Live and Let Die:
If you thought that we’d dispensed with James Bond interacting with minorities, we now have Live and Let Die, which is Bond doing blaxploitation. Or should that be ‘Bondsploitation?’ Never mind.
Now, I haven’t seen many blaxploitation movies, so I don’t know what the basic story devices are, but this movie seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. You can see that this is the point where EON was worried the public’s appetite for spy films had been whetted, and were trying to pin James Bond on whatever hot new trend was popular at the time.
Sometimes this can work. Look at the Marvel movies, and how few of them are actually straight superhero flicks. They manage to successfully blend the conventions of comics with other genres. Ant-Man = Heist Movie, Thor = High Fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy = Space Opera, Captain America = Period War Movie/Political Thriller.
So for the record, ‘Bondsploitation’ isn’t an inherently bad idea. With movies like Shaft, Coffy and Foxy Brown giving black actors and performers newfound visibility, it’s an appealing concept to throw James Bond into one of these stories to see what happens. But this idea hinges on one important factor: making James Bond a fish-out-of-water.
You see James Bond, especially Moore’s Bond, is probably the whitest man in cinema. He is staunchly, uncompromisingly, white, British, imperialist – a caricature of an English person.
Bearing this in mind, were I to write a film like this, I’d play up Bond being totally out of his element in the ghettos of the USA. He’d misunderstand slang, make a clumsy remark to a black Bond girl which would put them off him, ask for a vintage wine in a seedy bar and be met with dismay.
Bond would try to play out his usual tropes, but his own prejudice would foil him every time. Only after overcoming his own bias would 007 earn the right to sleep with the lassie, make the quip, etc., etc., and this delayed gratification would mean that the audience would accept the didacticism.
Why not have Bond partner up properly with Agent Strutter? Strutter could act as the deuteragonist, and correct Bond when he makes bigoted assumptions or gets out of his depth. Their conflict could drive 007’s racial epiphany. Bond would still be competent, but in totally unfamiliar territory, and would have to show a bit of humility and, dare I say it, grow as a character, to save the day.
Interestingly enough, in the book this is kinda what happens. Although Bond remains racist, his CIA chum Felix Leiter admonishes him several times for it, and it’s clear that Bond’s attitudes are backward even by Fleming’s standards. Hell, they could have gotten away with making Felix black this time around. That would mean that Bond would have to come to grips with the ‘but some of my best friends are [x]’ bigotry which even the most well-intentioned liberal can slip into. A nice helping of humble pie might be just the thing to ingratiate this uptight G-Man to a black audience in the 70s.
But instead Moore is thrown into a blaxploitation film and shown to perform better than a black protagonist, on his own terms and without much effort, which feels like the movie simply isn’t respecting the genre it’s adopting.
It’s worth mentioning that Roger Moore is actually a good actor when he’s given a chance to be. Watch him in The Saint, and you’d assume he’d be the perfect Bond: charming, sophisticated, romantic, but dangerous when pushed too far.
But unfortunately, the character is overshadowed by his own quirks. He’s formed a tedious shell of martinis, tuxedos, cars and puns around himself and killed the actual person inside. As such, Moore doesn’t get a chance to properly drive the James Bond car. Instead he’s like a train conductor: taking us on a journey, but on rails with the same stops at the same places each time.
This is exemplified by his first scene, which sees M and Moneypenny making a social call while he bangs a Random Bint at his house (looks like Knightsbridge to me, lucky bugger). This necessitates a farcical runaround with Moneypenny trying to prevent Bond’s boss from catching him sleeping with a bit of young totty. Once M delivers his exposition, Bond uses a magnet gadget to unzip the lassie’s top, and jests: “Sheer magnetism, darling.” Christ. This series is starting to resemble Confessions of a Window Cleaner.
The plot involves Bond travelling to Harlem to foil a drug dealer called Mr Big, which seems fairly grounded. Forget lasers and nukes and ransoming NATO, Mr Big just wants to corner the smack market, which is what every real-life kingpin wants to do.
The trouble is that the black gangsters aren’t allowed to be just that. Instead of the Barksdale crew, Mr Big’s criminal syndicate employs a virgin fortuneteller who can genuinely see the future, and a voodoo cult run by a man named Baron Samedi who has actual magic powers. By the way, if you think that JB is going to handle voodoo, a real religion people sincerely believe in, with any actual sensitivity, then I have to ask if you’ve been paying attention up till now.
So Bond goes to Harlem, gets called a honky by men wearing the most aggressively seventies outfits imaginable, and finally obtains a lead on Mr Big. He travels to the Caribbean, and meets up with the son of Quarrel from Dr No (I like to imagine them exchanging Christmas cards over the last decade) and his CIA contact Rosie Carver.
