This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
After the comedown of For Your Eyes Only, the James Bond series is back on a high. Octopussy is a good-natured, occasionally thrilling escapade that boasts an impressive roster of villains, a finely developed heroine, unusually meaty roles for series stalwarts General Gogol and Q, a nuclear bomb and a gloriously stupid title. Yes, Roger Moore has aged to the point where counting the wrinkles is a legitimate distraction. And many valid criticisms can be levelled about plot and credibility. But the good outweighs, or certainly overwhelms, the bad in Octopussy.
Still, he really should have quit after this one.
The Villain: Kamal Khan got his break by winning the talent competition Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Singing Superstar – and that was just the beginning. 2012 hit Ishk Sufiana launched Khan into stardom and he bagged Best Playback Singer (Male) at the 2014 PTC Punjabi Film Awards. Khan then – hold on, that’s 26-year-old Bollywood singer Kamal Khan. We want the exiled Afghan prince/jewellery smuggler Kamal Khan. The sleek, slightly lightweight villain helping the utterly insane Soviet General Orlov to detonate a nuclear bomb on US airspace. Good with henchman and quips.
Bad with honesty and aeroplanes. That Kamal Khan!
The Girl: Can’t really pull the same trick with Octopussy. Nobody else in the history of mankind has been called Octopussy. Probably because nobody could emulate this Octopussy. She’s a sharp, tough survivor who lives on a women-only private island and runs a circus to cover her smuggling operation. What do you do? The fourth strong heroine in as many films, Octopussy takes the crown by virtue of interest and being able to act (Sorry, Anya).
Enjoy her while you can. Stacy Sutton is next.
It’s a funny old film, Octopussy, one used as evidence by both Moore’s prosecution and his defense. Haters cite the befuddled plot, an older Moore, some truly silly moments (Tarzan yell, anyone?), a Racist’s Guide to India, and the painfully metaphorical sight of a 56 year-old clown trying to disarm a nuclear bomb (rivalled only by Jaws’ Moonraker plunge into a circus tent on the “Spot the Unintentional Subtext” scale.)
Emphasis on the final.
The opening is inoffensive and unmemorable. I read somewhere that Octopussy has the only pre-credits sequence in a 007 adventure that doesn’t relate whatsoever to the subsequent film. That arguably overlooks For Your Eyes Only and Goldfinger, although the former certainly ties into the series itself. So Octopussy’s is one of only two completely autonomous pre-credit sequences. Tell that to someone at a party. Then comment on how quickly Bond’s plane runs short of fuel, despite no bullet hitting the engine. Clearly the fool forgot to fill up the tank pre-mission.
Well, he is getting on a bit, right?
Really the film should open with the identical twin knife-throwers murdering the doomed clown for his egg (new favourite sentence of these retrospectives! That’ll take some beating, too). The hunt is tense, creepy and thrillingly discombobulating. No Bond, no explanation – just a dark forest, two silent killers, a very unusual prey, all played out in virtual silence until John Barry starts doing his thing. Even then, no dialogue intrudes. Noise is minimal and efficient: the popped balloon, the thud of knife in wood, the strangled last cry of the clown.
What a brilliantly original pre-credits it would have made. Too original, I fear: after the first film and a half, the Moore-era rarely ventured out of its comfort zone. And I swear I wrote that sentence before realizing neither Live And Let Die nor The Man With The Golden Gun feature Bond in their pre-credits. And both are great.
I suspect were Octopussy the first Moore film, the clown chase would indeed have opened. Yet by Entry Number 6, originality has given way to routine. Give the people what they know: a breezy, meaningless action sequence with Roger front and centre.
Octopussy really should be Moore’s swansong. This remains valid even if you ignore the age-issue and the fact that A View To A Kill is a stinker. Although not the all-time high Rita Coolidge would have you believe, Octopussy is a far worthier last mission than its desperately tired successor. Indeed for the purposes of this article let’s pretend Octopussy was the final Moore. Just to illustrate its suitability.
