Sunday, July 29, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Octopussy

“You know what I like about you Brits? ‘Octopussy’! I must have seen that movie … twice!” – Homer Simpson

I’m probably one up on the redoubtable Mr Simpson. I’ve seen ‘Octopussy’ three times. Once at the cinema when I was eleven. It made the kind of impression on me that anything in ‘Scope and with a notable quotient of buxom women would have made on me at that age. Second time, it was on TV when I was probably in my late teens or early twenties. I thought that Roger Moore looked kinda old and the back projection was dodgy. Sliding the DVD into the player a few nights ago, I wasn’t holding out much hope. “It’s the clown one,” I remember saying desultorily to Mrs F; “see you in a couple of hours.”

Turns out third time was the charm. With only a couple of minor quibbles, I really enjoyed ‘Octopussy’: it strikes a decent balance between the globe-trotting élan audiences had come to expect of Bond movies and a (for the early-to-mid 80s) timely Cold War narrative. John Glen, helming the second of his five consecutive 007 opuses, retains much of the grittiness of ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and again keeps the gadgets to a minimum (though he does throw in a painfully laddish scene where Bond uses some of Q’s surveillance equipment to check out a nubile young woman’s décolletage).

Like its predecessor, ‘Octopussy’ takes an Ian Fleming short story as its starting point; well, two actually. Bond’s attendance at a Sotheby’s auction, attempting to sniff out the buyer of a fake Faberge egg is a fairly faithful rendition of ‘The Property of a Lady’, while the short story ‘Octopussy’ provides the backstory that connects Bond and the mysterious jewel smuggler and circus owner of the title. Fleshing out these disparate elements, the script – ‘Flashman’ legend George Macdonald Fraser throwing in his talents with Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson – divides its time between India and Berlin as Bond unravels the connections between rogue communist General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), playboy millionaire Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Octopussy (Maud Adams) herself.

Anyone who’s read my review of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ will be aware of my issues with the casting of Charles Grey, just two films after he appeared as an ally of Bond’s in ‘You Only Live Twice’, as the agent’s arch-nemesis Blofeld. I will have a similar thing to say about Joe Don Baker’s transition from baddie to goodie between the Dalton and the Brosnan episodes. For now, let’s just say that I find Maud Adams’s reappearance in the franchise, after being killed off in the earlier ‘Man with the Golden Gun’, equally as distracting.

Other niggles: the horrible “Tarzan” moment; the stunt casting of tennis champion Vijay Amritraj (necessitating a visual pun that you can see coming like the QE2 on a duck pond); a slight slackening of the pace during the India sequence; and the overplotting that links the jewel smuggling, the faked objets d’art and Orlov’s plot to detonate a nuclear device on an American air force base in Germany, make it look like an accident and thus force Europe’s hand over unilateral disarmament, thereby leaving the borders open for Russian invasion.

If I were being über-critical, I’d also mention the film’s inability, at least for its first half, to settle on a villain. Is Khan the puppet of Orlov while Octopussy is the eminence grise behind the whole operation? Or is Khan allowing Octopussy to believe she’s the prime mover and equally manipulating Orlov? Or is Orlov one step ahead of both Khan and Octopussy? And likewise which is the fake or the real Faberge egg at any given point in the movie? And why do Orlov and his forgers go to so much trouble creating fakes of incredibly famous jewels that would surely be pegged as ersatz, or at the very least have their provenance subjected to the most exacting scrutiny, the moment they came up for auction, when their must be infinitely similar ways of raising capital for black ops? And if the knife-throwing twins (David and Tony Meyer) who are one of the acts in Octopussy’s circus are already working for Orlov, why does he need to involve Khan and Octopussy in his nefarious scheme?

But this really is me being picky. That a Bond movie – moreover, a Roger Moore Bond movie – can be this bothered with plot, character interaction and the tangled-web machinations of its villains is something to be applauded. The fact that it can do this whilst retaining the arch and slightly camp humour that best suited Moore, as well as permitting him a genuinely badass moment comparable to the Mercedes/cliff face moment in ‘For Your Eyes Only’, just adds to the enjoyment. In this regard, the pre-credits sequence sets the tone nicely: it starts low-key with 007 disguising himself in order to infiltrate a military base, ups the stakes with his capture before he can complete his mission, develops into an audience-pleasing large scale action-fest, all duelling planes and big explosions, and concludes with an archetype Roger Moore nod to the gallery and a one-liner that manages not to be as groan-inducing of most of humour in a Bond movie of this era.

