Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gunning For A Better Film



THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all Bond reviews. 

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead), and I were in sharp disagreement over The Man With the Golden Gun.  I take it from the way he kept pushing MWGG to be the James Bond film for our Essentials List that it was his favorite.  After I watched it, I didn't think too much of it.  MWGG is hardly the worst Bond film I've seen, but it does have a host of problems that keep it from being among the best Bonds.  The Man With the Golden Gun does have its pluses, but not enough to add up to a good film.

Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the titled Man With the Golden Gun, is a master assassin who, as the title song tells us, 'charges a million a shot/an assassin that's second to none'.  Scaramanga had worked for the KGB but after being overworked and underpaid decided to go independent.  Now it seems that he has set his sights on 007 James Bond (Roger Moore), to make him, as the song again tells us, 'another poor victim/(that) has come to a glittering end'.  Unfortunately, no one knows what Scaramanga looks like: no photos or witnesses.  He has one distinguishing characteristic:  a third nipple.

Bond is encouraged to keep a low profile, but with a nod and a wink he is also encouraged to find Scaramanga before Scaramanga finds Bond.  He tracks down the bullet that killed another 00, which leads him to Macau.  Here, he hooks up (take that however you wish) with British Secret Service Agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Eckland).  Bond also finds Miss Anders (Maud Adams), Scaramanga's mistress who tells him where Scaramanga will be. 

Bond goes to the Bottoms Up Club but instead of getting Bond, Scaramanga gets Gibson (Gordon Everett), a scientist who had stolen a solex, a powerful bit of machinery that will provide virtually unlimited solar power.  The solex has now fallen into mysterious hands, the hands of Chinese businessman/criminal Hai Fat (Richard Loo), who had hired Scaramanga.  Bond tries to get to Hai Fat (a name to be played with), is captured, escapes, and somehow ends up with Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) from Live And Let Die, who just happens to be vacationing in Bangkok. 

What ARE the odds? 

Scaramanga, along with his henchman Nick Nack (Herv√© Villechaize) escapes in their flying car (yes, their flying car), with the inept Miss Goodnight in the trunk/boot.  Bond now goes to her rescue as well as to recover the solex.  This pleases Scaramanga since the killing of Bond will be his greatest kill (not having been satisfied with killing off Miss Anders before she got the solex for Bond).  Thus, we now must have the epic duel between 007 and The Man With The Golden Gun.

Honestly, Fidel (wherever you are), what DID you see in The Man With the Golden Gun that made you WANT to make this an Essential?  MWGG isn't the worst Bond film made, but we do have one or two issues with it that make it one of the oddest in the canon. 

Let's start with the title song (always a hallmark of the Bond films save for Dr. No and On Her Majesty's Secret Service which had none).  Instrumentally, John Barry's music (both the song and the overall score) was quite good: his ability to make the melody fit both a "Wild West" and "Prohibition gangster" motif worked.  Don Black's lyrics, however, as some of the most inane of any Bond song.

"Love is required/whenever he's hired/it comes just before the kill".  That doesn't make any sense.  WHY is "love required"?  Does that mean someone like Hai Fat has to go to bed with Scaramanga before he takes the job? It might be required when JAMES BOND is hired...he'll sleep with just about anyone.  However, since you're referring to the actual 'man with the golden gun'...

Even worse is the bridge: "His eye may be on you or me/Will he bang?/We shall see", Scottish pop singer Lulu coos almost erotically.  I do have to give credit to Lulu for adding great emphasis on the word 'bang', selling all its sexual connotations to the Nth power, but I could never shake the sense that her rendition was rather overblown and excessive, as if she were trying to do a bad Shirley Bassey imitation.  The title song is good when it comes to the music, bad when it comes to the lyrics.

Furthermore, the performances almost all around are some of the weakest and most ridiculous the franchise has seen.  Brit Eckland's Mary Goodnight has to be Bond's most inept sidekick, and one wonders WHY she exactly is there in the first place, except to look good in a bikini (which she does).  Maud Adams (I'm going to get a bit ahead of things, but she will make history as the only woman to have been a Bond Girl twice) doesn't acquit herself very well as the conflicted Miss Anders.  In her defense, she doesn't have much to do or a particularly strong character to play, so I'm willing to cut her a little slack.

