Saturday, January 3, 2009

James Bond review: You Only Live Twice (1967)

(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: This is definitely the grooviest of the Bonds.

BOND, JAMES BOND: In which we learn that Bond took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge. And that he’s a Commander in the Royal Navy.

The producers knew this would probably be Connery’s last Bond, and as a result they really play up the character this time. Bond’s back to being a spy – there’s another commando assault at the end of this one, like in Thunderball, but overall Bond’s doing less fighting and more sneaking. He goes “undercover,” even. He fakes his own death, with MI6’s help. And he gets married, sort of. Everything you’ve never seen Bond do, he does here.

Connery looks fabulous in this movie, at least until he turns Japanese. His suits are wonderful. He even manages to look good when he puts on a bad guy’s saddle shoes. He even manages to look good in that pink dress shirt. Like I say, it’s a very groovy film.

But back to Bond and his “first in Oriental languages.” We’ve already noticed how Bond is, quite obviously, a (male) fantasy of a certain variety of maleness. But what we haven’t remarked on, and what becomes obvious in You Only Live Twice, is how Bond is a (British, at this point) fantasy of Britishness. In all the films up to this point, it’s up to British intelligence to save the world, with the CIA relegated to a supporting role. Maybe that’s why they never brought back Jack Lord as Felix Leiter: he was too charismatic, and that didn’t fit the series’s intentions for the Americans.

In this film, Britain’s role is even more pronounced: it’s up to the cool-headed, rational British to prevent the hot-headed Americans and Russians from going to war. Britain can do this because they have James Bond; but James Bond can do this because he’s British. Because he’s cool, stoic, determined, clever, resourceful, educated, cultured, at ease everywhere: in short, because he’s a modern English gentleman with all the benefits of an Imperial tradition behind him. Look at how in control he is in Japan: he’s no blundering American, no blunt instrument (despite what M would one day say). He knows his way around; he knows the temperature sake should be served at. His capability is mirrored, in this film, by Our Man In Japan, Henderson (played by Charles Gray, who has no neck); Henderson notes that he’s been in Japan for twenty-eight years. I.e., since before Pearl Harbor, which is when America began paying attention to Japan.

What Makes Bond Bond: He emerges from his burial-at-sea shroud with his uniform in perfect order.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: He can almost make you believe he passes for Japanese. Well, not really – but at least you don’t hate watching him try.

BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again, but this time Blofeld himself is the villain. And this means we finally get to see his face. This is both a welcome development and a problem. SPECTRE wasn’t going to be interesting much longer if they couldn’t bring Blofeld out of the shadows, but of course they minute they do he loses his mystique.

This problem could have been neutralized had they chosen the right actor to play Blofeld, but they chose Donald Pleasence instead. I might as well reveal here that my favorite Blofeld is the unofficial one, Max von Sydow in Never Say Never Again. But I think I would have been okay with anybody who managed to have presence in the role; I kind of like Telly Savalas’s performance, too. Pleasence sounds wonderful as Blofeld, simultaneously seductive and truly creepy. Dig the way he says something like “piranha fish.” But when you finally see him, he’s completely underwhelming. Mike Myers didn’t even need to parody him: he’s already a joke on himself.

Blofeld’s scheme this time around is to start World War III – he’s hired himself out to the Chinese (although they’re not named) as an agent provocateur. Fine and dandy, but how he’s doing this is by kidnapping American and Russian spacecraft. One of the powers will send up an orbiter, and Blofeld’s rocket will come up behind it, gobble it up, and then bring it back to earth to hide it in this hollow Japanese volcano. This is insane. I used to think it was a weakness in this movie.

Then I realized how completely and utterly groovy it is.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Karin Dor as SPECTRE underling Helga Brandt is a real letdown after the glories of the last four movies. She’s the first Bond girl I find just plain forgettable, although I know these things are subjective. They try for groovy with her red hair and black eyebrows, but it’s just weird.

Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki and Mie Hama as Bond’s “wife” Kissy, on the other hand, are great. Hama, especially, looks mighty fetching scampering around on the side of the volcano in her white bikini and deck shoes.

Oh, and GS: 3, unless you count (which Bond himself doesn’t seem to) the near miss with Ling in Hong Kong.

AND VIOLENCE: Another commando raid, except this time they’re, like, sixteenth-century commandos. The less said about the ninjas the better, I guess.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Another Q field trip; I like how he arrives with a smart squad of Q-juniors to assemble the gear. Little Nelly is the best gadget this time, an agile little gyrocopter. Connery looks like he’s driving a go-cart, but he makes it look good.

But my favorite gadget is Tiger Tanaka’s private train on which he rides around in luxury deep under the surface of Tokyo. And for a couple hundred yen, you too can ride it: it’s the Marunouchi Line of the Tokyo Metro, with its distinctive red cars. Doesn’t quite look like that inside, though, and it’s usually a bit more crowded…

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Japan was certainly the most exotic locale they’d used yet; the problem is, they overdo it. At times it almost feels like you’re watching a documentary on Japan: Land of Enchantment (“Boy, do they do things different over there!”). Like, spending far too long on the “wedding ceremony,” or having Tôhô’s chanbara b-squad demonstrating their most basic moves. (“Look, that guy can split a block of ice with his hand!”) Whenever the series goes to an Exotic Locale it tends to give you a condensed Baedeker’s view of it – the Junkanoo in Thunderball, the bullfighting in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - so we expect it. It just goes a little overboard here. Is that groovy, too?

On the other hand, when the film takes us through modern ‘60s Tokyo, it is groovy. This was Swinging Tokyo just when it was starting to enter its very own psychedelic era, and you get glimpses of that. Plus, Tiger Tanaka’s headquarters, with their big roundish video screens, hint at the Futuristic Tokyo we all know and love so well today.

ETC.: The theme song is one of the best in the series. John Barry outdoes himself with the elegant Orientalism and subtle fuzz-guitar of the arrangement, and Nancy Sinatra sings it fairly well, too… The title sequence itself is pretty stunning, cool geisha and hot lava… The cinematography in this film deserves special mention, with lots of lush colors and some fairly striking camera angles and cuts: remember the aerial shot of Bond fighting his way across the roof of the warehouse in Kobe?… Let me just say that Tiger Tanaka makes me smile every time: Tetsuro Tanba is as cool as they come. And he deserves special mention as perhaps the only actor in the Bond series to start his own religion. And if that's not groovy, I don't know what is.

RATING: 006.

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