Thursday, August 8, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0016 Octopussy (1983)

What’s that you say? Octopussy should be ranked higher than No. 0016 of 0023? Nope. Octopussy is one of those James Bond films that has all the elements, but lacks life. It was a decent film when it came out, compared to the competition, but in hindsight it feels dated and bland.

Plot Quality: Octopussy has a decent plot. Bond is sent to investigate a stolen FabergĂ© egg, found by 008, who gets killed in the process. This leads Bond to Kamal Khan, a low-rent smuggler and dealer in stolen art. Bond follows him to India, where he learns that Khan works for a woman named Octopussy, who runs an Amazon cult and circus. Khan and Octopussy are dealing with a Russian General named Orlov, who steals artwork from the Kremlin and replaces it with fakes. This leads Bond to Germany, where Octopussy’s circus will travel from East to West Germany and then perform on an American airbase. Unbeknownst to her, Khan has agreed to smuggle an atomic bomb onto the American airbase for Orlov and detonate it to turn public opinion against the presence of the Americans and their missiles. Bond saves the day and he and Octopussy chase Khan back to India. You can turn the film off at that point.
All told, the plot is fine. It has a lot of potential, it feels worthy of a Bond, and it is believable. It’s even exciting in parts. What keeps Octopussy from being ranked higher is the execution. First, there is the cheapness. The film starts in Cuba, but it sure looks like Pinewood Studios, Britain. They don’t even give a second-unit shot of Havana. India is the same. There are some outside shots, and it was filmed in India, but most of it feels like soundstages. Again, there are no skylines. Ditto on Europe. They definitely filmed the German parts in Germany, but all we see is one rail line, one highway, and an airbase that could just as easily be the Pinewood Studio parking lot.
The fight scenes are silly too. Women in matching catsuits, a hot-air balloon, a saw-like weapon that could only be used if your victim keeps standing in the right place. These feel like cartoon moments injected into an otherwise serious film. Not to mention Bond wears a gorilla costume at one point (see e.g. Trading Places) and he does a Tarzan yell while swinging through the jungle. Yeah, you read that right.

Beyond that, there’s not much more to say, and that’s kind of the problem. There’s little to love or hate about this film. It’s not a bad film, but little of it is memorable. It’s Bond at his blandest.

Bond Quality: 1981’s For Your Eyes Only brought Bond out of the lousy era of fantasy Bond that had beset the series in the 1970s, but it exposed one big flaw: Roger himself. Although he did well, it was clear that Moore was too old and too effete to play Bond. Octopussy feels like an attempt to make Moore seem more physical and more commanding. Too a large degree it worked as this is the most physical Moore has ever been. . . but that’s not saying a lot as he still lets women do his fighting. Unfortunately though, by this point, Moore has begun to feel like a parody of himself; he’s too stiff, too formal, and his one-liners are tiresome.
The Bond Girl: The main Bond girl is Maud Adams, who plays Octopussy, a jewel smuggler and owner of a circus. This is her second Bond as she was also the Bond girl in Man With The Golden Gun. She fits the specs, but isn’t very interesting. As an actress, she’s rather flat and she’s not given much to do here. In fact, her role is rather difficult to respect. On the one hand, she’s presented as the villain, as a savvy business owner, and as a cult-like leader of a troupe of Amazon circus women. But she is oblivious to what is going on around her as her number two ends up being the real villain. Moreover, after she learns of the betrayal, she then is supposed to play the vengeful warrior princess who turns her Amazons against the villain (who has managed to staff a castle without her noticing). Only, she plays this more like the helpless damsel who is constantly needing Bond to help her... “Help me, James!”
There’s another problem with her too. She’s supposed to be exotic because her cult consists of Indian street girls, yet they are all clearly upper-class, white British girls. That’s a bit like going to Shangri-La and then eating at McDonalds; it wipes out all the exotic. She also feels a tad lazy, i.e. inactive and emotionless, and I suspect that has to do with not showing up grandpa Moore: “Don’t run so fast Maud, Roger can’t keep up.” Her laziness too comes from her character being split into parts and distributed. For example, the other Bond girl is Kristina Wayborn, as Magda, who is Octopussy’s assistant. She’s kind of pointless and it seems like the things she does are things Octopussy should have done herself. The two roles should have been merged. Khan too should have been merged into Octopussy. The result is a character with little to do.

