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Octopussy Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 9, 2012

    Octopussy Review

    “We’re an all-time high...”

    After the sci-fi excesses of Moonraker took Bond into the far reaches of space, and the gritty back-to-basics approach of For Your Eyes Only brought him back down to earth, Octopussy was designed to follow suit, furthering the Cold War theme that had been re-established in the previous entry, only doing so with a different actor. Moore had long wanted to leave the role (the pre-credits sequence in FYEO was supposed to help establish a new actor – Bond taking revenge, for his wife’s murder, against age-old nemesis Blofeld) but they kept pulling him back in, this time because of Connery’s own return-to-Bond, Never Say Never Again; the filmmakers keen on putting a familiar Bond face into the direct competition with the original Bond.

    Octopussy, ironically also the 13th Bond film, turned out to be one of the least popular entries, and yet – unlike Never Say Never Again – it’s still undeniably classic Bond. There’s a wonderfully exotic flavour to this particular outing, injecting a new location – India – into the mix in a bid to add some spice to the usual Cold War antics. For what it’s worth, Moore’s sixth outing is far more entertaining than Connery’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek return (an act which never really suited the far more serious actor), and certainly proved the endless breadth and diversity of the franchise.

    “Who is he?”
    “Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Faberge; and dice, preferably loaded.”

    After a mortally wounded 009 stumbles into the British Embassy in East Berlin, clutching a fake Faberge egg, 007 is dispatched to get to the bottom of the mystery. Tracking the real egg to India, he encounters an exiled Afghan prince, Kamal Khan, who has struck a deal with a renegade Russian general, with plans to use a smuggled nuclear bomb – blown up on US soil – to prompt the West to initiate disarmament procedures and thus enable Russia to invade Europe. It’s up to Bond to stop him.

    By 1983 the Bond movies were well established as their own entities, having left the scope of the original novels far behind, even if they continued to borrow titles and utilise ideas from across all of Fleming’s stories. Octopussy would take its title from the Fleming short story by the same name, incorporating the story itself into the background for one of the lead characters (it’s recounted by Moore’s Bond almost exactly as it plays out in the novel), and utilising a couple of ideas from other Fleming tales to craft a few noteworthy scenes – the auction scene is recycled from the short story “The Property of a Lady”, and the backgammon game plays out like the card game between Bond and villain Drax from the original Moonraker novel, right down to the closing threat from the villain:

    Spend the money quickly, Mr Bond.”

    Beyond these lifted ideas, it was mostly an original screenplay. The end result was a film which was criticised for being too long, too complicated, too slow and – at once – both too serious and too whimsical. Whilst many of these criticisms were founded in a certain degree of truth, there was a great deal of entertainment on offer in this colourful Bond entry; a great deal to love, and, despite his age, Roger Moore still committed to himself with resolute professionalism.

    Moore had only ever been contracted for three Bond movies. Considering that, right from the outset, he was the oldest actor to step into Bond shoes – 45 back when he did Live and Let Die – three instalments made in reasonably quick succession was just about right, leaving him concluding his reign before he turned 50. However three was generally a lucky number for Bond actors – Goldfinger was Connery’s best, and Moore himself peaked with The Spy Who Loved Me – so the filmmakers figured, why change a good thing? After a fourth film, Moonraker, Moore was once again happy to resign the mantle, and the filmmakers briefly considered alternative options.

    Once again, however, it made no sense to them to risk changing actor when the series was still doing so well at the Box Office, so Moore returned – yet again – in For Your Eyes Only. That said, come 1983 and Octopussy, everybody was agreed upon one thing: a 55-year-old Moore was done with Bond. He himself no longer wanted to play the character, and the filmmakers had already drawn up a short-list for his successors, with Timothy Dalton’s name at the top of the pile.

    “007 on an island populated entirely by women? We won’t see him until morning!”

    Dalton, however, was still concerned with taking up the Bond mantle during its more frivolous phase – he wanted to do a serious Bond, not a Moonraker Bond – and so the filmmakers had to consider other options: strangely, coming the closest they would ever come to casting an American in the role, established actor James Brolin, who would go so far as to film several screen test scenes for Octopussy. If anything, these tests would show just how important it was to get the casting right – Brolin was awful in the role; he was neither convincing in the fights, nor good with the comedy, nor particularly effective with the women. But Moore was still too old... wasn’t he?

    Ironically, it was Moore’s close friend and Bond predecessor, Connery, who threw the biggest spanner in the works, by agreeing to star in the non-EON competing Bond film, Never Say Never Again, a remake of Connery’s own classic, Thunderball. It was one of the many things which I’ve never respected Connery for – an insulting open-handed slap to not only his previous fellow filmmakers but also the fans of the Bond series; taking a stance against them by making a film in direct competition to the official Bond franchise.

