Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review – The Man with the Golden Gun

November 3, 2010

The Man with the Golden Gun – U.K., 1974

The ninth James Bond film begins with a cat-and-mouse game involving a hired assassin and a man with a third nipple. I wouldn’t normally mention a detail like this, yet it actually becomes important to the plot. The man with this rare feature is named Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), an odd moniker that throughout the film I kept hearing as scaremonger. The confrontation between these two characters takes place in a room that looks suspiciously similar to Professor Xavier’s Danger Room. Images appear in front of the hit man that may or may not be real, and one moment he’s standing in a scene from the Wild West, while the next he’s on a planet reminiscent on the one’s we see on Star Trek. There’s even a monitoring area where the confrontation can be observed by a man named Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize), one on the most ludicrous names I’ve come across since chancing upon a character named Ping Pong in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii. It is soon revealed that the confrontation is actually a training session. Apparently, assassins are being hired to try to kill Scaramanga, all in an effort to help him perfect his skills for an eventual showdown with OO7, despite the fact that he appears to have no real grudge with Bond. If this sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve already seen it in From Russia with Love, and it’s never a good sign when a franchise begins repeating itself.

Despite the sense of déjà vu that the first scene inspires, The Man with the Golden Gun actually begins fairly well. Bond (Roger Moore) receives word on the threat that Scaramanga poses to him and quickly – off the record, of course - sets off to find him before he finds Bond. Perhaps it’s the immediate danger that he is in, but for some reason, Bond displays much more of a violent streak this time around. He threatens to kill an arms maker, beats a potential villain until she gives him the information he wants, and manages to somehow beat three thugs in a fist fight that is rather brutal. Nicely contrasting these action scenes are a few humorous ones involving Q (Desmond Llewelyn). In one particularly entertaining scene, Q and a fellow scientist engage in a bit of back-and-forth rapport over the origin of a bullet. Q’s humorous comments continue throughout the film, at one point prompting M to abruptly tell him to shut it.

Just when you think you know what’s going on in the film, the rug is suddenly swept out from underneath you. With Bond in one of his most vulnerable positions of the series so far, Scaramanga elects to assassinate a man that just moments earlier appeared in the film for the first time. In fact, he doesn’t even attempt to take out Bond with a second shot. Nor does he shoot down Bond’s plane later or cheat during a bout of twenty-races. No, Scaramanga would rather allow Bond to find his secret lair just so that the two of them can play a deadly game of hide and seek in the aforementioned room of a thousand settings. The scene owes a great deal to Bruce Lee’s 1973 film Enter the Dragon. There’s even a reference to The World of Suzie Wong in the film.

Eventually, we learn just what Scaramanga is after – a new technology allowing radiation from the sun to be stored as energy. And of course, we learn this in the least interesting way possible. Scaramanga simply comes out and explains it to Bond. Or perhaps I should say that Bond explains it to him, for in addition to being knowledgeable in the ways of martial arts, Bond, unlike Scaramanga, who’s only in it for the money, is also an expert in matters related to solar energy. Who knew? Suffice to say, it would have been infinitely more interesting for Bond to have discovered Scaramanga’s plot through actual investigative work. However, that would not have been in keeping with the long-standing tradition of Bond villains being overjoyed to see him and even happier to fill him in on all of their secret plans – just before killing him.

There are two main villains in The Man with the Golden Gun. First, there’s Scaramanga, who is presented as a kind of evil James Bond. There’s even reference to him being “a lover, too.” In fact, it is Scaramanga and not Bond who actually has what passes for a gadget in this film – the easily assembled golden gun. Unfortunately, the gun looks like the kind of cheap plastic replica one often sees in the dollar aisle at a place like Rite-Aid. Scaramanga’s partner in crime is Nick Nack. Nick Nack might have been an interesting character had he been the brains behind the entire scheme. He’s not, though. Instead, he’s a jack-of-all-trades – he’s a cook, a butler, a program designer, and a hired thug. The only thing he isn’t is threatening. He moves slowly and stiffly, and without a gun he poses absolutely no threat to anyone at all. Therefore, he makes a rather horrible evil sidekick, and it’s obvious that eventually he and one of the film’s protagonists will have to duke it out. When the scene finally came, it was even more embarrassing than I had imagined it would be.

The character of Nick Nack is just one of the problems with The Man with the Golden Gun, yet it is by no stretch of the imagination the film’s most glaring problem. That distinction unfortunately goes to the script. After deciding to jettison much of the main storyline in Ian Fleming’s novel, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz have essentially cast Bond in a martial arts film, complete with an obligatory fight to the death and the small group of martial arts heroes that can somehow take on and defeat a group ten times their size. And then there’s the ridiculous reappearance of the sheriff in Live and Let Die, J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who just happens to be vacationing in Thailand while Bond is there. Now, I have no way of knowing first hand how Bond fans responded to this character. I suppose it’s possible that they developed a fondness for him and flooded MGM with requests that he be brought back. However, seeing the character again did nothing more than add to my feeling that desperation had truly set in.

In short, The Man with the Golden Gun is a mess, and for the first time in a while, I’m not looking forward to the next chapter in the James Bond series. (on DVD)

2 stars

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