Art, like life, is in making choices. The Man with the Golden Gun is a movie full of bad ones. Rushed into production following the release of Live and Let Die, it is a pedestrian effort that reeks of exhaustion and a lack of inspiration on the part of the major creative team, despite some game efforts from those working beneath them. The movie should work – it has exotic locations, impressive stunts (including one of the most amazing car jumps ever seen on film up to that point) beautiful women and a complex and fascinating villain performed by a legendary actor. That it doesn’t is just proof that even with the best intentions and the best people, things can still go spectacularly wrong.
At the height of the 1973 energy crisis, and with a solar power expert who holds the key to resolving it missing, a mysterious golden bullet etched with “007” sent to London puts James Bond on the trail of famed assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the titular man with the golden gun who charges $1 million per hit. Bond travels to the Far East, assisted and hindered the bumbling Mary Goodnight (Peter Sellers’ ex-wife Britt Ekland), and finds that the bullet was sent by the villain’s mistress Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), longing to be free of her sadistic partner and believing that Bond is destined to be her liberator. When the missing solar expert, Gibson, winds up on the receiving end of one of Scaramanga’s golden bullets, Bond discovers the assassin’s collusion with a leading Chinese industrialist to use Gibson’s invention, the “Solex Agitator,” to secure a world monopoly on solar power, and the stage is set for a final confrontation between Bond and Scaramanga on the villain’s private island – a winner-take-all shootout inside Scaramanga’s house of mirrors and wax recreations.
Christopher Lee, who has more screen credits than anyone else in history, was Ian Fleming’s cousin and transformed the thuggish character from what is considered to be Fleming’s weakest Bond book into a cultured, erudite man of wit and refinement who kills for money, playing him as the morally ambiguous, dark side of James Bond (the cultured, erudite man of wit and refinement who kills for queen and country), in an extension of the theme of the social confrontation between good and evil we saw in the last movie. Lee is incredibly charming in the part, even eliciting our sympathy when he tells Bond the touching tale of how his best friend as a child was a circus elephant who was murdered in front of him, and never, somewhat to the detriment of the story, lets his freak flag fly. Indeed, Scaramanga’s “diabolical” plan to spread solar power franchises across the world doesn’t sound like one that needs to be foiled, particularly in the modern era where we’ve seen countless innocent thousands die in wars for oil. One wonders if things would be better if Bond were to simply leave him alone, rather than saving the status quo for Halliburton and Exxon. Furthermore, Bond’s characterization in this movie is off; he is inexplicably angry throughout much of the film, snapping frequently at Mary Goodnight, threatening to blow the genitals off an uncooperative bullet maker and slapping the put-upon kept woman Andrea around like a rag doll. Even though great care was taken in the previous movie to separate Moore’s portrayal of Bond from that of Connery, here he’s like Connery’s little brother on amphetamines. With our hero acting so unpleasantly out of sorts (even M is in a more-than-usual bad mood in this movie, telling Q to shut up every chance he gets) and the bad guy’s ambitions seemingly in the better interest of humanity, we end up rooting for the wrong person.
The supporting characters are a mixed bag. For better or worse, you keep expecting Herve Villechaize as Scaramanga’s manservant Nick Nack to yell about “de plane, boss, de plane!” Soon-Teck Oh lends some dignity to the proceedings as Bond’s Hong Kong police contact Lt. Hip, welcome since the portrayal of the Asians in the rest of the movie verges on Charlie Chan-esque buffoonery, as interpreted by condescending British patricians bitter about the loss of the Empire. Bond tries to communicate with a family in Macau by speaking slower. The Chinese industrialist plotting with Scaramanga is named “Hai Fat” (in the original script he was to have a brother named Lo Fat, ha ha). A naked swimming beauty is named “Chu Me.” Bond defeats an evil sumo wrestler by giving him an atomic wedgie, while a truly stupid sequence in which Lt. Hip’s two nieces force Bond to stand aside as they make kung fu chop suey out of a gang of pyjama-wearing ruffians has to end with the last guy pulling a stupid face as he gets kicked in the groin. If that weren’t enough, we also have J.W. Pepper to cringe at again, this time on vacation in Thailand in one of the biggest story contrivances in the history of motion pictures, calling everyone “pointy-heads” – at this point all you need to complete the gamut of cultural insensitivities is to have someone order “flied lice.”
Served atop this rather unappetizing concoction is a healthy helping of blond bimbo. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I recall Mary Goodnight being considerably more capable as Bond’s assistant in Fleming’s pages than in the personage of Britt Ekland’s screen version. Whether she’s getting stuffed in a closet, locked in the boot of a car, almost frying Bond with a laser beam by accidentally backing her bum into a control panel or inadvertently causing a solar power plant to blow sky high, she makes you wish she were the one who gets hoisted atop the mast of Scaramanga’s junk rather than Nick Nack at the end of the movie. Clearly a lesson was learned here, for this would be the last time a female character in a 007 movie would be written so inanely – as audiences decided they don’t like a hero dragging a screaming nincompoop along on his adventures (a lesson apparently lost on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they were making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) Andrea Anders is much more dour and human, and her story is worth exploring, but she gets killed off halfway through the movie. Maud Adams made an impression on the producers however, and would get the chance to survive to the end a decade later in Octopussy.
John Barry came back for this entry, but needn’t have bothered – his work here is dull, the title song performed by Lulu as a bad Shirley Bassey impression is uninspired, and Barry has since apologized for choosing to include the sound of a slide whistle over the amazing barrel roll jump that takes place in the middle of the movie (hint hint, makers of the remastered edition!), taking all the drama and suspense out of a spectacular feat – of course, the script doesn’t help by having Bond quip “Ever heard of Evel Knievel?” before hitting the gas. The peculiar islands of Phuket in Thailand are a striking backdrop for the movie’s finale, but Ken Adam’s touch is sorely missed in the production design department, and the funhouse setting of the final showdown reminds one of Berthold Brecht in its extremely spare, minimalist approach – and not in a good way, as it just looks like the production ran out of money. The movie sort of lurches and wheezes to its conclusion, shepherded at each stage it seems by a director rather bored with the entire endeavour and eager to finish the day’s shooting so he can get out on the golf course. Much as you may be able to detect how I feel in writing this review of it.
James Bond would need a three-year rest after this movie to “go away and dream it all up again,” to cite U2’s Bono. It would be the last film for a couple of major Bond veterans, including director Guy Hamilton, and producer Harry Saltzman, who was forced to sell his half of the James Bond rights back to the studio following some unsuccessful side ventures. In a way, it was just as well that these two called it quits, if The Man with the Golden Gun was to be typical of their contributions going forward. Bond could not survive another affair so listless and so lacking in the panache that had first made him so special to the world.