After yesterday’s slight disdain for Thunderball, I was looking forward to getting back into the swing of things with today’s entry, You Only Live Twice. Far from one of my favorites of the series, You Only Live Twice is at least a more tightly paced and fun Bond adventure than watching endless underwater sequences. Instead we get a peak at the James Bond franchise going absolutely off the rails. It doesn’t quite get completely bonkers, but it teases that potential. The James Bond franchise has an inconsistent reputation when it comes to realism. They typically get bigger and crazier, each movie, until they reach a point where they become too ridiculous to be sustainable. This causes them to spring back and try a more grounded approach. And while this movie doesn’t get to the absolute insanity of some of the later editions, this is probably the least realistic and most cartoony Bond flick we’ve had so far. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like I’ve said before, I just enjoy James Bond movies, they don’t necessarily have to be quality. I like my Bond’s serious, and I like them wacky. And this is some solid wackiness. Seriously, things are going to get silly in this movie. So let’s sit back and watch James Bond show Drake that you actually live twice.
You Only Live Twice doesn’t have quite as messy a backstory as Thunderball did, which is probably for the best. This movie didn’t result in a decade’s long legal battle that numerously threatened the continuation of the very franchise. Instead it’s probably most known as the movie that temporarily broke Sean Connery’s spirit. Connery was never overly thrilled with being James Bond, and seemed to have a rather adversarial relationship with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. He never felt like he got enough money, and the fame was really starting to wear on him around the time this movie came out. It seems like the people of Japan were far more obsessed with the James Bond movies than people realizes, and Connery found himself frequently mobbed by adoring fans, making it almost impossible to live as a normal person while filming, and really demoralizing him. Plus, the fact that he was five movies deep into a franchise, coupled with the frequent schedule that the films were being released, made it so Connery had little chance to do anything that wasn’t James Bond related. He was rapidly burning out, and worried about becoming forever type-cast. True, Conner would return as Bond for one more movie, and one out of canon oddity, but you can tell that this movie was where Connery was losing interest in the character, and gaining some serious senioritis.
This movie starts off pretty insane, and just keeps running. It opens with an American space shuttle orbiting Earth, with an astronaut doing a space-walk. This is ruined though when an ominous ship arrives, in space, and opens up in a manner to swallow up the American shuttle and steal it. Yep, we start off with space theft. And once that’s over we cut straight to Hong Kong where James Bond is seemingly murdered. And after a decent opening credit sequence and Bond theme from Nancy Sinatra, we find that James Bond is about to be buried at sea. However when his wrapped up body is tossed into the sea it’s quickly rescued by some divers who bring Bond to a submarine, where he’s revealed to be alive and well, and being brought to M. This subterfuge was designed because M wants Bond’s enemies to never see him coming, because M is sending Bond to Japan, where the mysterious shuttle seems to have originated from. Tensions are rising between the Americans and the Russians, who are believed to have stolen the shuttle, but M thinks that there’s something else going on. So Bond packs up and heads to Japan and after a trip to a sumo wrestling match, Bond meets up with his contact in Japan, a British man named Henderson. Unfortunately while Bond is talking with Henderson the man is killed by an assassin, and Bond has to chase after him. He ends up defeating the assassin and taking his place with the getaway driver, leading Bond to a mysterious chemical company called Osato Chemicals. Bond gets all the way to the office of the CEO of the company, and after a fight with a goon he manages to peak around and steal some information from a safe. Afterwords he flees the building and runs into a woman named Aki, who brings Bond to the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka. Bond and Tiger become fast friends, and gets ready to begin investigating Osato Chemicals, which seems to have something to do with the shuttle.
