Wednesday, April 15, 2009

REVIEW: The Worst of Bond, Part 1: You Only Live Twice

Jack Bauer, however, lives as many times as he damn well wants.

I’m a fan of the James Bond film franchise; I just don’t like that many James Bond films. Everyone has their favorites, and I gravitate towards the few that have at least a hint of seriousness and believability to them, and which actually depict Bond doing the occasional spy stuff, not just acting like a horny college student and machine-gunning bad guys in alternating scenes. Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, License to Kill, GoldenEye, and Casino Royale are all good or great in my book. They all manage to work in humor (well, okay, that wasn’t Dalton’s forte in his pre-Hot Fuzz days), but also had actual espionage, detective work, and covert operations involved. There’s a bunch more films that are silly, but mostly pretty enjoyable.

Then there’s the dregs. And no discussion of the dregs of the series can begin without the nadir of the Sean Connery era, You Only Live Twice.
If that's Sean Connery, I'm Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After the requisite gun barrel opening (back in the days when Bond was wobbly-kneed and wore that awful hat), we cut to a space capsule in orbit around the Earth. Don’t worry, we’re not to Moonraker yet; Bond (Sean Connery, if I haven’t made that clear yet) does all his work planetside. It’s an American capsule, and out of nowhere, another ship appears, barely detectable by radar. It bears no markings, and as it approaches the capsule, its bow opens up and the whole thing envelops the smaller capsule. The Americans blame the Russians, and the Russians deny knowing anything about the mystery ship. Gee, I’m glad the Bond series managed to wait an entire five movies after this one before completely and utterly ripping off the concept I just described. Except I guess that means I’m ripping on The Spy Who Loved Me, which I actually liked. Whatever.

"Odd. You taste like... David Niven?!?!"

For no comprehensible reason whatsoever except that the Brits are smart and the Americans are dumb cowboys, it’s the British who suspect a third party is to blame, and it’s their responsibility to investigate the suspected landing site of the ship, which is near Japan. And of course, their entire investigation is to be carried out by Mr. James Bond 007; hey, with all those billions going to Q Division, you can’t afford many actual field agents. He’s in Hong Kong, in bed with a Chinese girl and making inane observations about how Chinese girls taste like Peking Duck or some such crap. It’s like a Seinfeld routine performed by a bored Scotsman. But the girl betrays him, folding his bed back into the wall and bringing in a guy to machine gun him. When the cops arrive, they pull him out, apparently dead, and they observe that at least he died on the job. Wait, so even the Hong Kong police know who Bond is? I know Hong Kong was under British control at the time, but doesn‘t being a celebrity throw a monkey wrench into his “secret“ agent status? And is he really such a horse’s ass that British police officers, while the world is on the brink of nuclear war, are making dirty jokes about their country’s greatest hero getting killed? Well… come to think of it, he was kind of a douche bag sometimes.
American: "They spelled 'color' wrong!" Brit: "They spelled 'Technicolour' wrong!"

The opening titles feature an execrable theme from Nancy Sinatra and a shocker of a credit: Screenplay by Roald Dahl, as in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author. As someone who likes James Bond movies with at least a tenuous connection to something resembling a skewed version of reality, I at least appreciate the film for giving me fair warning.

"I'm here for my senior portrait."

We see Bond’s naval funeral aboard a destroyer, and his sheet-wrapped body dumped into the ocean; a mysterious figure watches from the shore, apparently verifying that Bond is dead. Which he’d be able to do a lot better if the body wasn’t cocooned, but I’m not one to tell him how to do his job. As the body falls underwater, it’s recovered by a pair of divers and brought aboard a British submarine. They cut the body bag open and, lo and behold, there’s Bond alive (and in uniform), breathing through an aqualung. As M (who apparently feels the need to have both an office and reception aboard the sub as if people are going to just wander on in) is quick to explain, creating the elaborate ruse that Bond is dead will help prevent his enemies from coming after him as he goes about his mission. I guess we’ve already established that Bond’s cover gets blown as often as the rest of him is, so that makes sense. But if all you were going to show at the funeral was a wrapped-up body getting dumped in the ocean, why couldn’t it have just been a big bag of flour or something? Couldn’t you just have used a fake body and given Bond an elaborate disguise, like a moustache and glasses? No wonder tax rates in the UK are so high. Regardless of how preposterous it is that MI-6 would stage a highly public funeral to fake the death of a supposedly-secret agent, this quickly-forgotten gimmick is what the entire title of the movie hinges on. For the title, they could have either embraced the “faked death” theme, or they could have embraced the Japanese theme by calling it Super Fast Sean Bond Connery with Much Honor Time or You Only Set Up Us the Bomb Twice, so I think they made the right call.

