be without some condescending observations on the local culture, including the highly questionable choice of mocking extreme poverty?  Octopussy is indeed a many-tentacled beast of a movie that doesn’t know if it’s trying to be a Cold War thriller or a Peter Sellers “birdie nom nom” comedy.

The murder of 009, who turns up dead in West Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg, puts Bond on the case of a jewelry smuggling ring that seems to be centered on India and the traveling circus of the beautiful Octopussy (Maud Adams, returning in a new role after taking a golden bullet to the breast in The Man with the Golden Gun), whose father Bond once permitted to honourably commit suicide rather than face the disgrace of a court-martial.  Octopussy herself is being duped by her business partner Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), an exiled Afghan prince who is collaborating with the mad Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) to smuggle a nuclear bomb onto a U.S. Air Force base and detonate it in the hopes of persuading the West to disarm its nuclear deterrent and give the Soviets a free path to conquer Europe.  Although the outline is taut, the execution is languid, and the biggest reason is the character of Octopussy.  The early drafts of the screenplay had her in a more active role as the first fully-fledged supervillainess of the Bond series, but she was softened in rewrites to wind up – after some initial misdirection – as merely a rather unobservant dupe in a scheme masterminded by two men, and thus, considerably less interesting, both for Bond and for the audience.  Her interactions with Bond bear no spark, and no tension apart from one contrived argument where she explodes in an unprovoked hissy fit.  There’s no compelling reason these two people should be together, despite both insisting that they are “two of a kind.”  They really aren’t.  They’re two characters who fall for each other because the screenplay forces them to, otherwise Bond doesn’t get a girl this time.  The true antagonists of the piece, Kamal and Orlov, are similarly sketchy – Kamal, while effectively performed by Jourdan with his refined accent, seems to have no apparent motivation for taking part in the grand plan of mass murder, and while requisite 80’s movie villain Berkoff does his best to devour the scenery, he is ultimately too stupid – gunned down by armed guards at a border crossing while chasing a train on foot – to be much of a threat.  As for the other main performers, Maud Adams is attractive but not compelling, and remains remote and buttoned-up when she should be sensual and provocative.  Kristina Wayborn as Octopussy’s second-in-command Magda provides quite a bit more heat, even if she is made up in the over-glammed big-hair style that was early 80’s beauty, but her “seductive” line delivery sounds like she’s reading a grocery list.

India is an exotic location as befits a Bond movie, but its presentation rings false.  Someone once observed that in Octopussy,India looks like what it would be if the British had never lost it.  It’s full of white people; old British brigadiers frequent the casino where Bond plays backgammon with Kamal Khan, and even Octopussy’s army of femmes fatale residing in her floating palace are all light-skinned.  (The two main women in the cast are both Swedish.)  The three-wheeled car chase is like a trip through someone’s stereotypical idea of an Indian carnival, with action scenes built around a sword swallower, a fakir lying on a bed of nails and another walking across hot coals.  As an ally of Bond’s battles a henchman with a tennis racket, we see a crowd of Indians whipping their heads back and forth in unison as if they were the audience at Wimbledon (with accompanying sound effects).  And the poverty of India is used as a punch line for two heartless gags involving Bond throwing money out into the masses (a beggar even does an over the top double take when two stacks of rupees land in his bowl).  It’s left to Vijay Amritraj, as Bond’s tennis-wielding local contact, to try and bring some dignity to how Indians are portrayed, but still Bond can’t help making insensitive comments like “This’ll keep you in curry for the next few weeks,” when handing him a wad of cash.  Before Bond leaves India behind for the less colourful climes of Germany in the second act, director John Glen’s love of slapstick rears its ugly head in an embarrassing “Most Dangerous Game”-inspired jungle hunt.  To escape Kamal Khan’s palace, Bond impersonates a corpse, frightening off its handlers with a ghoulish Dracula laugh, and runs into the wilderness, where he, in short order, tells a snake to “hiss off,” commands a tiger to “sit!” and in what in many ways is a low point of the entire Bond series, swings across vines while emitting the Tarzan howl, only to be finally rescued by a passing tourist boat (again, full of white people!)  India is a land much more complex than how it is depicted here, and it deserves better than to be reduced to a collage of cartoons for the amusement of the old colonials.  Of course, proving that the movie’s patronizing portrayal of foreigners isn’t confined to India, Bond is given a ride later on by an overweight German couple who attempt to ply him with sausages and beer.

Moore seems unengaged and weary of the role.  His 007 contract had expired, but he was persuaded to sign on again as with the release of Never Say Never Again looming with Sean Connery back as the lead, Broccoli did not want to chance having to introduce another new actor as James Bond.  Too much energy and attention, likewise, is diverted from where it should be – writing and performance – instead to the staging of increasingly outlandish gags, reducing Moore himself to little more than a prop to facilitate them and taking the Bond series down to the worst of 1920’s silent movie comedy.  All pretence of seriousness and suspense is abandoned at the climax, when Bond is attempting to defuse the nuclear device while in full clown makeup, and the movie goes on for another twenty minutes as Bond chases down Kamal Khan in a lifeless denouement.  It has not escaped my notice in writing these reviews that Bond seems to operate in a series of approximately ten-year blocks, where at the end of each comes a movie that is creatively exhausted and a franchise drifting with desperate need of a shakeup.  The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974 was the limp end of the first ten years, and with Octopussy coming out in 1983 it would not be long before time was up on Bond again and things needed to be refreshed.  But it would first fall to Kevin McClory, and later Broccoli’s own Eon Productions, to show us how deeply Bond could drive himself into the ditch.

Tomorrow:  Connery comes back to say never again, again.

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