Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review – Octopussy

February 24, 2011

Octopussy – UK, 1983

When Octopussy was released, the Soviet Union still had yet to elect Mikhail Gorbachev as its General Secretary. That would take place in 1985, followed soon by the initiation of Perestroika, which would forever change the Soviet Empire. These events were unforeseeable in 1983, so to call Octopussy prophetic is perhaps an overstatement, yet it is impossible to look back at Octopussy and not marvel at just how timely certain aspects of the film were. It depicts the Soviet Empire as being severely weakened, with little choice but to consider giving in to NATO’s demands for denuclearization. The film shrewdly illustrates the divide that would have existed at that time if they had indeed contemplated such a move, as hawks would have likely positioned themselves in opposition to anything they saw as capitulating to their long-time enemy, the West. I remember these years well, and many of my friends’ heads were filled with worry over the very idea that a nuclear war could break out between the United States and the Soviet Union. This notion was mostly the result of their parents having unwisely allowed them to stay up and watch The Day After when it aired in November of 1983, five months after the premiere of Octopussy.

The film begins like most of the Bond films do, with Bond completing a mission that has little or nothing to do with the mission that follows the opening credits, which this time around are accompanied by the absolutely worst theme song of any Bond film I’ve seen so far. In the song, Rita Coolidge belts out the line “We’re on an all-time high” while miniature red 007 banners shoot out of guns and slowly make their way over the brightly-silhouetted figures of a number of scantily-clad ladies. The number resembles how one might advertise a strip club. In fact, all that’s missing is the pole. The one thing the viewer is likely to gain from the film’s introduction is an unneeded reminder of just how good a fighter pilot James Bond is.

Like the best films in the James Bond series, Octopussy keeps the audience in suspense quite well. They know details when Bond learns them, and he has to do a bit more investigative work than usual. His mission this time around involves finding out who killed Agent 009. Towards the beginning of the film, we see the agent’s murder, and little of what we see makes much sense - The secret agent is dressed in a clown suit, has in his possession a perfect replica of a rather valuable piece of art, and is killed by two expert knife throwers wearing circus attire. The British suspect that the Soviet Union has begun selling its cultural treasures to raise much needed currency, but the existence of a replica leaves them slightly baffled. Therefore, Bond is sent in to find out who killed 009 and discover just what secret his killers were trying to protect. At the same time, we see a meeting of the Russian government during which most officials seem to be willing to capitulate to NATO’s demands. Only one lone general, General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), disagrees, believing instead that the time is right for the Soviet Union to attack Western Europe and expand its territory. It’s obvious that these two events are connected, but the question is: How?

The quest for answers takes Bond to an auction house in London, a hotel full of dangerous characters in India, and ultimately to both East and West Germany. In India, he stumbles upon an island inhabited by women that is run by Octopussy (Maud Adams), a woman who has a connection to Bond’s past. This connection is one of the best parts of the film.

There is plenty to dislike about the thirteenth Bond film, apart from the film’s theme song. First, there’s the ridiculous high-stakes game of backgammon that is played with loaded dice. Card games I can accept in a Bond film, but the idea of high-stakes backgammon produced a few too many unintended chuckles. Then there’s the surprisingly dull hunt for Bond in the forests of India, during which the film’s screenwriters got too cute for their own good and scripted Bond swinging through the forest a la Tarzan. They even included Tarzan’s stock jungle scream. Note to writers: If the audience is supposed to think that Bond is in danger, they should not also be encouraged to laugh or think about other films. In addition, there’s the odd island of women, some of whom are dressed in what could have been the inspiration for the costume that the Incredibles wear when they fight evil. And of course, the film is filled with henchman who are either grossly incompetent whenever Bond is around or who can’t make up their mind whether they’re supposed to kill him or let him live. I haven’t even mentioned the silly disguises Bond puts on in the film or the damaging effect that one in particular has on what should have been a very suspenseful moment.

However, what works in Octopussy works well enough. I like how the film keeps the motivation of key characters secret. We know that Prince Kamal Kahn (Louis Jourdan) is up to something, but we’re not sure what, and just after we see Octopussy shed tears thinking that Bond had been killed, she’s seated next to characters that we know are villains talking to them in a way that suggests she’s in on whatever plot they are hatching. There’s also a tasty conversation between Bond and a beautiful woman named Magda (Kristina Wayborn). Her words are laced with subtle but unmistakable death threats, and yet the very next scene, she and Bond are in his hotel room together doing you-know-what. It seems strange at first, but there’s a perfectly rationale explanation for her supposed turnaround, one that has nothing to do with Bond’s charm or good looks. Her escape from the balcony of his hotel room is priceless. In addition, Octopussy contains two of the most exciting action scenes of the Bond series so far.

To me then, Octopussy is the first good Bond film of the films starring Roger Moore. The film is by no means great. Some of the things that happen occurred in other Bond films, most notably Goldfinger, and the screenwriters seem obsessed with creating new “monster” villains every picture or two. In Octopussy, we get Kahn’s bodyguard Gobinda (Kabir Bedi). His height and permanently serious demeanor make him the perfect if not stereotypical Bond henchman. In other words, he’s a character that you know is a villain the moment you see him. The scene in which Gobinda and his men chase Bond through a crowded Indian marketplace is one of those scenes which you have to see to believe, and that’s not necessarily a compliment or a criticism. The scene is neither completely ludicrous nor exciting. It occupies that uncomfortable middle ground, upon which it’s hard to tell if someone wants you to laugh or take what you see seriously. This time around however ambiguities such as this one did not hinder my appreciation for the film. In short, Octopussy does just enough right to make it possible to overlook what it does wrong. (on DVD)

3 stars

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