We kick off with a KGB showdown between Generals Gogol and Orlov. One wants to send tanks rolling into Europe, the other is sane. A subtle dissection of Soviet foreign policy in the late 20th century this is not. At one point the line “the West is decadent and divided!” is screamed without the slightest hint of irony. In my very first retrospective I praised Joseph Wiseman’s performance as Dr. No for containing not one slice of ham. Playing the ker-razy General Orlov, renowned thespian Stephen Berkoff basically opens a butcher’s shop.
He strides around bellowing at everybody in a thick Russian accent like a manic depressive whose fourth mug of coffee got inadvertently spiked with cocaine. Quite impressive really. In a film called Octopussy, in which Roger Moore literally dresses up as a clown, Berkoff is comfortably the most bizarre component.
Within ten seconds of Orlov gesticulating at a giant fluorescent map, the restraint of For Your Eyes Only is a distant memory.
Orlov is only one of an impressive array of villains, the best since Live And Let Die. Mischa and Grischa, the twin knife-throwers, add great novelty value and, sensibly, aren’t once played for laughs. Tall and bearded, Kamal’s bodyguard Gobinda is a visually striking henchman but ultimately proves little more than a Sikh version of Hans. As always, a little more dialogue would have gone a long way. Alas, the writers seem convinced that mute is might.
This leaves us with Kamal Khan. Truth be told Kamal isn’t up there with the greats but he’s an efficient enough antagonist, nicely underplayed by French actor Louis Jourdan. Echoes of previous villains can be detected. Like Kristatos, Kamal is more duplicitous than downright evil; while his well-modulated putdowns – “you have, a nasty habit of surviving” – and unshakeable sangfroid recall Hugo Drax. Like his bodyguard, Kamal does a wonderful glower.
Bond and Kamal first meet over the gambling table. Backgammon takes the traditional role of cards as the game Bond wins. While variety should be applauded, this isn’t a particularly successful scene. Enjoyable, but utterly illogical.
The problem is Kamal’s cheating: he uses a pair of loaded dice to continually roll double six. Continuous double sixes aren’t particularly useful in backgammon. Continuous double sixes are very useful in identifying loaded dice. Now I believe in benefit of doubt as much as anybody but if my opponent kept throwing ‘12’ every single time then I might just pipe up.
Bond requiring double six to win the game, immediately after sitting down, is a contrivance too far. Still, “spend the money quickly, Mr. Bond” is a fantastic line. First spoken in the novel Moonraker after a mammoth game of bridge.
The Tuk Tuk chase is highly enjoyable and sprinkled with some genuinely funny lines. “Vijay, we have company…” warns Bond as minions approach. “No problem,” grins Vijay, “this is a company car.” Golden. Although I especially like Bond’s “thank God for hard currency!” after a wad of his backgammon winnings deflect an otherwise fatal blade. After the moon buggy and double-decker bus, the Tuk Tuk is the latest of the alternative ground vehicles to the humdrum old supercar.
Funny the series still refused to stick Bond on a motorbike.
Vijay – if you don’t know/can’t remember – is Bond’s cheerful Indian sidekick, ill-fated alas. Vijay is comfortably the most meta character of the whole series. He identifies himself by tootling Monty Norman while charming a snake, a very nice touch in my opinion (although doubtless some hate it).
The actor is professional tennis player Vijay Amritraj and, as well as keeping his name, Vijay’s tennis prowess is repeatedly alluded to (memorably he wields a tennis racket during the Tuk Tuk chase). Stunt casting is usually frowned upon but Vijay’s really works. Partly because the character leads the casting (i.e. doesn’t feel crowbarred in), partly due to the sly and witty in-jokes, but primarily because Amritraj serves up a warm and likeable performance, one that outshines many of his co-stars. He doesn’t just charm the snake.