    All of a sudden Octopussy’s producers were compelled to do a complete-180 and re-contract a very reluctant Moore for the lead with a very tempting financial package, believing that the established Bond actor would fare better against earlier fan-favourite and first-Bond, Connery. They were right. Moore’s Octopussy would beat Connery’s Never Say Never Again at the Box Office and, rightly so, as it was a considerably better film.

    “At the risk of appearing to be making light dinner conversation, may I ask exactly why I’m here?”
    “We want answers.”
    “Well supposing, for arguments sake, I don’t feel like talking.”
    “Oh don’t worry, you will.”

    Moore’s age may have finally caught up with him – hitting 55 with this entry – but he’d aged a lot better than Connery had (this was exacerbated by the fact that there was clearly a much more noticeable distinction between the thirty-something Connery of classic Bond and the fifty-something man returning in Never Say Never Again than there was between a forty-something Moore, when he was in his heyday, and a fifty-something Moore, now) and he was still very comfortable in the role, making the most of the exotic locations and taking Bond to places he’d never been before. Despite frequently making moves to leave the franchise – unlike Connery – he never showed any disdain for the part whilst in character, bringing his consummate professionalism to every single chapter; and Octopussy was no different.

    It’s only a shame that he didn’t retain more of the ruthlessness that he’d tapped into for parts of the last entry, For Your Eyes Only, but, then again, that was never really Moore’s take on the character. For Bond fans, one of the most memorable moments from For Your Eyes Only had been the scene where Moore kicked a car off a cliff, taking revenge on the killer of one of his lovers in a very cold-blooded fashion. Yet, despite agreeing to do it, Moore had expressed that he was uncomfortable with this scene – that he felt it was not the kind of thing his Bond would do. Whilst this was the kind of Bond that fans wanted to see, Moore’s point was still a valid one: his era of films had been much more family-orientated; a thrilling, globe-trotting adventure which was as fun as it was action-packed.

    In terms of retrospection, it would have been easier to reflect more fondly on this 13th Bond movie had the filmmakers maintained the more serious tone that had been invoked to bring the character back down to earth in the previous instalment, For Your Eyes Only. However, probably again due to the threat of Octopussy’s opposing ‘unofficial’ Bond film – Never Say Never Again – they decided the best thing was not to mix up the standard formula which audiences had known best for the last decade and instead stick to what had been tried and tested before: gadgets, girls, games, guns and gags.

    Indeed there were still some nice moments of serious drama coming from the Moore’s Bond camp (pun intended), with a couple of noteworthy touches – the ‘that was for 009’ revenge on the knife-throwing twin, his defence of his profession to the leading Bond girl, and the moments of tense desperation as he both faces off against the renegade general determined to blow up a bunch of innocent people with a nuclear bomb, and his disbelievers who try to prevent him from disarming that same bomb. Whilst it did not save the movie from its more fun tone, it did offset the more ridiculous moments.

    “The West is decadent and divided, it has no stomach to risk our atomic reprisals. Throughout Europe, daily demonstrations demand unilateral disarmament.”
    “I see no reason to risk war to satisfy your personal paranoia and thrust for conquest.”

    I personally didn’t have a problem with Moore’s Bond donning a safari suit and fighting through the jungle (it was probably provoked by the success of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark), and it gave him the opportunity to face off against snakes, alligators, tigers and, perhaps most interestingly, leeches – I’ll never forget that burning-the-leech-to-make-it-release-its-teeth-scene – but they just went a few steps too far. Telling a tiger to “sit!” was bad enough, but swinging through the trees to a trademark Tarzan cry was just unforgivable.

    Conversely, I’ll always defend the choice to have Moore’s Bond don a clown outfit to infiltrate the circus – it’s actually an extremely effective move. Seeing this po-faced clown, stress across his face, struggling to be taken seriously as a nuclear bomb is about to go off actually only heightens the tension. It was also a brief moment of Moore acting; the only way we could feel the gravitas of the situation being through the desperate look in his eyes.

    Opposite Moore we had the even-more-suave French actor Louis Jordan as the lead villain, Kamal Khan. Whilst his schemes did not feel all that memorable – the more nefarious strategies diluted by the presence of Steven Berkoff’s eccentric renegade Russian general – he had some great lines, and his scenes opposite Moore were some of the best pieces of dialogue in the film.

    Neither he nor Berkoff (who was a noteworthy opponent in both Beverly Hills Cop and Firefox) were given enough time to make truly classic villains – Jordan’s Khan having the best dialogue but Berkoff’s General Orlov having the most significance in terms of the story, and thus neither of them feeling like whole characters. Berkoff would have a few nice moments – particularly when a shocked Bond finally figures out the Russian renegade’s true plans – but he never really had the chance to shine in his own right.

    “What happens when the US retaliate?”
    “Against whom?!”

