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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1983) Part 1

13. Octopussy

Rolling into 1983, the Bond series was in crisis again. Once more, Roger Moore debated leaving the franchise. His eventual successor Timothy Dalton and odd choice James Brolin were both publicly courted. However, Kevin McClory’s plans to launch a rival James Bond franchise finally came to fruition, with the film scheduled to come out a few months after “Octopussy,” Eon Production thirteenth addition to their series. Fearful that a new actor might loose the Battle of the Bonds against Sean Connery, Eon got Roger Moore back. “Octopussy,” despite being saddled with an exceedingly awkward (if Fleming originated) title, made slightly more then the rival film. It was, perhaps, a dubious victory as “Octopussy” is about as stock-parts as a Bond film can get. It's in the lower tier of both Moore’s tenure and the series at large.

Another MI6 agent, 009, is killed while undercover in East Berlin. His last act is to carry a Faberge egg to the British embassy. The egg is a fake, as the real one is up for auction in the UK. James Bond is sent to investigate. There, he meets a Kamal Khan, who also wants the egg. Bond follows Khan back to his home in India. While there, and avoiding Khan’s assassination attempts, Bond uncovers an all-woman cult and crime ring, led by the titular Octopussy. She is working with Khan to smuggle rare jewelry. Khan, in turn, is working with a mad Soviet general planning to explode a nuke in West Berlin, leading to the rest of Europe’s disarmament, making them unprepared for an invasion. Bond, slowly uncovering all of this, has to stop the mad plot.

“Octopussy’s” mediocrity is broadcast from its opening credits. A red laser outline of Bond and his code number rotate over partially clad women, usually holding guns. Cutting into these sequences are the expected silhouettes of women dancing and tumbling through the air, against a background of swirling color. File this one under “Generic Bond Openings.” It’s a seriously uninspired work by Maurice Binder. The accompanying song is no better. There was naturally no way to incorporate the movie’s preposterous title into any sort of song. (What rhymes with “pussy” anyway? Wussy? Juicy if you squint?) Rita Collidge’s “All Time High” is a generic, adult contemporary pop number. Collidge’s voice, though not without a sensual quality, mostly sounds bored. The instrumentation is made up by uninspired pop flourishes and a boozy saxophone. The song’s lyrics are more-or-less a rehash of the superior “Nobody Does It Better,” describing another woman blown away by James Bond’s charm. The song puts me to sleep.

Since the film is committed to full-blown thrills, “Octopussy” has Bond entering the exciting world of… Counterfeit Faberge Egg smuggling! In all seriousness, the early scenes devoted to Bond trying to outbid the villain for the egg are not the most tantalizing. It’s a surprisingly low risk place to begin the story. More confusing, the whole business with the egg ends up playing a fairly small role in the overall story. The plot about jewelry smuggling doesn’t seem to line up with the story of the Soviet general’s plot of nuclear destruction. The reason for this is easy to gleam. “Octopussy” awkwardly cobbles together elements from the Ian Fleming story “The Property of a Lady” with a mostly original plot line. (In actuality, the film takes very little from the titular story.) It does not have the smoothest screenplay of the series.

This time, Bond’s globe-trotting adventure takes him to India. From his arrival in the country, “Octopussy” indulges heavily in cultural stereotypes. Bond’s contact signals him by playing the James Bond theme on a flute for a swaying cobra. (Is that the first in-universe use of the song? How does Bond know his own theme song?) While being chased through the market place by some villains, Bond encounters a man laying on nails, a fire-breather, and a sword swallower. Naturally, these are all props the spy uses to dispatch enemies. Because this is a Roger Moore movie, a vehicle chase has to happen. This time, Bond rides in the back of an auto-rickshaw. The driver whacks the attackers with a tennis racket, causing on-lookers to watch as if it’s a tennis game. Did I mention the reaction show from the camel? Before leaving India, Bond has to eat some disgusting local cuisine (a scene similar to something “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” would do the very next year) and escape during a tiger hunt. During said hunt, Bond swings from some vines while echoing the Tarzan yell. All of this is painful to watch and shows the Bond series backsliding into cringe-worthy comic relief after the maturity of “For Your Eyes Only.”

As embarrassing as these scenes are, Bond himself emerges with his dignity intact. “Octopussy” seems especially interested in distilling the series formula, as Bond gets captured and destroys an evil doer’s lair before the opening credits even start. However, by the time the movie is done with him, the secret agent suffers some indignities. First off, Roger Moore is really beginning to show his age. Secondly, “Octopussy’s” climax is set at a circus, which I guess is as fine a setting as any. In order to sneak into the center ring though, Bond disguises himself as a clown. Meanwhile, cops are pursuing him, thinking he’s a common criminal or crazy. It’s hard to take the hero seriously while dressed up as a clown. More distressing, the scene is played for suspense, as Bond has to disable a nuclear bomb about to go off. The two aspects clash badly.

