Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Octopussy (1983)

(Directed by John Glen)
The Octopussy mission was a perfect demonstration of how even the smallest, comparatively lightweight incidents may only be masking matters of extreme importance. It all began when 007 (Roger Moore) was tasked with accompanying one London’s art experts at an auction where a Fabergé egg was available for buyers. Bond brought along a fake, which had made its way to London after being found in the hands of the deceased 009 in Berlin. While at the auction, 007 successfully swapped the fake Fabergé for the real one, and hoped that the buyer (or seller) who be revealed, for there was fear that the Russians were involved in selling off fake treasures to raise funds. The buyer was non other than an exiled Afghan prince named Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdain), whom Bond then followed to Rajasthan India.

It was there that the grander scheme behind this art dealing was revealed. Khan was in fact a close associate of a power hungry Soviet general, General Orol (Steven Berkoff) who intended to set off a nuclear bomb in West Berlin. The ‘wild card’ as some would say, was a beautiful and astonishingly beautiful women who went by the name of Octopussy (Maud Adams). She was a successful businesswoman and among her many trades was the production of circus acts. It was through her circus troops that the real versions of the jewels were smuggled into the west while General Orlov assured that replicas would remain in Kremlin treasury.  But would Octopussy assist Bond in his desperate attempts to stop General Orlov and Kamal Khan, or was she a supporter of their plot as well?

As Louis Jourdain himself says calmly and smoothly when confronted by the titular leading lady just prior to the final action set piece in the film: ‘Octupussy....Octpussy.’ Oh, Octopussy, what a fascinating film you are...

John Glen, for whom Octpussy was his second Bond feature, was arguably one of the better directors to have helmed instalments in the series. He understood that James Bond should not be all fun and jokes, but rather possess a real sense of danger, at least every now and then. Thrill the audience, let them move to the edge of their seats a little bit. Make them go ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaah!’.  With one exception (which we shall get to soon enough in the coming weeks), his films also demonstrate a level of grit that has absent from the series since the earliest Connery days. Added to the fact that his films enjoy utilizing at the time current geopolitical contexts as launching pads for the plots, and the end results are usually quite satisfying Bond pictures.
He is not infallible however, and Octpussy, unlike For Your Eyes Only, shows some signs that he is not entirely resistant to some of the more eye-roll inducing moments the Bond films are also sadly known for. Consider a scene when 007 and I Section contact Vijay (tennis pro Vijay Amitraj) enter yet another one of Q’s fabulous hideouts where his crack team of experts are working away at a bunch of death traps probably no 00 agent will ever use. Bond finds a liquid crystal tele with a camera hooked up not far away. He aims the camera at one of Q’s always voluptuous assistants and zooms in an out on her breasts. Q gives the agent a typically snarky ‘grow up!’ remark, but I must admit that I felt the same way too. That behaviour was not the least bit smooth, but rather terribly juvenile. Another ‘you must be joking, oh wait you are’ moment happens when Bond is the prey of a wild and honestly very intense hunt in an Indian jungle. Kamal Khan and his minions are riding elephants with rifles, ready to dispatch Bond once and for all. It’s a great little scene with virtually everything attacking Bond at once: tigers, snakes, tarantulas, elephants, men with hunting rifles, etc.  007, needing to create distance between himself and his predators, takes to vine swinging, complete with a yell straight out of the Tarzan sound archives. Seriously, it was a good scene! Why put that in there? While the sights and sounds of Rajasthan, India are wonderful and make for a great Bond location (such a populated and popular country, why has Bond only been once?), some of the jokes inserted into the chase sequence are embarrassing, like Vijay using his tennis racket to smack opponents and shots of bystanders turning their heads left and right as if following the ball in a tennis match.

So the humour does not always land in John Glen’s 007 universe. That being said, Octopussy remains a solid entry in the franchise. As stated earlier, the Glen Bonds tend to incorporate the geopolitical realities of the times, in this case the difficult West-Soviet Union relationship of the 80s. It was a decade when slowly but surely the face of Russia and its satellites changed, but there remained suspicion, especially in the earlier years. Octopussy is an interesting 007 adventure in that it decides to spend some time with the Russians themselves within their quarters. We have seen villain hideouts before, but not when the Russians were the threat. In fact, the movie decides to perform a great stunt by having a lone Russian general go rogue against his peers. KGB head Gogol (Walter Gotell), whom we have seen in previous Bond films, actually tries to stop Orlov from executing his mad plan to invade western Europe. Strife from within the Soviet ranks as the political and economic times are changing in the country, thus making for a compelling villain’s plot. It can be argued that the movie loses focus on Orlov and his operation until very late in the film, which is a shame because I think experiencing the tug of war from within the Russian political apparatus would have been very cool, but this remains a 007 picture, not a political drama.