    I’ve never been a great fan of Maud Adams. I wasn’t all that upset when she got taken out early-on in The Man with the Golden Gun and I certainly didn’t understand why she would be the only Bond girl to be ‘resurrected’ for a second time around, this time recruited to play the leading girl, Octopussy. Indeed, I thought Kristina Wayborn’s secondary Bond girl was far more interesting – and kick-ass and gorgeous to boot – but Adams had close ties with the filmmakers and was pushed into place. Notwithstanding personal preference, Adams certainly had some great chemistry with real-life friend Roger Moore, and their scenes together are very good, particularly when she criticises him for his holier-than-thou attitude.

    Moore and Adams weren’t the only recurring actors – Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny was still sighing over the man-she-could-never-have (this time opposite a younger, equally impressed, colleague), Desmond Llewelyn’s Q had an extended part in this entry (providing Bond with a then-very-cool digital tracking watch but also ill-advisedly piloting a hot air balloon for one dodgy rescue scheme) and one of the best regulars in the Moore series of films, Walter Gotell’s General Gogol, also had a more meaty part to play, trying to stop his Russian renegade opponent from convincing the others that a war against the West is necessary.

    “I don’t have to apologise to you – a paid assassin – for what I am!”

    Unfortunately there was one actor who couldn’t return, the late Bernard Lee, who had played Bond’s boss, M, for all 11 of the films made during his lifetime. After his death, they did not choose to replace him in For Your Eyes Only, only here recasting him using an actor who had also previously been in the Bond series: Robert Brown (it’s widely believed that he was not playing a different character, his Admiral from The Spy Who Loved Me being plausibly promoted into the position of ‘M’). Bernard Lee would certainly be missed; Brown never managed to make quite the same impact in the already-consistently-underdeveloped role, often being all-too-easily confused with Geoffrey Keen’s Minister of Defence, who had also been introduced back in The Spy Who Loved Me.

    Returning director John Glen – who took the series back to basics with For Your Eyes Only, and would carry the series for the next few films (Octopussy, A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights) before doing the same for Dalton in Licence to Kill – had always championed a closer adherence to the character as depicted in the books: harsher, colder, and more brutal. Indeed, in comparison with those before it, his instalments were probably the darkest and most violent.

    Unfortunately, despite the tone set in For Your Eyes Only, it was difficult for him to maintain this more true-to-the-book trajectory, especially with so much pressure from the producers. They were undoubtedly keen to ensure a victory against the competing non-EON Connery Bond, Never Say Never Again, and figured that sticking to classic Bond (rather than the darker Bond we saw in For Your Eyes Only and, previously, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) was the best bet.

    “I trust you can handle this contraption Q?”
    “It goes by hot air.”
    “Oh, well then you can.”

    Still, it was not all bad news – Glen still had a perfect handle on all the stunts, action and locations that were required for a decent Bond entry, and carried out his duty with the same consummate professionalism that I always admired in Moore. He stunned us with some impressive flying scenes during the opening pre-credits sequences – these days the Acrostar micro-jet scenes would have surely been done with CG, as opposed to having a stuntman fly into an aircraft hangar! – and during the final confrontation, where Bond fans often forget they actually strapped a stuntman to the top of a plane as it did barrel-rolls and sharp manoeuvres in an attempt to dislodge our hero. He also gave us a fairly well-staged car-train chase, involving cars running on train tracks, jumping on the train, fighting on top of it, and hanging from beneath it.

    Maybe not as spectacular are the previous entries – or perhaps just not as noticeably so due to the more light-hearted elements, like Q’s hot-air ballooning, Octopussy’s strangely fetishistic all-girl Army, and basically most of the scenes in India – there are still plenty of great moments strewn across this epic outing, which certainly attempted to provide satisfaction through a fairly hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

    In addition, after composer Bill Conti’s ill-advised 80s electro-tastic foray of For Your Eyes Only, regular Bond score-helmer, John Barry, thankfully returned to provide a far more suitably Bondian accompaniment, further bolstered by Rita Coolidge’s excellent title track, “All Time High” (one of those rare tracks that risked eschewing the main title, which was in this case a clever decision – they should have also avoided calling the lead Bond girl character by that ridiculous nickname too!).

    “You seem to have a nasty habit of surviving.”
    “Well, you know what they say about the fittest.”

    Remember Octopussy for the spectacular Acrostar micro-jet pre-credits sequence and impressive closing atop-the-plane stunts; the surprisingly tense classic Bond ‘gambling’ auction scene at Sotheby’s and the threatening backgammon standoff with the villain, followed by a fun little tuk-tuk chase; remember it for the wonderfully exotic Indian locales juxtaposed with the harsh East German Cold War settings; for Bond’s only safari, and his only trip on train-tracks via car; and don’t forget that ticking-time-bomb defusal in a clown suit – it’s much more tense than you may assume. Above all, don’t forget that it showcased a reluctant-to-return Roger Moore still managing to go toe-to-toe with the original – and younger, though not that you’d notice it – Bond, Sean Connery, and, more importantly, coming out intact and on top.