Sean Connery As James Bond 007 in Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice”

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sean Connery as James Bond 007 in Ian Fleming’s “Thunderball”

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Thunderball starts with a funeral. The coffin is labeled “JB” but this is a cheap fakeout that is  immediately abandoned. Bond is in attendance, and he is lamenting that he did not have the opportunity to kill the deceased himself.

It turns out that he is in luck, because the shrouded widow is the deceased, and is in fact, no lady at all. “I don’t think you should have opened that car door yourself,” Bond smugly suggests after punching the would-be corpse in the face. Bond beats the shit out of the man in drag before strangling him to death with a fireplace poker. He then makes his exit via jetpack.

It’s a baffling start. It’s too weird to take seriously, but too brutal to take lightly. Someone seemed really excited about the prospect of Bond beating a transvestite to death. I am not on board.

After the credits is a  meeting of the heads of SPECTRE, back after an absence in Goldfinger (unless maybe Goldfinger worked for SPECTRE?) As in From Russia With Love, the leader of the group’s face is obscured, but he is identifiable by the cat he strokes. After an obligatory killing of one of the board members reminds us that SPECTRE is villainous, the current #2 agent, an eypatched sophisticate named Largo begins to explain their plan, but the film cuts away to Bond before any actual plot advancement can occur.

Bond is at a spa, on vacation.  But intrigue follows him on vacation, and he recognizes a gang tattoo on a dude and starts snooping. Apparently, this fella is a member of a Chinese criminal tong.

After a bit of nosing around, Bond sexually assaults a nurse. She pushes him off of her and straps him to some sort of massage device. Once he’s strapped in, she quips “First time I’ve felt safe all day!” which is her hilarious joke about the fact that Bond has been aggressively pressuring her to sleep with him since his arrival. Ha.

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Having secured him to this weird spa machine, she leaves, promising to return in fifteen minutes. After she leaves, an unseen assailant sneaks in and turns the massage crank to full-bore. Bond is nearly, ah, massaged to death. The nurse returns and saves Bond, who expresses his gratitude by threatening to report her to her manager if she does not sleep with him.  She succumbs to his blackmail.

In the first two films, every woman who meets Bond wants to sleep with him.  In the next two, the world had gotten more complicated.  Suddenly there are women who don’t want to sleep with him.  Bond’s solution is literally to rape them until they change their mind.

This son of a bitch is the single most contemptible protagonist I think I have ever seen on film. He is a monster in a film made by people who cannot distinguish between sexual assault and being cute.   I hate this multiple rapist “hero” and would like to see him meet a violent end. Instead, I’m going to end up watching 19 more movies starring him living a charmed life.

Uhg. At any rate, after Bond rapes that girl, there is a very elaborate bit of business involving doublecrosses, murder, body doubles, scuba diving, a femme fatale with very large breasts, and some mediocre film editing. It’s an elaborate bit of SPECTRE skullduggery, both complicated and dull, that results in the theft of two atomic missiles.

By what appears to be total coincidence, part of this scheme just so happens to take place in the spa that Bond is visiting. Bond stumbles upon this plot by accident. He finds a dead body, and ends up fighting some SPECTRE agents without understanding who they are or what they are.

Everything that has happened in this movie so far could be cut. Everything the hero has done has made me hate him. Everything the villains have done have either been unrelated to the actions of the protagonist, or revolved around a really thin coincidence. And none of it has forwarded the plot more than could be accomplished with a line or two of exposition. That’s thirty-nine minutes that the film would be better off without.

Instead, it is almost forty minutes into the film when Bond gets around to flirting with Moneypenny in the office. Now, Bond’s thing in the earlier films has been to toss his hat onto the coat rack as he enters the office. In Thunderball, Bond goes to do this, but the coat rack has been moved, throwing him off balance. Later, when he goes to leave, there is no hat on the rack, which he comments upon before leaving, hatless.

This hat business is weird. I reckon by 1965 it was becoming unfashionable for Bond to wear a hat, but why did the filmmakers feel that they had to write themselves out of the coat rack tradition that they had created?  Why not just stop doing it?  Even this early in, these movies were becoming tied to their weirdly specific formulas.

In the midst of all this haberdashery, Bond gets called into a meeting so serious that all nine Double 0 agents attend, although we do not see the faces of the other eight. In the briefing, Bond learns that SPECTRE has stolen atomic bombs from a NATO plane and intends to blow up either a U.S. or British city if they are not given one hundred million pounds.

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Bond recognizes the pilot of the hijacked plane as being the corpse from his shenanigans the previous night, so Bond heads to Nassau to seduce this pilot’s sister. This nearly makes a sort of sense, as far as James Bond plans go.

Once in the Bahamas, Bond uses his spy training to meet the sister, Domino. She likes him, but has to go join her “guardian,” who turns out to be our eyepatched villain, Largo. That’s right, the sister of the dead guy that Bond found by complete accident turns out to be mistress of the guy who is holding the free world ransom. This is an odd movie. And by “odd” I mean terrible.

