NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited

In the No Time To Die Countdown, Jake Tropila takes a look back at every Bond film – official and unofficial – in anticipation of the release of the latest entry.

At ten years and six films, Roger Moore had officially become the longest-tenured Bond at this point in the series’ time. He had matched Sean Connery’s film count but had otherwise surpassed his predecessor in terms of service length. This news did not sit well with Connery, who took it upon himself to come out of Bond retirement and reprise the role that made him famous with an independently produced Bond feature that was released in the same year as this one. Connery was determined to be Number One yet again.

Alright, alright, I’m only kidding around. Well, half-kidding. Connery did actually come back as 007, reprising the role in Never Say Never Again, an unofficial and completely different Bond film co-produced by Kevin McClory, who retained the rights to SPECTRE from the ongoing Thunderball lawsuit. Meanwhile, in that very same year, Moore would be starring in Octopussy, our subject for this week’s entry in the No Time To Die Countdown.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

And so, the Battle of the Bonds was born (mind you, a battle that harbored no ill will between Moore and Connery. In fact, they were still quite good friends, and even playfully suggested cameoing in each other’s films. The producers shot these ideas down immediately.). We’ll cover the results of the “battle” in our next entry, so for now, let’s focus on Moore’s film. Octopussy could be considered the beginning of the end. Part of the problem was Moore’s age; being three years older than Connery, he looks visibly creaky onscreen, and this more of a detriment than a benefit. And following the grounded efforts of For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy returns Bond to very high levels of silliness – not quite on the level of Moonraker, but pretty darn close.

But honestly? I’m a fan. Sure, there’s the Tarzan yell, the bizarre use of the Monty Norman theme, a grossly reductive look at Indian culture, and the plot are indecipherable as all get-out. Hell, Bond even disguises himself as a circus clown at one point to stop a nuclear bomb from detonating in a crowded tent. Yet despite all its criticisms, Octopussy maintains a great sense of adventure, and Moore is still clearly having the time of his life. Let’s squeeze into the world’s smallest jet plane to fly back to 1983 and find out why.

PROPERTY OF A LADY

Octopussy kicks things off with a breezy pre-title sequence completely divorced from the rest of the plot. Bond disguises himself as a military general and infiates a Cuban airbase to destroy a deadly weapon harbored inside. It’s akin to Goldfinger’s opening, except instead of a fake gull Bond uses a fake horse’s ass in a mobile equestrian trailer.

It’s silly, of course, but that’s to be expected with late-stage Moore. Tongue planted firmly in cheek and all that. Bond is captured but manages to escape via his single-seat Acrostar jet stashed in the aforementioned horse ass. Bond’s escape also leads a guided missile directly into the Cuban base’s weapon, blowing it up in glorious fashion. Two birds, one stone. Bond rolls up to a local gas station (“Fill her up, please!”) as two sensual hands guide us into the title sequence.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Another film, another slow love ballad for Bond. Here, it’s the smoldering, sax-infused “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge. Not necessarily one of the best, but I like it – makes for smooth listening. And at least Coolidge wasn’t forced to rhyme anything with “Octopussy.” Oh yeah, have I mentioned this film is called Octopussy?

Following that title sequence, things swiftly switch gears from frisky fun to deadly serious. In West Berlin, a circus clown is stalked through a forest at night by a pair of knife-throwing twins. The clown turns out to be 009, and he’s knifed down just as he reaches the home of the British Ambassador. His death reveals the reason behind his pursuit: he was carrying a priceless Fabergé egg.

Octopussy arguably has the most incomprehensible plot of any Bond film. Granted, all Bond films boil down to “Villain Wants To Do Bad Thing, Bond Stops Them.” But here, it’s the machinations behind the Villain(s) overall plan that are genuinely befuddling. The Fabergé egg plays a part of it, and there’s even a fake egg added to the mix, but just when you catch up with identifying who’s got what egg and when they are promptly forgotten about halfway through the movie!

I noted the plural in Villains because they come as a real package deal here. First, there’s General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), comrade of series regular General Gogol. A crazed, loose cannon of a man, Orlov is almost certainly certifiably insane, as is his scheme: he’s stealing Soviet treasures and replacing them with fake ones. Once enough of them are acquired, he plans to trade them (?) for a nuclear bomb, which he will then detonate on a US Air Force base in hopes of aiding his overall goal to start World War III, expand the Soviet Empire westward and invade all of Europe. Orlov also happens to employ henchmen Mischka and Grischka, the knife-throwing twins who dispatched 009.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Orlov’s scheme is aided by one Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), an exiled Afghan prince. Khan actually acquires the treasures for Orlov, such as bidding on them in auction houses (this is where Bond becomes cognizant of their scheme – his mischievous attempts to outbid Khan on the Fabergé egg feature Moore at his finest).  Played by a terrifically slimy Jourdan, Khan makes for an agreeable villain and a perfect foil for Moore’s Bond. He is almost always seen with two henchmen, Indian heavy Gobinda (Kabir Bedi) and seductive gymnast Magda (Kristina Wayborn), by his side.

