SPECTRE

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Living Daylights

#15""Alex, you were right.

My good friend Alex has argued with me for years that I've been too harsh in my evaluation of The Living Daylights. I've always regarded it as somehow less than the sum of its parts, as a film that seemed caught between Roger Moore era and (in my mind) the classic Licence To Kill.

Well, I'm ready to concede that I was wrong. Oh, TLD isn't a perfect Bond movie, by any means. And a couple of its flaws still bug the, well, living daylights out of me. But upon rewatching, I found TLD to be much better than I had remembered. And I will be moving it up the list accordingly. So, this one's for you, Alex.

This movie, of course, introduced Timothy Dalton as 007, and it was a fairly momentous change at the time. Roger Moore had been in the role for 7 movies and 14 years. And we were into the era of home VHS, so even those too young to have enjoyed him at the time were increasingly familiar with Sean Connery as Bond. So Dalton had the unenviable task of following two giants (and the other fella). Could a classically trained actor who was little known outside of England, who was given the role by default after the producers first choice became unavailable, be up to the task? And given the way other movie franchises were redefining the vocabulary of action films--and redefining box office expectations for them--how would the writers and producers respond?

No delicatessens for Dalton!Our answer comes quickly in the teaser, which is the best in (at least) a decade. No coy "aren't we cute" humor, no physically impossible stunts played for laughs, no Beach Boys songs...just a taut little mini-movie that also sets up the main plotline rather well. A routine training exercise at Gibraltar turns deadly as someone uses the occasion to spring a trap on the the Double-O section, as 004 gets offed right in front of Bond's eyes. Bond's relentless pursuit of the killer, while dodging paintballs and real bullets, immediately tells us that this isn't a Moore movie. The tense direction, the great stunt work, and the sheer physicality that Dalton brings to the role here, is something that had been missing from the later Moore era. Given that neither Connery's nor Moore's Bond actually appeared in a teaser until their third movies respectively, and that Lazenby's was nowhere near this exciting, I have little trouble declaring that Dalton has the "best first teaser" of any Bond (thus far...Brosnan and Craig will have something to say about that, obviously).


Dalton's time as a 'one-woman' Bond? 7 minutes, 32 seconds...Oh, and about the "safe sex Bond." For those of you too young to remember, this was the first Bond of the AIDS era, and with the transition to Dalton a lot of hay was made in the press that we wouldn't see Bond sleeping with tons of woman anymore, and that in TLD Bond would be with just one woman throughout. Which just goes to prove that pundits and critics don't, you know, actually watch the movies, as Bond scores in the freaking teaser!! Tune in two weeks from now as we watch the media go wild in a similar way over Bond being a "sexist, misogynistic dinosaur."

The theme song...ahh, yes. I know a lot of you out there like a-Ha's take, and more power to you. But me, I don't cotton to it. While it does have a catchy chorus, everything else in the song is treacly and forgettable, just feeble and stilted Euro dance pop (uh oh, now I've done it). It feels like the producers were making a blatant attempt to recapture the success of Duran Duran's "A View To A Kill," but failed to notice that a-Ha was no Duran Duran. Most telling--when another song (by the Pretenders) is used more often, and much more successfully, in the score than a-Ha's tune.

The first scene post-teaser is straight of the Ian Fleming short story. In Fleming's version, Bond has to protect a defector escaping from Berlin, and when the sniper turns out to be a woman, 007 refuses to kill her, adjusting his aim so that he only shoots the rifle out of her hand. When a bureaucrat threatens to tell M, Bonds tell him to go ahead, and hopes he'll get fired for it.

The way this story is used in the opening is the most important indicator of how Dalton's Bond is going to be different. First, the writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson decide to use the whole story, and make it a lynch pin of the movie's plot. In this way, TLD is much closer to For Your Eyes Only than Octopussy or A View To A Kill, which used some Fleming stories for just background, or for a title only, respectively. There wasn't much Fleming left for the writers to use now, but they were going to use it seriously and make it integral to the movie.

Yet they also decided to broaden that short story out. The actual escape, with Bond and Saunder's competing plans, isn't from the story--that's original. And it sets the tenor for Dalton's brief stint. It was to be Bond vs. the Bureaucrats, 007 trying to do what's right while still accomplishing his missions. In both of his movies, everyone around Bond seems forced to act according to pre-ordained roles, with no free will: 007, we can't tell you the escape plan; James, you must murder Pushkin; James, you can't go after Sanchez; James, no questioning orders. It's a fascinating shift in the tone of the series, and maybe it couldn't have gone any farther after Licence to Kill pushed it to the limit, but it was damned interesting to watch while it was going on.

Finally, there was an awareness of the outside world that had seemed lacking in the Moore era. The Trans-Siberian pipeline was big news in the day, and a development of some controversy (and still is today, thanks to Europe's growing dependence of Russian natural gas). Yes, they made it a bit humorous yet never over the top. And it was the first time in a while that they had tried to take a real-world issue and Bond-ize it (and let's give credit--it was pretty clever and well done). LTK would take a much more real look at the war on drugs and its implications than the cartoonish Mr. Big of Live And Let Die ever did. Not everybody approved of this approach, but it was clearly the modus operandi of the Dalton films--no more genocidal billionaires, just some real world issues given a 45 degree twist and turned up to 11.