"Her Majesty's government can wait. Can anyone here direct me to the nearest used panties vending machine?"

Bond is sent to Tokyo to contact MI-6’s contact, an expatriate named Henderson, who has been doing his own investigation into who might have been responsible for the mystery spacecraft and where their launch point is. And since the producers spent a lot of money to film on location in Japan, they’re going to milk the country for everything it’s worth. The initial meeting with Henderson’s representative, the supposedly-hot chick Aki (supposed actress Akiko Wakabayashi, who I just hope had the excuse of learning her lines phonetically) takes place at a sumo wrestling match. Later, we’ll see Japanese bath house prostitutes and ninjas. I guess that since Roger Moore wasn’t in the series yet, they stopped short of having Sailor Moon help defend Bond from Gamera.

"This was not what I had in mind."

Aki takes Bond to Henderson, who’s actually Blofeld. Or not. The actor, Charles Gray, wound up playing Bond’s arch-nemesis only two films later. I guess the fact that he’s on-screen for about 40 seconds before an assassin gets to him helped prevent people from remembering him too well. Bond chases the assassin on foot across Henderson’s estate, and it’s a good thing that the bad guy has gout or something, because it’s not much of a chase. Bond overpowers him, then puts on his heavy overcoat and surgical mask (???) to impersonate him back at his getaway car. The bad guys drive him to Osato Chemicals; man, I never would have thought that a chemical company in a spy movie could be up to something nefarious. Bond sneaks in, beats up a bad guy, and takes the opportunity to crack open a safe. How? Well, of course he went to meet Henderson with a safecracking kit in his pocket, silly. Carefully watch the scene where Bond hurries to crack the safe while a pair of guards wander on by and nearly discover him; if you can explain to me where they are in relation to him, I congratulate you on mastering four-dimensional physics. Opening the safe sounds an alarm, and Bond has only time to grab a few documents before rushing out. He’s shot at the whole way, but fortunately, Aki drives by to pick him up and drive him to safety. I’ll ignore the question of how she knew where he was, because I have bigger fish to fry. Or serve raw for $20 a plate, I should say.
"Don't get me wrong, Sean. You would make a fine Fu Manchu. I just don't believe you can slip into the role of a Japanese man the way I can."

Aki, the movie's designated driver, takes Bond to Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), the head of the Japanese secret service. He and Bond hit it off. Tanaka’s a fellow womanizer, and apparently Japan has such an incredible secret service budget that the man has his own private train system running below Tokyo, complete with hot babe engineers/geishas. What’s more, this guy is the head of the Japanese secret service, so he’s actually equivalent to M in rank. I guess that Japan’s such an awesome place that even administrators responsible for entire intelligence services can be playboys. No wonder all the pothead college guys love Japan so much.
"Now you see why they call me 'Tiger,' Mr. Bond."

While Tanaka starts analyzing the photo Bond stole, trying to figure out which coastline it shows, Bond goes right back to Osato Chemicals, masquerading as a businessman and meeting with the company’s owner, Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada), and his assistant, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor). They talk about, uh, nothing as far as I could gather. But Bond does manage to blow his cover, AGAIN, by bringing his Walther PPK with him, which Osato discovers by secretly filming him with X-rays. So once again, Bond gets shot at on his way out of Osato Chemicals, and once again, Aki drives up in her convertible and saves his Scottish ass. Hey Bond, how’s that faked death doing you? Keeping all the enemies off your back? No? Wow, thought that plan was foolproof. And fortunately, the Japanese secret service has extensive R&D funds for weapons you’d almost never ever need to use, so they have a big helicopter with a magnet to pick up the pursuing car full of bad guys and dump them in the ocean.

One thing the Japanese really do better than us: valet parking.

Wanting to learn more about the liquid oxygen (a key ingredient for rocket propulsion) that Osato has been importing, Bond heads to the company’s docks and gets IMMEDIATELY ambushed by bad guys. What is wrong with him? He might as well go everywhere in a spandex jumpsuit and a cape; it won’t hurt his ability to go around incognito. He’s captured and interrogated by Brandt, an interrogation that takes about a minute before it turns to sex. That didn’t take long. But the villainess either didn’t think Mr. Bond lived up to the hype, or she isn’t taking her job of getting information out of him very seriously, because she immediately tries to kill him by taking him high up in a light plane, trapping him with a spring-loaded tray table, dropping a grenade full of purple gas, and parachuting out while the plane goes down. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’d have read a lot more books if I had only 1960s movies to watch. Anyway, it’s a Northwest plane, so Bond’s able to break the tray table like balsa wood and land the plane sort-of safely.
If you hated all the shaky-cam close-up action scenes in Quantum of Solace, I've got just the movie for you.

