“An assassin that’s second to none...”
Keen on avoiding any further stop-start frustrations after the Connery-Lazenby-Connery-Moore seat-changing dance which had been played out over the last four movies, the Studios had contracted Roger Moore for three movies right from the outset. However, despite a mixed response on his first outing – Live and Let Die – they were easily convinced that he was the right choice for the job by the overwhelming Box Office success of his first outing, and so pressed on with a follow-up, fast-tracking it to be released the following year (the last time two Bond movies would be released in consecutive years). The Man with the Golden Gun was originally conceived as Moore’s introduction to the role, back when his commitments to The Saint and The Persuaders were not as concrete, and before they had to replace him with George Lazenby and OHMSS. It would have been interesting to see how that film turned out.
Historically – with 20:20 hindsight of course – it’s easy to see how Bond movies, and the actors within, fell into patterns. It usually takes a couple of films for each new actor to make the role his own (even Connery would take until Goldfinger to reach perfection). In addition, it was commonplace to make the first movie an introductory film, testing the franchise with fresh new elements that brought it up-to-date for a new generation before allowing Bond to progress on to a more personal outing, normally against an equally-matched opponent.
From Russia with Love pitted Connery against Robert Shaw’s Russian equivalent superspy assassin, Major Grant; Licence to Kill saw Dalton go on a vendetta against Robert Davi’s tough drug dealer nemesis, Sanchez; and Daniel Craig’s second outing was almost entirely driven by the revenge established in Casino Royale (although, if one argues – as is easy to do – that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are just two parts of the same story, then technically Skyfall will be Craig’s personal face-off against an equally-matched opponent which, by all accounts, is exactly what it is shaping up to be). Even Brosnan, who’d arguably had his best confrontation against Sean Bean’s Rogue 006 in Goldeneye, still had something of a personal stake in his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, when the villain kills one of his old loves.
The Man with the Golden Gun certainly followed suit, seeing Bond’s latest nemesis set his sights on assassinating Bond himself. This was usually par for course for 007 but this time the stakes were higher as his opponent happened to be the world’s greatest assassin.
“Like all great artists I want to create one indisputable masterpiece: the death of 007.”
Unfortunately, despite a first draft and original basic concept that could have been sheer Bond perfection, and in spite of the presence of one of the series’ best villains – played by Bond writer Ian Fleming’s own cousin, Christopher Lee – as well as some colourfully exotic locations and the return of Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton, nothing could save Moore’s sophomore entry in 007’s shoes from being one of his weakest efforts, and indeed one of the weakest movies in the entire franchise.
At best it celebrated engagingly elaborate real stunts, and showcased an excellent – if short – face-off between Bond and one of his toughest opponents. At worst, however, it wallowed in a mire of silly henchman (a midget and two sumo wrestlers), played-for-laughs martial arts fights with literal karate kids, irritating comedy side-kicks (the redneck racist sheriff from Live and Let Die), inconsequential masterplans from the villain (I can just hear Austin Powers’s Dr. Evil enunciating the solar laser maniacally) and, without a doubt, the absolute dumbest Bond girl EVER.
Indeed what I’d call Jar-Jar duties were split fairly evenly between the ‘evil’ midget Nik-Nak, and the undeniably gorgeous Britt Ekland’s undeniably dense Agent Goodnight, with the latter even going so far as to not only single-handedly cause the needless destruction of an entire island, but further obstruct and actually nearly kill Bond himself by accidently pressing the big red DANGER button with her bikini-clad-butt-cheek. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a Carry On film, or maybe the original 1967 spoof, Casino Royale, not a serious Bond film.
Somewhere in The Man with the Golden Gun there is the potential for an excellent Bond film. The original book was one of the last Fleming novels, set after Bond had taken revenge on Blofeld for killing his wife, an action which left him suffering from amnesia after an explosive blast. The story saw Bond captured and reprogrammed by the Russians to assassinate M (itself a concept which was abortively implemented for Brosnan’s disappointingly OTT final entry, Die Another Day), before being deprogrammed and sent off on his mission to kill Scaramanga. Why couldn’t they have made that story into a film?
Further down the line, in 1969, when The Man with the Golden Gun was supposed to be Moore’s introductory outing, the screenplay was still far more serious and far more refined – basically focussing on the mano-a-mano battle between Bond’s Government assassin and the equally-skilful, privately contracted assassin, Scaramanga. Indeed, even when Moore did eventually get into the driving seat, the plan was still not to do Live and Let Die first, but instead Moonraker (arguably in a vastly different iteration to what we saw several films later).
Unfortunately, by the time the film was in production, Blaxploitation was the ‘in’ and Live and Let Die was chosen as a more appropriate debut. The Man with the Golden Gun was still the planned follow-up, however (as seen in the end credits of Live and Let Die), with a script largely still intact but, after the 1973 oil embargo caused the ensuing World Energy Crisis, scriptwriters hacked up the original story to make room for something far more pressing and topical – solar gimmickry (It was not the last time that the direction of a Bond movie would change according to current events – the Star Wars phenomena saw For Your Eyes Only being shelved in favour of a fast-tracked reworking of The Spy Who Loved Me, only in space: Moonraker).
