In 1983 the filmmakers behind the Bond series found themselves in a tricky little predicament. First, their 007, Roger Moore, celebrated his 56th birthday. Moore had enjoyed a wildly successful run as James Bond at the box office, but it was becoming very apparent that he was aging out of the role. Moore himself was beginning to think that it was time for him to move on–a move that was very likely for him considering that he had only been contracted on a film-by-film basis after Moonraker. So on one hand, producers were facing the likelihood that they would be losing the actor who had brought their 007 series to incredibly lucrative heights (if not critical success). They even screen-tested the very-not-British James Brolin as a replacement when they believed they would need to recast.
Meanwhile, the long-standing lawsuits over 007’s creative rights had reached an intriguing impasse. You may remember from my review of Thunderball that a man named Kevin McClory had successfully argued that he had assisted Ian Fleming in the creation of that story. Further legal wrangling over the years indicated that McClory also had creative claims to the character of Blofeld and his criminal organization, SPECTRE. As such, the Bond series had to abandon storylines including that villain and his nefarious network after Diamonds Are Forever. Unable to get official stake in the Bond series itself, McClory had begun fighting for the right to create his own, competing series about James Bond–one that could use Blofeld and SPECTRE. In 1983, he had reached a crucial victory. A judge decided that McClory could produce his own Bond movie–so long as the movie was based on Thunderball. And so Never Say Never Again was born–an ‘unofficial’ entry in the Bond series created to directly compete with the official canon.
To top it all off, McClory managed to get Sean Connery to return to the role of James Bond in Never–making the competition a legitimate threat. So producers of the official James Bond movies couldn’t afford to lose their 007 in a year they would be going head to head against a pretender to their throne. It would be madness to throw an untested 007 against Sean Connery, the original. So 56-year-old Moore was lured back into the fold to play James Bond against 53-year-old Sean Connery in The Battle of the Middle-Aged Bonds.
Which movie wins? Let’s go to the tape.
009 is killed while disguised as a clown in East Berlin (I’m not kidding), but not before delivering a near-perfect forgery of a Faberge egg to the British Ambassador. The real deal is up for auction at Sotheby’s, so 007 is dispatched to try to find out who’s behind selling the artifact–and who is so desperate to obtain it.
This leads James to India, where he tangles with an exiled Afghan prince named Kamal Khan–an incredibly wealthy and petulant type who cheats at Backgammon. Q arrives just in time to deliver a listening device for the egg (as well as for James to lob a couple of erectile dysfunction jokes his way), which means James can allow Khan’s sexy, acrobatic associate Magda to steal it from him–but not before he catches a glimpse of her “little octopussy” tattoo. From there, 007 uncovers Khan’s ties to a smuggling network/cult led by the mysterious Octopussy as well as the ruthless General Orlov, who seeks to expand the Soviet Republic’s control over Europe. The gist of it is that Orlov has been supplying Khan with Soviet treasures to smuggle out for auction, and that Octopussy has been allowing Khan to use her circus troupe to transport the goods undetected. Now, unbeknownst to Octopussy, Khan and Orlov are planning to use her network to get a nuclear warhead into West Berlin to go off during a show on an American air force base. Why? Elaborate, nonsensical reasons, of course (oh, all right–the atomic blast will be believed to be a tragic accident blamed on an American warhead, leading to nuclear disarmament in Europe, allowing Orlov to lead the Soviets to occupy everything. See? Nonsensical).
Naturally, Octopussy doesn’t take kindly to men-folk who mess with her business (not to mention who play her for a fool), so she helps 007 take down the nefarious scum, with their double-crossing ways and their stupid prideful penises.
Given that 1983 was supposed to be the year of the dueling 007s, the output was frankly disappointing. You would have expected Eon, the official producers of the Bond franchise, to bring their A-game to stave off the intruder. And you would have expected the team behind Never Say Never Again to bring their own A-game to make their mark. You’d be wrong. Instead, we get one mediocre entry and one mostly terrible entry. Octopussy wins simply by not being awful. And let’s face it, victory by default is no fun at all.
The problem is that Octopussy just isn’t memorable. It’s bland. The action scenes don’t have the go-for-broke panache the series usually puts out (particularly disappointing coming off a movie where 007 was dragged behind a speedboat in shark-infested waters). There’s relatively little comedy and even less camp. Bond movies have survived without relying on comedy and camp before, but those movies had a solid action vibe to fall back on.
But at least it wasn’t Never Say Never Again. More on that mess here, if you dare.
Notable Moments: Robert Brown makes his debut as M–only the second actor to play the role after the death of Bernard Lee in 1981. Brown would play the part four times, through 1989’s Licence to Kill. In more business-y news, this is the first Bond film released under the partnership between United Artists and MGM Studios. This is also the only Bond film to date that is named for a Bond Girl. Which is fitting, because Maud Adams is the only woman to date to play two Bond Girls, having previously played the doomed mistress in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Gadgets: A pen that spits acid capable of melting metal on one end, with a listening device at the other end. A watch that has some sort of homing device. Does the hot-air balloon count? Yawn.
Ally: Vijay, 007’s tennis-loving assistant in India. Conveniently, he’s played by an Indian tennis star. He’s polite, helpful, and utterly forgettable.
Bond Girl: Miss Maud Adams brings back those astonishing cheekbones for her second round as a Bond Girl, this time promoted to the main position. Her Octopussy is very much in the Pussy Galore mold of Bond Girls–tough, independent, in possession of an army of beautiful women (who inexplicably wear costumes ranging from traditional saris to bondage gear to, oddly, Greatest American Hero knock-offs). They even have similar first names, for crying out loud. Unlike Pussy Galore, however, Octopussy is a tougher nut to crack. My big complaint about Ms. Galore is that she starts out tough and impervious to 007’s charms, then just gives in crosses to the good guy’s side because penis. Specifically, James Bond’s penis. Octopussy only ends up fighting with 007 because her two colleagues, Khan and Orlov, betray her. Even then, she tries to get revenge on her own, using only her army of ladies to assist her. Bond has to catch up to her for the grand finale. And yes, he has to rescue her from the clutches of the baddies, but Octopussy’s capture doesn’t undermine her toughness. Hell, it takes practically ten men to overwhelm her and knock her unconscious.
Did I mention those stunning cheekbones?
Coming on the heels of the fierce Melina Havelock, it would be tempting to say that in the 80s the filmmakers behind the Bond series were finally starting to take women seriously. It would be tempting to say that, but you have no idea what horrors await with the Bond Girl in A View to a Kill.
The Supporting Bond Girl is something of an enigma. Magda (Kristina Wayborn) appears to work for Kamal Khan when first introduced, then is revealed to be a follower of Octopussy’s cult, then vanishes from the plot entirely, then resurfaces as a circus performer, then vanishes again. Yes, she has some intriguing moments (like her acrobatic leap from 007’s hotel balcony), but when the movie clearly has no idea what to do with her, where does that leave the viewer?
Villain: Another muddle. Kamal Khan wins because he gets the most screen time (and actor Louis Jourdan gets higher rank in the credits), but he’s surprisingly ineffective. General Orlov has more menace and manic energy, and when it comes down to it he’s the driving force behind the evil plot (except that he’s remarkably ineffective. And how is he going to take over Europe when he technically reports to General Gogol from The Spy Who Loved Me anyway?). Khan’s role in things is murkier. Why is he in cahoots with Orlov? Is it money? Is it political? What does he stand to gain if Soviets take over Europe? I guess his business arrangement with Orlov makes it money, but if Orlov runs Europe why would he need Khan’s help smuggling? And why the hell is Orlov smuggling Soviet artifacts out of his homeland in the first place??
Producers seem to be continuing the Goldfinger comparisons beyond the Bond Girl and into the villain, but in this case it doesn’t work. Yes, Khan likes to cheat at games in hotels. Yes, Khan is ultimately a stand-in for someone else’s plans (Khan for Orlov, Goldfinger for Blofeld). But you can’t doubt that Goldfinger is a wicked man. You never doubt that he’s the main foe for 007. That just isn’t the case with Khan.
Henchman: You just heard my rant about General Orlov‘s confusing role in the scheme, but since he technically qualifies for this role here he is. Further confusing matters we have Khan’s right-hand man Gobinda. Now Gobinda is a badass. You never doubt that Gobinda could seriously eff up your shit. Seriously not a guy you would want to mess with. He’s hurt only by the fact that he has to share the title of henchman with someone who should have been the villain.
Theme Song: unfortunately continuing the trend of easy listening Bond songs after For Your Eyes Only, we have Rita Coolidge‘s saccharine “All Time High.” I suppose we should be thankful they didn’t try to make a song called Octopussy. Bless her heart, Rita Coolidge gives it her all. She commits to this song, you have to give her that.
OK, I’m being mean. It isn’t a bad song. But it’s not a good song either. In fact, it’s somewhat emblematic of the problem with Octopussy: eager to please, but utterly lacking in flavor. Or any other memorable qualities.
By the way, the opening credits themselves are in a serious rut at this point. Naked ladies in silhouette has been done three times by this point. Bored-looking naked ladies alternately pointing guns and having guns pointed at them? Been done countless times. The only twist here is a laser-like projector that shines things on them. Yawn.
Iconic Moment: as I said, there really isn’t much of one here. Let’s go with Magda’s “that’s my little octopussy” line, if only for shear groan-inducing laughter.
Grades: Movie: 3/5; Bond Girl: 4.5/5; Villain: 2/5; Henchman: 3/5; Theme Song: 2/5
You can find links to all the Bond movie reviews as well as ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists on my Bond Project page. Up next: A View to a Kill. Or read about the other half of the Battle of the Bonds: Never Say Never Again.