Plot Quality: Our story opens with the assassination of three British agents. One is at the UN, one is in New Orleans and one gets killed in a voodoo ceremony in the Caribbean island of San Monique. Bond is called in to investigate. He lands in New York only to have his driver killed in an attempt to kill Bond and make it look like an automobile accident. Bond pursues a lead on the killer into Harlem, where he stands out: “You can’t miss him! It’s like following a cue ball.”
As plots go, there’s not a lot here. Instead, action gets substituted for plot as the film involves numerous chase scenes. The bus chase is decent and the plane chase is stupid, but the boat chase... the boat chase is spectacular. The plot is entirely believable however, and Kananga’s scheme is one of the better ones. The characters are all interesting and memorable too - this isn’t License to Kill where you can’t remember anybody except the main actors. Here you remember everyone, from incompetent Rosie to fat Whisper to the Voodoo Baron to the man with the hook for a hand to the little guy who kills at funerals. The dialog is fun too with lots of over-the-top slang. The images are iconic, like the powerboat flying through the air, the deck of cards that are all lovers, Bond jumping onto the backs of crocodiles, and the Olympia Brass Band doing the funerals. This film has a travelogue film too, even if it takes place in gritty areas.
But in the end, the positives far outweigh the negatives and have kept this as one of the more popular films. Indeed, it is the rare Bond-a-thon where this one doesn’t feature prominently. The film also made $851 million (in 2013 dollars) at the box office, which blows away all the later films up to Skyfall and puts it at No. 4 in the series (behind Thunderball, Goldfinger and Skyfall). So they did something right.
What he does have going for him is competence and that his confidence builds throughout the film. He looks the part too. And all told, there is a sense of potential. At this point at least, he seems like he will be an adequate replacement for Connery. Unfortunately, this may have been his peak as Bond.
Villain Quality: The villain is Yaphet Kotto, who plays duel roles here. As the film opens, he’s Mr. Big, the biggest, baddest black criminal in the US. As the CIA explains, “You name the racket and they say he has a black concession.” We soon learn, however, that Mr. Big is really Prime Minster Kananga of San Monique in disguise.
Kananga’s plan is to give away two tons of heroin for free on the streets of America. His goal is to drive the Mafia out of business and to double the number of addicts in the US. Then he will monopolize the market and start charging. This is actually a brilliant plan as it’s very realistic as it would cost him nothing to do this and it would be effective, as evidenced by other companies who “dump” products to take over markets. It’s also quite threatening, given the mess this could make of the country and the power he would have over this army of addicts who were totally reliant on him. It was also topical, being little more than a year after Nixon gave his “War on Drugs” speech. All told, this is a scheme worthy of Bond’s attention; it’s not just Bond fighting a drug dealer.
All in all, this was a good film. The villain is lively, well-written, and has a great plan. The Bond girl is special. The film has a cool vibe. It is an iconic film with iconic images that even casual fans know, and it’s pure fun. It has also proven its staying power. So the film deserves a high ranking. But there are significant problems that make the film feel less than it is. Those keep the film from going any higher. So here it sits at No. 008 of 0023... can you dig it?