Bond makes his way back to Osato Chemicals the next day, and meets with the CEO, Mr. Osato, and his secretary Helga Brandt. Bond tries to get some information from the two, but they quickly realize that he’s more than he seems, and try to kill him again when he leaves. However Bond is saved again by Aki, who helps bring Bond to a dock where a ship that was mentioned in Osato’s documents is docked. However this turns out to be a trap, and Bond is abducted by Helga Brandt, who is revealed to actually be a member of SPECTRE. She tries to kill Bond in a plane crash, but he manages to safely escape, and head back to Tiger. Turns out while Bond was dealing with Helga, Tiger has located an island also mentioned in Osato’s documents, and Bond heads there in a little helicopter. He flies around the island, locating a dormant volcano, and gets attacked by some other helicopters, confirming his suspicions that this island isn’t on the level. Which is when the mysterious shuttle in space steals another ship, but this time one of Russia’s, getting both sides more angry. So Bond returns to Tiger, and they come up with a plan to storm the island with ninjas, and figure out what is going on. However, part of this plan requires James Bond to basically put on yellow-face and pretend to be Japanese, and marry a random woman who lives near the island. There’s some consternation over the fact that he cant pretend marry Aki, but that stops when Aki is killed by another assassin. So Bond puts on his ridiculous disguise, pretends to marry a woman named Kissy Suzuki, and the two begin investigating the island. And while doing so they find that the lake inside the volcano isn’t real, and is actually a metal hatch hiding a secret base built into the dormant volcano, which is where the space shuttles are being hidden. So Kissy returns to Tiger to get the ninja army, and Bond sneaks inside to figure out what’s going on. He kills some grunts, and tries to fake his way onto the thief shuttle, which is getting ready to go steal another American shuttle, when he’s figured out and brought to the mastermind of the whole operation. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE. Bond and Blofeld finally come face to face, and Blofeld gloats about how close they are to causing a world war, when Tiger and his ninja army arrive. Bond loses Blofeld in the chaos, and starts helping Tiger’s forces fight the SPECTRE ninjas that are inside the volcano. And after several tense fights Bond is able to self-destruct the SPECTRE shuttle, saving the day, just as Blofeld triggers the volcano to explode. So Bond, Kiss, Tiger, and the surviving ninjas flee the volcano, and we get to see Bond and Kissy on a raft, like four of the five Bond movies so far.
This movie is a whole lot of fun. We get more of a peak into SPECTRE, and are even finally introduced to its mysterious leader, after three movies of just seeing the back of his head. And despite how hammy he is, Donald Pleasence is so instantly iconic for this series. Sean Connery is maybe starting to stop caring about the movies, but he still delivers some really great performances and gags. The whole “becoming Japanese” subplot is ridiculously offensive in 2017, as is all the rampant sexism that this movie is reveling in. None of the movies so far in the series have been exactly feminist, but this one in particular seems to have some really weird messages towards women, seemingly primarily because of its Japanese setting. But if you can get past that and put it in its appropriate historical context, this movie is ridiculous and fun. The movie absolutely adores its Japanese setting, taking Bond to whatever aspects of Japanese culture that Broccoli and Saltzman thought were interesting. Probably the most fascinating and bizarre aspect of the movie’s production though is the fact that its screenplay was written by Roald Dahl. Yeah, that Roald Dahl. He was close friends with Ian Fleming, and though this film has almost nothing to do with the book it takes its title from, but he felt like he owed it to his friend to adapt it. Which leads to the knowledge that lines like “She is very sexiful,” and “bad news from outer space,” were more than likely written by the man who created much of our childhoods. Which just seems extra weird.
I said up top that the James Bond franchise follows a predictable pattern of getting more and more ridiculous, and this movie really is the first time that we see the results of that escalation. In general movie franchises follow the same pattern, having to be bigger and crazier than the last. That’s why we went from James Bond dealing with a Russian defector to him stopping SPECTRE from starting World War III by stealing space shuttles. SPECTRE seriously built their own rival space program, and managed to steal two other shuttles in the course of this movie. That’s so crazy. James Bond flew his own personal mini-helicopter, trained with an army of ninjas, and pretends to be a gigantic Scottish Japanese man in this movie. And it’s not just the plot that was getting out of control, the budget for this movie was becoming completely ridiculous. The volcano base itself cost as much as the entirety of Dr. No. The people behind the James Bond movies realized at this point that people were always going to come see Bond movies, so they could go big without much fear of repercussion. True, the next movie is going to go down a very different path, but there were other factors that lead to them trying something new that we’ll get to tomorrow. But You Only Live Twice was really proof to EON that they could really do whatever they wanted. This film showed that they could really strain credulity, and that James Bond movies were allowed to be crazier and crazier. James Bond could somehow be a down-to-earth espionage franchise, and also feature its hero stopping space thefts. And it’s that duality that really makes me love this character, because no matter what mood you’re in, there’s a James Bond to fit it. And if you’re in a silly mood, this movie’s got you covered.
You Only Live Twice was written by Roald Dahl, directed by Lewis Gilbert, and released by United Artists, 1967.
Categories: Reel Talk