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Consumed With Hate: Live and Let Die

🤵‍♂️ They've Given You a Number and Taken Away Your Name...

The Crime: Live and Let Die
The Guilty Party: Guy Hamilton? Roger Moore? Tom Mankeiwicz? Ian Fleming? All of the above?
Overview: Roger Moore's first outing as James Bond is... [checks notes]... a blaxploitation film?

Why I Hate It...

Let's get one things out of the way from the get-go: Most James Bond movies are bad. It is not a good franchise. For every actual good movie--say, a Goldeneye or Casino Royale--you then get a string of disappointments featuring a lead who is increasingly tired of the role and a story development pipeline that is phoning it in. This death spiral will continue until the movies start to tank at the box office and the whole franchise has to reinvent itself again. Even the classics are worse than you remember. Thunderball is a snoozefest. On Her Majesty's Secret Service aspires to tell a story with more weight behind it, but is held back by a lead who has all the screen presence of a boiled potato. Goldfinger may have that iconic theme song, but it also expects us to take seriously a woman named "Pussy Galore" and the ending hinges on a bunch of people lying down when they see a plane overhead. Some of the later Connery flicks have some swagger and panache, but the stories get very dumb.

So, given all of that, how do you pick a "worst" Bond film, and why did I go with Live and Let Die? Is it because I hate Sir Roger George Moore, Knight of the British Empire? Is it the deviation of the character from Ian Fleming's original vision? Is it the incongruous theme song from Paul McCartney and Wings? Or is it the racism?

Honestly, it's mostly the racism. This is a hard movie to watch on those grounds alone. This is a movie about drug trafficking in Harlem and the conspiracy seems to involve... let me take a look here... every black person ever born. Whole parades of "mourners" participate in assassinations. There's a scene where Bond is taking a cab into Harlem and people keep reporting his location on their radios as he goes past. It's ridiculous, but within the bounds of believability for a grandiose spy movie. It's when the cabbie--who was not even in Harlem at the start of this sequence, but was just a random black cab driver--also appears to be in on the conspiracy, that's when it starts to feel icky. It gets even worse if you dig into the themes. The inciting incident is an assassination, but the overall upset of the status quo is that black drug lords are making a power play to snatch the market away from the New York mafia. Now let me re-phrase this for the kids in the cheap seats. The problem isn't drug trafficking per se, it's that black criminals are out-maneuvering white criminals and this was such an affront to the British government that they sent their best agent across the ocean to intervene.

The story eventually finds its way to the Caribbean (this is a Bond film after all, some modest amount of globe-trotting is de rigueur) where it further expands the discomfort with a little Voodoo exoticism. Bond fights some lieutenant named Baron Samedi who dies multiple times but keeps coming back because Voodoo but somehow Bond wins anyway even though the flick ends with Samedi perched on the back of the train Bond is currently riding (this is a Bond film after all, some modest amount of traipsing around Europe by rail is de regueur). This ending supremely annoyed me. Leaving aside that Baron Samedi is an ugly caricature of Haitian culture, he's also immortal, apparently? Meaning magic is real in the James Bond universe? It kind of breaks the whole thing apart if you think about it for more than ten seconds. And yes, I understand that this is a weird thing to get hung up on and devote half a paragraph to, but it's my blog, dammit...

But I think the worst part of this movie and its attitude about race is how transparently cynical it is. The pitch is basically: "You know how those Shaft movies are making a lot of money by catering to an under-served film audience? How can we get in on some of that action while missing the point entirely?" It's based loosely on the novel of the same name, so it's not like the producers invented from whole cloth a plot about a Harlem drug ring being infiltrated by a white Brit in business attire. But I'm also pretty sure Fleming didn't write any pimpmobiles into his story in 1954. And, look, I understand the impulse, and in the 1970s that sort of thing wasn't frowned upon the way it is now. And I also understand that improving the financial prospects of a property you own by "borrowing" from brown people in a foreign country is as quintessentially British as spotted dick. But as your first outing with a brand new James Bond? Really? Aren't you supposed to save that nonsense until you're three or four pictures in? I mean, that's a choice.

And speaking of choices, let's talk about Moore, since he was a skosh divisive and this was his first film in the role. Sean Connery had now quit the franchise twice. He would quit it for a third time in the 80s, but for the moment he was reinventing himself as a dominatrix. Moore was in many ways the obvious candidate. His television work on The Saint throughout the 1960s meant he had name recognition and credibility as a spy, and his commitments to that show had kept him from ever appearing in Bond films in a supporting role. James Bond at the time had the same problem that Doctor Who does now: when it's time to swap out the leads, how do you find a British actor that hasn't already been on the show? In that sense, Moore was a find. He just didn't feel very James Bondy, was the problem. He was older than Connery by three years and was starting this career trajectory at the age of 45. By his own admission, Moore is not a very intimidating physical presence. He's less of a charismatic thug than a fun uncle, and his version of the character leans into the comedy. Because while Connery's Bond was campy, Moore is a straight-up goofball. This is the Bond who disarmed a bomb while dressed as a clown. This is the Bond with a driving stunt that was augmented with a slide whistle.

Just to be clear, even though I think all of Moore's Bond movies are bad--and they are--that doesn't mean I think he's a bad James Bond. My favorite classic Bond movie is A View to a Kill, because if you're going to do camp, you can at least have the decency to hire Christopher Walken and Grace Jones to be your villains. (Moore, incidentally, hates that movie.) Moore's interpretation of James Bond is different, but he makes it his own and he's a charismatic screen presence despite his age and general lack of menace. I also don't think it's a problem that Moore's Bond is the biggest departure from the original character out of the entire lot. Ian Fleming's Bond is a sociopath that the British government hires as an assassin while they wait for him to drink himself to death. It's good that the movies opted to make him fun instead, just like it was good for the movies to change the name of franchise's long-running villain syndicate from SMERSH to SPECTRE. This is something that undoubtedly happened after extensive market research, or possibly just someone saying the word "Smersh" out loud. Just roll that one around in your mouth a few times. Smersh. SMERRRRRSH. Sounds super evil, right?

But I think there's a bigger question that needs to be answered in the context of James Bond movies and it is this: Why are they still making James Bond movies? They keep trying to update the franchise for modern times, but it never works because the character is a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War. And if that line sounds familiar, it's because Judy Dench said it as a winking nod to the audience in Goldeneye which came out in 1995. That's right, almost thirty years ago, Bond had already aged so poorly that the movies felt the need to hang on a lantern on it. But even beyond that, the niche that James Bond filled just isn't there anymore. There are plenty of mindless stunt-and-gadget-heavy vaguely intrigue-centric films out there. Everything from John Wick to The Fast and Furious is taking a slice of that pie. Hell, the Mission: Impossible franchise is basically the same thing exactly, only with better gadgets, better quality control, less baggage, less womanizing, and also Simon Pegg, who is just a delight. And at some point Tom Cruise is going to realize that he's too old to jump out of airplanes anymore and will hand off the role to, I dunno, Shia LeBoeuf or something. It's gonna happen, and at that point methinks Bond will be rendered completely irrelevant.

Next week we ponder whether we really are all just bricks in The Wall...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.