You know what happens when a film series has been so successful that they can literally through as much money as the want at it? You Only Live Twice, that’s what. By this point the Bond series has managed to get bigger with each film and somehow make more money each time. Think about modern film franchises and how many of them make maybe 3-4 films but by then the energy is gone and the ticket sales have started dropping. Thunderball was the highest grossing of all the Bonds which led Cubby Broccoli to throwing a gargantuan (for the day) $9 million into the production of You Only Live Twice. What comes out of it? Possibly the most action packed and spectacular Bond yet and also one of the largest film sets ever made. Also, Donald Pleasence. Click the link.
After a US space shuttle gets kidnapped mid orbit the US military obviously decide it must be the Soviet’s doing. Just like today something as trifling as the truth, that being that the craft that stole their shuttle came down over Japan, isn’t enough to get the US talking about war with a foreign country. When a Soviet space craft goes missing in a similar fashion it turns out they are just as prone to finger pointing as the US are. And so, after a brief bit of commentary on how silly the Cold War’s finger wagging had gotten, it’s down to the British to send their best man to Japan to investigate. Also he’s gonna bang a Japanese chick and one of the villains. Bond does that. Oh and The Rock’s Granddad shows up and puts Bond over in a fight.
So the story is getting into the space race stuff now, a spectre (badum-tish) that will haunt a few films later on in the series. In my opinion space is where Bond should probably never tread. Even Tintin struggled to get away with space stuff. Luckily Bond stays firmly on the ground for the majority of the film. No Moonraker shenanigans just yet then. That said the idea of a space craft that can gobble up smaller space craft is a little on the silly side. Just how much money does SPECTRE have? Obviously enough to launch that space craft from THE INSIDE OF A VOLCANO!!! Yeah. In what has top be one of the most over the top sets ever designed, and certainly Ken Adams masterpiece, arch nemesis to Bond, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) has decided to build his base of operations inside an inactive volcano. There’s a lake on top that’s actually fake and it pulls back to reveal the Volcano’s evil yet extravagant core. So this is where the Bond films go a little over the top. It’s best not to question just how any organisation manages to hollow out a volcano and build the entire internal structure and launch rockets from it without anyone on the island noticing. Just accept that it exists and you’ll be able to enjoy this film well enough.
The film errs a little closer to Goldfinger’s more comic approach than Thunderball’s more restrained extravagance but when you have a volcano base setting for the finale there’s only one way you can go. It’s not that Bond can’t be funny. The lacing of humour is what stops him from coming across like a murderous rapist with a ego complex. But silly and funny are two different things. What doesn’t help is that the first half of the film is largely played without any of this silliness. When the second half comes about and Bond requests Q bring over Little Nellie, a gyrocopter housed in a set of suitcases, things start moving towards being a little too removed from reality. He trains with ninjas, after having a Japanoplasty. He fights of a bunch of helicopters single handedly in his little gyrocopter. At one point Bond blows a guys chest apart by firing a rocket loaded inside a cigarette at him. Yeah, things are a little off kilter here.
But as mentioned the first half of the film isn’t like that at all barring a helicopter snatching a car off the road with a magnet which could maybe be seen as the tipping point. The fight with The Rocks Granddaddy High Chief Peter Maivia is a well choreographed down and dirty fight with Bond throwing anything he can get his hands on at him. A fight sequence on the roof of a dockside warehouse is shot from a helicopter giving us a long distance view of a running battle reminiscent of the one man vs many fights you’d see in Japanese Samurai movies. The first half is actually pretty good.
So the film’s tonally lopsided and a little bit absurd in places. Fair enough. This was written by Roald Dahl after all. You’re not gonna get 100% sturdy logic from that creative mind. Thankfully it all stays good fun and isn’t nearly as pants on head stupid as some of the Roger Moore films get. It certainly doesn’t feature anything as misguided as a videogame duel such as the one in the Warner brothers produced Never Say Never Again. The effects work really helps sell the films more absurd aspects though. That volcano set is incredible. When you first see the interior and you realise it’s not a miniature but an actual full sized location your mind will be blown. The base is revealed way too early though. It shouldn’t have been revealed until Bond discovers that the water in the volcano’s lake bed is actually metal painted to look like water. Having it open up then would have led to a great reveal and quite a few surprised viewers. Instead we’re given the information way in advance and you spend the next half an hour waiting for Bond to catch up. A sign of an inexperienced screenwriter. Dahl had only penned one film script before that never made it to production.
Performances in You Only Live Twice a little on the rocky side. There’s a lot of overdubbing, one that really stands out is a Japanese minion of Blofeld’s that talks with a perfect British accent, but by now dubbing voices in Bond films is par for the course. The two Japanese love interests, Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki and Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki do their best to wrestle with the English language, which they had to learn for the film, but they do come across as very wooden. Connery looks more bored and tired than he did in Thunderball at times although the roguish Bond twinkle is still in his eye. This was to be his last Bond film until he was given a boatload of money to come back for Diamonds Are Forever in a couple of years time. He comes across a little like he’s counting the minutes until he can get off the set. Donald Pleasence does what he does as Blofeld but thanks to him being a good foot shorter than Bond he doesn’t really have much threat to pose when stood next to him. Unlike the previous few villains he really doesn’t have a massive amount of screen time either. To be fair this story is set up as leading up to his reveal and so you can take it as a formal introduction to Blofeld. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he is played by Telly Savalas in order to be a more physical threat for Bond. But even though he makes 4 appearances in the Eon Bond films I always envision Pleasence in that role. I blame Dr Evil for this.
Overall You Only Live Twice is a daft and over the top action adventure romp that struggles with it’s tone. It lacks a true threatening villain and revels in depicting the US and Soviet leaders as a bunch of war hungry buffoons. Meanwhile Bond is made to look Japanese and I can’t tell if the people on the island are meant to be aware that he isn’t. Otherwise why give him a wig and comically slanted eyes. Surely that’s as bad as being a black and white minstrel. Anyway, the film does still manage to be a fair amount of fun. The first half is solid and I’ve gushed over that villains lair more than enough. It’s the worst of the Bonds so far to be honest. What comes next though is possibly the most unnecessarily maligned Bond film of them all, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Although I’m gonna review for Looper before that. So, err… Bond will be back a bit later then.