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Non-Review Review: Octopussy

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Despite having quite possibly the most awkwardly unfortunate name in the history of the English language, the most enduring image from Octopussy is Roger Moore, flailing wildly and trying to be taken seriously, while dressed as a clown. Oddly appropriate, eh?

Moore, Moore, Mo- Too Much!

There’s a bit of history behind Octopussy – as, I suppose, there is around every Bond film ever made. In particular, Octopussy was going head-to-head against Never Say Never Again. Never Say Never Again was a remake of Thunderball featuring Sean Connery returning to the role of Jame Bond. Although the film was a bit of a letdown, I’ve never understood why no movie studio ever ran with the rights to run a “second official Bond franchise” like the lawsuit allowed. Still, Roger Moore had served his time as the iconic secret agent and decided to bow out (relatively gracefully) after For Your Eyes Only. However, with the next film competing against perhaps the definitive actor to play Bond, the producers convinced Moore to stay one last time.

A lot of Octopussy feels like it was made under obligation. You can feel the pressure that must have been weighing down on the cast and crew – the subconscious desire to make “the Bond-iest Bond film yet.” The result is that a lot of stuff happens (mainly involving a whole bunch of stunts and awful comedy), but there’s never a sense that you’re watching a story unfold. For a movie where Bond climbs along the outside of a flying plane, dodges a heat-seeking missile, disarms a nuclear bomb and evades a heavily-armed hunting party, it’s surprisingly forgettable.

No Khan do?

As I sat down to watch the film, I found I remembered a lot of the set pieces. I remembered Bond as a clown. I remembered that somebody was trying to nuke something for some reason. I remember the knife-throwing twins, who (despite being named over the course of the movie) the credits couldn’t be bothered to call anything other than “twin one” and “twin two.” That’s about it, to be honest.

As I watched, it sort of all filtered back to me. The guy with the yo-yo buzz saw, I remember him. Bond in a gorilla costume, I remember that too. Bond being hunted for sport and unharnessing a guy on an elephant? I kinda remember that, now that you mention it.

Perhaps the most painfully honest moment of the entire franchise…

Indeed, the only good thing about the film that I’d forgotten was Stephen Berkoff. Berkoff is a character actor who never really got the respect that he deserved. He made a great villain, if you couldn’t afford Malcolm McDowell. Nah, I kid – he’s great. Here he plays a rogue Soviet general (original, I know), who realises that he’s in a terrible film. So the actor runs around, putting on invasion-themed powerpoints like an evil Al Gore and stressing random syllables because he’s evil! He yells about “unREALisTIC policies!” and “atTACK strategies!” to the assembled heads of the Russian government with such passion that I found myself wondering how he orders lunch at the cafeteria. “I’ll have a cuCUMBer SANdwich, plEASE!”

Of course, his plan is completely nuts. And, to be honest, he’s a trained military officer – so he really has no excuse. From what I could gather, the plan was:

  1. detonate nuke at US airbase, kill lots of people (note: this it the point at which most insane meglomaniacs go “that’s a job well done!” and call it a day)
  2. wait for Europe to demand that the US dismantle their nuclear weapons
  3. with America defenseless, take over the world

Of course, steps 2.) and 3.) probably would have included a whole host of boring UN meetings and negotiations and mandates and paperwork – so it’s understandable that we focus on step 1.). Still, given the fact that Russia was so broke M was suggesting they’d sell their national treasures to run basic spy operations, I wonder how General Orlov ever made it to the top of the military foodchain. Perhaps he was too busy at enunciation lessons to attend basic logic 101.

Don’t egg him on…

He also dies like a chump. I think that’s another of the (countless) problems with the film. It’s over-populated with bad guys. There’s a rogue Russian General. There’s a weird-accented smuggling dude. There’s his silent Indian henchman. There’s yo-yo buzzsaw man. There’s the creepy knife-throwing twins. And, you know what? Not one of them has a memorable death sequence. The film just meanders from one death to the next. It’s like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King if you substituted “pointless villain deaths” for “fake endings.”

Apart from Berkoff who has decided that if his character’s going to die, he’s going to take as much scenery with him as possible, the rest of the baddies are as banal as they come. Khan is just a whiny moron. When Bond beats him at backgammon, using his own load dice, Khan advises him to “spend the money quickly, Mr. Bond.” Dude, quit threatening the guy you just met just because he realised you were cheating in the most obvious manner possible. And learn to be a good sport, man. Informed that Bond has somehow survived and is on his way to the airbase to intercept the nuke, Khan just sulks like a spoilt little kid. “Good, let him keep going,” he informs his henchman, as if realising that they’d never catch him anyway. “He’ll be late and we’ll be rid of him, too!”

Bond is a market man…

Khan’s henchman is your stereotypical big silent type. Except, you know, not actually silent – so we lose a lot of the mystique. Instead, his defining characteristic in that gallery of supporting Bond villains is that he… has a beard. His most badass act is… crushing a pair of loaded dice. Seriously, Bond kills him by smacking him in the face (accidentally) with an antenna. Perhaps he exists solely to make Khan seem comparatively threatening.

By the way, it’s interesting that a significant portion of the film is set in India – and yet doesn’t feature any major Indian characters. Those who are present and have lines exist only to support important “white” characters. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about Bond going to India, with the country’s long and complicated history with colonialism. I remarked in my review of Dr. No that there was always something of a surreal feeling when Bond went to visit the former colonies. It felt a bit weird that Bond would seem to spent most of his time hanging out with rich white men playing games like backgammon. Although part of the charm of the franchise is its old-fashioned nature, sometimes those sequences strike a little close to the bone.

Quit clowning around…

The movie plays up just about every stereotype about India you can image. Bond is served a “stuffed sheep head” for dinner, with that Western fascination in strange foreign food. A trip through the streets includes a sword-swallower and hot coals. Bond is able to terrify some local natives by emerging from a bodybag (they look like they’ve seen a ghost). When Bond pays his assistants, he remarks that it should “keep you in curry for a few weeks.” It’s awkward and condescending, perhaps even moreso than the Oriental fetishism of some of the earlier films. By the way, note how the movie shows us a shot of the Taj Mahal just so we know we’re in India, even though we’re miles away from it.

In fairness, I must concede that the film – perhaps emboldened by “I think he’s attempting re-entry” – boasts perhaps the largest amount of innuendo ever collected within a PG-13 film. Seriously, even ignoring the title, there’s tonnes of it. “C’mon girls! In! Out! In! Out!” a rowing instructor yells. “I need refilling,” the Bond girl asks. “What’s the matter Q, can’t keep it up?” Bond even asks of the gadget designer at one point. Some of it is actually quite charming in a “stiff upper lip” sort of way. Some of it, however, is not.

Bond always could zoom in on a lady…

The idea that the title character’s nickname came from her father is kinda disturbing. Similarly, some of Bond’s “adolescent antics”, including repeatedly zooming “in! out! in! out!” on a staff member’s breasts with a video camera is well outside of “quaintly charming” country and firmly in “outright pervert” territory. Strangely enough, Roger Moore’s age doesn’t really come into it. Despite the fact that it did hurt some of the earlier and Moore’s later film, here his advancing years never make him seem especially lecherous. It’s his behaviour which makes him seem like a pervert.

It doesn’t help that the movie features the most awkward seduction scene in the history of the franchise. Dining with one of Khan’s associates who rejected him the previous night, Bond notices that his photo has been taken. He asks why Khan needs a photo, and she admits that it’s for her. “I collect… memories,” she informs him, which reads like a threat, but is delivered like the most boring piece of personal information ever. There’s no wit or charm, or any hint of chemistry, but Bond is shortly in bed with her and her “little Octopussy.” Moore has slightly better chemistry with Maud Adams, returning as a different character from The Man With The Golden Gun, but she isn’t the strongest actor in the world.

“You look familiar…”

And who can forget the ending? Me, that’s who. Bond storms into a military base, and the officer immediately alerts all units – including the fact that Bond was looking for the base commander “and he’s wearing a red shirt!” It’s nice to have the essential information out there. I wonder how many innocent guests at the circus were tackled for wearing a red shirt that day? Oh, and there’s a split-second shot of Bond kicking a military cop in the crotch. Note that he wears a helmet on a bike, lest any children imitate him, but he still kicks a cop in the crotch. Oh, and then he pulls the detonator out of the bomb and… wait, that’s it?

Octopussy is a disappointment. It is quite possibly the worst Bond film. Really. There were a few small elements I did enjoy (most notably the music on the DVD menu – yes, the film was that bad), it was just a crap Bond film. As clever as the idea of Roger Moore as a clown screaming to be taken seriously was, it isn’t exactly the criticism you want to reinforce in a movie where Bond kills a henchman by throwing an octopus at him. When the innuendo and a character’s unique speaking patterns are the best thing to recommend a movie, perhaps its best you stay away.

Speaking of unique speaking patterns, A View to a Kill tomorrow?

We have complete reviews of all of the Roger Moore films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

11 Responses

  1. Octopussy is one of my favorites. Super underrated. The general consensus finds a secret agent riding a tank through a city, causing destruction, acceptable. But Octopussy is somehow unacceptable.

    Camp aside, the movie is pretty realistic. It’s a late detente era conflict with terrorists sandwiched in between. Wouldn’t a circus, full of innocent people living their everyday life, be a perfect place to put a bomb? And wouldn’t a clown be a perfect disguise out of it?

    We agree that Scaramanga was a mirror for the wrong Bond, but Kamal Khan in this movie works out as a great mirror for Roger Moore. Plus, we have a Bond girl that isn’t half Moore’s age, a number of great action scenes.

    • Fair point. My ex is much fonder of Octopussy than I am, even if she was always a bit hazy about what actually happened in it. That said, the Roger Moore/sad clown imagery is just the perfect image for that era of Bond.

  2. I have also really liked Octopussy. I think it is because it is never boring. Also, I thought the train chase was quite exciting.

  3. “And who can forget the ending? Me, that’s who.”

    Bitchy Darren is best Darren.

  4. This is my favourite film ever. And I don’t mean ironically. It’s just great fun.

  5. I agree that this is probably the most forgettable Bond film, but I do love the third act. The train sequence is one of the most intense action pieces in the series. And the idea of Bond trying to warn people about an imminent nuclear detonation, but no one is listening, is pretty terrifying.

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