James Bond and his gadgets meet voodoo and tarot cards.
Roger Moore's introduction to the Bond franchise, Live and Let Die does not have quite the same high-stakes blockbuster feel as some of the other entries in the franchise and lacks a strong sense of the high-living Bond style. Still, it's Bond, and given the excellent Special Edition treatment by MGM.
Live and Let Die marked the start of the Roger Moore-era in the Bond franchise after Sean Connery's decision that Diamonds are Forever would be his last Bond film. Roger Moore had not only a rèsumè that included the similar role of Simon Templar on the TV show "The Saint," but the blessing of Sean Connery, who had described Roger Moore as "an ideal Bond." I hesitate to disagree with Mr. Connery, but while Roger Moore has the talent, he uses them to play a Bond that is less to my liking. (Your mileage may vary.)
Mr. Moore has the smooth cool of James Bond down to a science, but he takes the inherent humor of Bond and amplifies it to the point of distraction. His Bond is a gentleman-spy, but without the element of physique and intimidation that reminds us that James Bond is also a cold-hearted killer when Queen and Country demand it of him. For those readers of the original Ian Fleming novels, Moore probably seems the least like the original written Bond and more like a lightly whitewashed Hollywood reinterpretation. This is not to say he's a horrible Bond, but rather he suffers by comparison with the other Bond actors and the original source material.
As far as the rest of the actors in Live and Let Die go, it is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, Yaphet Kotto (Alien, Midnight Run, "Homicide: Life on the Street") plays his dual bad-guy role with relish and confident evil, stealing the scene from whoever shares the screen with him. Julius Harris (as Kananga's main henchman Tee Hee) is both intimidating and nervously amusing in a role similar to that of Jaws (Richard Kiel) in later Moore films. Jane Seymour does an excellent job with the deceptively difficult role of Solitaire, who must be a bewitching beauty but also one who is convincingly sheltered and innocent. On the negative side, Gloria Hendry (as Rosie Carver) simply grates like fingernails on a chalkboard and it is a relief when she disappears from the screen. Clifton James is comedically brilliant as the redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper, but while I appreciate his acting, I think his character might have been best suited in another movie.
The plot is one of the small-stakes Bond variety, where Bond is called upon to combat the localized evil of a villain whose schemes run to regional power and not global hegemony or mass murder. When the safety of the world is not at stake, it is critical that the story impart a compelling emotional context for the audience to truly care about the success of the mission, such as in Licence to Kill. In that film, a very personal revenge story does the trick admirably. Here, in Live and Let Die, the story is less successful. An obliviously stupid Bond stumbles around and so does the plot as it slowly unwinds between rousing action sequences until we find that it is all about a heroin distribution scheme. Sure, stopping it is a laudable goal, but its not terribly sexy as Bond missions go, now is it?
We open our story with the deaths of three British agents: at the United Nations in New York City, on a stakeout of a Fillet of Soul restaurant in New Orleans, and on a tropical Caribbean island. After the usually impressive opening credits (with the title song by Paul and Linda McCartney), we find 007 being rousted from his bed (and a lovely Italian agent) by M, who is in a tizzy at the trio of deaths which are all linked to Dr. Kananga, Prime Minister of a small island in the Caribbean called San Monique. Naturally, Bond flies off to investigate to New York City. His arrival is foretold, leading to an assassination attempt on the way from the airport. James Bond naturally follows up on this event, but ends up in the middle of Harlem ("Can't miss him, it's like following a cueball!") and falls right into the middle of a trap. 007 meets the lovely Solitaire over a tarot card reading before he manages an escape. Wise-cracking CIA agent Strutter (Lon Satton) gives 007 a few richly deserved verbal spanks (…"…That clever disguise you're wearing. White face in Harlem.") as he comes to the belated rescue.
Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who returned to the role in Licence to Kill) alerts 007 when Kananga flies back to San Monique. Bond, of course, follows. Upon arrival, he meets a deadly snake (close up and very personal) and then links up with local help Rosie Carver. A spot of fishing (on the way to where the agent was killed) introduces us to Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart), presumably the son of the original Quarrel in Dr. No. As 007 pursues inland, he visits Solitaire's isolated house and by devious means convinces her to fall into his arms and abandon Kananga's employment. Their flight ahead of Kananga's thugs features a terrific stunt driving sequence that leads right up to the docks where Quarrel is waiting with his boat.