Another aspect of the story that should be praised is the nature in which it unfolds. It’s all very mysterious and only revealed little but little. One of the earliest scenes features a double-oh agent dressed up as a clown feeling two circus knife throwers. The eventually kill him, but not before he falls into a river taking him to the British Embassy in West Berlin. He crashes into one of the rooms through the window, drops dead onto the floor, his hand letting go of a Fabergé egg. What just happened?!? Stick around and discover the clues with 007. Strangely, this makes the movie feel a lot like the very first Bond film, Dr. No, in which very little about the baddies was revealed. Just like in the 1962 film, here 007 must rely on his detecting skills and intuition to unravel the plot. I do not think that every thread holds together perfectly. The link binding Kamal Khan and Octpussy is fine enough, but that linking Octopussy and General Orlov is a bit weak, as is that binding Octopussy and Bond. While not a perfect screenwriters plot, for once it was nice not to be told exactly what was happening in great detail right from the start.

I know, I know, Roger Moore looks very old in this movie. And he dresses up as a clown. What terrible an insult to the much-beloved franchise. Well, call me crazy, but I think Moore delivers a very good performance in Octopussy. There is no doubt that the actor should retire from the role very soon (if not now), but he still has what it takes to be charming and witty when necessary, as well as deadly. There are more than a handful of great moments throughout. The auction sequence is very funny, punctuated by Moore’s brilliant timing, his behaviour at Kamal Khan’s dinner table when served audaciously exotic plates, the much awaited meeting between himself and Octopussy, played by former Moore co-star Maud Adams (they shared a few scenes in The Man with the Golden Gun). Moore plays the role with as much conviction as possible, which is impressive given not only his age but the fact that this is his sixth episode.  One would think he got bored after a while, but it never seems like it in Octopussy.

The filmmakers also do a spectacular job at making the action scenes feel authentic. This is partly arranged by having Moore operate a lot of vehicles in the film, and only occasionally engage in a man-to-man brawl.  But even the stunt work that demanded serious skills can be accepted by the viewer because they are capture on camera so brilliantly. Could Roger Moore really keep a hold on a plane as it soars in the air, or climb on the sides of a train as well as jump from one car to another? My guess is that he could not perform such feats, yet John Glen and his crew are adept at raising the threshold of our disbelief by presenting these events in thrilling manner. The final battle between Bond and Gobinda (Kabir Bedi) atop of Khan’s airplane is stunning to say the least.

Oh, and what about that clown outfit scene that everyone always bemoans? Simple misinterpretation. I’m serious. Think about that scene for a moment now. Roger Moore, the least lethal and funniest of the Bonds (depending on your definition of ‘funny’, naturally) suddenly dresses up as a clown. What a travesty, correct? Wrong. The moment is a call back to earlier in the movie when 009 was dressed up as a clown, fleeing the knife throwers. Everything comes full circle and the audience understands what 009 had learned. Not only that, but this time Orlov’s plan is actually taking place, with a nuclear bomb ready to explode in matter of seconds inside the circus tent as a show is taking place. 007 is desperate to turn off the mechanism, pleading for security to let him pass, but people either think it is part of a comedic act, or they want to arrest him. Even what leads up to Bond’s arrival at the circus is fantastic, with 007 having no other choice to play hitchhiker to get a ride (with a group of teens in one car even playing a trick on him!). Dare I say the entire sequence has something remotely Hitchcockian about it.

Maud Adams is an incredible woman. Strong minded, beautiful, and a voice as sexy and smooth as silk. While the way the script inserts her into the story and links her with Orlov is not the most convincing, just having Maud Adams around is a blessing. Maybe it is the fact that she is Bond alumni that helps create the instant chemistry between her and Moore, but whenever I watch this movie always think the two work very well off one another. They are, as the theme song proclaims, ‘two of a kind.’ Steven Berkoff does not play the most subtle character in world, but does what it required of him. I think it is more the idea of his character that appeals to me than what the end result is on screen. Louis Jourdain is awesome in here. Of course he is not given the greatest role an actor could have, but by golly does he ever deliver his lines with that slimy assurance, cockiness and false sense of sophistication one would expect from a Bond villain. His French accent also helps a lot too. In all sincerity, just for the actor playing the role (more than the role itself), I think Kamal Khan is one of my favourite Bond villains. ‘Octopussy...Octopussy.’

A rather favourable review for a film that tends to get the shaft more often than not. The Roger Moore persona tainted 007 in the eyes and minds of many, and to see the actor don a clown outfit was the last straw. I beg to differ. Like with any clown, there is a man behind the makeup and beneath the cheesy jokes and Moore’s wrinkles lies a surprisingly effective James Bond adventure. Perfect? Not by any means, but a solid entry nonetheless. I’m more than glad to show Octopussy some love as well as Octopussy.


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