WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: Expert counterfeiter Kamal Khan arranges for a nuclear device to be smuggled onto a US army base in return for precious Soviet artifacts, exploiting his friendship with ‘Octopussy’, a circus owner and leader of glamorous bandits. But James Bond is on their tails in both India and Germany and his legendary charms and resourcefulness are put to full use as he attempts to prevent a full-scale war.
For those of you who weren’t there in 1983, here was the news: The Soviet Union are the enemy, itching for nuclear war; the tennis career of Vijay Amritraj is winding down; and, having already survived twelve highly-dangerous missions, secret agent James Bond is pretty much immortal. The question Octopussy begs, therefore, is not whether 007’s going to die, but how entertainingly does he live?
After an exciting, unrelated pre-credits sequence in which Bond (Roger Moore) dishes out more British punishment to some ersatz Argies and flies a mini-plane out of a horse’s bottom, he is plunged straight into another intrigue by the puzzling death of 009 who has turned up dead in Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg. At auction Bond swaps the fake with the real thing, bringing him to the attention of successful bidder Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and his lovely associate Magda (Kristina Wayborn). Accompanied by the ever-resourceful Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Indian operative Vijay (Vijay Amritraj), Bond allows Magda to retrieve the egg (though it costs her a groaning, as Shakespeare puts it) since it leads him to the location of Khan’s palace; and subsequently to the female-only hideaway of the mysterious Octopussy (Maud Adams), a smuggler who has diversified to hotels, shipping and circuses, following the standard expansionist pattern of entrepreneurs through the ages.
Though Octopussy immediately falls for James, her business plans remain unaffected as she travels to West Germany where her circus is due to perform at a US army base. What she doesn’t know is that at the behest of rogue Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) – the supplier of real jewellery to swap with Khan’s fakes – Khan has arranged for a small but deadly nuclear device to explode, thereby clearing Europe of nuclear weapons. Bond, having escaped from Khan’s palace and a deadly hunt to find him, follows the circus train and races against time as he tries to warn the base of impending catastrophe.
On the surface, then, Octopussy sounds like a standard adventure for the spy, with beautiful women, exotic locations and a villainous plot that is both relevant and tightly constructed: nuclear bomb goes off on US base in West Germany, all of Europe immediately does away with nuclear weapons, leaving Orlov free to march his tanks wherever he likes. I’m using ‘tightly constructed’ in the sense of ‘completely preposterous’, of course. Unfortunately for Bond 13, this sort of woolly thinking invades the entire film, which (possibly due to Moore’s advancing years or his ever more casual approach to playing Bond) plays up its camper elements to the full. For example, the introduction of Amritraj is entirely mishandled, using a tennis racket to fend off thugs (complete with ridiculous sound effects) and following it up with a naff one-liner that emphasises the fact that he’s no actor.
Then there’s the altogether tiresome hunting sequence in which Bond instructs a tiger to sit, tells a snake to ‘hiss off’ and ends up in a river with a wine gum stuck to his chest (it’s supposed to be a leech). Or the plastic crocodile submarine Bond uses to get to Octopussy’s camper than camp lady island, which properly belongs to a Carry On film or Gene Roddenberry fantasy (actually, Bond is more lecherous than usual in Octopussy – maybe it’s the title). Or the daft acrobatics-led invasion on Kamal’s palace which descends into a battle of the sexes, topped off by Bond and Q arriving in a stupid hot air balloon in a cumbersome, illogical and ill-judged nod to The Spy Who Loved Me. Or the whole circus theme (I hate circuses!) which not only has Bond making the unlikeliest of escapes from – I kid you not – a gorilla outfit, but also dressing and making up as a clown to get into the circus and defuse the bomb. Sadly, the joke is really on Bond, whose super-suave presence Moore reduces to a lumbering parody; Roger doesn’t quite look as though he’d have trouble getting out of the bath in a hurry, but he wears his trousers high, lets his face do most of the acting and stunt doubles do all of his action.
Speaking of which, the production values of Octopussy are awful. While we should be grateful that there are real and occasionally impressive stunts, the stuntmen are poorly matched with the actors; then there are cheap aspects such as the obvious rubber spikes on a fakir’s bed of nails, or night turning into broad daylight in a matter of minutes during the climactic battle. Ordinarily, attention to these details compensates for the fact that machine gun bullets deflect around Bond whilst he’s always deadly with a single shot; here, the sloppiness of proceedings makes Bond look foolish. Around him, performers like Jourdan and Adams do a fairly good job of making the whole ridiculous enterprise seem real, though Octopussy herself could have been a lot stronger (as bandits go, she’s pretty weak) and their efforts are ruined by Berkoff’s histrionics as the mad Russian.
If you think Bond too often takes himself too seriously, Octopussy may just be the sort of light relief you’re looking for; but as someone who wants a serious spy to take on a credible venture when he’s not watching Austin Powers, for me this effort just about represents the nadir of the whole bunch. It’s alarming to think what did – or didn’t – go through Cubby Broccoli’s mind when he coaxed Moore, in his mid-fifties, to have one last go in A View to a Kill. For, sorry to be blunt about it, this is a bit of a horse’s arse.