16 May 2011

BlogalongaBond- YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE Review

This is at least as funny as looks.
After the soggy escapades of Thunderball, this fifth outing for James Bond goes back to basics. This would be a good thing, if it weren't for the fact that it goes back to basics by lifting plot points out of From Russia With Love wholesale. And so You Only Live Twice is where the Connery era finally slumps into an unyielding formula.

As in From Russia With Love, we open with the sight of Bond being assassinated. Once again, he's not really dead, but this time, it's in order to restore Bond's effectiveness as a secret agent by faking his death and convincing his enemies that he's no longer a threat. This allows him to operate with the Japanese secret service as they investigate the inflammatory actions of SPECTRE that has led to a diplomatic crisis between America and Russia.

More than most of the James Bond films I've watched so far, You Only Live Twice is a film that is entirely of its time. It's infused with both the technological optimism of the 1960s, and the general anxiety that came out of the Cuban missile crisis. The film presents a battle bolstered by the progress of technology, and simultaneously made into a political minefield as SPECTRE makes efforts to escalate the space race into an outright conflict.

Without vivid memories of the subsequent instalments, I'm also going to guess that this is the last time the filmmakers could really get away with representing Great Britain as a superpower in the way they do this time around. With no signs of the nation's post-war decline in sight, the United Kingdom is portrayed as the rational mediator in a petulant feud between America and Russia, America being more prepared to push the button and go for all-out war than the UK was in From Russia With Love.

Also privileged on the political side of things is Japan, in which the film's interest is more than enough to match Thunderball's fervour for all things aquatic. It's Japanese intelligence agents who are Bond's main allies, but unknowingly, a rogue Japanese element serve as SPECTRE's clients, engineering the war between the rival superpowers for reasons that are only inferred. Largely though, it's more of a fascination with Japan's heritage and culture that plays out in the gorgeous aerial establishing shots and loving cinematography.

There's a less savoury part of privileging the rationality of the UK over Japan's division of loyalties within the narrative, and it naturally involves some cringeworthy and outdated racial attitudes. Bond's very first line in the film has him muse over why Chinese girls taste different to all other girls. What a charmer, eh? Although the quintessentially British 007 appears to take on the best part of Japanese values later on in the film, the best part as portrayed here is the men's values. But then all the women are under-developed in this one, even by the standards of the series so far.

That's quite enough political analysis for this review- it's a James Bond film, fer cryin' out loud. That does mean that there is nothing uniquely Roald Dahl in the Roald Dahl-penned screenplay, with the producers preaching the tried-and-tested formula as a guideline. Dahl had already written a Bond villain by that point, in the guise of Willy Wonka. In the elaborate death trap stakes, "accidentally" disposing of unspeakably bratty children on a tour of an eccentrically designed chocolate factory is second only to Blofeld's collapsing bridge over a pool of ravenous piranha.

Speaking of whom, You Only Live Twice is arguably best remembered for the moment in which the face of SPECTRE's Number One is finally revealed. Granted, it's Donald Pleasence's only outing in the role of Bond's arch-nemesis, who then regenerated in every single film thereafter, and he's only in it for about ten minutes overall. And for those ten minutes, there's no real banter between him and Connery- Bond just seems bored. Still, it's worth it for the stunning hero shot Pleasence gets as ninjas bust through the roof of his headquarters to wreck his shit. It's an expression that subtly screams "Ninjas. Damn!", which was nice, given how that was approximately how I reacted too.

The silliness of the Ninjacademy, which Bond attends for about a week before emerging as an apparently valmorphanised Japanese ninja, is just par for the course in this series by now. The film feels surprisingly padded out, with the entire turning Japanese sequence being eminently cuttable. This is mostly because it's stressed that ninjas are masters of stealth and subterfuge, and that's why Bond needs to learn their ways too. At right about the time we cut to Pleasence's great reaction shot, Bond and the ninja army have crashed into the complex with all the stealth of a drunk coming home from a night out.

You Only Live Twice is better than Thunderball, by the virtue of being more interesting and having some truly outstanding action sequences. But across the first five films alone, the basis for every joke in the Austin Powers series has already been entirely laid out. No matter how repetitive you think Mike Myers got by the time of Goldmember, the series was already repeating bits from its second film at this early point. It has an appreciable affection for all things Japanese and an inherently whistle-able title tune, but at this stage in the 007 marathon, I think some kind of change is needed...

#5- A valmorphanised "Japanese" Sean Connery looks awfully like a Vulcan Sean Connery. Live long and proshper!

For a full list of everyone's work on BlogalongaBond so far, click here.

The Mad Prophet Will Return, With On Her Majesty's Secret Service... in June.

1 comment:

Noyer said...

I am a bit more of a fan of the film then you are, but you are spot on in your criticisms of the film.

Luckily, the greatest Bond film of all time follows next :)