Comfortable in the spotlightDalton himself had re-read much of Fleming before taking on the role, and it shows. Just as in the TLD short story, his Bond comes across as very world-weary, very blase. He's seen a lot of death, and he doesn't have time for the comedy antics anymore. He is a killer; can you imagine Roger Moore being sent on an assassination mission? In some ways, his portrayal of Bond is closest to Fleming's conception--a no-nonsense killer who questions what he's doing, who uses the martinis and woman to make bearable the life he leads. He's burned out on those, too--look at the way he almost has to talked into a dalliance with Linda (the boat lady) in the teaser--"I'm no nonsense, I've got a mission, another comrade dead--oh, all right, if you insist!"

Some have said Dalton doesn't do humor as well as Connery or Moore, and to an extent that's right. But if you've seen other films he's down, it's clear that he can do conventional humor. It might be more accurate to say that he just does the comedy differently.Whereas Connery used the death quip as a bitter, sarcastic taunt at a fallen foe, and Moore practically turned to the camera and wiggled his eyebrows in an attempt for a laugh, Dalton plays it very much in his conception of the character--it's a desperate (but failed) attempt to lighten the burden after yet another death, a vain cry against the darkness of the spy's life. It's almost as if he's trying to laugh at himself, but failing miserably.

Lovely even in night visionDalton's conception of Bond is one of the reasons the romance with Kara works so well. Her innocence and optimism is such a stark contrast to Bond's cynicism and weariness that it makes their relationship much more interesting than many of the ones in the later Moore era. Kara may not be the best Bond girl ever, but this is surely the sweetest romance of the entire series. Just watch how she gradually transforms Bond, from the cold woman-manipulator a la Roger Moore to a man who feels guilty about what he's done to her to caring for her. And after the climax, after he has already been sent off on his next mission, he comes back to see her--this is the first time we've ever seen this in the franchise!!

Maryam d'Abo, much to her credit, finds the right note to make all of this believable. She's a civilian, but she's not a helpless screamer, as was Stacy Sutton. She's game enough to stand by her man, Koskov, even things get difficult and she's hassled by the KGB. She's frightened by events around her, but summons up enough courage to muddle through and be a real help (mostly) to Bond...just don't let her fly the plane. Her performance helps set the standard for the category "innocent civilian swept into events beyond her control" of Bond girls.

The producers also step up the globetrotting aspect of Bond. After being almost completely confined to France and San Francisco last time out, this time we're on a whirlwind tour of Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, rural England, Vienna, Tangier, Afghanistan, Pakistan...the locations are mostly used to good effect, and (until the last half hour really begins to drag) keep the audience interested during the lulls in the action.

Poor, poor SaundersA special shout to Thomas Wheatley as Saunders, one of the series' greatest sacrificial lambs. Presented as essentially a snooty weasel in the opener, the script has enough confidence in itself not to leave him as a one-dimensional character. Saunders and Bond develop a grudging respect for each other, and the audience actually begins to like him, which make's Saunder's death all the more painful. Wheatley's performance makes the transition believable, and his death...well, ouch, what a way to go. (Unfair question department--maybe this is a European thing, but how many places have their automatic doors' workings exposed like that, so anyone can get to them? Just asking...)

An open source door mechanismThis one's for the ladies!Which leads us to Necros, a great henchman. With his ubiquitous Walkman playing the scary "Where Has Everybody Gone?" whenever he's in action, he brings an air of badly needed menace to the proceedings, even though he doesn't have much dialogue, or much to do besides kill, kill, and kill again. He's a worthy opponent for Dalton's first outing, the relentless killer who gives James one hell of a fight after building up the audience's desire to see him taken out.

Stunning between with...who???One major misstep with Necros, however, is during the "kidnapping" of Koskov from the safehouse. Don't get me wrong...it was very well done, and exciting (milk bottles as grenades??). And the kitchen fight was wonderful...thrilling and innovative, reminiscent of the legendary train car battle between Bond and Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Except...who the hell was Necros fighting? Much of the impact of this great, great fight scene (which took 3 days to film!) is diluted because we have absolutely no idea whom he is fighting. It's a character we've never met, never had a single line of dialogue from...we don't even know his name! (Hint: it's stuntman Bill Weston, credited only as "Butler, Blayden"). It's not Bond, it's not someone we know or have any emotional investment in. I'll grant you, there might be some level of cool in the argument that "this proves how tough MI-6 is, when even their anonymous butlers are badasses." But from a dramatic standpoint, I don't think it helps your movie when the film's most exciting physical conflict takes place with our hero (played by a new actor) is nowhere to be seen. Given the time and energy they invested in this one scene, they should have re-jiggered it either to include Bond (having Necros "defeat" him there would add extra juice to their final fight later), or made sure the butler was a character the audience had some reason to care about.