Let’s adapt the Bechdel Test for stunt casting. Call it the Vijay Test. Next time a non-actor celebrity appears in a film, ask yourself: would this performance make sense if I didn’t know who this person was? If yes, then like Vinnie Jones in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels the Vijay test has been passed. If no, then we’ve entered Lance Armstrong in Dodgeball territory (although the Armstrong cameo is far funnier now than in 2004). I had no idea Amritraj played tennis when I first watched Octopussy. And it didn’t matter one bit.
Early I wrote the phrase “A Racist’s Guide to India” to summarise the film’s portrayal of its primary location. Now I should mention that phrase was used in jest. The case against Octopussy isn’t hard to build; but the ‘WIABF’ (‘well, it’s a Bond film’) defense shouldn’t be discounted. Sure, its vision of India makes Slumdog Millionaire look like Ken Loach flick but, well, it’s a Bond – what else do you expect?
No cliché is left unmolested. The streets swell with snake charmers, sword swallowers, fire eaters, fakirs on nail beds, and multi-coloured saris bursting out. Bond makes a quip about curry and everyone winces.
Taj Mahal money shot? Naturally. Hang on, Bond travels to Udaipur – isn’t the Taj Mahal in Agra, approximately 400 miles away? Shut up. Look how beautiful and mysterious everything is. Both Kamal and Octopussy live in actual palaces! Pover-what now?
The casting is a slight sore point. In Live And Let Die, problematic undertones aside, at least major roles were played by black actors. Kamal is a supposedly Afghan prince played by a Frenchman. Vijay is the largest Indian role – and he’s a tennis star, known for his appearances at Wimbledon. Octopussy herself was intended to be Indian but the producers got jittery and cast a Swede.
Ironically for the only Bond girl to name a film, Octopussy has perhaps the least screen time of any Moore heroine. No matter. She is the dominant character, just like Dr. No and Goldfinger. We’ve had bad girls, and ultimately-good girls in league with the baddies, but Octopussy is the first female to run the whole show. For much of the film she holds power over Bond and Kamal. Eventually she must be rescued but, like Anya, this is a narrative necessity (to spark the final aeroplane battle), not an excuse for Bond to flex his hero-muscles or a result of her own incompetence.
Well, slightly her own incompetence. But this is Bond: nobody ever shoots their gun!
Octopussy is a fine heroine but was villainy her true calling? The film allows us to flirt with the idea. Her initially unseen face, exotic pet and floating palace all point in the direction of Wrong ‘Un. But was a female mastermind a step too far? Apparently so. Imagine if Octopussy bore a grudge, not gratitude, over Bond’s treatment of Papa Octopus. And after the inevitable naked wrestling she went full Fiona Volpe on us. Now that really would have broken new ground – and pretty fertile ground too.
It would be unfair to say the film bottled Evil Octopussy, because I doubt the thought ever occurred to anyone. And Good Octopussy has a solid case for being the best Moore girl – it’s probably a coin toss between her and Anya, and Maud Adams out-acts Barbara Bach. But the film in which Octopussy is bad would be more interesting than the existing version.
Briefly: while Maud Adams is fantastic, casting her in a second major role is a little odd. If you recently watched The Man With The Golden Gun her reveal provokes the initial thought, “oh my God, Andrea lived.” Adams isn’t a unique case. Charles Grey played Henderson then Blofeld, Joe Don Baker went from Whitaker to Jack Wade. Yet both actors changed their appearance considerably, and their “minor” parts were quite minor and disparate to their baddies. Andrea was a major character, not hugely dissimilar to Octopussy, and Adams looks exactly the same in both roles. Put it this way: if Gemma Arterton turns up as the primary Bond girl in a couple of years a few eyebrows might be raised.
Deep into the film the Faberge egg turns into a nuclear bomb. Not literally but that’s certainly how it felt. The egg goes from being vitally important to utterly irrelevant and the bomb appears instead. Where from? Um, not entirely sure.
I still can’t quite explain how the plot fits together, egg and all. Make that eggs, because there’s two, one fake one real. No, I couldn’t keep track of which was which. I think the real egg is stolen and smuggled, the fake egg replaces it, and neither egg relates directly to Kamal and Orlov’s other hobby of triggering World War Three.