Rosie initially appears to be a capable blacksploitation heroine, and the fact that she’s played by Gloria Hendry would make you think that she’d be a cool, take-no-shit foil to Bond. I keep praying for a cool, take-no-shit foil to Bond materialise … but she never does, and Rosie comes down with a critical case of The Bimbos immediately. The James Bond franchise continually insists upon telling us that screaming damsels in distress are actually deadly secret agents, and provides no evidence to prove it.
Rosie is sadly the latest victim of this tendency, turning out to be a double agent who screams at everything before being killed. What a waste.
Solitaire (the aforementioned prognosticator) doesn’t fare much better, and is yet another one of our rapist protagonist’s victims. Solitaire has been held prisoner by Mr Big. Bond finds her and uses a loaded deck of cards while she performs a tarot reading to trick the sheltered girl into thinking that it’s her destiny to sleep with him. When she does, she loses her magic virgin powers and her life is seriously endangered as a result.
So does this mean that Bond is the kind of person who would carry a deck of 48 cards, all of which are ‘The Lovers’, just on the off-chance he needs them to get his end away? Yes. Yes it fucking well does. About the only good thing that happens to poor Solitaire is that she gets to beat JB at poker.
Bond and her escape to New Orleans together, and a lengthy chase ensues in a double-decker bus. They’re then captured by Mr Big, who peels off his obvious latex mask, and reveals himself to be, (shock-horror) Dr Kananga – the dictator of the Caribbean country that Bond ‘n’ Solitaire have just fled from.
Now at this point, it’s worth mentioning that the villains in Live and Let Die are easily the best part of it. Mr Big is an embarrassing Jive-talking stereotype, but his alter-ego Kananga is two steps ahead of Bond for most of the film; a charismatic, suave bastard. His henchman are just as cool: we have a creepy goon with a wheezy voice called Whisper, a claw-handed hyena of an enforcer named Tee Hee, and Baron Samedi, either an actual Haitian god or a cackling lunatic, whose performance has to be seen to be appreciated.
Kananga gives Solitaire to Baron Samedi to be sacrificed, and Tee Hee and Whisper leave Bond on an island in the swamp to be eaten by gators. This scene genuinely is quite tense, if only because the lizards are 100 per cent real, and health and safety regulations didn’t appear to be a priority on the shoot.
Bond manages to escape and hop on a speedboat, and another lengthy chase ensues. It would be another Temple of Doom Minecart affair were it not for the inclusion of Sherrif JW Pepper: a fat, racist, redneck slob of a sheriff, who seems more like a character from the Blues Brothers than a James Bond film. He’s desperate to arrest Bond for causing such carnage while evading capture, and normally I’d be on his side. But he’s so loud and obnoxious that schadenfreude kicks in when he’s later told that Bond is a MI6 spy and has carte blanche to do what he likes.
Bond goes back to the Caribbean, and rescues Solitaire from the voodoo cult in a scene that’s weirdly reminiscent of Fey Wray getting kidnapped by the Skull Island natives in King Kong. This leads to a really odd moment where Bond is holding up about 60 people at once with his pea-shooter. Baron Samedi appears in a puff of smoke. JB shoots him, he shatters like a vase, reappears about five foot to the left, and Bond throws him into a coffin filled with snakes. It’s a really anticlimactic and perfunctory end to such a hammy character.
But nothing, I mean nothing, compares to how Bond finishes off Karanga. Bond and Solitaire infiltrate his lair and are captured immediately, because Moore’s Bond is about as stealthy as a rhino in a tutu. Both are chained to a hook and slowly lowered into a shark-infested pool. However, Bond uses his magnetic watch to escape and gets into a knife fight with Karanga. They fall into the shark pool together, but Bond is bleeding underwater, the fish are closing in, and then…
… Then Bond force-feeds Karanga a compressed air bullet, Karanga inflates like a balloon, a fake Yaphet Kotto dummy floats into the air, and he explodes like a giant party popper. I laughed so hard at this scene I actually pulled a muscle in my gut. It’s the most ridiculous, stupid, mental death scene of all time. I don’t know what anyone involved in it was thinking.
There’s a final scene on a train (which seems to be an internal reference to FRWL) where, as usual, The Henchman tries one last time to kill Bond. But I can’t remember it. As far as I’m concerned, the film ends with a drug lord being Violet-Beauregarded to death, and no-one can tell me otherwise.
Live and Let Die? I wish they had let it die.