“Who’d pay a million dollars to have me killed?!”
“Jealous husbands, outraged chefs, humiliated tailors – the list is endless!”
With a new script, The Man with the Golden Gun barely resembled the great story that it once was. Still, elements remained. The film got off to a great start, once again forgoing the presence of Bond himself (following on from his absence in Live and Let Die’s pre-credits sequence) but, this time, to great effect. Echoing From Russia with Love’s famous ‘death of Bond’ pre-credits sequence – where the enemy assassin, Major Grant, reveals his deadly skills – we were introduced to Bond’s assassin nemesis, Scaramanga, as he hunts another assassin (paid to kill him, no less) around his crazy carnival fun-house island, similarly showing us just what Bond was up against in this outing. It culminated in Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga not only besting his opponent, but also speed-shooting the fingers off a Bond mannequin that he happens to keep in his lair (again, obviously a nod to From Russia with Love).
It’s a brilliant tease for the best of this movie: you know, right from the outset, where this story is going to lead – with Bond facing Scaramanga in the same evil labyrinth. Unfortunately, it’s a long ninety minutes before you get there, and, whilst the confrontation is excellent, it’s still far too little far too late.
Roger Moore’s always been my favourite Bond but this was one of the films that he definitely struggled with the most. After the try-a-different-tack approach of Live and Let Die, the writers were obviously keen on returning more of the classic Bond elements to the franchise, but didn’t know which ones still worked with audiences. So, although Moore’s Bond clearly still prefers cigars to cigarettes and whisky to martini in this entry, his famous Walther PPK made a welcome return (after the ill-advised swap to Dirty Harry’s Magnum .44 – which just doesn’t seem like cricket for a suave super-spy). Unfortunately, after being stripped down to just the bare minimum in Live and Let Die, gadgets for his second outing were non-existent.
The most damning change for Moore, however, was the decision to take a more Connery-style approach to the character. Connery, for all his positives, was quite a cruel, sadistic Bond. He liked roughing-up women, and came across as more overpowering than alluring to women (a frequent tactic would be to just kiss a girl as hard and as long as possible until they eventually submit, whether or not they actually want to). He also had a more reserved sense of humour – as highlighted by the more farcical Diamonds Are Forever, the humour of which just didn’t suit his version of Bond. Concerned that the reception to Moore’s interpretation had not been overly warm because of the striking differences to Connery, they decided that the answer was to make his Bond more like Connery’s. It was the wrong call.
Although Moore would still show more restraint in the sadism department – twisting Scaramanga’s moll’s arm behind her back to torture information out of her (something Connery’s Bond would have no qualms about doing, and moreover look like he quite enjoyed) Moore still had a professional air about him, making it clear that he took no pleasure from it – and would also make the most of the more humorous moments, he still felt like he was being limited by the fact that the Studios were forcing him to walk in somebody else’s footsteps, as opposed to continuing on down his own path.
“You get as much pleasure out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”
“I admit killing you would be a pleasure.”
Of course, the lack of particularly witty remarks from Bond himself did not mean that the rest of the movie was devoid of humour – quite the contrary – with a Diamond Are Forever approach taken to not only the casting of many of the supporting characters, but also the events that would befall our hero. It was not good news.
Almost all of the supporting cast members detracted from the movie with their oddly quirky, comic characters, and only further muddied the waters of Bond’s mission with a round-the-houses journey that involved sucking a bullet out of a belly-dancer’s navel, fighting off an entire dojo with a couple of karate-trained schoolgirls, and an otherwise fun little car chase fatally hampered by the one-two punch of a loudmouth redneck passenger and a single, horrendously-placed slide-whistle sound effect which shamefully mocked the film’s best stunt.
There is also really no consequence to the middle section of this story, nor any of the characters within. The plot goes something like this: Scaramanga has been hired to kill Bond. Cool. Oh, hang, on, later we’ll find out Scaramanga hasn’t been hired to kill Bond – it’s actually his mistress who wants to get rid of him by putting Bond on his scent. Oh-kay... let’s just go with it for the time being. Anyways, in order to find out who Scaramanga is, Bond pretends to be him. Cool, that’s a reasonably interesting idea. Unforunately, everybody immediately knows he’s not Scaramanga, so actually the joke’s on him. Disappointing. Then they decide to kill Bond. Ok. How? Shoot him? Blow his car up? Send him into some kind of deadly trap? No, ambush him using two sumo wrestlers and an underdressed midget with a trident. Riiiight. Somehow this unlikely trio manage to knock him out (it’s actually the midget that does it) and so are in a position to kill him there and then. But no, wait, the villain’s got something better planned. Mmmm, I can tell this is going to be good... he’s going to... lock him in a tomb filling up with water? Keel-haul him against a coral reef in shark-infested waters? No? No, actually he’s going to send him to an easily escapable and fairly laid-back dojo populated by martial arts ninjas who are so lame that they get their asses kicked by two schoolgirls – in uniform. Yes, I can see how this was a grand master-plan on how to put an end to Bond.