Villain Quality: The film starts with Octopussy as the apparent villain, but she’s just a jewel smuggler. The real villain here is Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who is an exiled Afghan prince who shacks up with Octopussy, with an assist from alternate villain General Orlov (Steven Berkoff).
Orlov is one of the better Bond villains actually and has a decent plan. Orlov is a Soviet General who is dismayed that the Soviet Union won’t attack the West. He sees the massive numerical superiority the Russians had in terms of troop numbers, and he knows the Soviets will never be better positioned to conquer Europe. The problem is, in his mind, that the leadership is frightened of American nuclear missiles, particularly short range nuclear missiles of the type Reagan installed in Europe over much opposition around this time. He thinks that if he can detonate a small nuclear device at an American airbase in Germany, that the Europeans would throw the Americans out and that would leave Europe for the taking.

There are some issues with this, like the existence of American ICBMs which could do the job just as well as the short-range missiles, the French and British nuclear arsenals, and the fact that this would be seen as a first strike by the Russians and would lead to war in minutes. But these things don’t bother you during the film as they are explained away. That makes his scheme a good one. It’s devious. It’s BIG. It seems like it would achieve his goal. And it’s topical. He also plays the villain well, bringing just enough crazy to the role while staying normal enough to believe that he could make it to his present rank and yet come to decide to do this. Unfortunately, he’s not the focus of the film... he’s just the focus of the best part of the film.
Helping Orlov is Khan. Khan is a dealer of questionable artwork. He becomes the middle man for Orlov, who is selling stolen artwork from the Kremlin and replacing it with fakes. He will also smuggle the bomb onto the American airbase. Khan is not as well developed as Orlov. It’s not clear why he would get involved in this, and his motive seems to shift around from money to promoting chaos to money to anger at his boss (Octopussy) to money. The connection to Octopussy is strange as well as he seems to be running a parallel evil empire while acting as her lackey. The connection to Orlov is never explained. And ultimately, since his motive is money and boss-hate, he’s not a satisfying villain. The film should have ditched him, merged him into Octopussy and then made Orlov the villain.

All in all, this was a Bond film and it felt like a Bond film. It had all the elements. It was exciting at points. This film has decent re-watchability. It has a decent plot, a good villain, an acceptable Bond girl, and Moore was acceptable to the task even if he was a bit old and effete. That’s why this film isn’t lower. It’s not higher though because it’s just not that interesting. Octopussy’s character was ill-defined and the things she should have done were given to Magda and Khan to do. Khan is poorly defined and cartoonish. And the real climax, the bomb being defused, comes twenty minutes before the ending. That’s why this film is No. 0016 of 0023.

21 comments:

shawn said...

James Bland. That about covers it. Another good review, Andrew. I admit, I liked it at the time, but it, like Moore, didn't age well.

tryanmax said...

Roger Moore is really hard for me to take seriously as Bond, especially in his older years. I've ranked T-Dal higher than Moore in the past for that very reason. So it's no shock to me at all that Octopussy should only rank 16th.

PikeBishop said...

It had one of my favorite Bond songs, "All Time High" by Rita Coolidge, which Coolidge herself is on record as hating. Sad to hear that. Of course, I could listen to the Delta Lady singing names out of a phone book and enjoy it.

ScottDS said...

This is one of those middle-of-the-road Bond films for me. I remember the guy whistling the James Bond tune, I remember Steven Berkoff chewing the scenery (as per usual), and I remember clown make-up... and that's about it. I should probably just watch it again.

Re: locations... I don't know. The previous film marked the debut of Peter Lamont as production designer, taking over for Ken Adam who left the franchise. Their two styles weren't quite the same which meant, in the 80s and 90s, we never saw any truly extravagant sets (no volcano lairs, no exaggerated angles, etc.). I don't know if this has anything to do with the locations, now that I think of it... :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Shawn! James Bland it is. I'm the same way. If you'd asked me in 1983 how this film ranks, I would have said it was one of the better ones. But the bar wasn't very high at that particular moment, not coming off a string of lousy Bonds until For Your Eyes Only. I think this film worked well at the time because it has the feel of other 1980s films and you had the tension of the air of the struggle against the Soviets. But in hindsight, this film really doesn't hold up well.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, When I first began I thought generically about where each film should go and this is one those that I thought should be quite high... until I started comparing them head to head. Then, the more I thought about it, the film itself didn't really hold up and I realized that I by and large skip it whenever Bond marathons are on television. It doesn't turn me off, it just doesn't hold my attention.

