Short Take: A bizarre set of scenes stacked on top of one another coupled with a strangely cautious James Bond makes for a uniquely entertaining experience.
We all know the reputation of the Roger Moore Bond movies: somewhere between cartoonish, careless, cocaine-induced, and disposable. Maybe it was a bit of low expectations, but Live and Let Die, while not entirely memorable, ascended all of my preconceived notions and played as something altogether different (though not negatively so) from any other Bond’s I’ve seen. Cradled inside the oddity of tribal rituals and tarot card reading, Live and Let Die seems a product of its 70s pedigree of antiheroes and blaxplotation archetypes. While not entirely “artistic,” the film’s campy intentions and Tom Mankewicz’s (Herman’s nephew and Joseph’s son) reserved plot aspirations allow for clarity and easy-viewing that are appropriately enjoyable.
After three men are mysteriously murdered, James Bond is dispatched to New York to investigate a gangster by the name of Mr. Big. Bond’s presence is foreseen Mr. Big’s hired clairvoyant, a tarot card reader named Solitaire. Bond’s search leads him to crocodiles, a man with a claw as a hand, snake charmers, and Mr. Big’s true identity as Kananga, a drug lord planning to saturate American markets with Heroin. Before his plan takes shape, Bond must use Solitaire to take Kananga down.
Moore’s Bond, with his light hair, perfectly symmetrical looks, and tall stature feels like he’s getting the lay of the land, not entirely committed to being in the role. His upright stiffness makes for less of the agility of Pierce Brosnan, the gritty athleticism of Daniel Craig, and none of the darkness of Timothy Dalton. However, from a script perspective, he fits nicely into the campiness that surrounds him. Promoting plot unraveling over spectacle, Live and Let Die has a tongue-in-cheek snappiness rounded out by well-played villains and dynamic settings. One might be inclined to see the racial epithets and handling of African-American clichés as offensive, though the directness with which these are displayed almost beg you not to take their underpinnings seriously at all. Maybe that’s what’s so compelling about this film, it takes itself incredibly seriously while not being able to keep a straight face.
The Bond girl in Live and Let Die exposes the spectrum of what the franchise has to offer. Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, as the introspective, tarot card reading, and enslaved woman exhibits a sense of intrigue that escapes many other women who populate this male-driven atmosphere. She’s all-seeing and relied upon, respected for “goods,” though not those we’ve come to expect. It wouldn’t be a Bond film if the women didn’t exist for their superficial utility, but here at least the woman has somewhat of a purpose. Interestingly, her lack of commitment to either the psychotic Kananga or Bond is reflected in a lazy “I’m here because someone told me to show up” flatness not unlike Roger Moore himself. Again, there’s a satisfying congruence between the arrogance of the leads and the passionately bizarre script in which they play.
For all the fireworks, set pieces, and action-driven moments often jammed into these types of films, Live and Let Die pleasantly prioritizes the understated plot twists over escapist explosions. Of course, there’s a boat chase, but that too feels like something of a throwback to Ben-Hur “nuts and bolts” action scenes rather than attempting to push how “cool” the newest cinema techniques can be. Toned down and going through the motions, Live and Let Die seems to know exactly what it intends to be, neither a masculine joyride only meant for teenage boners (Brosnan’s foray), nor a savvy thriller tucked inside blockbuster tropes (Craig’s turn).
It seems strange to call flatness an asset without the least bit of condescension, but in Live and Let Die that’s the element to me was its defining trait. Roger Moore brings a unique brand of dainty spy work, that’s so non-confrontational that he feels dropped from the sky into some of the strangest scenarios ever stocked in a serious motion picture. The result isn’t all that cartoonish or overblown, nor is it close to being tonally sound. Yet, the peculiarity makes the film work for an indefinable reason. Not the best Bond I’ve seen yet, but far from the worst. [B]