It would appear that not only was the movie’s script hampered by the short-lived and fairly abortive 1973 Energy Crisis, but it was also affected by the 70s Hong Kong martial arts successes in the same way that Live and Let Die had trended with its Blaxploitation angle. After all, if it worked for Bruce Lee, why wouldn’t it work for Roger Moore and a couple of teenage schoolgirls? (Credit to Moore, his scenes of actual martial arts in the dojo are far better than any of the fighting skills shown by Connery in any of the Bond movies – Connery was always a brawler, and Moore always had better technique, even if he didn’t look like a fighter at all – but these brief moments, including a nice little tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark, were immediately diminished by the ensuing scuffle where these kids help him out and beat up the entire dojo.)
“At a million dollars a contract I can afford to live in luxury, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts: a hearty ‘well done’ from Her Majesty the Queen, and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that, we are the same.”
Thankfully the suitably villainous Christopher Lee (who was Fleming’s first choice for Dr. No) does manage to save some of this movie – pretty-much every scene he’s in – and he eventually gives us a great final confrontation between his million-dollars-a-hit private contractor and Bond’s government-sanctioned equivalent, but even this climax should have been far more than it was. Hell, even the scene that was actually shot was far longer than what we got, let alone the first draft script which was supposed to be little more than a protracted hunt between these two over the entire movie. Those who’ve studied the extras will no doubt know that you can even see a segment from the final confrontation that was trimmed from the final cut – where Bond, still on the beach with Scaramanga at the outset, throws something in the air and shoots it to distract his taunting opponent. I have no idea why this (or any of this, the best bit of the film) – was cut and, instead, the terrible closing Nik-Nak fight, for example, was kept intact.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t even go out on the high that it could have done prior to the Nik-Nak ‘epilogue’, with the epic conclusion of the battle with Christopher Lee. Instead, Britt Ekland – trying her best, but horrendously handicapped by a script that calls upon her to basically be a walking booty-of-mass-destruction – single-handedly causes the last 20 minutes of explosive chaos. She’s supposed to be a fellow agent, recommended by M, no less. Bond knows her from past experience, and must know what she was like. Why on earth had she not been fired before? It’s bad enough that she’s so dumb that she’ll fall for a guy who locked her in a bedroom closet and then proceeded to sleep with someone else in the adjacent bed; that she manages to get herself inexplicably pushed into somebody’s car trunk, then only gets that trunk open when the car’s in mid-air; and that she accidently pushes a guard into a sub-zero tank which, if it goes above temperature, will level the entire island – but when she presses that red button with her ass cheek, all of the potential tension gets sapped straight out of the movie.
Here’s a bit of food for thought: imagine if Scaramanga had put a bullet in Ekland’s pretty little head rather than the head of Maud Adams (looking much more the gorgeous Bond girl here than she would 7 years later for Octopussy)?! It would have been the end of the film. Bond would have easily radioed for helicopter transport off an in-tact island, ‘solex agitator’ effortlessly removed along the way. No worries. Hell, if she’d been replaced by Barbara Bach Major Amasova from the next film, The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond would have probably got the job done in half the time. Honestly, I count Goodnight as one of the film’s main villains – causing the chaos at the end herself and thus certainly doing the most damage!
It’s such a shame because they not only ruined Ekland’s chances of making for anything more than just a pretty Bond girl (ironic that she would be picked over first choice Maud Adams purely because the producers saw Ekland in a bikini and thought she had a bigger assets) but also ruined one of Fleming’s regular Bond novel characters. Agent Mary Goodnight was a recurring and eminently competent companion for Bond – in the books – but, after the death sentence that was her depiction in The Man with the Golden Gun, it was simply guaranteed that we would never see or hear from her again.
Even regular Bond composer John Barry (returning after an absence from duty on Live and Let Die) couldn’t keep his end up with the score, quickly churning out in record-time a cheesy and repetitive offering that played far too heavily on the – admittedly catchy – main title track, but had very little else of note within it. Yes, it’s understandable why this ninth Bond movie was – and, unlike OHMSS, still is – regarded as one of the weakest Bond entries. It’s not easy to come up with a list of positives.
“The English don’t consider it sporting to kill in cold blood, do they?”
“Don’t count on that.”
Remember the movie for its brilliant pre-credits assassin vs. assassin sequence and for Christopher Lee’s villain – one of the franchise’s absolute best (not the only franchise either – c.f. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars) and on top form here; remember it for the jaw-dropping barrel-roll car jump (don’t forget to press ‘mute’ though!) and for the colourful East-Asian flavour which made a nice change from the colder previous entry. Of course, remember it for that final fight between Bond and one of his best adversaries, The Man with the Golden Gun.
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