As for Moore, I liked him a lot in his first two, but then he became something of a lounge lizard. By this point, he's more like a "British pensioner."

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That is a great song, that is true. Sadly, sometimes the songs are the best part.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, They definitely went for more realistic sets and less fantasy. That's a good thing. But the problem is that they went too small in this film. If you're going to go to India, show us the city before you pop in on Bond, don't just show us an alley, him standing by a river, and a casino that looks like it was filmed in a tiny apartment. Even just a generic skyline would give the film a boost.

PikeBishop said...

Another thing or too that really didn't sit well with me was the pre credit sequence with the horrible disguise and the giant fake horse's ass in the trailer. The Tarzan yell and the clown disguise just added to that.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Same here. The whole thing felt stupid and unreal. Think about it... he's supposed to be in Cuba. Yet, everyone is driving British luxury cars. All the roads and construction look modern European and well-maintained. There isn't a hint of "the tropics" or "run-down Cuba" or how militant they are. Then the horse's butt looks fake and wouldn't fool anyone. The soldiers don't act like soldiers either. Nothing about it says Cuba. It all says "studio set."

AndrewPrice said...

The Tarzan yell makes me cringe.

Dwizzum said...

I agree this is a middle of the road Bond movie, and you detail the problems I have with it. (Tarzan yell indeed) I thought the train chase was really well done. I liked the knife throwing twins. The race to de-fuse the bomb was pretty good too. After that it was mostly downhill.

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, Thanks. I totally agree with you about the train chase and that whole scene. That is the heart of this movie and that is by far head and shoulders above the rest. I wish they had focused on that rather than making it an "Oh, by the way, this is happening too" part of the plot. This could have been a tremendous Bond if they'd done that.

I hate the Tarzan film. What a way to mock your own film.

Dave Olson said...

This film should be ranked higher. It's not, because as you say, there are too many negatives.

The main plot is as good as Bond movies get. In fact, it's Machiavellian as all hell: Stage a nuclear explosion at a US airbase, watch as the political blowback forces America to leave Western Europe, send the troops west in a (whatever is the Russian word for "Blitzkrieg") and extend the Soviet Empire as far as Portugal. From sea to shining sea, as it were. Pretty strong stuff for 1983, when the Cold War was at its absolute iciest, with Reagan declaring the USSR "An Evil Empire" and a succession of ever more enfeebled hardliners, from Brezhnev to Andropov and Chernenko.

I'd love to see a Bond movie in which Orlov's plot were the central focus. Instead we got wrapped up in circuses, jewel smuggling, and overall Bond silliness. Hot air balloons, gorilla suits, and a horse's ass. (*sigh*) It's like they couldn't decide if they wanted to be Bond, James Bond or Our Man Flint.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Agreed. This has within it one of the best (if not THE best) Bond plots of all time... but they treat that like a subplot. What's more, the "main plot" is a joke... horse's ass, Tarzan scream, women in catsuits, hot air balloon, Amazon cult leader who doesn't even know her assistant is running his own evil empire, etc. It feels ridiculous, like they wanted this to be a comedy, but weren't quite willing to take the plunge. And that's a great analogy to Our Man Flint, because this feels the same in many ways only unintentionally so.

It's kind of depressing in hindsight when you realize what this film could have been compared to what it ultimate was.

Rustbelt said...

This movie is hard to pin down. A lot of wasted potential. To be honest, I've always had trouble connecting the Faberge Egg story with the Cold War plot. Maybe I haven't paid enough attention. It just seems as though they said, "we need a cool plot: Cold War!" "And, hey! Faberge Eggs are cool. They're high class, just like Bond's world. We'll fit them in somehow." "And where haven't we shot? Oh, yeah. India! Fit it in!"