I won't cut any slack to having James as Sheriff Pepper back.  It might have been amusing to have had him back as a quick cameo, but just like when Bruce Campbell received screen credit in Spider-Man 3 signaled that the film was going to be awful, having James receive screen credit signaled that screenwriters Richard Maibaum and especially Tom Mankiewicz had grown too fond of the character.  He added nothing except for hillbilly hijinks (and signaled that perhaps Pepper was a bigot--he kept referring to the native Thais as 'brown pointy-heads', which is an odd description no matter how you cut it).  His character was totally unnecessary.

Also unnecessary was a scene in the karate school where Bond basically sat there watching a couple of fights before he took to a match (which was over very quickly).  Even worse, when people come to rescue him, he doesn't actually do much: it was a couple of high school girls who literally fight the battles for him!  I did think there could have been a less elaborate way to try to kill off Bond.  I also thought that, just like in Live And Let Die was a way to cash in the blaxploitation craze, The Man With the Golden Gun might have tried to get in on the kung-fu/martial arts films then coming to the forefront. 

Villachaize has to be one of the dumbest if not silliest henchmen in the entire Bond canon.  At first it might appear that his height (3 11") might have something to do with it (having Bond defeat him by putting him in a suitcase does not help matters).  However, as I thought of it Villachaize's small frame shouldn't have stopped Nick Nack being dangerous.  I imagined if Peter Dinklage (4' 5") in the role, and I think the Game of Thrones star could be quite menacing.  Therefore, height should not have been a hindrance.  It might have been that Nick Nack had too much fun playing the slightly comic sidekick, which made it hard to take things seriously.

Going to a slightly different subject, MWGG has a problem in terms of structure.  In the pre-title song scene, we see how Scaramanga tests his assassin skills by putting his potential victims in a funhouse-type setting.  That's all well and good, but when the climatic battle between Bond and Scaramanga comes around, whatever tension there might have been by putting Bond in such a weird setting is gone because we've seen it all before.  Moreover, despite what I imagine was a rather lavish budget, the funhouse was a little on the cheap side.

Even worse, more time is wasted when Anders returns to tell Bond a few secrets, The Man With the Golden Gun goes from adventure story to bedroom farce as Bond has to hide Miss Goodnight in the closet so that he can get a bit of Anders' attention.  Maybe this was director Guy Hamilton's way of putting in some comedy, but I found it all more time-consuming than amusing.

Returning to the performances, there are two that worked much better than most.  Moore in his second turn as 007 is starting to show that he isn't all charm as the secret agent.  He can be quite brutal when he needs to be (in particular with Miss Anders, whacking her about in a way that today seems almost brutal).  However, Bond still has a slight tendency to be a bit dim when dealing with the villains (apparently unaware that the master assassin wouldn't possibly be setting up when going to the Bottoms Up Club for example).  However, Moore is starting to make a good Bond, perhaps not as great as Connery, but a wild step up from George Lazenby.

The best performance is from Christopher Lee, who never plays the situations for laughs (even when they lend themselves to them, such as when Scaramanga's car literally turns into a plane).  He always plays it straight, making Scaramanga one of the series' more chilling villains.  Unlike other Bond villains, he isn't trying to take over the world.  Instead, he is merely a hired gun, one who takes pride in his work, and one who is dangerous in his cool demeanor and lack of compassion.  It's unfortunate that MWGG doesn't really know what to do with Scaramanga; his end is actually rather anti-climatic and weak.

What positives MWGG does have is an impressive car chase scene in Bangkok, culminating in a wild jump over a broken bridge that is still quite amazing to see.  Whether it was done with models or special effects or a stunt performed on camera, it is still worth seeing (the music, sadly, does slightly diminish the effect, but is still spectacular). 

This entry in the Bond franchise is by far the weakest so far.  Too much useless comedy (the bedroom farce between Goodnight and Anders, all of Sheriff Pepper, Nick Nack, a bathing beauty named Chew Mee--a bit too much even for 007), some pretty bad acting from the cast save Moore and Lee, and a thin plot pushes the film down.  Granted, I did laugh at one line: when Mrs. Pepper tells her husband she wants to buy some cute elephant figures, Sheriff Pepper tells her, "Elephants?!  We're Democrats, Maybelle". 

The Man With the Golden Gun is riddled with too much bad to be good.

Next James Bond Film: The Spy Who Loved Me

DECISION: C-

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