The second misstep is the "ice chase" in Czechoslovakia. After going to such lengths to give us more realistic action scenes in Gibraltar and Blayden, we immediately descend into the nadir of bad Roger Moore set pieces. Things happen not because they make sense, or are physically possible, or are remotely believable, but because they're "funny"--which completely takes us out of the mood the movie had set for us. Using the laser to somehow cut completely through the police car so it can fall apart in a funny way? Driving in a circle on the ice to cut a hole to sink another one? Now we're back in Bugs Bunny territory, or Pink Panther territory, not James Bond.

Another difficulty is that, like most 1980's Bond films, TLD is too long for the story we're given. Maybe the producers were paid by the minute, because Octopussy, VTAK, TLD--they all go on at least ten minutes too long. After the "assassination" of Pushkin, the pacing of the film just feels off, flat and distended. The stuff in Afghanistan, while all well done, just goes on far, far too long--it lasts for over 35 minutes!! Despite all of the excellent stunt work, and all of the lovely pyrotechnics, do we really need to see every explosion in the battle, every bag of heroin loaded, every shot fired by both sides? It goes on for so long, in one continuous crisis after another, that the audience is exhausted when we get to the final shot-out with Whitaker, which now comes across as a total anti-climax. Throw in the fact that there is absolutely NO transition to that final fight (Bond and Kara escape from the plane, then suddenly Bond is back in Tangier stalking Whitaker. No explanation, no transition, no Kara...it just suddenly happens!), and the whole ending feels tacked on, instead of being a natural development.

(Just to show that I'm not merely a complaining backseat director, I offer the following suggestions how to pep up the films last half hour. While it's good to see Felix Leiter finally return after 14 years, John Terry gives a horrendous performance, and Leiter's presence adds literally nothing to the proceedings. Cutting his scenes costs nothing and speeds things up. And cut at least 5 minutes out of the Afghanistan business, including the circling back to blow up the bridge business. And throw in some kind of transition scene, maybe with M recalling Bond but he insists on going to finish off Whitaker.)

The ending also feels a bit squishy because the villains' plans aren't terribly exciting. It's a fairly prosaic plot--trick Bond into killing Pushkin so we can make money selling drugs--that doesn't lend itself to a thrilling conclusion. There's no bomb to disarm, no catastrophe averted...just a bunch of bags of heroin dumped out of the back of a plane (not even destroyed!!) and the rest blown up in a plane crash. Yes, Bond did avert the evil scheme...but somehow it just doesn't feel like a significant victory, does it? Because there was no tension from a countdown of any type, and because the stakes were so low, we don't get the sense of relief that we're used to from Bond thwarting the bad guys' plan.

I want to sing!!!!The other reason the denouement falls so flat is that we one again have villain misuse, as we did in Octopussy. To begin with, we have pretty weak villains this time out. Georgi Koskov, with all his hugging and sputtering, comes off more pathetic than evil. But I will defend Jeroen Krabbe to this extent--watch Koskov when he drops off Bond and Kara in Afghanistan. He's no longer a buffoon--he's a mean bastard, someone you could almost buy as a true villain. It's only when he's around people he's trying to trick--Bond and MI-6 early on, or Pushkin--that he adopts the aspect of the fool. Krabbe is portraying Koskov as acting. The only problem is, Krabbe is not very good at it, taking Koskov's "performance" too far over the top, weakening the character in our eyes. And the script doesn't do him any favors, not letting the true Koskov show through until 3/4 of the way through the movie, and then for only a couple of minutes.

Mitchell!!As to Whitaker, well, I've never been a Joe Don Baker admirer, so I'll just restrict my critique to the fact that the script gives him absolutely nothing to do. He has very few scenes, and only two (one each with Pushkin and Bond) where he does anything more than growl orders at people. And then he just keeps spouting off his faux military cliches. The writers never elevate him above a brief character sketch--and neither does the performance.

But the problem is, as in Octopussy, Bond settles up with the wrong villain. Until the finale, Bond HAS NEVER EVEN MET Whitaker. So there is no sense of a plot culminating, no sense of an ultimate confrontation between enemies--just two guys who've never met stalking each other in a dark room, and even then they never come face to face. You feel as though someone should have stepped in and introduced them first. The final confrontation, as a result, is completely lacking in any dramatic tension. Meanwhile, the villain Bond should really want to settle with is Koskov, who lied to him directly and used him and left him to die in Afghanistan. But just as with Orlov in Octopussy, Bond doesn't get to deliver the coup de gras to Koskov. Pushkin does, and the final blow (presumably?) is delivered off-screen by anonymous KGB agents. Terrifically unsatisfying. (Not to mention the actual resolution to the fight with Whitaker---dropping a statue on him--is pretty lame)

A final reservation I have is the whole Afghanistan business...it just feels...off, somehow. No, I don't have the post-9/11 reservation some folks do. Applying 20 years of geopolitical hindsight can be foolhardy thing to do to a fantasy adventure series, and in 1987 few foresaw the Soviet withdrawal and its consequences coming. And frankly, Kamran Shah sure doesn't seem like the Taliban type.