The villainous transnational organization SPECTRE is behind all this nonsense, and its leader, Blofeld (Donald Pleasance, attempting no particular accent), is none too happy about his lackey, Mr. Osato, failing to kill Mr. Bond. He feeds Ms. Brandt to his piranha fish as a warning to Osato. I’ll bet Blofeld loses a lot of people to the piranha that he doesn’t mean to sacrifice, though. Just to get into his office, you have to cross a railing-free, two-foot wide bridge that goes right over the tank. I’d say that even if Blofeld hadn’t dropped the trap door and dunked her in, there was a good 33% chance she’d have slipped.
"Dammit, woman, where the hell are my pretzels and ginger ale?"

Back with the swinging Japanese super-agent, Bond sends for Q and “Little Nellie.” Little Nellie is a tiny, easy-to-assemble helicopter (must have gotten it at Ikea) that Bond has apparently used to some effect before, although not in any of the films. Before Bond goes off scouting out the island that Tanaka says appeared in the stolen documents, Q gives Bond a quick overview of the new features, since Bond already knows how to fly the damn thing: machine guns, rocket launchers, heat-seeking missiles, aerial mines (?), and rear-firing flamethrowers (???). Wait a minute, those aren’t new features, those are all the weapons on the helicopter. So I guess we’re to presume that Little Nellie went from unarmed reconnaissance craft to flying death in one single upgrade. In any event, Bond goes to scout out the island, wearing a helmet with a big camera lens on the front; I have no idea what the camera’s for except to cement this scene as the most humiliating of Sean Connery’s career. That’s right, First Knight’s Starfleet uniforms and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s scenes with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hulk be damned.
"Bond to base. Will need three more tickets to continue with ride, over."

Flying over the island, he initially finds nothing. But fortunately, the bad guys send four machine gun-firing helicopters after him; after all, we wouldn’t want Bond to actually have to think about the possibility that he’s found the right target. (Nor would we want to give the audience time to realize that all the work Bond did since recovering those documents was apparently pointless.) There’s four helicopters, so what do you want to bet that Bond gets to use each of his weapon systems exactly once? (The machine guns are useless, so they don’t count.) That’s what I like in my Bond movies. A hero who serves purely as a delivery system for the tech nerds’ overpowered weapons, a guy who is skilled enough to fly a helicopter and wear a dopey-looking helmet, but otherwise needs only press clearly-labeled buttons when enemy aircraft wander into his weapons’ sights. Even the flamethrower, something I think tends not to be equipped on aircraft too often, gets to kill a bad guy in a Crusader Rabbit-quality special effects shot.

"Avenge me, Jet Jaguar!"

Time grows short: a Russian space capsule has been captured by the mysterious spaceship, leading the Commies to think the Americans are actually behind it, and if the soon-to-be-launched American capsule is taken, the Americans promise to start war with Russia. Because while the Americans can accept losing one space capsule to the evil fake Russians, two is just crossing the line.
"You will be pleased to know, Master, that we have cornered the world market in cheezburgers."

Now that we’ve established that something’s definitely going on in the island, Tanaka prepares an operation to sneak himself, Bond, and an army of secret service ninjas into the island village’s population so that they can look for the bad guys’ base unnoticed. In addition to training as a ninja--”Hey, thanks guys, but my people have already trained me in combat, and our side kicked your side’s ASS in World War II.”--it’s absolutely essential that Bond blend in. So he gets a bit of makeup so that he looks Japanese (well, more like the typical Western actor playing Fun Manchu, but I guess it’s close enough if you squint). But in Tanaka’s perverse world, blending in will also require that Bond actually get married, for real, to a Japanese girl.
"Good! Now you are ready when Blofeld's men come at you with pointed sticks. Next, we prepare for when the escalate and deploy bananas."

OK, Mr. Tanaka. We need to have an intervention here. I know your operation isn’t terribly fiscally responsible or efficient. You keep a private subway system for your own personal use, and you spend money on outdated (throwing stars) or spectacularly impractical (magnet-hauling helicopters) weapons. And that’s okay; it’s not like North Korea was being run a whole lot better, and it’s not like Russia saw you as a big target at this point. You could afford to waste time and taxpayer money on useless crap. But now that you ACTUALLY need to do something in defense of world peace, you’ve decided that the mission hinges on Bond actually, REALLY getting married to one of your agents so that his cover is authentic. I think it’s time for you to step down, Mr. Tanaka, in favor of someone more qualified to lead the defense of Japan: Shigeru Miyamoto, Sephiroth, Ultraman, Jet Jaguar, Ken (any of them), Pikachu, that freak who eats all the hot dogs, and The Vapors are all more viable options. What’s more, while Bond’s doing his ninja training, he’s attacked by an enemy agent who’s infiltrated the camp. If Tanaka had half a brain cell left, he’d know this meant that the bad guys had infiltrated his operation enough that a marriage ceremony wasn’t going to fool them, but dammit, Operation: This Marriage is a Hollow Lie is going to proceed no matter what.
"So how long is it until you girls get back into bikinis and start washing my naughty bits again?"

