Octopussy, I find, is the wild card of Bond movies...I can never tell where it's going to end up on a person's list. It always seems to end up fairly high (really?) or low (really??) amongst people's rankings of the Moore films. Me, I'm Goldilocks today...it's pretty much square down the middle.
Which is not to damn it with faint praise. Octopussy is fun, and entertaining. Sure, it borrows from other Bond movies, and sure, after the realism of For Your Eyes Only they ran scurrying back to gadgets and big set pieces. But that can't really be a surprise, given that Eon was going up against the rival Never Say Never Again, and against the ur-Bond himself, Sean Connery. It would be unrealistic to expect them not to play up the elements the public seemed to love the most in such circumstances.
And mostly, Octopussy is well done. Great stunts, exotic locations, nuclear threats, decent villains, a gorgeous leading lady, some of the best non-Ken Adam sets ever, a new M...like FYEO, Octopussy rarely flags in energy, and is gorgeous to look at.
On the flip side, though, many of those elements I listed above could have, and should have, been done better. A lot of potential is wasted (my god, a crime circus!!), the locations aren't used very well, the leading lady really has nothing to do, and the film is about 15 minutes too long. And the entire middle of the film is a vast wasteland--lots of stuff is happening, but nothing that actually advances the plot!
A lot of the problems come down to the problematic script. Last movie's team of Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson return along with George McDonald Frasier. All are credited as "screen story and screenplay." And it's hard to believe that the (mostly) same team that put FYEO put together a screenplay so shapeless and full of holes.
Of course, if you've been reading my reviews you know that I've found there's usually a pretty direct correlation between the amount of Ian Fleming's work used as a basis for the script, and how successful the movie is. The problem is, we're now starting to scrape the bottom of the Fleming barrel. Like FYEO, Octopussy uses two separate Fleming short stories. Unlike FYEO, though, these two stories are a very weak peg upon which to hang an entire movie. In addition, the writers do a poor job of crafting connective tissue to make it all hang together.
The story Octopussy is used, but done with in about 30 seconds. The story Octopussy tells about her father--British officer and agent, went rogue and stole a cache of gold and retired to an incognito high life, Bond tracks him down and gives him 24 hours to put his affairs in order, which he uses to kill himself and preserve his honor--is the entirety of the short story. That's it. The story Property of a Lady is also fairly intact. In that story, a KGB paymaster is auctioning off a Faberge clock to pay a (known) double agent in MI-6. The KGB agent would undoubtedly be at the auction to bid up the price, to better reward the traitor, so 007 attends to see if they can figure out who the KGB actually is. What follows is an incredibly fun and tense scene (much better than in the movie) as Bond breaks orders to bid on the clock, in order to ferret out the spy's identity. If you don't believe an auction scene can be thrill-packed, you haven't read this story...seriously. But again, not a lot to base a whole movie upon.
So unlike FYEO, where the short stories give us the two major underlying plots for the whole movie, in Octopussy we only get 45 seconds of spoken exposition and one 3-minute scene. Which means all of the conflicts, all of the plot, virtually everything had to come from the writers. The basic underlying plot isn't a bad one, albeit a bit Tom Clancyish: a mad Russian general plans to set off a nuke in Berlin, watch the Europeans blame America and unilaterally disarm, and then the Soviets move in with their conventional superiority and conquer Western Europe. The problem is, they have to come up with the rest of the plot, how to get from point A to B and then C...and there's not much there.
They cover it gamely enough. The first step is to borrow a lot structurally from Goldfinger. They camouflage it fairly well, but follow the bouncing ball. Both films start with a teaser completely unrelated to the main movie, in which 007 smashes the secret lab/hanger of some Latin American bad guy. In the main film, Bond meets the villain and out-cheats the cheater at golf/backgammon...and the response of the strong mute henchman is to grind the golf ball/dice into dust. The villain uses the mundane crime of robbery/smuggling to place a nuke to damage western interests, with the help of an all-female crime group. Bond disarms the nuke, but the villain gets away. Bond dispatches him during a battle on an airplane. Oh, it's not an exact copy, and enough of it works in the new context that you don't mind the borrowing (unlike, say, Moonraker xeroxing The Spy Who Loved Me).
The second thing is to fill the screen with colorful characters. No one rises to the level of a Columbo or Kerim Bay, but Bond interacts with an awful lot of fun characters...Octopussy, Magda, Kamal Khan, Gobinda, Vijay, Orlov, Gogol, Mischka and Grischka, jugglers, acrobats, the general at the U.S. base, dudes with yo-yo saws...the movie keeps throwing more and more people at us, effectively bedazzling us when we should be noticing some of the gaping holes instead.