No, my reservations stem from the contemporary implications that the movie seems to not have a firm grasp on. Afghanistan was a huge battleground of the Cold War. But it's kind of hard to tell that from the movie's treatment of the issue. Yes, Koskov and Whitaker were evil, but only at the margins--Russia was trying to get more weapons to kill the Mujaheddin. Pushkin was just pissed because those two were trying to enrich themselves first, rather than immediately buying weapons. When Bond was trying to convince Kamran to help, by saying the drug money would be used to buy weapons....well, hold on, so would the original $50 million they got from Russia!! Yet Bond doesn't want to kill Pushkin--even though it was British policy to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan, Bond doesn't want to stop it, unless someone gets greedy and kills a couple of British agents? Meanwhile, after he escapes, Bond circles back with the plane and blows up a bridge full of Soviet tanks and troops who aren't part of Koskov's plot. Some would consider that an act of war, for heaven's sake--yet Pushkin and Gogol never so much as shrug at it! When M presented Kamran to Gogol in Vienna, that should have been a major diplomatic incident, akin (in Soviet eyes) to presenting an al-Qaeda representative to the U.S. ambassador!! And even if she was an innocent dupe, is it remotely plausible that a Czech defector who had helped fight Soviet troops would be given an unrestricted emigration visa? None of what happens rings true to how the parties should have behaved.

Earlier I praised TLD for taking a topical issue and giving it a Bond twist. Here, they fail. The fiction of the Bond movies--that the USSR and the West were basically friendly competitors except for the occasional nutty general--completely falls apart when you set your movie in the hottest battleground of the end of the Cold War, and still try to ignore the Britain and Russia were on opposite sides there.

I've probably spent way too much time dwelling on the plot's shortcomings, because I do feel that the film's good points outweigh them, by a fair margin. But TLD could have been a GREAT Bond movie, instead of merely a good one. The romance is one of the series' strongest; they keep the plot slowly unfolding, so the audience is never sure what the villains' real plan is until late in the film (which might explain part of the disappointment--all this murder and defection and kidnapping and skulduggery, only to have it turn out to be a glorified drug deal?!?); aside from the ice chase, the action scenes and stunt work are top notch, a definite step up from the late Moore era; and Dalton makes a very effective debut as 007. Better villains, better pacing, and a stronger ending would certainly have made this one of the top rated Bond films ever. Without those, though, the movie falls short of classic.

Still, it is pretty good. Satisfied now, Alex?

Tune in next week, when for Bond, this time it's personal!!

SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS

**How did Koskov and Whitaker know about the training exercise at Gibraltar? Sure, it probably wasn't top secret or anything, but it also probably wasn't widely advertised, especially to the Russians. Did they have a mole in MI-6?? And for that matter, how did they know about that safehouse at Blayden, and that Koskov was stashed there?

**Speaking of which, maybe they should have left a more obvious clue to inspire MI-6 to kill Putin. The little "smiert spiomun" tag was found "near the body," apparently much later; Bond doesn't even hear about it until after Koskov re-escapes. If there had been a stronger wind, the tag would have blown away, and no one would have known...

Poor penmanship for an assassin...**Since the mission is to penetrate the RADAR installation at Gibraltar, may I suggest that parachuting in from a plane might not have been the most effective infiltration route? Those things show up on radar...

**That's probably the best mobile office for M ever...

We spent how many taxpayer dollars on this lavish mock-up in a military plane**After not hearing anything about other Double-O agents for a while, suddenly they're name dropped every movie, and also dropping liked flies. 009 dies in Octopussy, 003 in VTAK, now 004...and 008 gets a mention.

This is also the first time we get any actual face time with any of the other OO's, and, well, given what we see here, they're not terribly impressive, are they? 002 is tangled in a tree and shot with a paintball 10 seconds in? 004 makes no real effort to save himself and screams like a baby on the way down? Is James really that much better than the rest? Or has he just been incredibly luckier over the years??

**Given that Koskov and Whitaker are trying to keep things hidden, isn't buying a $150,000 cello at a public auction just a little bit too conspicuous? It was the only link that led Bond to Whitaker...and surely someone in Kara's orchestra would have noticed that she suddenly had a freakin' Stradivarius, wouldn't they? Certainly the sudden appearance of such a capitalist luxury would have led to some investigation by the Czech secret police or the KGB (Yes, I know they planned for Kara to die, but the cello would have still been around, right? And it would have led the KGB to Whitaker...).

**Speaking of being too conspicuous...isn't the use of the VTOL to blast upwards from the inside of the building where Koskov exits the pipeline a bit too attention-getting? Everybody, including the Czech border guards, turns to watch it take off. Doesn't that kind of give away the game? Now everybody knows the terminus for this escape route, so they can figure out the beginning...the fancy plane has ruined it for future use, haven't they? Koskov was already in the west...why not just drive him to the airport or military base, instead of flashing a big neon "look how we escaped" sign??

oops...blew our cover**This is a top KGB assassin??

Winnie the BOOM
Exploding teddy bears??**Just asking--they still had milkmen in England in 1987? And they'll let any old yob claiming to be his sub into a high security safe house??

