Film Reviews

De-Evolution of James Bond: Octopussy

If there ever was a James Bond movie that had an uphill battle in convincing me of its acceptability, it’s 1983’s Octopussy. It’s a title that removes innuendo and double entendre and turns subtext into text, seeming to say, “we here at James Bond headquarters have a perpetual fondness for a certain part of the female anatomy, but we also worry that part of female anatomy may fatally garrote and entangle us.” Even its theme, Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High, seems crafted with the hope that you’ll forget you bought a ticket to see a movie called Octopussy, with the title appearing nowhere in the song. However, once that’s the title you’ve settled upon, there’s little alternative than to lean as much as possible into the completely ridiculous.

But, alas, the title screen betrays them.

Octopussy’s plot feels convoluted, even for the Bond franchise. What begins with the death of a clown-costumed MI6 agent eventually segues into a storyline involving a Fabergé egg, a comely cadre of assassins, a circus (that appears capable of taking hardened, stoic generals back to their second childhoods), and a nuclear warhead smuggled onto a US Air Force base. Bond films tend to traffic in unwieldy narratives, and sometimes they’re endearingly weedy. Alas, this isn’t the case here. There’s little left to do except throw one’s hands up in exasperation and mutter, “Well, at least the scenery is pretty.”

Granted, there’s something inherently cringe-inducing about a symbol of the British government like James Bond sniffily traipsing through Indian culture, but that’s best placed aside and left to ponder for another day.

As far as villains go, Octopussy gives us two: Afghani jewel smuggler Kamal Khan (played by the decidedly not-Afghani Louis Jourdan), who plays games of chance with loaded dice, and crazed Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), seemingly too deranged for even the Soviet Union, who hopes the strategic placement of a bomb will expand Soviet control. Even after watching, I’m not entirely certain what Khan gets out of the nuclear bomb scheme, but whatever.

As far as Bond villains go, they’re fine but not particularly memorable. Maud Adams, as the titular Octopussy, is a completely middle of the road Bond girl, fun enough, but remarkable only in her age appropriateness when paired with Roger Moore and that her character’s name inspires the film’s title.

I know the title comes from a Fleming short story, but the storyline and the movie’s narrative have almost nothing in common, and a Bond film being named for a Bond girl is worth noting. Of course, the presence of an age appropriate female lead is semi-undercut by the implication Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) is being forced to train her younger, more attractive replacement, Miss Smallbone (Michaela Clavell).

One’s enjoyment of the Roger Moore era will greatly impact response to Octopussy, as this is the Roger Moore era at its most Roger Mooreish, as though the entire cast and crew turned to one another and said, “what if we just play it like there are no stakes at all?”. His films tend to embrace the camp and absurdity that always drifts along the universe’s fringes and catapult them front and center. This one goes farther than most.

Those with a fondness for Moore’s approach may find this one to be one of their favorite installments. If you like your Bond films with at least a hint of grit, this might be a slog.

I have to confess that I find myself falling into the latter category. The strongest films in the James Bond franchise manage to walk the tightrope of recognizing the universe’s ever-present goofiness, while also playing it straight enough that the danger feels tangible. Therein lies Octopussy’s failing. It pole-vaults over camp into outright reprehensibility, perfectly exemplified by the series of Moore’s disguises during the film’s third act. It’s ill-advised to put Roger Moore into a gorilla costume.

To follow that with a clown disguise feels unforgivable.

To sandwich those miscalculations with a costume that makes him appear scheduled to dance the “Mamushka” with the Addams family is equally absurd.

Having this series of costumes occur in rapid succession is more likely to inspire eye rolls than laughs. The less said about the Tarzan yell heard as Bond swings through vines is probably best ignored, but how can you ignore such a colossal lapse in judgement? These issues on their own might not capsize a movie with all the other pieces in place, but adding them all into a film without a lot to counter-balance it makes their inclusions all the more regrettable.

I don’t want to be too hard on Roger Moore. I like his foppish, smooth approach to the character, and can appreciate his way with a witty retort, although his increasing years mean his status as a 007 is beginning to feel unlikely. When the camp-intrigue balance is right, he’s actually quite an appealing lead. I just wish he’d fly his tiny jet into a better Bond film.

That’s not to say the movie has nothing to recommend it. The gadgets are fun, except for a mechanical alligator, and I enjoy Q’s (Desmond Llewlyn) increased screen time. There are some nifty fight sequences, including a delightfully insane brawl through an Indian street involving a bed of nails and a conveniently placed sword swallower.

A fight sequence on a plane is also well-staged. Kudos to director John Glen, who always has a tendency to ensure the stunts under his watch are impressively choreographed. I also like the chemistry between Moore and Adams, and appreciate Jourdan’s suaveness, even if his character doesn’t make the impression he should. Gobinda (Kabir Bedi), however, does makes a strong impression as Khan’s particularly imposing henchman.

In addition, any movie that features a yo-yo saw as a weapon can’t be all bad.

It’s a Bond film, and they’re never entirely without merit. This is just a common example of a Bond film whose parts are greater than its whole.

Therein lies the problem. The points in the film’s favor don’t overshadow its shortcomings. The villains are forgettable, the attempts at humor lamentable, and the goofiness overwhelms any real attempts at suspense. Beyond that, the plot is the equivalent of vapor. I just watched this movie, and I had to look up a Wikipedia summary to remind myself exactly who wanted to steal and/ or blow-up what. Octopussy simply passes from beginning to end, making all the impression of a light breeze. You may even notice this summary is about half the length of my standard write-ups, and that’s because I’m at a loss as for what to say about a film so disposable and ephemeral. I’ve also included an extreme amount of pictures, because its look and sense of flare make it more worthwhile than it should be.

To summarize Octopussy would be the utmost folly, and even Moore seems to be coasting. It’s not the worst film in his oeuvre. After all, A View to a Kill and Live and Let Die exist, but he has much stronger outings available for viewing, and there are certainly better Bond films.

Tomorrow: For Your Eyes Only

11 comments

  1. A mess though it is, “Octopussy” has one of the most intriguing relationships with its historical context of any film in the series. That convoluted plot business involving the nuclear bomb is a riff off the intensive “nuclear freeze” protest activity, particularly in Europe, of the 1981-82 era. Consequently, “Octopussy” is the most politically conservative, and the most unabashedly Cold War oriented, film in the whole Bond universe. Here’s my take on that: https://youtu.be/qjGtl8XKSvo

  2. I always liked Maud Adam’s Bond woman portrayal, and while she did seem more age appropriate than some others, she was only 38 to Moore’s 56 years.

  3. I feel this is the worst Bond film and, in a world where Diamonds are Forever exists, that’s saying something. Even pale stale Trump loving male that I am, I can see this for a sexist, racist and, frankly, rapey film. It smacks of a film of which, halfway thought, someone piped up and said “what the fuck are we doing” and, confronted with the option for removing the iffy content or doubling down on it, doubled down.

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