Friday, July 3, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Live and Let Die (1973)

The first Bond movie Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, the film podcast I'm part of, defended was 1973's Live and Let Die, also known as James Bond's foray into blaxploitation. Here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

After three MI-6 agents "on loan" to the United States are killed in 24 hours in various interesting ways (a high-pitched noise to the ear causing some kind of seizure, a stabbing, and even a voodoo human sacrifice), James Bond is assigned to investigate. After hijinks in New York City, he travels to the Caribbean island of San Monique, where he encounters two women, CIA agent Rosie Carver and the mysterious Solitaire. More hijinks--and voodoo--ensue.

The Good

There's not really a whole lot that's good here (at least in comparison to the bad stuff), but I'll try...

*The film is notable for its abandoning of the ridiculousness of earlier Bond films to focus on more mundane sorts of evils, in this case drug trafficking. I'll give it points for trying to take the franchise in a new direction, although the blaxploitation stuff is incredibly dated.

*I liked the "use a car side mirror as a means of assassination" when Bond first comes to New York. Pretty clever.

*Solitaire is referred to as being involved in "Obeah," which is a sort of Caribbean sorcery that isn't as well-known as stuff like voodoo. Props for research.

*Geoffrey Holder is clearly having fun as Baron Samedi, even though he's not in the movie a whole lot.

*I now know where some of the Bond tropes the first Austin Powers film mocks, like the "easily escapable and overly elaborate exotic death" and the "henchman comes back to interrupt an amorous moment" come from. I hadn't seen any of the pre-Pierce Brosnan Bond films in their entirety before this, so now I'm more educated.

*The goofy blaxploitation stuff is actually pretty funny. And I think they satirize it a bit by depicting Rosie's Afro actually being fake.

*There's a Continuity Nod when Bond is told that a "Mrs. Bond" is waiting for him in San Monique. From Bond's facial expression and delayed reaction, it seems he remembers Tracy and the events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

*However racist people might accuse the film of being due to its jive-turkey dialogue and what-not, Sheriff J.W. Pepper's depiction matches up with how an actual racist cop would behave. He pulls over one of the bad guys not just because he was speeding but because he was a black guy driving a nice car and therefore must have stolen it. TVTropes lists him as a Badass Bystander and credits him with subduing a very dangerous henchman (all technically true), but he wasn't aware of that at the time.

*The death of the second MI-6 agent was pretty cool. He's watching a New Orleans funeral parade and asks a bystander whose funeral it is. The man says, "Yours" and things go poorly from there. I'm not overly familiar with New Orleans jazz funerals, so that's actually kind of cool.

*Bond's watch having a super-magnet in it is discussed from the very beginning and actually put to some amusing use (involving a woman he's "entertaining" at the time) before it becomes important. Writers often forget the importance of Chekhov's Gun, but that didn't happen. This time.

*The film actually tries to develop the henchman Tee-Hee as a character. When Bond is at his mercy, he waxes poetically about the differences between alligators and crocodiles and their various physical attributes. He actually has a hobby and a passion rather than just being "Thug #1."

The Bad

*The movie was at least half an hour too long. It was actually boring. They somehow took probably one of the longest boat chase sequences in a movie--one that involved multiple jumps over bayou-spanning roads, boat-jackings of people who lived alongside the river, an invasion of a wedding, and more--and made it dull. The boat chase scene could have been either an awesome action sequence or a Blues Brothers-style action-comedy conga line of destruction and it was dull.

*The death of the first MI-6 by murder-earpiece was ridiculous-looking. Leaving aside whether that would actually work, his agony came off as more than a little over-the-top and even comedic.

*Solitaire is referred to as a practitioner of Obeah and in the podcast I referred to her as the world's whitest voodoo queen, but she seems more like a tarot card reader in the European mystical tradition rather than someone involved in any sort of Afro-Caribbean magic. Her clothing in a couple scenes looks like something from a Mardi Gras festival. Tarot and voodoo/santeria/whatever aren't the same things.

*And while we're at it, the villain's death is pretty goofy, although I could imagine that being intentional. Especially when Bond then drops one of his one-liners.

*Why are M and Moneypenny just showing up at James Bond's house like that? If they've got a mission for him, can't they just call him on the phone? I imagine this is mostly for the "how fast can Bond's current lover hide" comedy, but it was just kind of stupid.

*If you're sensitive to racism/racial humor, this movie might not be for you. This isn't a parody like Black Dynamite, but a whole lot of use of the word "honky," pretty much everybody in Harlem being in on a criminal scheme, soul-food restaurants being used as fronts for dealing heroin, gigantic Afros, etc. Some of it was pretty funny, but some of it was neutral or kind of dumb. And the portrayal of the white Louisianans is pretty ridiculous and stereotypical too. As someone in the podcast crew pointed out, this movie [can be construed as] racist against everybody.

*And Rosie Carver, the first of the film's two major Bond girls (there's a third but she doesn't really have much characterization) is probably the most incompetent CIA agent ever. Even when she seems to manage something impressive, she bungles it. Granted, it might be deliberate on her part (not going into detail for reasons of spoilers), but she just comes off as useless.

*The song "Live and Let Die" is used in the soundtrack or even outright performed by a musician multiple times in the film, while actual James Bond-associated music (like, you know, the actual theme song) is grossly underused.

*Bond at one point frees himself and Solitaire from being tied up using a rotary-saw device on his watch. The magnet on the watch was stated to be there from the very beginning, but this came out of nowhere. Chekhov's Gun, people!

*The opium poppies look like giant fields of cabbage. Wouldn't poppies, you know, have flowers?

*When reacting to a character's romantic treachery, a villain rants about how he could have provided all the love the other character could have wanted. That he has romantic feelings for this other character is never even hinted at before, and he didn't really come off as betrayed and heartbroken. If he had, that would have been an improvement on his character--he's not just a greedy criminal.

The Verdict

Just don't bother. 5.5 out of 10.

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