As I near the halfway mark of the Bond franchise, I find myself a bit perplexed looking back on the series. For me, a lot of these titles run together. Granted, some of that is due to the series repetition of ideas and tropes, but watching The Spy Who Loved Me, I got this odd sense that the film was a best of Bond, an amalgamation of moments I’d already experienced in the Bond franchise and a reiteration of the Bond framework.
Take the opening set-piece, where James Bond (Roger Moore) escapes a group of thugs while skiing down a dangerous mountainside. It was a moment that instantly reminded me of the ski sequence in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It wasn’t nearly as good, in large part due to some bad effects work and an utterly goofy conclusion to the set-piece, but it evoked a sense of “remember when” that I found distracting.
While this is one of a handful of references that doesn’t end up working, one thing that The Spy Who Loved Me has going for it is the setup. Bond is searching for a missing British submarine when he stumbles across Russian spy Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) who is also on the same trail as Bond, looking for a missing Russian sub. Joined by a mutual interest, Britain and the KGB decide to work together to find out the location of their missing subs, forcing 007 and XXX to work together.
The idea of Agent XXX is taken from Thunderball as are many of the film’s setpieces and a couple of its plot points. And the final act has a big dose of You Only Live Twice infused into it. But The Spy Who Loved Me is better than those films because it gives it that extra twist of the frail relationship between Agent XXX and 007.
Moore and Bach have solid chemistry, but it’s the characters that make their frail relationship interesting to watch. Both are doing the mission, and both want to claim the prize for their own country, but it’s clear there’s a romantic attraction that is making both a little unprofessional.
However, its attempts at finding jokes amid their frail romance are terrible. The film tries to take its cues from Goldfinger, but they lack the wry twist to make them work. Agent XXX is a joke of a name, but it lacks the all-out audacity of something like Pussy Galore and it some ways it sounds almost plausible if it wasn’t clearly tasteless.
Also, Roger Moore is no Sean Connery when it comes to the one liners. Here they come fast and frequent, and are more groan inducing than anything else. I blame this on Moore because on the page, I think they’re funny in a corny way, but Moore just doesn’t have the playfulness to pull them off, he’s a bit too serious and leering the entire film to be taken as a joker.
But what makes this Bond film particularly disappointing is how generic and boring the main villain is. Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) can’t be described because he’s a villain without personality. His setting makes us believe he’s an individual of class and pretense, but the performance and writing gives us none of that. And even worse, his plan makes absolutely no sense at all. It only makes me wish he was a Saturday morning cartoon villain.
His henchman, Jaws (Richard Kiel) is far more compelling without ever speaking a word. His big grin and steady eyes tell the audience more than Karl’s incessant and pointless talking. Jaws acts cool, collected and in the know, but when the moment to strike comes, he’s not quite fast enough, making up for it in sheer brawn. There’s also something hilarious and disturbing about his fetish of killing people by biting them.
By the end of it all, The Spy Who Loves Me does have enough original material going for it to make it a solid bound outing. I liked the core relationship even with the poor writing, which redeems a lot of the film’s homages to previous Bond titles. I would have liked the film to be a bit original but I can understand that at this point it seems like all the cool and exotic places of the world have been taken. Where else can Bond go? A question I’m sure will be answered by the next Bond outing: Moonraker.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing