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Octopussy (1983) Review

Roger Moore had taken some convincing to play James Bond for a fifth time in “For Your Eyes Only” and was reluctant to keep going, feeling he was too old for the part. However, with the looming threat of Sean Connery’s return to the role of 007 in “Never Say Never Again”, the producers were unwilling to bet the future of the franchise on the public’s acceptance of a brand new Bond – despite extensive screen tests with James Brolin – so they convinced Moore to remain in the role one more time.

When 009 is killed, clutching a fake Fabergé egg, MI6 suspects Soviet involvement. The appearance of the real egg for auction prompts James Bond to investigate the seller and the buyer. The trail leads him to a wealthy Afghan prince who lives in exile in India and his associate Octopussy. In unravelling the smuggling plot, Bond uncovers a plan to force nuclear disarmament in Western Europe, leaving the path open for a soviet invasion.

“Octopussy” is, despite its provocative title, one of the more nondescript Bond films. It has all the requisite ingredients, in the correct proportions but somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Its mongrel-like qualities shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given its pulled together from Ian Fleming’s original short stories ‘Octopussy’ and ‘The Property Of A Lady’, with the Soviet nuclear plot/ invasion threat – which never really gains much traction – layered on top to patch the whole thing together.

While the plot may be somewhat convoluted and underwhelming, thankfully the casting is on point. Louis Jordan is Bond villain in the classic literature mould, almost torn from the pages of Fleming’s original novels. Arrogant, cowardly and deeply unscrupulous, Jordan’s Kamal Khan is an elegant, erudite foe for Bond. The script is peppered with wonderful dialogue and his verbal sparring with Moore’s Bond is a delight. His chief henchman Gobina (Kabir Bedi) is intimidatingly impassive, managing to exude menace despite possessing a remarkable resemblance to Bernard Bresslaw’ character in “Carry On Up The Khyber”. There’s also a little sideplot of rivalry within the Kremlin with by-now series regular Walter Gotell’s General Gogol facing an aggressive rival in the shape of Steven Berkoff’s ferocious General Orlov, a good villain who gets far too little screen time.

Maud Adams’ return to the franchise is a little unexpected given her recent prominent appearance as Scaramanga’s lover Andrea Anders in “The Man With The Golden Gun” but she’s no cowed and frightened victim here, and she plays the strong, cunning and capable leader of an international smuggling ring very well. Given Moore’s advancing years, she’s also a great choice as his love interest, avoiding the unpalatable age gap which would plague Moore’s next film.

Bond is aided in his efforts by Vijay Amritraj, who seems to be having an absolute blast as Vijay, MI6’s local agent in India and by Desmond Llewellyn’s Q who finally gets to be involved in the field rather than simply dropping off equipment. There’s an awkward acknowledgement of Miss Moneypenny’s advancing years with the throwaway introduction of Penelope Smallbone, an assistant for Lois Maxwell’s redoubtable PA. It’s a shoddy and disrespectful scene, where Bond is horn-dogs over the new girl, a gratuitously juvenile lustiness which is repeated again later in Q’s Indian workshop where Bond uses a camera to zoom in on a woman’s cleavage. It’s the kind of tacky nonsense which feels beneath a gentleman of Bond’s stature and – dare I say it – age. Rounding out the regulars, Robert Brown makes his return to the series as the new M (he previously played Admiral Hargreaves in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and may, in fact, be the same character although it’s never confirmed) and does a creditable job, wisely avoiding trying to emulate Bernard Lee’s indelible performance.

A strength of “Octopussy” is that it’s much more of an old-fashioned adventure story than previous Bond movies and it’s all the richer for it. The setting of India helps enormously with this, a landscape of exotic marketplaces and fabulous fortresses on mountain tops and lakes. “Octopussy” even lays the groundwork for the banquet scene in “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” which would come out the following year by having Khan sup on a roasted sheep’s eye plucked delicately from the eye socket of the plated skull in front of him. The monsoon palace setting and the tiger hunt escape scenes are a very 007 twist on Kipling but unfortunately, “Octopussy” also maintains the producer’s tendency to not know where to draw the line when it comes to funny/ silly. The tiger hunt is ruined by a profoundly stupid use of a Tarzan yell which supersedes even Bond telling a tiger to ‘Sit!’ Barbara Woodhouse-style in terms of eye rolling exasperation. Despite the ‘Ripping Yarns’-esque vibe though, there’s still a great deal of the trademark Bond-style action, from the pre-credits Acrostar mini-jet tomfoolery to an entertaining rickshaw chase through the crowded streets of Rajasthan and an impressively extended chase scene along the Berlin railways. Gadgets also make a bit of a comeback following their eradication in “For Your Eyes Only”, with acid pens and a nifty one man submarine disguised as a crocodile.

Admittedly, the film runs out of steam a little once Bond reaches Octopussy’s island where her army of acrobatic ladies (inexplicably dressed in uniforms that resemble Dr Seuss’ Thing One and Thing Two) plot their smuggling operations and the action shifts clumsily back to Europe. The nuclear bomb threat at the end fails to develop any real tension due to its circus setting, Bond’s clown make-up (which is still better than the moment where Bond disguises himself as a gorilla so unconvincing, it wouldn’t even have convinced the train conductor in “Trading Places”) and the relative ease with which it’s defused.

The real finale though takes us back to India where Octopussy and Bond join forces to lead an assault on the fleeing Kamal Khan’s mountain keep. In all the praise received by “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, there’s little mention of the fact that Tom Cruise’s stunt of clinging on to the side of a plane as it takes off was done more than thirty years previously by “Octopussy”, and back then the stuntman didn’t even have the benefit of being a level III Operating Thetan to protect him.

This is the first time on my Bond Voyage that one of the films has pleasantly surprised me. I’d forgotten a lot of the details of it, underlining its lack of any truly iconic moments (the theme song – performed by Rita Coolidge – is so forgettable, you’ll struggle to recall it half an hour into the film), but it’s actually a pretty solid Bond movie: never quite reaching the peaks perhaps but not plumbing the depths either. At the very least, Albert Broccoli finally got to feature the myriad of elephants he’d been hankering for ever since “The Man With The Golden Gun” but it feels a little bit underwhelming for a year where the series as a whole faced an existential threat in the form of a would-be rival movie franchise. I’d have expected them to come out all guns blazing rather than the ‘good enough’ attitude which seems to permeate “Octopussy”.

Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return with From A View To A Kill
(but only after a brief stopover to take in Never Say Never Again)…