Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Frank Review of "Live and Let Die" (1973)

The Short Version? Never Bet on Black against Bond.
What Is It? James Bond Action.
Who Is In It? The Saint, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Lt. Al Giardello
Should I See It? No.

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first James Bond novel was in 2003. I don't recall if there was much celebration of that fact, aside from the last Brosnan film being released the previous year. On the other hand, October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first screen adaptation, and a couple of the cable movie channels have devoted themselves largely to running the twenty-odd films. I grew up with the Connery Bonds airing as the Sunday night movie on ABC and the Moore ones at the cineplex. By the late '80s, when TBS was running regular marathons of the flicks as part of their exploitation of the MGM library, I was tuning out. While the Bond films may have been the action extravaganzas of their time, they had gotten rather long in the tooth, and a chilly response to Timothy Dalton didn't help. While I've seen most of the films over the years, I'd be lying if I said I was truly a fan of the material from where my head's at in the year 2012. Still, there are so many Bond flicks I've either never seen or not for decades, I figure this is the year to sit down and analyze what I feel has or has not worked for the franchise in retrospect.

An obvious starting point for criticizing the Bond franchise is Live and Let Die. There's a line in Goldeneye about 007 being a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur," but this one adds in racism, ageism, and general misanthropy for good measure. It was the first Roger Moore film, and seemed to me the first to nakedly chase the zeitgeist. Through the injection of independent blaxploitation tropes in the wake of their massive success (especially compared to the ailing studio system,) Live was very much of its time, and quite successful. It's only when viewed through the lens of history that the sticky awfulness of the flick can be truly absorbed through the skin like a toxic compound.

Moore lacks the physicality of Connery, so it's hard to believe he could win a fight against a single one of his adversaries. He's too pretty and tan to put forth the effort, and perhaps weakens his foes through an endless barrage of puns. His overbearing smugness carries the weight of the whole of patriarchal society as he condescends to women, Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon, and especially all them there darkies working out of their secret base in the Fillet of Soul restaurant (I shit you not.) What do you expect from denizens of a post-apocalyptic vision of Harlem?

The movie starts by revealing that every single black person who isn't in the C.I.A. (and at least one who is) are part of a multinational murderous negro criminal combine. Them coloreds got rhythm, whether they're dancing in a street parade after filling the casket in a funeral procession turned "Saints" march, or building up to human sacrifice in a hoo-doo island ritual. They've got no staying power though, as a honky with a revolver can take out a whole village of their lot. How about the evil priest whose machete fight with Bond lasts approximately two-and-one-quarter seconds? The rotund goon too lazy and lumbering to even put forth the effort to talk, and is clowned by his own boss? The same boss taken out like a expatriate from Toontown? Only Tee Hee (yes, Tee Hee) puts up any real fight, but he spent more time playing with pieces of chicken (blessedly unfried) than actively attempting to kill Bond. I'm a bit disappointed that Bond never managed to get even with the 1,500 other random blacks who assassinated his fellow agents, burned him, or simply broke the code against no snitches.

Yaphet Kotto is too good of an actor for his part as the movie's big bad. Aside from the high tech tribalism, Kananga is only a glorified drug pusher surrounded by sadistic but ineffectual goons. How many times can Bond get captured, only to escape a simplistic death trap with a bare minimum of guile, thanks to moronic half-assed henchmen? Despite this, Kotto seems truly pained by the betrayal of his lovely fortune teller Solitaire, while Julius Harris, Geoffrey Holder and more rise above dreadful material on pure charm.

White people do not escape the racism unscathed, with Clifton James as Sheriff Pepper offering a Southern drawl drawn out like it was tied to the back of a pick-up truck. His buffoonery was so epic that it left a legacy to be followed by hammy character actors looking to defame the entire South for years to come. The man is Ernest P. Worrell, Boss Hogg and Larry the Cable Guy all rolled into one. Jackie Gleason paid royalties, even though he was comparatively naturalistic as Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series.

Let's not neglect the womenfolk... or really, the "girls." Gloria Hendry as Rosie was perhaps the worst Bond Girl prior to Denise Richards' turn as Christmas Jones. At least Jones was a nuclear physicist, instead of a bumbling coward. She looks fantastic in a bikini, though. Jane Seymour may be one of the best looking Bond girls, and Solitaire has a nice hook as the virgin seer, but she also has all the personality of a young Queen Amidala.

The action sequences are cartoonish, yet somehow flat and plodding. They're like the long preamble of a joke whose punchline was easy enough to guess without all the winks and nudges. It's depressing how mundane the set pieces are, involving a worn out double-decked bus, shitty little fishing boats, and speeding way down yonder on the Chattahoochee.

"Live and Let Die" has one of the better Bond themes, but it is thoroughly abused here, from instrumental cues to a lousy karaoke rendition. The wannabe "soul" animated credit sequence is stiff and awash in "voodoo" imagery that mostly bypasses sex appeal for scary blackness. I'm happy that Sir Paul McCartney managed to hit a few out of the park in his post-Beatles career, but association with this flick does not help the song's appeal one bit. Overall, I'd say the world could do itself a solid and try to forget this one ever existed.

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