The biggest problem with Octopussy is that there is no "there" there. Between the time Bond susses out Khan at the auction, until the time he discovers the flier for Octopussy's circus performing in East Germany, the plot doesn't advance one iota. Oh, lots of stuff happens. Bond flies to India, beats Khan at backgammon, Khan's goons chase Bond through the streets, Q shows up, Bond has dinner plus benefits with Magda, she takes the egg and leaves and Bond gets taken prisoner, Khan visits the still-shrouded-in-mystery Octopussy, Bond wakes up at Khan's crib, has a gross dinner, escapes, overhears a non-helpful conversation, is chased in a lengthy tiger hunt, back to Q, a visit to--and a dalliance with--Octopussy, Vijay is killed, the Floating Palace is attacked by Temple of Doom extras...all this takes almost exactly one hour, and in that time the ONLY advancement of the plot is that Bond knows a Soviet general is involved, and that something is up in Karl-Marx-Stadt. Bond could have learned that sitting at his desk in London, backtracking 009's movements. But we are suddenly an hour and a half into the movie, and we still have no clue what the villains' plot is, what their relationships are, what the stakes are. The movie has given us lots of action, lots of characters, but aside from learning how much of a bastard Khan is, nothing is accomplished.
The second biggest problem with Octopussy is a villain mismatch. Obviously the head bad guy is General Orlov: it's his goal to set off the bomb and set off WWIII. Khan is essentially just a financier... He's helping to smuggle the bomb in for ample financial reward, but he's no ideologue. He's never shown with any particular desire to upset the balance of power in Europe--he's just a henchman, essentially. Without Orlov, there is no movie! So you would think that the focus of the movie would be on Bond getting Orlov. But you would be wrong--Bond barely even meets Orlov! They share a grand total of a minute and a half together on screen; as far as we can tell, they never even learn each others names!! Bond has nothing to do with Orlov's demise, and Orlov is never so much as mentioned again after his death!
Instead, the movie spends all of its creative energy on Kamal Khan, making him the big bad, despite the fact that it's not even his plan!! Khan gets about 15 times the screen time Orlov does, gets his own henchman, gets all the dialogue and moments. I realize that Louis Jordan is a bigger star than Stephen Berkoff, but in terms of what the movie's plot is, the decision to emphasize Khan over Orlov really makes no dramatic sense...especially after the bomb is defused. Khan's a smuggler and forger, Orlov's a mass murdering war monger...but Khan is treated as the worse villain. Strange (and not the only time in the series that we'll see such villain confusion...).
Not that there is anything at all wrong with Louis Jordan's performance. He was always one of my favorite Columbo villains, and he triumphs here, too, oozing a smarmy, evil charm that makes him immediately disagreeable yet compelling. His performance is as far away from the monotone blandness of Stromberg and Drax as you can possibly get...Jordan clearly understood the dynamic that must exist between Bond and his villain, and played it up appropriately. He takes what could have been just a Golfinger knock-off role and makes it his own. It is largely due to his portrayal of Khan that we get swept away in that "lost hour" in the middle of the movie, not realizing that nothing is actually happening.
John Glen's direction also helps to cover Octopussy's plot deficiencies. In many ways, I think this might be his best direction job of his 5 Bond movies. He always has the camera moving in interesting ways, and finds lots of unusual camera angles to keep the viewer engaged. Two scenes serve as good examples of Glen's skill. The hunting of 009 through the woods is very well done. Mostly without score, Glen takes an inherently ridiculous scene--a guy dressed as a clown pursued by knife-throwing twins!!--and makes it into one of the best scenes in the series' history. Secondly, watch the auction scene. Look at the surprise on Jim Fanning's face when there is a new bidder on the egg at 425,000 pounds...and then the shock and horror as he sees it was Bond bidding, as simultaneously with the camera pulling back and left. The audience discovers the truth along with Fanning. Masterful. The movie is full of little directorial touches like that, that keep us smiling and willfully playing along.
Also great fun is Peter Lamont's production design. When he have to compete against a rival Bond, you'd best channel Ken Adam, and he does, especially with the Soviet meeting room, complete with spinning conference table:
and Octopussy's bed:
Lamont's sets just blow away what we're given by Never Say Never Again. As I said in my review of that film, despite having almost identical budgets, Eon always seems able to do more with the money...
The teaser is largely mediocre. Fun fact--perhaps because of the Castro look-a-like who lusts after Bianca, I always assumed that this was set in Cuba. Nope--the credits clearly identify those folks as "South American officer" and "South American V.I.P." The action of the teaser is not terribly compelling. Watching a man flying alone, even while doing some aerial stunts, just isn't that fascinating...Bond's never in any real physical danger (reference Tomorrow Never Does for how to make it work better). Question--why assume Colonel Toro's identity if he was going to be there? Or did he just show up unscheduled? Sloppy intelligence, either way...The "comedy" ending doesn't help. Good heavens, if the mini-plane burns fuel that fast, it was hardly suitable for this mission, was it?? And we never find out exactly what it is Bond is trying to destroy...