**That evil scheme has one heckuva profit margin--from $50 million (which wasn't even theirs) to half a billion? S.P.E.C.T.R.E. could learn a thing or two here...

**Speaking of which, where exactly were they planning on selling heroin? Did Koskov and Whitaker already have a deal set up? Was the Soviet army in the drug dealing business?

**Caroline Bliss never did much for me as Moneypenny...despite it being 1987, she always seemed more clingy and dependent than Lois Maxwell did 25 years earlier....

Barry Manilow??**Walter Gottel was too ill for the demands placed on the role, so Gogol was "promoted' to the foreign service (really? That was a promotion?) and John Rhys-Davies as General Pushkin takes over his old job. JRD does a fine job, too, bringing the right mixture of authority and understated menace to the role. He has a good chemistry with Dalton; it's a shame that they don't get more screen time together.

Pavarotti?**Ladies and gentleman, the first bird flipped in James Bond history:

So much for an Oxford education...**Bond Score: 2. Linda and Kara. Cumulative Bond Score: 43

And as always:

We've run out of titles--check back with us two years from nowTune in next week as 007 just says "NO!" to drugs, and makes a Hemingway joke no one ever gets...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A View To A Kill

#14You know what A View To A Kill needs? This movie needs more c....

No, I promise, despite Christopher Walken's presence, that I will not make that joke. He's playing Max Zorin, not legendary producer Bruce Dickinson. Bond movies are a serious matter, and I won't cheapen this with trite references to pop culture catch phrases and late night comedy routines. I owe you, my committed reader, that much.

So sue meStill, VTAK desperately needed something, as the Roger Moore era comes to an end with a whimper, not a bang. It's not a good movie. In fact, I think it's the second worst Bond movie. But it can be a little tough to put your finger on why. What it come down to, mainly, is that the movie needs more...well, more cowbell, dammit.

It's not as if the filmmakers aren't trying hard...but almost every decision they make seems ill-conceived. And as a result, the movie plays as pedestrian, even boring at points. It's as if they forgot they were actually making a James Bond picture, and settled for giving us a bunch of standard action movie cliches.

The shortcomings of this movie can best be summed up by one shot:

Are you shitting me? Seriously?!?!A aged Nazi trying to throw a lit bundle of dynamite at Bond. Really. That's our final crisis? That's not Bond--that's Die Hard Meets The Road Runner.

Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson team up for their third consecutive Bond script, and Wilson is a full producer at this point. But it's almost as if these two have forgotten what makes Bond Bond. Of course, they have very little Fleming to work with here, just (part of) the title of a short story. In From A View To A Kill, Bond must track down a hidden sniper who is ambushing NATO dispatch couriers in France. Not a lot to build a movie upon, obviously. (Note: I have yet to hear any explanation as to why they dropped the "From" in the title...What, you can't have a Bond movie start with the word "From?")


I wish I were Goldfinger, I wish I were Goldfinger, I wish...So instead, they crafted yet another Goldfinger knockoff as a plot. The similarities are even more striking...and far less subtle...than Octopussy. Bond investigates our villain for smuggling, but stumbles upon the villain's plot to destroy the U.S. supply of gold/microchips to make himself rich. The producers show no shame whatsoever in completely duplicating the famous Goldfinger study scene, down to the map rising out of the table and the one objector being escorted to his death.

But that's not the real problem...we Bond fans have proven very forgiving when Eon borrows from itself. No, the real flaws in this movie become apparent when you look at the action sequences they choose to surround this framework with. They give us lot of set pieces that are, frankly, completely underwhelming and pedestrian. Let's look at just a few:
  • Bond rousts a few of Zorin's thugs at Stacy Sutton's crib. There's not anything wrong with this scene, but it's just a lot of punching. It's all very standard, from the rock-salt filled shotgun to the ashes-filled urn Stacy smashes a thug with. There's no pizazz, nothing that says this is a James Bond production...nothing that, frankly, couldn't have turned up on an American P.I. television series of the era.
  • Bond rescues himself and Stacy from a burning elevator shaft. Again, competently done, but where's the Bond? Watching 1 full minute of Bond carrying Stacy down a ladder isn't what I've come to expect from a 007 movie.
  • The firetruck chase through San Francisco is no Bullitt, that's for sure. For 90% of it, Bond isn't even driving. They're in SF and don't use the hills?!? The jump over the drawbridge isn't a jump...they use clever editing to conceal that the firetruck doesn't jump AT ALL! And the Keystone Cops, let's smash as many police cars as possible finale belongs in the Blues Brothers, not a Bond movie.
Yes, they are some better action sequences elsewhere in the film, but these examples pretty clearly show that the producers were struggling to define what Bond was at this point. There is nothing special about any of them, nothing to make you say "Wow, I've never seen anything like this in other movies!" In other words, no cowbell. For much of VTAK, there's nothing to separate the movie from an episode of Spenser For Hire or Magnum P.I. (not that there's anything wrong with SFH). The sense of bigger than life, the fantasy, the 5-minutes-into-the future that we expect from the franchise is sadly lacking in the movie. So in a way, it's completely fitting that we finish up in a glamorous quarry. And their sense of what we expect from a Bond film is so off, when they do give us the fantasy, it's an old Nazi throwing dynamite. Sigh...