All of these men ultimately report to Octopussy (Maud Adams, in her second Bond film), a seasoned jewel smuggler and head of Octopussy’s Circus Troupe. Octopussy has the rare distinction of starting the film as the Bond Villain and ending it as the Bond Girl. Sometimes a femme fatale has a change of heart (see May Day in A View to a Kill), but never the head villain. Thankfully, with multiple enemies to contend with, it’s a relatively smooth transition. Like Pussy Galore before her, she’s strong, capable, and survives a ridiculous name. Good on her.

QUIT CLOWNING AROUND

If You Only Live Twice could be summed up as “James Bond Goes to Japan,” Octopussy could be “James Bond Goes to India.” At least, that’s how I always remember it, and then am disappointed to discover that Bond is really only in India for the first 45 or so minutes of the movie – he spends the same amount of time in East and West Germany. But it’s always India that leaves the lasting impressions for me, for better or for worse.

Bond’s ally in India is Vijay (played by tennis pro Vijay Amritraj), a delightfully jovial MI6 agent. In a strange bit of fourth-wall breaking, Vijay’s cover to meet Bond is that of a snake charmer, and the tune he plays on his flute to capture Bond’s attention? Monty Norman’s own “James Bond Theme.” Does this mean that this theme exists in the diegesis of the franchise? And Bond and other agents know about it? It’s an inexplicable touch, but one that’s best not to linger on.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Once Gobinda gives chase to Bond and Vijay on the tuk-tuk vehicles, Octopussy devolves into a checklist of Indian clichés. Bond encounters no less than a guy on a bed of nails, a fire-breather, a sword swallower, and a guy walking on hot coals, and he uses each of their “eccentricities” to dispatch a pursuing foe. It’s an unfortunate blight on what’s otherwise a solid film. The ensuing safari chase fares a bit better, if only for thrusting Bond out of his element (and into the elements), but again, it’s almost undone by that goofy Tarzan yell he emits when swinging from vine to vine (that’s *two* audio gags in this movie that just don’t work).

Shame that Vijay doesn’t stick around for too long. He’s a rather pleasant ally to hang with, which makes his rather gruesome death doubly unfortunate (murdered by a yo-yo sawblade). But this allows Q to join the field, and he’s always a bit of fun to hang around far longer than what’s usually permitted. I gotta hand it to director John Glen for seeing the value in Desmond Llewelyn – Q’s two best features were ones he directed (this one and Licence to Kill). Octopussy also marks the first film with Robert Brown as M, filling in the big shoes Bernard Lee left behind. And he’s perfectly fine; he’s just not Bernard Lee.

Once the action shifts to Germany, things buckle down and become quite thrillingly awesome. There are multiple train chases, and Bond leads a one-man army against Orlov, the Soviet army, Kamal Khan, Gobinda, Octopussy’s Circus Troupe, and a bunch of angry German police. Bond interrogating Orlov gives us a glimpse at a darker Moore we don’t see much of, and his murder of Mischka and Grischka offers catharsis for the fallen 00 agent. Orlov gets gunned down, and all roads converge at the US Air Force base, where a circus is underway and a nuclear bomb is primed to explode.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: OCTOPUSSY Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

And then there’s the clown costume. Often Exhibit A when pinpointing this as Moore’s worst film, I’d like to instead take the opportunity to defend it. Yes, the clown makeup is a bit much, but it’s actually quite effective in this specific context. Bond uses it to disguise himself and get into the circus (remember: there are several groups of armed forces after him), hoping to get close to the US General and warn him of the bomb’s presence. It’s the fact that nobody takes him seriously is where the tension derives from. Once the nuke is unveiled, the silliness of the clown outfit immediately evaporates, and suddenly there’s a real danger to be had. And thankfully, Bond is there to stop it at the last possible second. Kudos to Moore for being the only Bond Actor who could pull any of this off.

Following the successful defusing of the bomb, Bond and Octopussy lead her circus troupe into a full-scale assault on Khan’s compound. It’s an exciting bit of business to cap off this caper – there are gymnasts vaulting over walls and around enemies necks; Bond machine guns a ton of guards while sliding down a banister rail, and even Q gets in on the action (and in on the action, if you catch my drift). The final plane sequence that leads to demises of Khan and Gobinda and the near-death rescue of Octopussy also excites. Another mission accomplished, James. Time to rest.

CONCLUSION

Roger Moore’s penultimate Bond film has a lot going on for it. There’s the good (strong villains, engaging setpieces), the bad (bizarre audio cues), and the ugly (racist Indian stuff). Some might say this is one of his weakest efforts; others champion it, perhaps boosted by fond, nostalgic memories. I remain very much fond of it. It’s an easy film to hate (and often paints a big target on its back encouraging you to do so), but it works perfectly as a piece of entertainment, where the good ultimately outweighs the bad.

Next time: the Battle of the Bonds concludes, as we take a look back at our second unofficial Bond film. The No Time To Die Countdown will return with Never Say Never Again.

What do you think? Should Octopussy have been Roger Moore’s final Bond film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


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