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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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 12: For Your Eyes Only

“WHAT did you say about my acting ability???”

Halfway there!  Hope you’ve been enjoying the daily retrospective journey through James Bond’s past.  While Moonraker had been a tremendous box office success, it tested the patience of Bond fans by pushing their hero, some would argue, much too far into the realm of fantasy.  Recognizing that this was a dangerous path, the filmmakers elected to do what they usually do when they realize they’ve strayed:  return to the pen of Ian Fleming.  For Your Eyes Only was a collection of five short James Bond stories, and the decision was made to combine two of them – the eponymous tale and Risico, along with a sequence that was omitted from the screen adaptation of Live and Let Die, to craft a screenplay that would exchange lasers and explosions for the shifting alliances and unexpected betrayals that marked the best Cold War spy thrillers.

After an unrelated teaser that bids a metaphorical farewell to Bond’s past by visiting the grave of his wife Tracy and dumping a mysterious, cat-stroking “wheelchair villain” into a smokestack (Kevin McClory was still claiming ownership of Blofeld), the plot proper begins with the destruction of a British spy ship off the coast of Albania.  On board – the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator, or A.T.A.C., which looks like an adding machine but can issue orders to Britain’s entire submarine fleet.  The Soviets want it, and the British want it back.  After the British point man in charge of the salvage operation is murdered by a hitman, survived only by his daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet), Bond is put on the case to figure out who is responsible.  The lead dries up when Melina unexpectedly puts a crossbow bolt in the hitman’s back; however, following up on the man who paid for the hit, Bond journeys to the ski slopes of Cortina, where the helpful Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) points him in the direction of a notorious smuggler named Milos Columbo (Topol).  But all is not how it appears, and Bond discovers that Kristatos himself has been the one supervising the Soviet attempt to steal the A.T.A.C., with Columbo turning out to be a useful ally as Bond and Melina race against time to secure the A.T.A.C. before Kristatos can turn it over to his Soviet masters in a finale set on a mountaintop monastery in Greece.

The ingredients are there, and the actors are game, but there are a couple of major flaws.  First up is a huge hole in the plot.  Imagine you are told there is a treasure out there somewhere.  In fact, you are told exactly where it is.  You are told that the treasure is incredibly important, that there are other people after it and it’s critical that you get it first.  Step one then would not be wasting days figuring out who those other interested parties are – would it not be, I don’t know, recovering the damn treasure?  Yet this is exactly the course of For Your Eyes Only’s first two acts.  As important to Britain’s national security as we’re advised the A.T.A.C. is, Bond sure takes his sweet time in getting around to finding it.  It’s never explained why it seems to be a greater priority for Her Majesty’s Government to determine who else is pursuing the A.T.A.C., when they’ve established quite clearly that the Russians would be the likely suspects.  Of course, if Bond went after the McGuffin immediately, the movie would only be a half hour long.  So we have an extended sequence set in the Olympic park at Cortina for a diverting dose of winter action.  After a contrived beat designed to maneuver Bond to the top of a ski jump, the chase begins, scored by Bill Conti in an over-the-top disco motif more suited to ABC’s Wide World of Sports highlight reel.  Director John Glen, who cut his teeth shooting second unit for and editing the ski scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has a really bad habit, evident throughout the five Bond films he directed, of cutting away frequently to show crowd reaction shots – people staring agape, spilling drinks on themselves, cows mooing, etcetera, as Bond speeds by.  This detracts from the experience of the innovative stunts by slipping a barrier between us and them, like an additional proscenium – as if the movie is reacting to its own spectacle instead of giving the audience the freedom to do it.  It robs the scenes of their intensity and any potential drama or suspense by reminding us, blatantly, that these action beats are all meticulously staged.  Instinctively we know that, but we like to pretend there’s some spontaneity.  Glen does much better near the end of the movie, his comedic instincts played out, in staging Bond’s ascent up the side of the mountain where Kristatos’ hideout is located.  It’s a scene without gadgets, where Bond’s ingenuity and skill is required to get him out of a jam, and scored suspensefully (without disco) by Conti.  Of course, Glen has to have a last laugh, and jams in an unfunny cameo by a Margaret Thatcher impersonator just before the credits roll.

Glen is another in a long line of Bond directors better at action than managing performances, and while there are some strong actors in this movie, they don’t have a lot to work with; the supporting roles are underwritten as usual.  This time, at least, the secondary characters have more of their own arc, in the shape of the rivalry between Kristatos and Columbo, and Melina’s quest to avenge her parents.  Faring best is Topol, who channels Kerim Bey in his role of the pistachio-chewing smuggler, a likable rogue we’re happy to see on Bond’s side.  As the central villain, Julian Glover as Kristatos presents himself as debonair enough at first, until his duplicity is revealed and he then displays the requisite amount of sadism – tying Bond and Melina together and dragging them behind his boat in the hopes that they’ll be eaten by sharks (the scene lifted from Live and Let Die) and, just so we’re sure about his evil, smacking around his young blond protégé, Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson).  More understated and sinister a presence is his lackey Locque (Michael Gothard), the silent, square-rimmed glasses-wearing thug whom 007 dispatches by kicking his car over a cliff, in a classic Bond scene that Roger Moore didn’t want to film (he felt that his version of Bond would never be that cold-blooded).  Leading lady Carole Bouquet, best known as the face behind Chanel No. 5, is a greater beauty than she is an actress, and scenes in which she’s required to display the seething rage of a woman consumed by vengeance come off more like she’s upset that room service was late.  Radiant, however, in an all-too-brief cameo as Columbo’s doomed mistress is Cassandra Harris, the then-Mrs. Pierce Brosnan.  (Producer Albert R. Broccoli is alleged to have made a mental note of Brosnan’s 007 potential while dining with them one night on location.)

For Your Eyes Only is a movie with the right intentions, but its aspirations are undercut by its reliance on the sillier aspects of the previous Bond films.  What was most frustrating about Moonraker was not so much its fantasy setting but by its frequent descent into camp, and it seems like the wrong lesson was learned here.  Verisimilitude is critical to what For Your Eyes Only wants to be, but instead, it goes the other way, never missing an opportunity for a bad joke and undermining the ability of the audience to take it as seriously as say, From Russia with Love.  There’s fun and then there’s trying too hard to be funny, and this movie is most definitely the latter.  And it’s a shame.

Tomorrow:  Eight arms to hold you.