This thing could have involved the world of antique smuggling and jewelry theft, but didn't. (Similar to how 'Diamonds Are Forever' missed the boat on finance blackmail.) I'm not sure what to say about the location shots. To me, the Taj Mahal and the jungles are enough to say 'India.' So, I'm actually satisfied. Let's face it: as Westerners, they're really aren't too many other landmarks that stick out as 'India'- except for slums, which this movie also has. So, I'll give it a pass on that. (I also have to give credit to the fact that, if you look on a map, the Monsoon Palace and Taj Mahal are, by plane, close by. So, the filmmakers get points on geography.)
As for villains, I really don't understand Octopussy's role other than to be the thief with a heart of gold. It seems Bond can't get anything done unless she's on his side. (Plus, Maude Adams is a lousy actress.) Personally, I would've been fine if the villains had been left at Orlov and Kahn. I like Louis Jourdan's performance here. As one Youtube poster put it, it's not every day that the villain outclasses Bond. He did the best with what he had and deserved a larger part.
All in all, a mixed and somewhat confused bag. I think they really tried here, but the script needed a few more drafts.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt,

On the egg and the cold war, that is a problem. The film kind of suggests that Orlov is using the money from the sale to finance the bomb, but that makes no sense since he doesn't need cash to get the bomb. Then it seems like he's doing it just to get rich in the event things go wrong. But that doesn't fit with his radicalism. So in the end, the connection is kind of unexplained.

On the travel shots, to me, the minimum was set by films like From Russia With Love and Dr. No, where you get an establishing shot of the city, with some image of a plane landing and just enough to make you feel like he really just arrived in this exotic location. India gets some of that, but not enough, and Germany gets none of it. And then they race to inside sets in India that feel really fake and cheap to me.

Agreed on Adams... poor actress. As for her character, I really think the problem is that they divide her character into three parts, when they shouldn't have. They make Magda the muscle and Khan the dark side. That leaves her with nothing to do but say, "Oh James!" over and over.

I do like Jourdan, but he also suffers from not having a well-defined role.

In the end, what makes me sad is what this one could have been if they had stuck with the NATO plot.

Backthrow said...

I agree... a muddled, mostly-forgettable Bond, with the saving graces of Orlov and his subplot (which should've been the main plot), the train stunt work, and another good John Barry score.

Maud Adams is dull, the humor is dumb (the Tarzan yell, "Sit!", etc), the travelogue quality that made the early films shine is missing here, and Q makes another on-location visit where he doesn't belong.

'All Time High' is a good song, but a little soft for a Bond theme; it sounds like the sort of 'lite FM' interlude theme that would better fit a movie like oh, say, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE.

Despite some good elements, there's enough that is bad, dull and convoluted about OCTOPUSSY that I'd personally rate it below the two Dalton films, but above the worst of the other Moore films (MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, MOONRAKER, A VIEW TO A KILL).

Oh, a minor thing, but it always bugs me when I see it: in the pre-credits sequence with the super mini-jet, some impressive flying and effects work is undercut a bit when the jet enters the hanger, and we see a full-scale mock-up of the jet passing through... moving way-y-y-y slower than it does when entering and exiting. It suddenly looks like 007 is on a kiddie carnival ride. Totally takes me out of the movie for a moment. If they had tweaked the editing of that, sped it up, or just focused on Bond in the cockpit for that shot, it would've made it more exciting and effective, I think.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, The minijet is entertaining, but I never bought the whole situation. What exactly could Cuba have that anyone cares about? Also, it's not clear to me what his plan is or how they could be so bad at letting him escape. When he flies into the hanger, it does feel fake to me.

Adams is dull. I felt the same way in Golden Gun. Agreed about All Time High. I do like the song a long, but it does feel a touch lite FM for a Bond. I think it's ok, but it's not a great way to get your blood pumping for an action film.

I agree with the rest of your criticisms.

PikeBishop said...

Let's be honest, this film loses a star just for someone's decision to sniggeringly use the word pussy in the title of a maninstream movie. Can anyone imagine Goldfinger being titled Pussy Galore?

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I agree with that. It's a pretty classless name and it hurts the feel they are going for.

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