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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1974)

9. The Man with the Golden Gun

With a new actor in place, the Bond series could continue unabated. The very next year following “Live and Let Dead,” a new James Bond adventure was in theaters. Based on the last book Ian Fleming ever wrote, “The Man with the Golden Gun” promised to create the perfect adversary for the iconic secret agent. Despite these plans, the film had a rushed production schedule and at least one disinterested screenwriter. When “The Man with the Golden Gun” reached theaters, it received tepid reviews and became one of the lowest grossing films in the series.

MI6 receives a golden bullet with 007’s number carved into it. The bullet is the trademark of Francesco Scaramaga, the Man with the Golden Gun, the highest paid assassin in the world. MI6 pulls Bond off his current case, investigating the disappearance of a scientist working on solar energy technology, for fear the hitman has his eyes on him. Bond being Bond, he goes above his superiors, traveling to the Far East to investigate himself. Soon he discovers that Scaramaga didn’t send the bullet and is targeting the solar energy expert. Turns out, the hitman has his eyes on alternative fuel, using it for evil. He also has an obsession with Bond, looking to best the man in a duel to the death.

I’ll be upfront: “The Man with the Golden Gun” is probably my least favorite Bond movie. It’s a lackluster affair. Even the opening credits are disappointing. The images of nude women are reflected in a lake, lily pads and waves covering their R-rated bits. The titular firearm appears repeatedly. During the song’s breakdown, one of Maurice Binder’s trademark silhouetted women dances in front of fireworks. That’s pretty much it. It’s about as languid a Bond opening as you could ever imagine. Accompanying the images is Lulu’s title song. Lulu’s high-pitched vocals grate on the ears. The song’s lyrics are repetitive and the rhymes are inane. It’s probably the only Bond theme to feature the word “glittering.” Though catchy as hell, the song is only of value as a camp artifact. I really wish they had used Alice Cooper’s version instead.

Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond was relatively refreshing, the actor’s charm and sense of humor working well with the character. “The Man with the Golden Gun” begins with Moore entering M’s office and dropping a whole bunch of exposition on the audience, giving us all the most important information about Scaramaga. At one point, Moore intimidates a gun shop owner, nearly shooting the guy in the dick. A little later on, Bond confronts Scaramaga’s mistress. He slaps her, holds her down, and twists her arm behind her back, threatening to break it. It’s clear what’s happening here: Roger Moore is trying to act like Sean Connery. Maybe it was in reaction to criticism that his last outing was too silly or comical. However, it goes against Moore’s best attributes. Watching him be rough with women and witnesses is just… Weird. The rest of the movie has Moore acting more like himself, cracking jokes and being a romantic lead. I don’t why they tried to have him be something he isn’t.

“The Man with the Golden Gun” had an oppretunity to create a truly iconic cinematic bad guy. Christopher Lee, probably the leading actor to play villains at the time, was destined to appear in a Bond film. He was Ian Fleming’s step-cousin, a close friend, and was nearly cast as Dr. No back in 1962. Lee’s towering figure and baritone voice are an ideal match for a Bond villain. The character fits too. Scaramaga is as skilled at killing as Bond, as stylish, with similar taste in women and fine things. Usually, Bond comes to his enemies. This time, we have an enemy seeking out the hero. Lee seems to relish playing the part, bringing all the sinister glee he can to the part. “The Man with the Golden Gun” doesn’t do much right but casting Lee as the three-nippled evil-doer was a perfect decision. The trademark golden gun is pretty cool looking too.

Unfortunately, the film squanders most of the good will Lee generates. In a clumsy attempt to be timely and relevant, the film bases its plot around the energy crisis that was then gripping the world. A Hong Kong industrialist, with the inexplicable name of Hai Fat, hires Scaramaga to take out the man working on solar energy. MI6 is on the same guy’s trail, hoping to resolve the energy crisis with his “Solex Agitator” invention. This is much less interesting then the rivalry between Bond and Scaramaga. When the two plot lines awkwardly collide, things truly fall apart. Scaramaga steals the Solex Agitator for his own needs, using the device to create a giant death ray. How this is supposed to comment on the energy crisis, I really don’t know. It’s latching a cultural issue to a popcorn movie without attempting to change the popcorn movie formula.

“The Man with the Golden Gun” has a great Bond villain and one of the worst Bond girls. The beautiful Britt Ekland plays Mary Goodnight, another MI6 agent sent to watch Bond during his adventure in the Far East. To be kind, Goodnight is clumsy. To be brutally honest, Goodnight is stupid as hell. She gets locked in the truck of Christopher Lee’s car, dropping the MacGuffin right into the bad guy’s hands. While Bond is attempting to deactivate Scaramaga’s death ray, she backs her ass into the “on” button, nearly killing the good guy. She drops a henchmen into one of Scaramaga’s cooling tanks, causing the entire island to explode. She’s not even ethically strong. She tells Bond she won’t sleep with him before turning around and attempting to sleep with him. Ekland is beautiful and spends half of her screen time in a bikini. But the character is obnoxious. Bond shoves her in a closest at one point and I don’t blame him. Maud Adams’ Andrea, Scaramaga’s mistress, is a far more appealing character if only because she’s not as annoying.

As previously established, the Bond series was chasing popular trends in cinema in order to stay hip. Last time, it was blaxploitation movies. This time, it’s kung-fu movies. The story takes place in Macau, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. Mai Fat captures Bond but, instead of just killing him, he ships him off to a private kung-fu school he owns. Instead of murdering Bond then and there, he’s greeted to a kung-fu match. Bond makes an escape by displaying his own Judo skills. He’s then rescued by Lieutenant Hip, MI6’s man in Hong Kong, and the guy’s two little sisters. Using their rad martial art skills, the adult man and two teenage girls fight off an entire dojo of bad guys. The blaxploitation elements in “Live and Let Die” were incorporated organically into Bond’s world. The kung-fu elements here seem like the pandering they are, forced in to cash in.

Some were critical of the humor in “Live and Let Die.” Moore’s quips and one-liners remain strong. For reasons I can’t comprehend, “The Man with the Golden Gun” decided to bring back the worst thing about that film’s attempt at comic relief. Sheriff Pepper, the obnoxious redneck cop, inexplicably reappears. What’s a guy from Louisiana doing in Hong Kong? Well, he’s on vacation, you see. Pepper tags along with Bond on the film’s car chase, being dumb and annoying, shouting stupid shit the whole time. Afterwards, the guy argues with an elephant and gets thrown in the river. The writers obviously had to stretch to get Pepper back in this movie and you wonder why. Apparently director Guy Hamilton was found of the character. This is my theory as to why Hamilton never directed another Bond movie.

Another reason to dislike “The Man with the Golden Gun” is that it features surprisingly little action. The film begins with Scaramaga dueling a gangster in his lair, which is a decent opening. While in a belly dancer’s dressing room, James gets in a struggle with some guys there, tossing one into a mirror. Okay, that’s cool. After that, there’s a long break before the kung-fu battle. A junk chase scene follows. There was no way the film was going to top “Live and Let Die’s” boat chase, so you honestly wonder why the series returned to that well so soon. Soon, the chase moves to the land, Bond pursuing Scaramaga in a car. The chase starts out especially weak, being even less energetic then the similar chase in “Diamonds are Forever.” It really makes you long for “Goldfinger’s” car chase. The scene, however, climaxes with the most amazing car stunt ever put on film. The car is driven up a curling old bridge, does a corkscrew spin through the air over a river before successfully landing on the other side. And what does the movie do with a once-in-a-lifetime stunt like this? It plays a slide-whistle sound effect over it. Who greenlit that idea?

The film is littered with bad decisions like that. One fight scene has Bond up against two sumo wrestlers. He defeats the one by twisting his mawashi and crushing the wrestler’s balls. Not the most manly way to win a fight. The car chase concludes with Scaramaga snapping wings and an airplane motor to his vehicle and flying away. Yes, this is a real thing but it doesn’t keep it from being ridiculous. Another questionable decision was giving Scaramaga a short person sidekick. Nick Nack, played by Herve Villechaize, is treated like a joke throughout. Roger Moore has his most embarrassing fight scene against Villechaize. The short actor attacks the spy in his bed. Moore tosses him around like a child and locks him in a suitcase. Considering Villechaize’s tragic real life, it’s an especially undignified moment. Not just for him but for everyone involved.

Okay, so there’s one other thing I like about “The Man with the Golden Gun.” It’s sets are sweet. In Hong Kong, MI6’s secret base is located inside the capsized RMS Queen Elizabeth. The usual offices are built inside the slanted boat, everything at odd angles. It’s a really nice effect. Scaramaga’s hideout is the best set in the film. I’m not a big fan of the cowboy or gangster motifs he has in one room. The main shooting gallery features jagged, multi-colored triangles extending up out of the floor. It’s a cool set, especially once lit in bright reds and deep shadows.

The film builds towards the fight with Scaramaga but then wraps it up awfully quickly, Bond beating his adversary using petty trickery. The film rolls on for another fifteen minutes, long after the audience’s interest is gone. As an extra kick in the balls, there’s a painful reprise of Lulu’s theme over the end credits. Many entries in the series that received a lousy reception upon release have been reevaluated over the years. There has been no reevaluation for this one. Aside from Christopher Lee being awesome, Moore’s occasional charm, and that car stunt, “The Man with the Golden Gun” is a collection of blatant miscalculations. [Grade: C-]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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