Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review – Live and Let Die

October 3, 2010

Live and Let Die – U.K., 1973

The eighth James Bond film marked a turning point for the Bond series. It began the series’ seven-film run with Roger Moore playing the world’s most famous secret agent, and it departed from the SPECTRE storyline that had featured prominently in the previous seven films, although from the look of the villain’s set-up, it seems SPECTRE’s designer simply found a new employer. Live and Let Die also brings Bond into what in 1973 was a very popular film genre, blaxplotation, allowing supporting characters to say things like “You’ve got a honkey on your tail” and “For twenty dollars, I’ll drive you to a Klu Klux Klan cookout.” The result of this combination of genres is an occasionally interesting, paint-by-numbers Bond film that unfortunately does not match the excitement or fun of most of its predecessors.

In the film, Bond is assigned to investigate the murder of three British agents. The first dies after some bizarre, high-pitched sound rings through his earphones during a meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York City. The second is stabbed as he is standing on a New Orleans sidewalk. His body is then picked up by the funeral procession that just happens to be passing by at that very moment. The other one dies somewhat quickly tied to a pole during a rather frightening cult-like ceremony. The green snake that bit him must have been quite poisonous. This means that people with high level security clearance, average citizens of New Orleans, and a large number of the residents of a Caribbean island called San Monique are potentially involved in a massive conspiracy, And the number of people in on the plot grows exponentially as the film goes on. Eventually, it includes taxi drivers, law enforcement officials, and seemingly ordinary men who shine shoes. It all adds up to an equation that would make Franciscan friar William of Ockham roll over in his grave. Yet perhaps it’s too late to be applying Occam’s razor to Bond films.

Bond’s involvement in the investigation is anticipated by a tarot-card reading temptress by the name of Solitaire (Jane Seymour), and before he’s even had time to begin his investigation, Bond’s driver is dead and Bond is pursuing a lead at the aptly named OH Cult Voodoo Shop. (A suggestion to villains everywhere: Avoid names that obviously connect you to the crimes you are committing.) His investigation eventually leads him to two suspects, an aspiring drug dealer in the U.S. named Mr. Big and Kananga, the leader of San Monique. The contrast here is interesting, for each of these characters intends to exploit people’s weaknesses. Mr. Big intends to use drugs and people’s addiction to them to achieve the power he desires, and on the other side of the world, Kananga uses people’s superstitions and fears to keep them under his control. Both strategies make perfect sense, even if some of the images we see in the film have the potential to cause a knee-jerk, politically-correct reaction in viewers.

It seems odd however for Solitaire to actually have the gift of seeing into the future, as Bond films have always been based on real-world scenarios that while being both fun and silly were nonetheless possible in Bond’s world. Sure, there have also been super-villains, but these villains never actually had supernatural powers; they were simply very strong. I suppose Solitaire’s power has something to do with the fact that part of the movie takes place in New Orleans, where movies continue to depict some people as believing that tarot cards can tell the future. However, not even the New Orleans storyline can explain away the origin of Solitaire’s power or how those powers can be lost. Those are pure fantasy, and they weaken the film slightly. For some viewers, having a supernatural element in a Bond film will be nearly the equivalent of having Indiana Jones, a character devoted to facts, history, and archeology, chase after aliens.

The biggest problem with Live and Let Die is simply its predictability. From turning a villain into an ally to Bond being caught but given ample opportunity to escape yet again, there’s not much that happens that we haven’t seen before. In fact, the film’s final scene is so similar to the final scene in Diamonds are Forever that I’m shocked a rewrite wasn’t called for. Sure, the setting of the film is different, but that does not seem to have energized or inspired writer Tom Mankiewicz or director Guy Hamilton. Unfortunately, scenes that should be exciting are simply too long or just plain silly. There’s a very long chase involving boats that ultimately resolves nothing, and there’s an earlier scene set in an airport hanger that features Bond slowly evading capture while those pursuing him skid or jump into idle planes. The latter scene was incredibly juvenile, and not in a good way. In addition, Bond’s much touted crocodile escape was foreshadowed too far in advance to be truly exciting. There’s also an odd moment that will – perhaps intentionally - remind people of King Kong. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a director or writer paying homage to an earlier film, I’m not sure that it’s wise to remind the people watching your film of a much better one. In the end, Live and Let Die feels more like a missed opportunity than an invigorating fresh start. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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