This balance is well maintained throughout. The action scenes are solid enough, with only the back projection during Bond’s fight with Kahn’s hencemen on the roof of a speeding train letting the side down. Chases – on foot, by car or in motorised rickshaws – predominate, and a last-reel attack on a fortress by Octopussy’s army of women provides action and eye-candy in roughly equal measure. It’s nice to see M back, even through Robert Brown’s characterisation doesn’t quite have the curmudgeonly gravitas of Bernard Lee, and it’s refreshing to have a Bond movie which doesn’t conclude with quarter of an hour of things blowing up in a secret hi-tech base. 

And yes, Moore is a bit long in the tooth for all this; and yes, the cynicism of Orlov’s plot is sugar-coated somewhat by the (quite literal) three-ring circus that goes on around it; but ‘Octopussy’ is never less than entertaining. It was Moore’s penultimate appearance, and it’s a shame really that he didn’t bow out on it. Then we’d have either had ‘A View to a Kill’ configured around a younger actor or been spared it altogether.


Unknown said...

Hi Neil,

Very pleasing to read your generally positive response to Octopussy as it has always struck me as one of the most oddly undervalued Bonds. Reviewers who routinely dismiss it tend to stubbornly focus on Moore's advancing years (OK, but I actually think he looks in pretty good shape throughout), the tarzan yell (fair point) and the clown scenes (though these are not played for laughs and are actually germane to the climax of the film), while tending to conveniently overlook the more positive elements of the film, many of which you have highlighted.

I've always liked it a lot largely because for me it is probably the most Hitchcockian Bond in terms of suspense. The scenes of Bond trying to elude Khan's thugs aboard Octopussy's train are reminiscent of “The Lady Vanishes” and the later scenes of Bond stranded in the middle of nowhere while the bomb ticks, without access to his usual resources, unable to even flag down a lift, are pure Hitchcock.

There is a lot wrong with Octopussy, of course. The middle third, as you say, sags quite badly, with comic action sequences such as the car chase and the safari hunt coming across as needless padding that could easily have been excised in order to make the film tighter and more cohesive. The other main problem for me is the character of Octopussy herself - Maud Adams clearly has the beauty and charisma to make the character work, but she becomes rather sidelined during the second half as the Orlov part of the plot takes centre stage. What makes this less forgivable is the fact that the film is named after her, so she should have been absolutely crucial to the plot. It is clear from the finished film however that the character was never really properly thought through by the writers. Mainly because of this, I find Adams rather more interesting in her earlier Bond role as Andrea, Scaramanga's reluctant mistress.

All that said, when Octopussy really works, it is a superb Bond film. There is some very tasty action in the pre-credits sequence, the plot is probably the most complex and compelling since From Russia With Love, the Indian sequences look gorgeous courtesy of Alan Hume's lush cinematography, John Barry contributes one of his most romantic scores, and, following the messy middle third, the film gets back on track for a tremendous final fifty minutes involving Bond's attempts to get to the bomb. Moore is commendably serious in this section of the film and John Glen's direction manages to generate a fair amount of suspense.

So yes, all in all, I think Octopussy generally deserves a higher placing in Bond polls than it is usually afforded.



Rick said...

Thank heaven someone else appreciates Octopussy for what it is: grand spectacle w/a bevy of beauties and lavish locales and grand(iose) villains. So many people focus on what went wrong (I too groaned at the Tarzan bit) that they miss the forest for the trees. I found Kamal's literal man-hunt quite entertaining.

In my own analysis of Octopussy I focus on the things that brought me pleasure and for me, Octopussy is what I think of when I think of pure escapist Bond: big villains, overblown scenarios, beautiful women and exotic location footage.

I don't overthink Octopussy and wish so many wouldn't either. As for A View to A Kill...well, I'll just wait for your take.

Michael Grover said...

The best Moore Bond, in my opinion. His advancing age never really occurred to me until I started reading reviews that mentioned it. John Barry's score is indeed fantastic, and I think the action sequences are pretty top-notch, especially the plane scene near the end.

Neil Fulwood said...

Again, fellas, many thanks for the detailed and insightful comments. It came as a delightful surprise to find that 'Octopussy' was so much better than I'd remembered it.

I've only ever seen 'A View to a Kill' once and remember nothing of it beyond some business with a fire engine and Fiona Fullerton looking mighty fine. I'm feeling quite trepidacious as I sit down to watch it. Stay tuned for the review at the weekend ...

Jeremy said...

I just wanna add that the bomb defussal scene is one of the most tense in the entire Bond series. EVEN when James Bond is dressed as a clown! That's impressive!

Also, I don't envy anyone who has to see AVTAK ever again. Bond has some real stinkers, but I'll go ahead and say that is the absolute worst one. Walken is really the one positive I can come up with.