You Only Live Twice starts in Earth’s orbit, where a NASA space capsule is stolen by some sort of crazy pirate rocket. This rocket of evil is a hell of a thing, designed to open up and snatch up other spacecraft. This first scene is far crazier than anything that has happened in the previous four films. It’s pretty ridiculous, but the sort of ridiculous that I can get behind.
Naturally, the U.S. blames the Russians, but the Brits have tracked the rogue rocket to Japan, and so they think that it probably isn’t the Soviets. They inform their U.S. Allies that they have a man on the case.
That man is, of course, James Bond, who we first see in bed with a Chinese woman. After a few seconds of weird sex banter (“Why do Chinese women taste different?”), the woman abruptly slams the bed, which is a fold-out, into the wall, trapping Bond inside. This is the cue for two men with machine guns to run in and shoot the bed with many, many bullets. Bond is declared dead by the paramedics when they arrive. It is a totally jarring start, and an effective one. It also just so happens to be exactly what I wanted to see happen to James Bond after watching Goldfinger and Thunderball.
After the credits, we have Captain Bond’s funeral, a burial at sea. Of course, Bond is not actually dead, and this is all an overly complicated ruse. For some reason, this ruse does not at any point involve a corpse double, and it Bond’s living body that is dumped into the drink.
Bond is smuggled onto a submarine by some divers. Once aboard the sub, Bond springs back into action, ready for some flirting and some exposition. Fortunately, this vessel has a ridiculous shipboard version of M’s inner and outer office, complete with coatrack. M and Moneypenny are both on board, acting as if this was business as usual, the only irregularity being the naval uniforms that they are wearing.
(By the way, Bond was still wearing his hat during the shoot-the-camera intro which makes it seem like the last film’s hat shenanigans were just wasting everyone’s time.)
So, flirting, followed by briefing. The Moneypenny interplay again has an undercurrent of pathetic mooning on her part, which is a shame because Moneypenny clearly can do better than Bond. I like Moneypenny. I’d rather watch movies about her than Bond. Alas.
Bond is sent to Japan to investigate the rogue rocket. As always, there is a bunch of early game spy shit, but this stuff is a cut above what the past films have had to offer. The action is more thrilling and the pacing is tighter. Bond actually seems clever and sneaky, as opposed to his normal odd mix of brutal and cultured. For the first time, a Bond film feels like a story about a superspy, not just a spy movie with some goofy crap added in. In You Only Live Twice, the goofy crap is woven into the very fabric of the film. The tone is consistent in a way the previous ones have not been, making for a stronger film.
Soon after he gets to Japan, there is a weird bit where neckless Charles Gray proffers Bond a martini “Stirred, not shaken, that’s right?”, which Bond tells him is perfect. But of course, that is not how James Bond enjoys his vodka martinis. Anyone who knows anything at all about James Bond knows that.
Why was this detail wrong? It seems unlikely although not, I suppose, impossible that this was an accident on the part of the filmmakers. Assuming it was an intentional mistake, why make it? My best guess is that it is intended as a deliberate “fuck you” to audience expectations, an attempt to keep the viewer off balance. If so, it had the desired effect.
After Charles Gray is abruptly murdered mid-exposition, Bond ends up liaising with a friendly gangster named Tiger Tanaka, which is a pretty great name. Tanaka has a bunch of cool Ken Adam set dressing, including a trap door leading to a hideout, and a separate hideout on a tricked out private train. It is all pretty awesome.
And then the awesomeness screeches to a halt to make room for the creepy sexism. Tanaka invites Bond to his home, magnanimously commenting “consider my house yours, including all of my possessions.” They are then beset by a gaggle of young women in their underwear, who enthusiastically bathe the men, who smugly make jokes about the their superiority over women. I suddenly remember that I totally hate this Bond asshole.
Over the course of several setpieces, one of Tanaka’s agents, a woman named Aki, sort of promotes herself to be Bond’s de facto partner. I’m sure Bond would not view her that way, what with female inferiority and all, and I’m not sure if the filmmakers would, either, but she’s a cool spy who holds her own alongside Bond and has more utility than I have grown to expect from women in these films. She also has a sweet-ass car. Until Aki, all the other non-furniture women in these movies have been bad guys, and that seems to have been by design. I would like to be able to say that these films are turning a corner, but Aki sleeps with Bond immediately after the creepy bath scene, so that seems premature.
After some more spy shit, there is a truly wonderful fight/chase scene with some beautiful aerial shots and some great stunt work. It isn’t a particularly clever or important scene, but damn, it is pretty to watch. There is some artfulness in Lewis Gilbert’s film direction, unlike his more workmanlike predecessors.
Shortly afterward, Bond searches for the enemy base while piloting a tiny helicopter named “Little Nelly” and all the cool goes down in flames. (I know it is actually an autogyro not a helicopter but what it looks like is a helicopter built for a baby who is a helicopter pilot.) Bond looks just absolutely ridiculous in the thing. Tanaka makes fun of him pretty hard, so I think it is intentionally uncool. More expectation flipping? It is a weird misstep that ruins a helicopter battle, something that should be unruinable.
