Posted by: dougery | July 13, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Octopussy (1983)

James Bond is a ubiquitous pop-cultural figure. Contemporary television and film are littered with 007 references. Yet even still, most don’t know much about the books or films (in the case of this retrospective, mainly the films) behind phenomenon. Yeah, they will know ‘Shaken, not stirred,’ and have a general idea about plots emphasizing gadgetry, megalomaniacal global disasters and a wee bit of womanizing. Ask a random stranger to name a few Bond film titles and they will likely only be able to give you 2 or 3. I’m willing to bet that one of these will be Octopussy (1983).

I’m also willing to bet they won’t be able to tell you a damn thing about the plot.

And what a ridiculously over-the-top name! And one rife with meanings, both intended and not. What is initially constructed as the pet nickname of a beautiful woman (adding -y to the end of things is always a dangerous move, unless steeped in a barrel of irony the effect can be cloying or childish or both) ends up delivering the most blatant of Bondisms, the female name as sexual innuendo. And where a few of these occasionally hilarious monikers have managed to be innocent enough over the years (Mary Goodnight) most just settle for bawdiness (Honey Ryder, Penelope Smallbone, Holly Goodhead, the list goes on). Which is mostly harmless and all in good fun, really. I mean Bond doesn’t exactly come off as better than the women he sleeps with now does he? But what kind of image is summoned by portmanteau-ing octopus and, well, that other word?

The octopus is going to be few people’s idea of a cuddly pet. They are basically an inflatable bladder with tentacles. A bottom feeder. They are also uncommonly cunning for invertebrates although this may be besides the point which is they are on the short list of the least ‘sexy’ creatures on the planet. So when you combine the loaded image of a grasping, writhing invertebrate and couple it with the female sex you end up with a fair bit of misogyny, right? As in the old-fashioned ‘once they get their tentacles around you…’ kind of shrewish misogyny that is among the most offensive out there. Yet these are only unspoken connotations, what does the film actually do with them?

Octopussy explicitly refers to a character from the film, in keeping with the tradition of several preceding works in the series that are named after prominent villains, Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), and the Man With the Golden Gun (1974). Interestingly enough this appears to be an excellent trend to follow as each of these films was uncommonly good. Octopussy is no exception and is the strongest Bond film in nearly a decade.

If For Your Eyes Only (1981) was designed as a throwback to put a lid on all of the excesses of outings like Moonraker (1979), then Octopussy is the first film to succeed in going back to the basics. Whereas FYEO dove so far away from ‘lasers in space’ silliness that it literally marginalized Roger Moore into a secondary character in his own film, Octopussy drags 007 back to the fore and thank goodness for that. This one is all about action, there is actual fisticuffs in place of endless chases, and the choice to keep a vast majority of the film in one ‘exotic’ locale (India) pays off dividends. The gadgets and vehicles are both cool and functional, seamlessly integrated into a thrilling plot that doesn’t skimp on humor. On that note there are more zingers and one-liners in the first half of Octopussy than the last 3 films combined. And all for the better.

The tightness of the plot, which revolves around an interesting twist on the arms race, and the fact that the titular Bond girl is not exactly one of the good guys reminds me of From Russia With Love (1963). Instead of some uber-wealthy boogeyman threatening to turn all of our crops to dirty diapers or whatever, here we see a disgruntled Russian general eager to take advantage of a perceived weakness in NATO’s humanity. The goal is to sneak a Russian nuke over the West German / East German border and detonate it, causing the civilized west to assume an American bomb went off by accident, thus hastening disarmament and weakening the security of the iron curtain. Without nukes the Soviets would hold a huge tactical advantage in terms of tanks and men, and the ruskies could invade Europe at will.

The movie, like each of the Bond entries, is not without its numerous faults. 007 spends many of the action sequences hanging off the sides of swift moving planes and trains, and often far exceeds the limits of plausibility. There is one absolutely execrable, unforgivable moment of ‘comic relief’ where Roger Moore is forced to swing through trees and yell like Tarzan. Thankfully it is short. Bond also has to dress up as a gorilla and a clown, and unlike most critics who found this shameful, I thought it pretty humbling.

In a series renown for its rampant womanizing it is the film with the most preposterously anti-feminist title that ends up portraying a Bond as an active, complex, sympathetic hero. An agent who spends more time confidently kicking ass and doing what needs to be done (even if that means thoroughly embarrassing himself) and less running away and hiding in an endless string of random women’s beds.

Bond Grade (out of 007): 004

PS- And one last thing about the titular character and love interest of the then 56 year-old Rgoer Moore? In the immortal words of Liz Lemon: “Surprisingly age appropriate.”

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