Legal issues and licensing problems meant there was a three year gap between films in the Bond franchise. This was an unusually long break considering the current rate was about one a year. Frankly, after the joyless snooze-fest that was The Man with the Golden Gun, this break was probably welcome relief for audiences.
The producers called You Only Live Twice director Lewis Gilbert back in to direct the film, and of course Roger Moore resumes his long stint as 007.
Right off the bat it’s clear that the break has done the franchise a world of good.
For starters the plot is simple; two nuclear submarines have been stolen (a British one and a Soviet one) and Bond is sent to find out what happened. Along the way he teams up with a Russian spy, Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) to solve the mystery.
Yes, this is just a seafaring version of You Only Live Twice but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 80% of these Bond films are about the execution. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
The opening scene is a fantastic ski chase. It’s frenetic, high-speed excitement and on top of that Gilbert manages to make it funny without trying. Bond shoots from a ski pole that doubles as a gun. He goes off a cliff and deploys a Union Jack parachute. It’s silly but in the moment one can’t help but grin.
The writers have stopped trying to shape Moore into a Connery-type character and instead let him expand on the promising work he did in Live and Let Die. He’s at ease, confident and charming. Yes, he’s starting to show his age a bit (he’s older than Connery!), but it doesn’t matter.
They also went back to the winning formula of having the leading lady be a strong, smart character critical to the plot. It’s in stark contrast to Brit Ekland’s hapless idiot from three years ago. Barbara Bach has the same alluring quality on screen, but she’s just so much more memorable.
Bond’s relationship with Amasova is novel. They are colleagues and lovers, and it’s evident that the two are genuine equals. Bond killed a lover of hers on a previous mission which provides tension between the two. It’s back story, but it’s plausible and doesn’t feel like a hasty afterthought.
Moving on, the set design and technical direction is fantastic. The villain’s base looks like a giant black spider, rising up out of the ocean. They haven’t put this much work into how the film looks since the 60s days. Again this borrows from You Only Live Twice in its scale and scope. They spent $1.8m on a new sound stage to make the décor look good and although I’m not usually a fan of spending for the sake of it, the result here is a true spectacle.
The submarine car provides a genuine ‘holy shit’ moment, and it’s capitalised upon by some beautiful underwater imagery.
The only dull moment is the inevitable climax, a shoot out on a ship. This is also reminiscent of You Only Live Twice, and it’s equally boring. There are too many people in a scene with too little going on. Like almost every single Bond film so far, we could probably have lost 20 minutes from the end.
It’s hard to understand the insistence on these scenes, but they need to go. It didn’t work in the 60s and it’s not working now.
The Spy Who Loved Me provides a much needed kick up the arse to a franchise on its knees. It’s funny, exciting and made with panache. This is one of the best films we have seen so far.