No. 6: Octopussy

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As regular readers will know, Octopussy is the first of two James Bond films released in 1983, with the second being the Warner Bros. produced Never Say Never Again released in October of ’83 (you can read more about that film and why it was made at the same time as Octopussy in my post on Never Say Never Again). Before Sean Connery made his triumphant return to the role, Octopussy saw Roger Moore, now in his mid-50s, pick up the mantle of James Bond once again. Unlike Connery later in the year, Moore’s Bond film had all the trappings of a classic Bond flick, all the little details that make it the comfortable and reliable franchise that we love: the delightful Desmond Llewelyn as Q, the phenomenal score from John Barry, and perhaps most importantly the budget to pull off some garish and extravagant action sequences and set pieces.

Octopussy opens with a typically absurd Bond action episode that features James destroying a Soviet military base in Cuba and flying away gallantly in a rocket power jet that emerges from a hidden chamber inside a horse trailer (complete with mock horse ass). As expected, a corny joke leads us into the opening title sequence, a staple of any real Bond film. In this particular case, we’re treated to a particularly putrid ballad written by Barry and oddly songwriting legend Tim Rice. The song, called “All Time High”, basically has nothing to do with the film and makes almost no references to danger or evil or any of the things we typically see trickle their way into Bond themes. Instead it works as kind of a stand-alone ballad that could have been the lead single on any number of forgettable pop albums in the early ’80s. Barry does incorporate the main theme of the song nicely into the score throughout the film and it seems to work better in that context but as a song, it falls pretty flat particularly in comparison to some of the other great Bond themes of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

I won’t take you through the enormously twisting plot that covers everything from a group of murderous circus performers to a Soviet plot to take over Western Europe but let’s just say that the majority of the film takes place in India and revolves around the theft and recovery of a Fabergé egg, a classic and typically swanky James Bond MacGuffin. The parties involved in competing for said egg include Bond, a renegade Russian general (Steven Berkoff), a middle Eastern prince named Kamal Kahn (Louis Jordan) and the film’s title character, a beautiful cult leader/circus performer/master thief named Octopussy (Maud Adams). Octopussy predictably becomes involved with James as a love interest and ends up being a much more suitable, believable and age-appropriate love interest than Kristina Wayborn’s Magda, whom Bond beds earlier in the film.

The hijinx surrounding the egg take us through a car chase through the streets of India, a game hunt (a la “The Most Dangerous Game”) through the jungles and through more than a couple of fight sequences set inside Indian palaces and we often forget why anyone is even bothering to attack Bond other than their status as “bad guys”. What appears to set everything into motion is an early scene that shows us a trope we see in almost every Bond movie ever made, dating back to the very first Bond film, Dr. No. It involves Bond sitting across from an obviously cheating Kamal Kahn and besting the villain at his own game, thereby turning the conflict between the two from a mere business rivalry into a personal one. We see an almost identical scene later in the year in Never Say Never Again that involves the two characters playing a high-tech video game but here the game is a simple backgammon tournament.

Louis Jordan doesn’t have a lot to work with in terms of clever dialogue but his over-the-top performance makes him an entertaining Bond villain and a recognizable face in a movie that has almost a dozen more characters than feels necessary. There are so many villains in particular that it’s easy to lose track. There’s Mischka and Grischka, the knife throwing circus performers we see at the beginning and end of the film. There’s the turban-wearing lead henchman who seems very fond of karate chopping people at unexpected moments. Then there’s a street urchin brought in later in the film who uses the very specialized (and very impractical) weapon that resembles a buzz saw crossed with a yo-yo. What’s most amusing about this weapon is the fact that it can only be used if you are at least one story above your intended victim, making open foyer’s a very dangerous place to hang out.

As a whole, the film doesn’t make a ton of sense and it’s largely just a thinly strung together group of scenes that could be interchangeable with similar scenes from any other Bond movie. That said, a lot of those scenes are pretty darn entertaining, particularly the final car chase scene in Germany as Bond speeds toward a ticking bomb and the spectacular final stunt sequence in which Bond hangs onto a plane as it takes off and flies over a mountain range. Yes, there are terrible, eye-rolling moments like Bond’s chase through the jungle in which he swings on a vine while an audio sample from the original Tarzan films plays on the soundtrack. But those moments are fewer and farther between than in a lot of other Bond films, including a lot of the Pierce Brosnan films which frankly were about as loaded with double entendres as the corniest of Roger Moore’s films.

The audience and critical response to the film were both largely positive. With a final tally of $67.8 million, Octopussy became, at the time, the second-most successful Bond release ever and critics, while divide, were largely in agreement that this was at least a passable and entertaining Bond film (click here to see Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert debate that point on At the Movies, review starts at 4:35). Over time, Octopussy has earned a reputation as one of the cheesier, cornier installments of the franchise but as is the case with almost all Bond films that had any measure of success at the box office, this is a movie that was able to correctly identify what its audience wanted and give it to them in large amounts. The Bond series is nothing if not populist.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Octopussy (with guest Lucas Pepke)

Next Up: We enter the Top Five with one of the most memorable blockbusters of the early ’80s, WarGames starring Matthew Broderick.