Flying back to New Orleans, Bond (with Solitaire in tow) again walks right into a trap and escapes (sans Solitaire) after a little aviation mayhem. He links back up with Leiter to check out the local Fillet of Soul restaurant only to again fall (literally) into another trap. (Oh, dear, this is getting tiresome!) This time Kananga wants him dead and his body a mystery, so Tee Hee and the enormous Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) take him out to the farm and leave him for the crocodiles to snack upon. Naturally, this being a Bond film, they leave him alive and walk off (to do God knows what). He escapes (of course) and begins an extended, record-breaking escape sequence involving boats, boats, jumps, gunfire, and a few boats. In the middle of the mayhem comes Sheriff J.W. Pepper, who starts out trying to stop a speeder and ends up frantically attempting to keep a lid on the burgeoning chaos in his parish.
When all the excitement is done, Bond learns that Kananga has gone back to San Monique, with the doomed Solitaire, so of course 007 must charge to the rescue. Kananga has a voodoo sacrifice in mind for her, but his crowd of followers is no match for a determined James Bond! Having rescued Solitaire, James Bond (oh dear) again falls into Kananga's hands, who yet again plans an agonizing death for the pair. Unfortunately, this plan uses an "unnecessarily slow dipping motion" (as justly parodied in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and Bond escapes, battles Kananga mano a mano, and finally comes to the end of his adventures.
The extras are the (by now) typical package for a Bond special edition disc. Director Guy Hamilton and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz have separate commentary tracks, which have just the sort of inside remarks and trivial bits that the Bond fan will adore. They aren't as jam-packed or polished as are most such tracks for contemporary films, but they'll do. The half-hour featurette is slickly produced and actually informative, filling you in on the making of the film and its place in the Bond franchise. The full-frame trailer and teaser look every inch their age but are a nice glimpse into Live and Let Die's marketing, as do the radio and TV spots.
The UK Milk Board commercial is an interesting whimsical bit of marketing (which I had never seen before) and precisely the type of obscure material that DVD was meant to include! "On the Set with Roger Moore" are two film clips, one of Roger Moore relating a personal anecdote about the initial New Orleans funeral parade scene and the other a brief look into the hang gliding sequences. Rounding out the content is the ubiquitous Tomorrow Never Dies Sony PlayStation game trailer (though misspelt Tommorow in the menu!) and a nice multi-page color insert with production notes and trivia. The main menus and transitions are the usual slick and cool work from 1K Studios, incorporating movie visuals and sounds in an original package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Alpha keepcase. Yeccch!
The anamorphic video transfer is acceptable, but to paraphrase Charlton Heston in True Lies, MGM is not exactly blowing my skirt up here. This is one of the Bond films that looks its age, to the point where MGM should have expended some time and money in cleaning and restoring the video elements. They call it the ultimate special edition and charge a high price, yet it looks like a catalog title whose film elements have been indifferently handled. Tsk, tsk. There is a fair amount of video noise and a plentiful supply of dirt, flecks, blips, and other assorted film defects (including one very noticeable vertical green line). The colors are reasonably saturated for a picture of its era, and while sharpness is generally good it does suffer in the shadow detail of the many dimly lit shots.
As for the sound, it is a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track. You can't expect too much from this limited audio material, but it sure would be nice to have the mono track coded for Dolby Digital 2.0 so that signal comes from the right and left rather than just the center channel (which gets old quickly).
One small Bond point. This is the only Bond film that does not feature an appearance by the late Desmond Llewelyn as Q (AKA Major Boothroyd) to outfit Bond with his gadgets. His absence is one reason that Live and Let Die is not a favorite!
If you're a Bond fan, you probably already have this disc in your collection. For the rest of you, it's a pleasant way to spend an evening, and after the rental, you can decide whether the merits of the film (and the usual load of extras) justify a somewhat pricey ($35) purchase.
MGM is summarily dismissed from the case based upon the court's familiarity with the other evidence in the first James Bond box set, though the video quality gives the court some lingering doubt. The film is guilty of being a weak entry in the Bond franchise, but as it still entertains, no penalty is assessed at this time.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Guy Hamilton
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