The reason for the circus setting is that Octopussy herself runs it. The title character is potentially interesting. Down in India, she lives on a private island occupied totally with women. They reportedly worship octopi, though we never see such behavior in the movie. (Paired with the film’s crude double entendre of a title, I suspect the screenwriters were hinting at some Sapphic undertones.) The woman saddled with that unfortunate name is the daughter of a double agent that Bond killed years ago. This potentially interesting plot line isn’t explored further. Octopussy, as a woman of power and ability, makes a decent foil to Bond. Despite her personality, she still falls into bed with the spy almost immediately. In the last act, she’s even captured by the villains, becoming a damsel in distress for our hero to rescue. Maud Adams makes more of an impression here then in her previous outing as a Bond girl, back in “The Man with the Golden Gun.” Despite the movie being named after her, the character is not the most memorable heroine the series would produce.

Struggling to escape the goofy comedy and the cheeky sexual antics is a focused cold war thriller. The Soviet plot to detonate a nuke in a populated area, preparing an invasion for the rest of Europe, is no laughing matter. Oddly, the harsh Russian General Orlov, played by Steven Berkoff, is not the film’s primary villain. Instead, that honor falls to Kamal Khan, played by the late Louis Jourdan. Considering Jourdan’s sinister accent and history of playing sophisticated bad guys, it was inevitable he’d show up in a James Bond movie. Kamal Khan is not the most complicated villain. His loyalty to the Soviets is never expanded on. Greed would appear to be his primary motivator but that doesn’t explain why he’s willing to kill thousands of innocent people. Jourdan does fine in the part. The game of backgammon he plays with Bond puts him in the same league of other Bond adversaries, having gambled with the spy. I suspect he could have played a more memorable threat if cast in a more memorable film. Khan’s henchman, the turbaned Gobinda, isn’t given much personality but makes for a creditable threat.

After the heavy humor of the first half, “Octopussy” starts to get better. While staying on Octopussy’s island, Bond is attacked by a squad of baddies. One swings a circular saw around on a retracting wire, a dynamic weapon the film makes great use of. The battle Bond has with these guys is the first time Roger Moore shows off his physical skills in this one, knocking a goon into a fish tank and tossing another off a railing. Once in Berlin, there’s a relatively exciting chase between Bond and the train. (This, unfortunately, ends with the outrageous image of the car sailing through the air.) Once on the train, Bond gets to spying, sneaking around, shooting bad guys, and attempting to undermine the villain’s scheme. This is when “Octopussy” works the best. Even these moments are hassled with awkward comic relief, such as when James hides inside a gorilla suit.

Once the nuclear plot is foiled, the movie still has to sneak in the required trope of a huge raid on the bad guy’s lair. Octopussy’s personal army of deadly women are employed. This leads to some of the film’s most excessive moments. Women in tight fitting red jumpsuits or, even worse, black lingerie, take the place captive and fire machine guns. When not doing that, they use their acrobats skills to tumble up ladders and leap over walls. Bond, meanwhile, floats in on a hot air balloon. It’s all so goofy. Bond sliding down a banister, firing a machine gun all the while, is an inspired beat. The final battle takes place on an airplane, Bond leaping onto the wing as it takes off. A struggle between Gobinda and Bond, clinging to the outside of the plane, is tense. However, defeating the enemy by flicking him in the face with an antenna is not super impressive. Meanwhile, the main villain is ultimately responsible for his own undoing. So we don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing 007 kill the bad guy.

In keeping with its absurdest tone, “Octopussy” equips Bond with some of his silliest gadgets. In the opening action sequence, the rear end of a horse lifts up to reveal a secret compartment containing a one-man jet. The movie seems especially obsessed with hiding things inside animals. Bond sneaks onto Octopussy’s island inside a tiny submarine shaped like a crocodile. Though a tiger does appear, luckily Bond does not wear its skin and disguise himself as a big cat. The best gadget in the film is the most down-to-earth one. It’s a tracking device in Bond’s watch, connected to a listening chip inside the jeweled egg. And then there’s the aforementioned hot air balloon, a stunt that makes even the usually shameless Desmond “Q” Llewelyn embarrassed.

Roger Moore might have stuck with the part but “Octopussy” does feature one major case of recasting. Benard Lee had passed away before “For Your Eyes Only,” which is why the character wasn’t present. The thirteenth Bond film introduces a new M, played by Robert Brown. The change is never acknowledged, which makes me wonder if Brown is even meant to be a new character. We are also introduced to Michaela Clavell as Penelope Smallbone, Moneypenny’s assistant. I’m not sure what purpose the character has. Lois Maxwell has been Moneypenny for two decades at this point and actually seems like an age appropriate love interest for Roger Moore. Why bring in a younger secretary, especially when the film already has to younger love interest for Moore’s Bond? The character would never reappear, making we question why she was introduced in the first place.

“Octopussy” is not the lowest point of Roger Moore’s career as James Bond. It has far better action then “The Man with the Golden Gun” and, despite its many weaknesses, it not as disappointing as that film. The movie is more staggeringly mediocre and forgettable then irredeemably bad. Maybe Moore should have called it quits after “For Your Eyes Only.” Or maybe he sparred us the sight of James Brolin in clown make-up. Framed that way, the film is probably a fair trade-off. [Grade: C]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] 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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