Part of the lack of glamor comes from the surprising decision to once again have Bond go gadget-less. But unlike For Your Eyes Only, they don't give this gadget-less Bond realistic villains; heck, Zorin is practically Gadgets 'R' Us. And unlike FYEO, they don't compensate by putting gadget-less Bond in exotic situations, and letting him show off his superiors skills and thinking. There's no "watch Bond outdrive the bad guys with a Citroen!" Instead, Bond is in mundane situations, doesn't show impressive skills, and lets Stacy do the driving.

Another factor might be the San Francisco locale that dominates the second half of the film. Because of all the American movies and television shows set there, I think it's just difficult for San Francisco to come across as exotic or intriguing to audiences. We have a "been there done that" feeling, and because of the familiarity we're comparing the film to Bullitt and Dirty Harry and every TV show that made better use of the locale. And when the best they can give us is a non-exciting fire truck chase, well, the comparisons aren't going to help our opinion of VTAK.

The third factor is the constantly changing MacGuffins--the movie has absolutely no idea of what it wants to be about. See if you can follow. In the teaser and the opening scene, Bond is supposed to track down the source that leaked secret British microchip technology to the Russians. Someone stealing microchips hardened against electromagnetic pulses could be interesting, except for one thing--after the scene in M's office we NEVER hear those chips mentioned again. At all. Nada.

Somehow, instead, Bond gets side-tracked into investigating Zorin's horse racing interests. There seems to be no way that line of inquiry could answer the question of who's leaking classified microchips. Nonetheless, VTAK proceeds to spend the next 40+ minutes in a pointless horse doping exercise (even if he proves that Zorin is cheating at horse racing, how, exactly, does that help them catch the microchip thief?). It's not a good sign when only 12 minutes in, the script completely forgets what Bond's goal was.

Not to worry, though. Once Bond leaves France, we never hear about the horses again. Not a SINGLE WORD. The movie's ADD turns Bond's attentions to Zorin's oil wells, which have absolutely nothing to do with either the leaked microchips OR the horse scandal. So once again we're onto a completely irrelevant line of inquiry. Fortunately for James, this one just happens to stumble upon Zorin's big plan.

Don't get me wrong--we've seen digressions from 007's main investigation before. Bond started out investigating gold smuggling in Goldfinger, diamond smuggling in Diamonds Are Forever, and octopus smuggling--oops, Russian art treasure smuggling--in Octopussy. But in each of those cases, that investigation directly led to the villains' real plan. In VTAK, none of it connects. It's almost as if Bond is taking random paragraphs from Zorin's Wikipedia biography, investigating it, dropping it, picking another...And, in those other movies, Bond succeeds at his initial assignment, and solves the smuggling problem. In VTAK, he never does find any evidence linking Zorin to the leaking of the microchips. No closure there.

Another sign that the writers had no confidence in their story was the large number of sacrificial lambs they load into the script. 003? Dead. Achille Aubergine, the French detective? Dies. Sir Godfrey Tibbett? Dead. Chuck Lee? Dead. The sacrificial lamb is a venerable concept in the Bond series. Having a close friend or ally killed gives Bond extra motivation and increases the audience's emotional investment in Bond's quest. But if you have to do it 4 times--and 3 of those times we have virtually zero emotional reaction--you're just flailing around. And don't get me started on the way Tibbett and Lee are killed in the exact same fashion. That's just plain laziness, compounding the laziness of giving us multiple sacrificial lambs to "advance" the plot.

The final plot deficiency I'll discuss (for now) is the complete lack of tension resulting from Zorin's plot. We're never shown a single building or inhabitant of "Silicon Valley," we don't get any close-ups of citizens about to die. Nope, all the movie can give us is (repeated) shots of a lone fisherman on Lake San Andreas. That, and lots and lots of shots of mine shafts. In Goldfinger, we saw the soldiers who were going to die, and Fort Knox. In Octopussy, we saw some of the potential victims of the nuclear bomb at the circus. But in VTAK it's all remote and abstract and uninvolving. Some people we've never met in a place we've never seen might die--so let's spend more time in the quarry! There's just no tension in our crisis situation.

Remeber that scene in the Deer Hunters?Enough of the bad. Let's talk Christopher Walken. Max Zorin is given a back story that requires him to be both a genius and a psychotic, and Walken plays it to the hilt. Does he overplay it? Sure. But the pedestrian antics and meandering plot required someone to come through with a high energy performance, and Walken brings the cowbell. In a lot of ways his performance is similar to Klaus Maria Brandauer's as Largo in Never Say Never Again--a lot of self conscious ticks and mannerisms, and a bemusement at his own "superiority." But I think Walken does a better job of connecting to the rest of the cast than Brandauer did. Zorin enjoys showing off his intellect, and loves to berate those around him. I don't know that I can say that Walken makes Zorin into top-tier Bond villains. But he's in the top-tier of Moore-era villains, and his antics were appreciated by this viewer.