Obviously Google would explain all but it would be disingenuous to pretend I understood the plot of Octopussy in one viewing. Let’s be generous and say a certain coherency is sacrificed on the altar of fun. Well, you can’t make an omelette without….
Onto West Germany. The train fight is really good. Yes, better than Skyfall’s because we know the combatants and what’s at stake. I love that Gobinda fights with a scimitar. Because of course he does. Also note how distinctive Gobinda and Twin 1 are, both as characters and visually. A far cry from the anonymous henchmen/assassins Craig endlessly battles. Octopussy teaches few lessons but one lingers: it’s very easy to balance atop a speeding train.
It would be exquisite if the Moore era climaxed in a circus. What a wonderfully appropriate way to go, and I mean that in the very best sense: the quintessential place for fun and silliness and bombast, high-wire stunts and acrobatics. Somewhere for the whole family – and even the haters might secretly quite enjoy themselves. How very Rog.
Admittedly, dressing the guy as a clown might be slight overkill. Everybody knows Moore is the Bozo Bond, the “is everybody having a good time?” merchant peddling froth and frivolity instead of Sean’s steel or Pierce’s flashy watches. You don’t need to literally stick on a red nose to drive home the point.
And yet disarming a nuke in a clown suit is frequently held against Moore (yes, I’ve made a couple of snarky references). But really this should be Article 1 in his favor. Literally, no other Bond could pull that off (luxuriate, for a moment, in the thought of Craig).
“Only Roger,” the dissenters sigh. “Yes!” cry the faithful. “Only Roger! Only Roger Moore could disarm a nuclear bomb dressed as a clown and somehow make people buy into it!” Whatever your opinion on the man and the tenure, you have to salute the gumption.
Moore also submits a very good performance, arguably his strongest. Easy to treat him as a joke but the man really can act. Sometimes through eyebrows alone.
And I can’t be the first person to marvel at the neatness of Bond’s make-up. Flawless. Seconds ticking down to nuclear catastrophe and Bond spends a good portion of this time applying face paint. Priorities, 007. We can only fantasise the tense exchange between M and General Gogol as the clock counts to Doomsday. “A minute left!! Where’s Bond?? He’s our only hope!!”
Circus trailer. A costumed Bond stares into a mirror, carefully tracing mascara around his eyes. His thoughts in voiceover: “Easy James. Easy does it. Almost there…oh nuts, smudged it! Where are the wet wipes?”
Octopussy saves the day after the American General inexplicably fails to believe Bond is a secret agent (perhaps that clown outfit wasn’t such a great idea). I like how disaster is averted at literally the last second. Moore’s ticking clocks run longer and tighter than Connery’s.
The final return to India feels a little tacked on. A climatic battle for the sake of a climactic battle. The female Flying Circus lends a slight novelty but the complete lack of build-up – You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker all worked for their battles – removes any sting. Although the sight of Q piloting a hot air balloon into the fray makes the whole shebang worthwhile. Go, Desmond, go!
And Desmond isn’t the only one who went. After six outings Roger Moore smartly decided to hang up the holster on a relative high. An enjoyable, symbolically satisfying romp that kept utterly true to its much loved star. A little silly, a little incoherent, but an amiable, witty adventure capable of great moments and all the requisite thrills and spills. Like Moore, Octopussy delivers. Which is why the film is a winner and such an appropriate – oh wait, there’s another one…
Best Bit: Q in that hot air balloon on sentimental grounds. The train fight should probably take it.
Worst Bit: Bond’s Tarzan yell while swinging from a vine. Both cringe and tactically stupid. Now they know your position. Nice work, James.
Final Thought: How does Bond escape from the gorilla costume before Gobinda scimitars it? One second he’s encased in it, the next he’s escaping through the roof. And why does he keep dressing up?
Bonus Final Thought: The other Kamal Khan: