Review: Octopussy

Agent 008 is killed on assignment, with a replica of a priceless Faberge egg in his hand. 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) travels to India where he encounters an exiled Afghan prince named Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who has hooked up with a crazed Russian General named Orlov (Steven Berkoff), whose deadly scheme is financed by Khan’s counterfeit collection. The title character (played by Maud Adams) is an acquaintance of Khan’s, who has an all-female army of gorgeous women and operates a circus that is really used for a diamond-smuggling operation. Kristina Wayborn plays Magda, who is the ringmaster of the circus, whilst David and Tony Meyer play deadly knife-throwing twins. Kabir Bedi is Kamal’s intensely-staring henchman Gobinda, Vijay Amritraj plays Vijay, Bond’s Indian contact.

When most people list their least favourite Bond films, you can be rest assured there will be several Roger Moore entries. Yes, there are some people for whom Moore will forever be their preferred Bond, but films like “A View to a Kill”, “Moonraker”, “The Man With the Golden Gun”, and this 1983 John Glen (“For Your Eyes Only”, “The Living Daylights”, “Licence to Kill”) film tend to make the D-grade for most. “A View to a Kill” and “Moonraker” are certainly my two worst Bond films, but this one…I actually rather like it. It’s not as good as Moore’s first 007 film “Live and Let Die”, but it’s fun stuff, with a few admitted flaws.

As always, let’s start at the beginning. Weak-arse sounding trumpets on the gun barrel theme are not a terribly good start. Tina Hudson (who was apparently only 17 at the time) makes an immediate impression as Bond’s contact in Latin America, Bianca. Such a shame this was her one and only film appearance, because she’s lovely and leaves the picture far too early. I have absolutely no idea what became of her after the film, either. The opener is frankly a bit idiotic, with Moore’s 007 flying a small plane out of a fake animal’s derriere. Moore being in full-on buffoon mode, too. Thankfully we get Rita Coolidge’s highly underrated ‘All-Time High’ as our Bond song, set to some of Maurice Binder’s best titles design. It’s a gorgeous mix of blues and reds, and hot chicks. Admittedly the Tim Rice lyrics are pedestrian, I bet he’s not overly proud of his work here. Still, Coolidge’s vocals are lovely. Speaking of lovely, I think it was a shame that they didn’t make Penelope Smallbone (played by Michaela Clavell) the new Miss Moneypenny here and in subsequent films? Introduced as the assistant to secretary Miss Moneypenny, she was never used again. Since Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny looks like a grandmother here (with a grandfatherly Roger Moore as Bond, I might add), it only makes sense. It certainly didn’t make sense for them to bring Miss Smallbone in here only to never use her again. Meanwhile, as much as I normally loathe it when these films load up the mission briefing scenes with unnecessary characters, it’s always nice to see character actor Douglas Wilmer. Here he plays an antique expert named Fanning. However, I do wish that the very fine Geoffrey Keen had replaced Bernard Lee as M instead of Robert Brown, because we really don’t need Keen’s Minister of Defence as far as I’m concerned. Even less necessary is Paul Hardwick (from the definitive version of “Romeo and Juliet”) playing the Russian version of Keen’s Minister, basically. That is, a superfluous addition to an already overstuffed cast. Walter Gotell’s Gen. Gogol is here too, but now the rather ineffectual character is made to give way to a new Russian threat, Steven Berkoff’s boiled ham Gen. Orlov. More on him later, but suffice to say the film is certainly far too cluttered with characters.

The Bond films are known for their exotic locales and this one is essentially the Indian Bond, and it’s very exotic indeed. It shows India in the most decorative light possible, all colour and monuments etc. There’s even some scenes in the jungle, although they aren’t the highlight of the film to say the least. We also get Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj as Bond’s guide in India. He can’t act, but he’s nonetheless fun stunt casting even finding a silly but amusing use for a tennis racket at one point. The chase in his ‘company car’ (a Tuk-tuk) is fun too, without getting too absurd like that fake horse in the opener or the gondola idiocy in “Moonraker”. This is one of the few Bond films to not really have a memorable car, with the Alpha Romeo, Rolls-Royce, and Mercedes all being rather dull actually. Aside from a lack of guitar, the score by John Barry is overall solid and incorporates the song nicely.

One of the film’s chief drawbacks is clearly Roger Moore in the lead. It’s not his most irritating performance (He was excruciatingly smug in “The Spy Who Loved Me”) nor his worst (he was truly tedious in “A View to a Kill”), but he is certainly at his most comical and fatuous in this one. His one-liners are absolutely at their nadir in this one, best (or worst) exemplified in the jungle scene where Bond commands a tiger to ‘Sit!’, which isn’t too bad. However, he then tells a snake to ‘Hiss off’, which is pathetic…and then he does the Tarzan yell…yeah. Do I even need to explain the inanity of that groaner? It’s a step too far. It’s not just this scene, it’s rife throughout Moore’s performance, but that’s definitely the most egregious scene so far as poor dialogue goes. He does admittedly provide an hilarious facial expression when Kristina Wayborn delivers the film’s most infamous line. Otherwise it’s apt that the film begins with a man in clown makeup being bumped off. Desmond Llewellyn’s unwaveringly cranky Q, as usual, gets the film’s best line when learning that 007 is on an island populated by gorgeous women.

The Bond girls are sadly a mixed bag. Kristina Wayborn isn’t exactly a master thespian, but as Magda she’s gorgeous and clearly better than Maud Adams in the title role. She also has a truly magnificent exit from 007’s hotel room that you just have to see. Adams, who was already a liability in a different role in the earlier “The Man With the Golden Gun” just isn’t up to snuff in what is a pretty shaded role for a Bond girl (A borderline villainess, really). And it hurts. Although the talented Faye Dunaway was apparently considered for the role (but deemed too expensive), I think she would’ve been a little long in the tooth for it. However, what about Sybil Danning, Rachel Ward, or even Jamie Lee Curtis? They surely would’ve been a better choice than Adams who plays an interestingly mysterious and strong character in a decidedly uninteresting and weak fashion. Hell, give Wayborn the part and cast someone else as Magda. Problem solved if you ask me. Alas, we were given Adams and she gives us nothing. No charm, no charisma, no acting ability. And for a leader of a seeming army of gorgeous ladies…she’s not one of them. Sorry, but she’s not my type and as I’ve said before, that’s fair game in the Bond franchise which are essentially male fantasies put to pen/film. I also think the series wimped out on really exploring the title character, who seems to have a harem of women warriors at her disposal. The fact that Wayborn’s character has an ‘Octopussy’ tattoo says a lot, but unfortunately that’s all this typically British film allows in that regard. I wasn’t expecting explicit Sapphic action here, but it’s obvious at least to me that there was potential for some Sapphic sensuality here that screenwriters George MacDonald Fraser (“The Three Musketeers”, “Red Sonja”), Richard Maibaum, and Michael G. Wilson ultimately don’t provide. . I actually think the character would be better off in a film of her own (and played by someone else). Ironic given this film is named after her, but it’s true. Here she gets lost in the shuffle, and Bond beds her, which like the genuinely Sapphic character of Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger” tarnishes and weakens the supposedly strong and independent female character a bit. I know the franchise is fairly chauvinistic at the best of times, but that was a minor missed opportunity that might’ve made the interesting title character even more interesting. All up, Octopussy just isn’t worth the hype the film builds up for her.

When we move to the villains, this is where things get tricky. The easy part is to say that Louis Jourdan’s suave but sinister gentlemanly villain Kamal Khan is one of the better Bond villains, even if Jourdan doesn’t remotely look like an exiled Afghan prince. Yes it’s Louis Jourdan doing Louis Jourdan, but he does that better than anybody and does a much better gentlemanly Bond villain than Michael Lonsdale in “Moonraker” at least. There’s a ruthlessness to him that the oh-so very polite Lonsdale barely offered up in the earlier film. Jourdan’s no physical threat, but Moore isn’t a terribly ruthless, action-oriented Bond anyway. He’s the gentlemanly 007. I did find it interesting though, that it’s the title character who gets to keep an exotic animal instead of the villain, as is usually customary. The blue-ringed octopus is a truly gorgeous creature, much more gorgeous than the title character. So, about Steven Berkoff’s Orlov…yeah, this guy gets an awful lot of derision from critics. After chewing the scenery mercilessly in his first scene (you don’t hire Steven Berkoff for subtlety), he settles down in the part and isn’t anywhere near as bad as reputed to be. Orlov is definitely the film’s Brad Whitaker to Jourdan’s version of Koskov from “The Living Daylights”, though. Actually, the character ends up even lower on the totem pole than that, considering the title character is really the secondary villain for much of the film. At least Berkoff appears to be enjoying himself, even if few are enjoying him. Although nothing compensates for Adams’ flat performance, I have to say that a series of the franchise’s best henchman do pretty much make up for what Berkoff’s Orlov fails to provide us. The twin circus knife-throwers played by David and Tony Meyer are good fun, but even better are the sinister stare of Kabir Bedi’s Gobinda and William Derrick’s unnamed yo-yo buzzsaw henchman. The latter two may not be the most culturally sensitive characters, but all of them manage to be dangerous threats and suitably colourful. The climax with the title character and her girls scaling the walls is fun, but would’ve been even more fun if the character were played by a more interesting actress and the character allowed to be even more interesting than it is. It’s still kind of a cool moment, though. Also cool, but kind of terrifying too is the stunt where Bond is hanging on to the top of a plane, and Kamal flips it over. Fuck me, I hope the stuntman was OK there.

A pretty silly Bond film with a miscast actress in the potentially interesting title role. Moore’s terribly fatuous as 007 too, and grates throughout. Thankfully the film miraculously manages to work quite well despite all of this, mostly by being continually entertaining. Boring this one ain’t, there’s too much going on to be dull. Definitely one of the more colourful and exotic Bond films, Louis Jourdan is a classy villain, and the henchmen are all terrific. I think a critical re-evaluation is in order here.

Rating: B-


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