Bond’s first move is to hit on the bad guy’s girlfriend. His second move is to introduce himself to the bad guy in such a way that makes absolutely clear to the bad guy who Bond is and what Bond knows. He basically says “Hi, I’m James Bond. I know you work for SPECTRE and I plan on sleeping with your girlfriend.” only he does it through the language of baccarat innuendo. His third move is to hit on Domino some more.

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The movie then goes through the spy movie motions. A third Felix Leiter is on hand, this one the coolest so far (admittedly a low bar), coming off as an American version of Bond. I still don’t know why this guy keeps showing up because they never do anything interesting with him. Q is also begrudgingly in the field, giving Bond some gadgets, but they are largely straightforward ones.

Throughout, Largo tries to stay interesting but since he has already executed his plan, he has little to do but fume.  He feeds a henchman to a shark, which helps a little, but not much.

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Bond does some scuba stuff in a hideous orange-red wetsuit and some white short shorts. He looks less cool then he did when he had a duck strapped to his head in the previous film. There is a lot of underwater scenes in this film, and they are all so boring.

When Bond isn’t swimming he is sneaking and double talking and kidnapping and scouting and fighting and maybe this stuff was compelling fifty years ago, but that was a long time ago and today it isn’t very exciting or dramatic. Still, at at least things are happening and Bond isn’t raping anybody.

There is a remarkable moment during a bit where Bond is sneaking out of Largo’s compound. He climbs onto a roof… and he slips on the incline, and drops his gun. There is no real plot reason for this to happen, it is just a brief instance of fallibility from a character who doesn’t normally do fallible.   It’s neat but completely incongruous with the rest of this film.

Maintaining his strategy of not having to do any work whatsoever to find plot points, Bond randomly stumbles upon large-breasted SPECTRE assassin, Fiona Volpe on the side of the road. Volpe is cool. She doesn’t take shit from Largo or anyone else and she has fun toying with Bond.

Eventually, Volpe sleeps with Bond, who has spotted Volpe’s ring, which identifies her as a member of SPECTRE. They probably shouldn’t wear these rings. I’m not sure what she meant to gain by sleeping with him, because she pulls a gun on him shortly thereafter.  Maybe she was just curious about what all the fuss was about.  Whatever her reason, the carnal act does not endear Bond to her.  She mocks him, “But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue, but not this one!” Her point seems to be that the plot of Goldfinger was bullshit.

Soon after, Bond makes a break for it, and Volpe and several of her agents chase him through a wild nighttime parade. In a movie that has been largely worthless so far, it’s a pretty cool sequence. Bond gets shot – grazed? – in the leg, leaving a blood trail for his pursuers to follow as they search for him amongst the wild festivities. It is tense and cool.

Except… the scene culminates with Bond and Volpe dancing with one another as several goons draw closer. One of them takes his shot, but Bond uses Volpe as a human shield. All of which is fine and good, but the bad guys just leave after that. They’ve got him cornered, and he just got their boss killed. Why not take a second shot? It makes no sense.

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Tragically, there is more scuba. Scuba is so dull. Scuba means no dialogue, slow movement, and just not a lot happening. In theory, you can build a lot of tension in an underwater scene, but they never seem to work for me. Certainly not in this film.

As this film winds toward its conclusion, Bond gets around to informing Domino that her boyfriend murdered her brother.  He then sends her onto Largo’s yacht, the Disco Volante to search for the bombs. She pretty much immediately gets caught by Largo, who ties her up her with the intent to torture her.

But before he can get to the torture, Bond and the Coast Guard attack Largo’s scuba goons in an underwater battle royal, which by virtue of its underwaterness, may be the dullest battle royal of all time. However, what it lacks in excitement, it makes up for by being very long.

The conflict ends with the Disco Volante’s saucer section separating, as the front of the ship splits off from the rear, becoming a hydrofoil, escaping from the Coast Guard with one of the bombs. Bond is on this section of the ship, as is Domino. She is freed from her bonds by what I believe is a previously unseen member of Largo’s crew, who has had a change of heart apparently.  He informs her that he has disabled the atom bomb, so no worries on that point.

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Bond fights Largo on the foil but loses! Largo is about to kill Bond but Domino kills Largo instead!  Good for her, but it makes Bond a bit useless as a protagonist.  Bond asks Domino who the Deus Ex is. She replies “I don’t know, but he helped me.”

Bond and Domino and Other Guy jump off of the ship just as it explodes. Bond and Domino find a life raft. I don’t know what happens to Other Guy. It looks like Bond and Domino are going to fuck in the life raft, but in a surprise twist, they are air-evacuated by a sky hook. The end.

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I haven’t loved any of the Bond movies so far, but this is the first one that has been outright terrible. Dull, confusing and unsatisfying, this movie presents a string of bizarre coincidences that pull a monster rapist protagonist from one end of the movie to the other with a lot of scuba diving along the way. I cannot understand why anyone would enjoy this movie on its face. It is so distorted and strange that it almost works as a dark satire of action movies as a genre. Almost.