I was pretty hard on Rita Coolidge's "All Time High" in my song rankings. Let me make my thought process clear: this is not a bad song...actually, I think it's sorta decent, in a 1980's Adult Contemporary type of way. But it IS a bad Bond song. It sooo wants to be "Nobody Does It Better," but it falls short. It does nothing to describe or symbolize the action of the film, it's not about Bond or the villain, and it's practically useless when it comes to being worked into the score in a meaningful way. Plus, several demerits for failing to use the movie title in the song. Sorry, Rita.
Maud Adams is as lovely as she was a decade earlier. But unfortunately, the script really gives her nothing to do. Seriously, her top girl, Magda, gets more to do than she does. Aside from one scene with Khan where her identity is obscured, we don't meet her until over an hour into the film. Despite all this talk about her being a master smuggler, we don't really see it, do we? After Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, we know something about smuggling in the Bond universe...and hiding some jewels in a cannon, while nice, doesn't reach the level of cleverness we'd expect from someone supposedly so gifted. When the actual operation occurs, Khan and Gobinda and the Twins do all the work, while she just stands around watching.
She gives us some exposition about reviving the "octopus cult" (?) and gathering lost girls, but we expect a little more...especially from our title character. Why women? What cult? If you're independently wealthy now, why smuggle? Sadly, none of this is dealt with at all--the writers just wanted some hook to hang a Pussy Galore clone on, and didn't bother to develop it any further. It's not Maud's fault, but Octopussy is never anything more than a cardboard cut-out who looks great on the posters. Which is a shame, because this character had so much potential...heck, we never even find out her real name!!
Roger Moore mostly hams it up, but still shows some ability to display the fire needed (as in his confrontation with Orlov--why, oh why, weren't these two given more screen time together?!?). But to battle Never Say Never Again, the producers upped the "crowd pleasing" silliness quotient. So after the earnestness of FYEO, we're back to animals doing double-takes, Bond embarrassingly telling a tiger to sit, Bond embarrassingly swinging and yelling like Tarzan, Bond making jokes and puns practically every time he opens his mouth...sigh. Under those circumstances, and with that script, we pretty much get the Moore performance we expect, don't we?
I mentioned the large supporting cast earlier, and most of them shine. Vijay Amritraj, a professional tennis player with no prior acting experience, makes an amiable sacrificial lamb. Krisitna Wayborn is fun as Magda, although her all-too-obviously dubbed voice rarely seems to match up to her physical performance. Kabir Bedi isn't given much to do except look big and menacing as Gobinda--Mission Accomplished. Lots of smaller character actor parts--Major Smithers, Jim Fanning, Sadruddin, Yo-Yo Thug...there are a lot of people to watch in this movie.
The location usage is fairly disappointing, though. We don't see a lot of India, and most of it consists entirely of cliches. Market places full of fakirs, mockery of the food, hordes of villagers on tiger hunts...there's nothing at all of the vaguest interest or originality here, and nothing that wouldn't be in an India movie set in 1883, let alone 1983. (Between this movie and the following year's Temple of Doom, India's public image in the West was set back decades, if not more) Berlin and East Germany don't come off much better...yes, I know they weren't really there, but the plot possibilities of James Bond in East Germany are completely ignored.
So what is the verdict on Octopussy? It's clearly not the best Bond film out there. The plot is missing from the middle hour of the movie;, the Bond Girl (and title character!!) is just boring; Bond ends up chasing the wrong bad guy; the movie goes on too long as everything after the bomb is defused is complete anti-climax; and the plot holes are so numerous the movie is constantly in danger of becoming Swiss cheese (more an that it the notes).
And yet...charm can go a long way. The film is quite well directed; the sets are great; there are more good characters than you can shake a stick at; lots of great stunt work (even if the Roger Moore insert shots are becoming more and more obvious); and even though they up the jokiness, they never go over the top, and never coast (a la Moonraker). Everyone is clearly having such a good time, we gladly go along for the ride, and willingly forget many of the flaws until later. So in my book, Octopussy gets a thumbs up. Not the best of the Moore Bonds, but far, far from the worst. It's an enjoyable (if imperfect) romp...and we all need those sometimes.
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Welcome, M! Robert Brown (formerly seen as Admiral Hargreaves in TSWLM) takes over MI-6. I only wish he had been a little smarter. Look--009 was found in Berlin in a clown costume. Wouldn't the VERY FIRST thing you do be to research what circuses or carnivals were in the area? Maybe follow up on what mission 009 was on?? How can you say "there's not much to go on?" Unless 009 was on vacation at East German clown college and just happened to stumble upon the smuggling ring, retracing 009's steps make at least as much sense as following the egg. But Bond and M don't even think of that until after they discover Octopussy has a circus...
**So Bond eavesdrops on Khan and Orlov discussing their plan, but all he hears is "one week from today" and "Karl Marx Stadt." He escapes, apparently goes to Octopussy's palace that night, spends the night there, stays another night and beds Octopussy, they're attacked that night and he leaves...So what, exactly, do Bond and MI-6 do for the next 4 or 5 days?? Nothing?? Bond shows up in East Germany the same day as their performance in K-M Stadt...
**When Bond escapes from the palace disguised as a corpse in a body bag, instead of taking the still running jeep that he's laying in, he gets out and takes off on foot through the jungle even though there's a massive hunting party looking for him. Bond being stupid, or just vamping to fill time during the "missing hour" in the middle of the film.
**Orlov and Khans' plan was pretty much a non-starter. The Kremlin auditor discovered the forgeries in all of 2 seconds!! So regardless of the bomb, both would likely end up being hunted by the KGB for life...(and I hope the quality of Khan's forgery was better on those counterfeiting plates he escapes with at the end...). Seriously, the very first step of their plan, and apparently it's completely incompetent!!
**It is seriously, seriously impossible to believe that James Bond couldn't find a god damned phone anywhere near West Berlin. After the train fight and killing the twin, Bond has almost an hour and a half left. That close to Berlin, I can't believe he's more than an hour-and-a-half away from civilization. After he's dropped off by the Volkswagen, instead of waiting for the woman to finish her call (and thus call M with over an hour left on the countdown), he steals her car (in front of policeman!) and decides to drive all the way there (a 45+ minute drive at top speed, if we believe the shots of the bomb's timer). We are really, really, really into idiot plot territory here.
**James just happens to end up in EXACTLY the same clown outfit as 009??
**It's a good thing that James has substantially improved at disarming nukes since Goldfinger...
**Khan goes back to the Monsoon Palace to grab his stuff and go on the lam--and once he found the bomb didn't go off, he presumably made top speed. Yet somehow, Octopussy and all of her acrobats make it to his crib at virtually the exact time he arrives!! I know this was pre-Patriot Act, but somehow I think that a group who had smuggled a live nuclear weapon onto a U.S. military base, even if unknowingly, wouldn't be leaving any time soon. Certainly they would be detained long enough that they couldn't catch up to Khan (and don't get me started on how many borders Khan had to cross to get home...wouldn't the U.S. put out a pretty big APB on him once they were told of his involvement?
**M makes Bond sign a chit for the real Faberge egg, because it's "government property now." Orlov smashes it to bits later...does that mean Bond owes the Crown half a million pounds? He's got a chit with no egg...(by the way, M, since that egg was STOLEN from its legitimate buyer, is it really government property now?) (and good luck to Gogol getting the Romanov star back from MI-6, given M's interpretation of "finders, keepers)
**Speaking of which, when Bond swaps the eggs at the auction, it's the most obvious and least-believable slight of hand EVER. Is it really that easy to steal priceless treasures from Sotheby's, even when everyone in the room is looking right at you????
**The Iron Law of Bond Movies: Hotel clerks are HOT for Bond!!
**Yes, the fake alligator is pretty silly...but is it really any sillier than Connery's seagull hat in Goldfinger's teaser?
**Another gambling moment mistake. Both Bond and Khan seem to think that Bond can only win with double sixes...but look at where Khan's pieces are:
They're on the 3 and 4 points, which means that even if Bond didn't get double 6's, there's any number of rolls (3-1, 4-2, 6-2, etc) that Khan could get that would still leave James with another chance. Of course, Khan would have cheated again, but still, they should at least state things accurately...
**Know-it-all Bond is back: now he's an expert on Faberge eggs, identifying which one it is on sight (one change with the new M--he's pleased, not annoyed, by Bond's showing off!). Bond also can expertly identify a specific genus of octopus and all its traits, just from a tattoo on a woman's butt.
**The whole bit with Bond stowed away on the train is just physically impossible...it's a TMWGG problem again. With both Grischka and Gobinda in the cramped train car with him, Bond somehow manages, silently and unnoticed, to get into the gorilla suit. Then later, once Gobinda knows he's in there, he manages to get out of it, silently and unnoticed...unless he's the Flash or can turn intangible, uh-uh, no way.
**Nice to see Bond become a crack shot again...he takes down 3 straight commie soldiers with one shot to the head each...
**I would never suggest that Spielberg was at all influenced by the "feeding the guests disgusting 'Indian' food" scene. Nope, nothing like that ever turned up in Temple of Doom a year later...
**Bond Score: 3. Bianca, Magda, and Octopussy. Cumulative Bond Score: 37
And, as always:
Well, that's actually one word too many...we'll be back next week with Moore's last hurrah.