Sunday, March 8, 2009

James Bond review: Octopussy (1983)

CUT TO THE CHASE: One for the kiddies.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The title is the raciest of the series, inspiring embarrassment in adults and sniggers in adolescent boys everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s attached to a movie that’s safe for the whole family.

Octopussy is 007 as Indiana Jones. This is true in ways both obvious and not-so-obvious (I’d say subtle, but that’s not an adjective one feels like using in connection with the Bond series). Octopussy, with its Indian locations, its circus-train fight scenes, its human safari, is clearly borrowing from the type of adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark had revived: old-fashioned he-man outdoorsy ‘30s-serial action (in choosing an Indian setting, the producers are actually anticipating the second Indy Jones movie; but they lose anyway). That’s the obvious part.

The not-so-obvious part (maybe because the action is fairly entertaining, on a basic level) is that the producers are also adopting the family-friendly tone of the Raiders franchise. It’s all primary colors, obvious jokes, and earnestness. Raiders was an adult’s idea of a boy's fantasy of adventure – a ten-year-old’s sense of wonder as recalled by a thirty-five-year-old, with all the understanding of age. Octopussy is like a ten-year-old’s idea of an adult fantasy of adventure, with all the disadvantages of youth – it can’t really imagine what it would be like to be an adult, to want what an adult wants. It knows grown men are supposed to be interested in women, but it can’t for the life of it figure out why.

Also, the jokes suck. Humor has its place in Bond. But it should be sardonic and sarcastic, proceeding from character and situation. It should be witty. Humor in the Moore Bonds, certainly from Moonraker on, is jokey. Lame. Bond makes wisecracks, not because the situation calls for it, because the producers have determined that they need a laugh line every two point five minutes. Most of them aren’t funny. In fact, most of them don’t even bother to try. Moore is game as always: he’s taken to raising his eyebrows, as if to suggest that this is all terribly arch. But it just doesn’t work.

Finally, at this point (because of the impending release of Never Say Never Again) it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Moore is simply too old to play Bond. It’s not a question of chronological age – after all, Connery is older than Moore. It’s that Moore now looks wrong for the part. He’s an Old Guy, increasingly unconvincing in both the love scenes and the action scenes – in everything that makes Bond Bond.

What Makes Bond Bond: Bond’s libido is so powerful that it gives him instant regenerative capabilities. It’s like Popeye with his spinach.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: He wears a clown suit. He wears a clown suit. He wears a clown suit.

BAD GUYS: General Gogol’s back, for the third time in four films. It’s another Cold War plot, only this time, a Russian really is the bad guy. This is the rogue general Orlov, who’s trying to (what else?) start World War III.

He’s just one of several bad guys, though; Octopussy is kind of bifurcated on the baddie front. Which is another way of saying it’s confused. We’ve got Orlov smuggling treasures out of the Soviet state collections, selling them at auction in the West for hard currency; he’s working with a wealthy Indian named Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who has a scary Sikh bodyguard named Gobinda and a sexy smuggler ally called Octopussy… How all of this is supposed to fit together is beyond me: if you concentrate real hard while you’re watching, you can work it out, and since there’s so little going on in this film besides the plot, you just might. But why would you want to? If you haven’t got anything better to pay attention to in a Bond film than the bad guys’ schemes, you know you’re in the wrong Bond film.

Louis Jourdan is the closest we get to a righteous Bond villain here, his charming but steely manner a perfect counterpoint to 007’s own charming but steely manner. Or rather, he should be a perfect counterpoint; the problem is that Moore’s past his prime, so Jourdan out-suaves him easily. Meanwhile, Gobinda the Evil Henchman is merely ordinary; he’s just Oddjob in a turban.

Octopussy, on the other hand… But we’ll get to her in the next section.

GRATUITOUS SEX: The Gratuitous Sex quotient in Octopussy is 2, and that’s a problem. Not just because Bond should be getting a little more action, although he should, but because for part of the movie he’s surrounded by a bevy – I believe that’s the technical term – of beauties. Octopussy’s smuggling operation seems to be staffed entirely by nubile young women who live at her floating palace and wander around in diaphanous robes (except for the guards, who dress like Thing One and Thing Two). If this were 1969 and Roger Moore were George Lazenby, he would certainly make the most of this situation. But nothing happens.

Parents, your daughters are safe with James Bond.

Which leaves us with the two main Bond Girls for Octopussy, Maud Adams in the titular role and Kristina Wayborn as her main lieutenant, Magda. Moore’s interlude with Wayborn is tremendously awkward, as his double entendres seem dreadfully forced, and the vast acreage of her forehead threatens to swallow the movie whole.

Adams, on the other hand, is luminous. She’s perfectly cast as Octopussy, who turns out to be a standard-issue Ian Fleming waif fatale, kind of like Honey Ryder all grown up, or Tracy di Vicenzo if she took over her father’s business. Adams supplies the requisite mystery and poise, and she’s old enough by this point (she previously appeared in The Man with the Golden Gun, of course) that Moore doesn’t look entirely skeevy standing next to her. In fact, their scenes together are the closest this film gets to classic Bond territory.

AND VIOLENCE: Lots of action here, but the old-fashioned tone of it often makes it feel out of place for 007. Fighting on top of a circus train? With Bond dressed up as a gypsy knife thrower? Bond in jungle khakis fighting tigers, snakes, elephants, crocodiles, and leeches? Not quite there. Remember what I was saying about stories that have Bond dressing in something other than suits and ties? This is one of them.

On the other hand, the fight on the outside of the airplane at the climax is legitimately exciting.

BOYS WITH TOYS: When I was fourteen, in 1983, I still thought digital watches were cool. Evidently so did the producers, because that’s what James Bond is wearing here.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Well, India. Sure. But somehow I’ve always thought that this film managed to make India seem surprisingly drab.

ETC.: John Barry was back on board for the score, for another classic 007 score. In this case, “classic” means traditional, as all the dance-music experiments of Hamlisch and Conti were jettisoned. Not a problem. But the theme song is. Rita Coolidge is a fine singer, but “All Time High,” despite boasting that sax lick that everyone used to signal “sexy” in the ‘80s, is the least sexy Bond theme song to date. Safe for the kiddies… This installment saw the first casting updates of any kind since Moore joined the series. The old M, Bernard Lee, had died, so they hired Robert Foster to replace him; he’s a good M. And they introduce Miss Penelope Smallbone, an assistant for Moneypenny; she’s young and pretty, and was obviously intended to replace Moneypenny herself, who was really getting too old for all that flirting with Bond. Unfortunately the scene with the three of them together only reminds the viewer of Moore’s age – he looks like he should be retiring along with Moneypenny…

RATING: 003.

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