With the big day approaching, Bond finally boinks Aki, but as they sleep, an assassin sneaks in and tries to drip poison down onto Bond. Aki rolls over onto him at the wrong time and winds up taking it for him and dying. This leaves the movie briefly, distressingly, without a babe. And Bond’s pissed about it; while his unseen fiancee is on her way to the wedding, Bond pouts like a little bitch because he thinks his real/fake wife is going to be ugly. Fortunately, she (Mie Hama) is not, and she’s got the ridiculous name, Kissy Suzuki, to prove it. Unfortunately, she’s a committed spy (pretty much the only one in Japan) and isn’t interested in Bond’s advances for the time being, just on stopping SPECTRE.
"Um, sir, isn't putting all our flat panel TVs so close to the launch pad going to void the warranty?"

Bond and Kissy discover that a lake in a dormant volcano is actually not a lake at all: it’s a retractable roof for an underground facility from which the evil rockets are being launched. Bond sneaks into the facility, and tries to board the craft disguised as an astronaut, but Blofeld notices him on a security camera and realizes that he’s holding his air conditioner incorrectly (Hey, I’m just reporting here). Taken captive, Bond asks Blofeld if he can have a smoke while he watches footage of the evil spaceship about to capture the American capsule on the monitors. (So which spaceship did they send up there to film their own evil spaceship from a side angle?) Blofeld hasn’t watched any of the previous Bond movies, apparently, so he doesn’t know that the cigarettes are actually mini-rocket launchers. Bond blasts a guard to create a distraction and opens the roof to allow Tanaka’s ninjas to pour in and wage a huge battle against the SPECTRE thugs. It certainly looks like the filmmakers spent a lot of money, by 1967 standards, on the fight inside the base. But from this scene, and its clone in The Spy Who Loved Me, all I can gather is that both the Japanese and SPECTRE should have just spent the money to get everyone a handful of grenades, because every single time they‘re thrown, the grenades wind up killing three enemies. Forget the throwing star and sword crap, and focus on just bombing the bejeezus out of everybody.
"Did you see that film? Mike Myers does a terrible impression of me." "I know. It's the same thing with me and that zero Darrell Hammond. I hate him almost as much as I hate Alex Trebek."

Fortunately, the evil spaceship has a built-in self-destruct device, so after Bond escapes Blofeld and kills a few more perfunctory henchmen, he reaches the control room again and blows the thing up before it can reach the American capsule. Blofeld was foresighted enough to also equip the base with a self-destruct mechanism as well, one that sets off a series of explosions from random areas of the base that clearly don’t contain any actual explosives. Both Blofeld and the surviving good guys flee the base in opposite directions as the whole place goes up, with the volcano apparently even going active and spewing lava. Not really sure how Blofeld managed to arrange that. Regardless, Japanese-ified James Bond and Kissy swim out to sea and climb into an inflatable life raft that appears out of nowhere just as Tanaka and the rest of the ninjas disappear into nowhere. They start to make out until, wouldn’t you know, the British sub pops up from right underneath their raft and M demands that Bond be debriefed immediately. Um, yeah, not the same way Kissy would have done it.

Ninjas: Even they have reserves.

If it sounds like this movie was a bit short on plot, then I communicated it poorly, because it actually has no plot whatsoever. Bond movies are usually high on style and short on substance, and I can accept that. But man, if it weren’t for all the travelogue stuff about how great Japan is, this whole film would just be a series of vignettes where Bond goes somewhere, gets immediately ambushed by bad guys, and gets bailed out by either a Japanese agent or a Q gadget. SPECTRE’s plot to have the Americans and Soviets destroy each other, then fill the superpower vaccuum, is pretty darn goofy. As pure camp, I guess You Only Live Twice is watchable, but be sure to remember this movie and Diamonds are Forever next time you bash the Roger Moore movies for being too silly.

"Dammit! My Russian doppleganger from the future is messing with my mojo!"

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be off to practice being more Japanese so that I can exponentially improve my greatness in all aspects of life. For great justice!

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