The teaser is fairly lame. It's not bad, per se. But it's yet another winter sports extravaganza, and haven't we had enough of those? We don't see anything here that we haven't seen before (multiple times), and things fall especially flat when they try to get trendy by having Bond improvise a snowboard from a snowmobile ski (apparently, snowboarding makes it impossible for Soviet troops to aim at...). Adding insult to injury is the Beach Boys song. This is especially heinous for 3 reasons. 1) The Beach Boys in a winter scene? Please, irony that cheap isn't worth doing. 2) If you are going to do a Beach Boys song, why California Girls? It's a "snow surfing" scene that has inspired the use of the Beach Boys, so why in heaven's name not use one of their surfing songs?!? California Girls means nothing to the plot or scene!!! Choosing that song looses whatever weak irony you actually had. 3) It wasn't even really the Beach Boys!! The song was performed by Gidea Park, a Beach Boys "tribute band!!" Good gravy, if you can't get the real thing, what's the point?!?

Ahh, but the theme song, that's another matter. Duran Duran got the gig when their bassist John Taylor drunkenly went up to Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked, "When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?" I've got to try that sometime...The song is the first attempt at any kind of rock in the theme since Live And Let Die, and the first uptempo song since The Man With the Golden Gun, and the first stab at anything resembling "New Wave." And it succeeds spectacularly. Who knew John Barry had it in him? Suffice it to say, I love the song to pieces, ranking it as the #2 Bond theme song ever. It's also the ONLY Bond theme to ever hit #1 in the Billboard charts, and the ONLY one to reach as high as #2 in the British singles chart.

I'm a geologist!!Tanya Roberts is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and very, very sexy. Very very very sexy. She is not, however, a particularly good actress. Perhaps I'm a bit nuts here, but I will say that her performance, while bad, was better than the non-performances given by some other Bond Girls of the era (I'm looking at you, Lois Chiles). At least Roberts is capable of actually portraying emotion, albeit badly, and actually reacting to events around her in a human fashion. It might just be a quirk of mine, but I tend to prefer a bad-but-actually-human performance to someone who is just a mannequin for 2 hours.

With that being said, she is pretty bad, and even worse, she makes Stacy into a screamer. She screams so much, I felt like I was watching 1960's Doctor Who at times. Which is not what you want from your Bond Girl. Stacy's not much use in a scrap, her knowledge isn't particularly helpful, and she's so dim that a blimp can sneak up behind her. But damn, she is easy on the eyes...

The last hurrahObviously, this was Roger Moore's last go round as 007. As he himself acknowledged, he was getting very long in the tooth. Others will say unkind things about the "work" he supposedly had done, the stiffness of his face, etc. I won't go there, because I really don't know enough about such matters. But I will say that, for the most part, Sir Roger seems very low energy in this film. Perhaps his advancing age (and abilities?) was the reason he has fewer stunts, and Bond seems much less active, than in earlier films. On the flip side, there is nothing as embarrassing for Moore as the "Sit!" or the Tarzan swing from the previous movie. And while this isn't his finest outing, it's not his worst, either. Salutations, and thanks for 7 movies, sir.

The team of director John Glen and writers Maibaum and Wilson did 5 consecutive movies together, and (in my opinion) those movies follow a curious U shape in terms of quality, starting at a peak in For Your Eyes Only, bottoming out a VTAK, and building back up to another peak by Licence To Kill (your mileage may vary, obviously). I've always wondered why this is, and I upon this current watching of the films, I think it's clear that they were struggling to find out how to handle the franchise with the stream of Fleming material mostly dried up. Fleming's material was so generally so strong that adapting it was usually "easy;" but everyone involved was still trying to get the feel of how to create original Bond material.

And in VTAK they clearly came up short. Too much of the film is standard American action movie material (or even TV movie material), and unfortunately succeeds in dragging Bond down to that level. The fantastic, the unfamiliar, the amazing "something you've never seen before" we've come to expect from Bond movies just isn't there for the most part. The problem is not a lack of effort, or coasting, but a lack a proper vision for the series. VTAK needed more cowbell.

Would things improve? Yes, they would. But that's a matter for next week...

SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:


**Farewell, Lois Maxwell. Thank you. (Especially appreciated was her little homage to My Fair Lady at Ascot...). You'll always be Moneypenny to me.

Move yer bloomin' arse!!!**Isn't it the tiniest bit embarrassing that the British Minister of Defence is completely unfamiliar with even the concept an electromagnetic pulse and the military ramifications? Isn't that sort of, you know, his job?

**It's a good thing that Britain and Russia now have microchip technology that is immune to electromagnetic pulse, right? So now, no one could ever use EMP technology, say, via a satellite, against them? Right?? They'll never have a problem with that again...

**Nothing personal against Fiona Fullerton, but wouldn't casting Barbara Bach in the small role have been worth 10,000 bonus points? Pola Ivanova is just fine, but a cameo by Agent XXX would have been the coolest thing ever...