Meanwhile, in Earth’s orbit, the pirate rocket steals another space capsule, this time a Russian one. The film then follows the space brigands back to what is maybe the coolest looking secret base that I have ever seen, a Ken Adam masterpiece inside a hollowed out volcano. It has a helipad, it has a monorail, it has a piranha moat, and it has a launch pad for crime rockets. It is a glory to behold, staffed with henchmen in color-coded jumpsuits. And while we don’t see the face of the mastermind at the heart of all of this, we do see the cat he is holding. It is a cat that we have seen before. That is to say the role that the cat is playing is one that we have seen before, but they probably used a different cat for each movie. It is the cat belonging to the leader of SPECTRE is the point that I am making.
The mastermind’s plan is to keep stealing U.S. And Russian spacecraft until they start a war with each other. He is trying to start this war because China is paying him $100,000 to do so. I love that SPECTRE is so deep pocketed that at the height of the Space Race they have been able to develop a secret private space program that is more advanced than what either America or Russia have created, and that they use this technology for space crime. It is madness. Beautiful, beautiful madness.
Bond has a rough idea of where this beautiful bad guy base is, but he needs backup to stage an assault. Fortunately, it turns out that Tiger Tanaka runs a school for ninjas. Of course he does. This movie might have horrible sexism and Little Nelly, but ninjas go a long way. Tanaka’s ninjas are modern ninjas, equally adept at using swords and using guns that fire rocket bullets.
It is at this point that Bond, for reasons that aren’t at all clear to me, disguises himself as a Japanese man, in one of the most utterly unconvincing cases of ethnic drag ever to grace the cinema. This movie is full of weird details that baffle. Yellowface Bond begins a crash course in the way of the ninja. Nevermind that they already have like fifty well-trained ninjas.
Apparently SPECTRE have their own ninjas, because one accidentally kills Aki while aiming for Bond with the old poison-down-the-string-from-above-the-bed trick. Aki is almost immediately replaced with a different ally girl named Kissy Suzuki. It is possible that the overall grossness of the sexual politics of these movies has left me oversensitive, but it feels like Aki was killed for daring to be independent and she had to be replaced with someone more docile. Yuck.
It is in this section where we finally have a Bond film staple that I thought might be omitted: A slow and dull section of the film that could easily be cut. This is the point in the film where Bond and his newly acquired army on ninjas should assault the volcano, but instead time is killed while Bond and his allies search for the entrance to the bad guy base. The momentum drags to a halt for like ten minutes as Bond and Kissy search for the way in.
Eventually Bond finds the entrance, and sneaks inside using a suction cup ninja suit while Kissy goes back to get the rest of the ninjas. He finds the astro/cosmonauts who had crewed the stolen space capsules, who are being kept alive for some unexplored reason. Bond villains have a pathological need to take prisoners.
After freeing the good astronauts, Bond disguises himself as one of the evil astronauts and almost sneaks onto the crime rocket but he is found out by SPECTRE #1, who upon being face to face with Bond finally reveals his face to the audience. And so at long last he is no longer the faceless manipulator of SPECTRE, he is now Ernst Stavro Blofeld, enemy of James Bond. It’s a cool moment, well earned and well executed. Unfortunately, for this 21st century viewer, the moment is undercut by the fact that what he is revealed to look like is Dr. Evil. The filmmakers of this movie could not have anticipated that Austin Powers would ruin their moment, but nonetheless it is hard to take him seriously.
What happens next is a five-year-old’s greatest dream come true: An epic battle between ninjas and astronauts inside a volcano. It’s a giant spectacle, stupid in the best possible way. In the chaos, Bond frees himself and fights his way to the control room where he arrives just in the nick of time to press the “exploder button” which averts World War III for reasons that aren’t worth exploring here.
Defeated, Blofeld blows up the installation, and now it is his turn to escape in the confusion. The ninjas swim to safety, while the freed cosmo/astronauts as well as all of the henchmen appear to perish. Bond and Kissy make out in a boat, but in one final subversion of expectations, M’s submarine surfaces directly beneath them, so they are unable to fuck. The end.
This movie is a major tonal shift from what comes before. The earlier movies wanted to be cool, but You Only Live Twice is is a movie reveling in its own high weirdness. On this trip, James Bond ends up almost a non-presence. The filmmakers deflate his cool at every opportunity, and the whole affair is too light for his sadism to be allowed to surface. What remains of the character gets some fun action moments but ultimately he seems like the least interesting dude in the volcano.
I can’t really say that a boring hero is better than a detestable one, but I almost liked this movie. It is pretty fun, although deeply marred by a few weird choices and some unfortunate sexual politics. Sadly, after the past few Bond flicks, it comes as a giant breath of fresh lack of rape. I fear I may be grading on a curve, but this is easily the best Bond thus far.