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What To Watch: The Marvelous Madness of James Bond’s ‘Octopussy’ (1983)

Classic 80s James Bond is a monkey barrel full of greatness.

Octopussy is a 1983 James Bond action thriller about a fake Fabergé egg and an international jewel-smuggling operation being used to disguise a nuclear attack on N.A.T.O. forces.

“All I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.” So starts the song “All Time High” sung by Rita Coolidge (written by John Barry) at the beginning of the movie, and nothing could sum up more what the James Bond movies were all about in the crazy 80s while in the capable hands of actor Roger Moore, who took the iconic secret agent and layered him with all kinds of jocularity while keeping many of the series tropes well in place. And none did it better than director John Glen‘s Octopussy, a tense, amusing, and often absurd contribution to the franchise that threw in just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. Heck, Bond is literally a clown in this one. Lunacy, I tells you.

Octopussy
Octopussy, 1983 © United Artists

THE STORY: After Agent 009 (Andy Bradfordis able to smuggle a fake Fabergé egg to the British Embassy in West Germany – at the cost of his own life – James Bond, Agent 007 (Moore) is called in to find out if the Russian’s are behind the plot (because, duh, of course they are). It leads him to a high stakes auction where he secretly swaps eggs and gets in a bidding war with exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan). He soon tracks him to his palace in India where Bond gets himself right away into trouble but also some romance with Khan’s associates, Magda (Kristina Wayborn), a leggy blond with a blue-ringed octopus tattoo on her lower back. Guess how he finds that one. Next, he uncovers a sinister plot between Khan and Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) to bomb a US Air Force Base, meant to reignite tensions. You know, ‘cuz there’s always a Russian General who longs for the good old days. Meanwhile, a wealthy business woman and jewel smuggler named Octopussy (Maud Adams) gets involved and works both sides of the game. She runs an island populated by only beautiful slinkily-dressed women who lounge around a pool all day. Who writes this stuff? (George MacDonald Fraser actually). This is pure Bondian magic.

Octopussy
Octopussy, 1983 © United Artists

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Moore was all about the charm when he took on the role of James Bond and worked hard to distance the character from Sean Connery‘s well-established grittiness, playing more into the amusing possibilities of the indefatigable hero. That didn’t make him any less of action star, despite his age. The man didn’t need to judo-chop his way through a film to prove that point though, his presence alone often enough to do the job. The guy was ridiculously suave. Look at that vest.

Octopussy
Octopussy, 1983 © United Artists

Octopussy really embraced its background and became a bit meta, embracing the franchise’s behemoth history, even including a moment when a snake charmer plays the Bond Theme to get the agent’s attention, something that hasn’t been as done well since, though violinist Elyse Dinh breaking into the old Spider-Man TV show theme in Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man 2 (2004) comes close. That’s not to mention the moment when Bond literally does the Tarzan yell while swinging through the vines. You might want to read that again. That really happens. In a Bond movie.

That’s really the moment when this Bond goes all in and teeters the balance between authenticity of the story with the fantasy of the franchise. No easy task. Glenn does some great work behind the camera, keeping the pace and action going while littering the film with plenty of cool gadgets (though far less than previous entries) and opportunities to use them. Just can’t go wrong.

A GREAT MOMENT: While Bond gets some time between the sheets with the beautiful ladies, the woman are, like many in the franchise, strong, with Octopussy herself being one of the most memorable in the series. That said, before we really get to know them, Bond gets his first face-to-face with Kamal in India at a casino hotel. If you know anything about a Bond movie, this is a crucial scene.

Octopussy
Octopussy, 1983 © United Artists

Kamal is sitting across from a retired British Major who is losing at backgammon, oblivious to the fact that’s he’s getting absolutely railroaded. Bond notices a slight of hand from Kamal that has him swapping the game dice for loaded ones and so thinks he’s got the man figured out. When the Major steps away, the stakes too high, Bond takes his place and plays out the round using the dice against Kamal in a little game of upper hand. All with Kamal’s bodyguard (Kabir Bediand Magda watching. Ouch.

Octopussy
Octopussy, 1983 © United Artists

It’s a key moment because Bond reveals everything here, that he is the James Bond and that he has the real Fabergé egg, laying it on the table as collateral against the winnings, which ruffles Kamal. It’s a true Bond motif, whether with backgammon or poker or whatever game of chance, the theme is the same and Bond naturally makes it work in his favor. It’s just so fun to watch and Jourdon is so creepy good … he’s really one of the best Bond villains ever. This scene never gets old.

THE TALLY: It’s really pointless to try claiming there is one ‘best’ Bond because come on, on any given day there is something to be had for any in the franchise. The Moore era was a unique time in the series, with the 80s rise in sci-fi and Cold War fever transforming Bond into a kind of cartoon hero, but Moore did it with a terrific sense of humor and none more so than with Octopussy, a fun, action adventure that gleefully goes over-the-top in surreal ways. This was a transitional film and was really the last to use humor with the guts it does. You don’t put Bond in a crocodile submarine unless you’re doing it with a smirk.

The film did well at the Box Office (beating Sean Connery‘s competing Bond film Never Say Never Again) and while critics were divided at the time, the film has since gained wider acclaim, with all the things that made it questionable then, giving it all the charm it has now. Yeah, it’s a different Bond, but it’s a good one. It’s what to watch.

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