Agent Triple Y??**I wish they had done more with Mayday, perhaps given us a tiny bit of background or such. Of course, they rarely do that with henchmen...but I would have appreciated even a sentence or two about where she was from, or what her deal was. Like Walken, Grace Jones brought the cowbell to an otherwise overly calm affair.

Scary ladyThat being said, like Jaws before her, her redemption came much too easily. She was knowingly complicit in everything Zorin did, a willing partner in mass murder. Would James really say "OK, you killed Tibbett, you killed Chuck Lee, but all is forgiven now?" Plus, her outrage at Zorin is a bit much. She watched him eliminate every other ally he had--did she seriously think she was immune?? She helps stop the bomb not because it's the right thing, but because she's pissed at Max...hardly noble. When she screams "Get Zorin for me," if I had been Bond I would have shouted back "burn in hell, you murdering bitch!" But that's just me.

**General Gogol sure seems to get around for the man who is the head of Soviet intelligence. Remember, this is a time when the very identity of the real-world M was (in theory at least) classified. But in the past few movies we've seen Gogol meeting M several times...so much for classified. Plus Gogol has been gallivanting around to Greece, East Germany, France, San Francisco...I mean, I know it's detente and all, but the head of Soviet Intelligence just strolls all over America in 1985? Really?

**The cutesy ending makes little sense. If Bond is missing and they're "presuming the worst," than how do they know that Bond saved Silicon Valley? If he never reported in, no one would have even known what Zorin's plan was, let alone that Bond thwarted it. Everyone else involved--everyone!!--died, good guy or bad. So if they don't know whether Bond's alive, the KGB wouldn't know to give him a medal...

**Wait a minute...Q has a Winnebago??

Dude, Q and I could totally go cruisin' in that thing...**Stacy is living in San Francisco in 1985 and doesn't know what quiche is???

**Zorin's continued pursuit of Stacy makes no sense, and ultimately leads to his downfall (and yes, I'll concede that "he's a psychopath" would answer most questions about his unusual methods/motives. But please allow me to rant anyway). He brings her to France to pay her off, so she'll drop the lawsuit and end the legal wrangling over the oil company. But why? Main Strike is in 3 days, and there's no possibility that Stacy could stop it. She doesn't cash the check, yet there's no injunction or legal move that comes in time to thwart his plans. So (other than to give 007 his only lead), why bother to fly her to France, and why bother to send goons to terrorize her when she doesn't accept the money?!? It's a pointless distraction, it does nothing to advance Zorin's plans, and leads Bond straight to Main Strike....

**I'm no geologist, so I'm ill-equipped to judge some of what Stacy tells us. But where's the earthquake? We're told that flooding the faults will cause earthquakes, but both faults won't move at once because of the "key geological lock" that Zorin wants to blow up. Well, Zorin floods the fault with an ENTIRE LAKE. Even if you don't get the massive destruction he planned, shouldn't something happen? A minor earthquake, a tremor? Anything? Either Stacy greatly exaggerated the risk, or the writers hoped that we would forget.

**I'll concede right now that this is entirely me, but I don't like to see Patrick McNee reduced to mainly comic relief. He's Steed, dammit...he should be allowed to be a little more competent! Sigh...

I was a great secret agent once, I was a great secret agent once...(BTW, his appearance makes 4 former Avengers starring in Bond films: Honor Blackmun, Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley ((she was one of the allergy girls in OHMMS)) and now McNee. Tanya Roberts, of course, was a former Angel...so the count is now Avengers 4, Angels 0. Sorry, Charlie.)

**Bond score: 4. Sir Roger goes out with a bang, as it were. Kimberly Jones (the iceberg driver), Mayday, Pola Ivanova, and Stacy. Cumulative Bond score: 41.

And, as always:

Hey, you're not out of titles yet!!What, no title for next time? It looks like the franchise is entering some uncharted territory here. Tune in next week as Barin, Prince of Arboria joins MI-6 and teaches us about safe sex...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Octopussy

Lucky number 13Octopussy, 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.

Next, James Bond in Debt of Honor...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 mad Russian generalThe 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!

Bond left me on Ceti Alpha VI...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...).

Warning--I'm not going to get tired of this joke any time soonNot 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:

S.P.E.C.T.R.E. wishes they had an HQ this cool
and Octopussy's bed:

A room built for love!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...

Now THAT'S what I call a teaserThe 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.


Second time around, I'm a much less compelling characterMaud 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!!

OK, just one more Bond movie, then...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...

I have the hugest man-crush on James...**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.

Two guys really bad at their evil jobsI did warn you I wouldn't get tired of this joke**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??

All the Double-O's are wearing it**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!!

In lieu of tip...**Yes, the fake alligator is pretty silly...but is it really any sillier than Connery's seagull hat in Goldfinger's teaser?

Anything Connery can do...**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:

Know your backgammon rulesThey'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.

Hee hee, I am sooo sneaky**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:

From?? We can't market a Bond movie with 'From' as the first word of the title!!Well, that's actually one word too many...we'll be back next week with Moore's last hurrah.