The Man with the Golden Gun (Ultimate Edition) Review

I really really want to love The Man With the Golden Gun. On the face of it, what’s not to love? It has everything a Bond film should have: exotic locations complete with a hidden villain’s base, pretty girls, the requisite collection of fights, chases and explosions (and at least one truly memorable stunt), an experienced director with three previous Bonds under his belt (including Goldfinger no less), and, as the central protagonists, two leads in Roger Moore and Christopher Lee who in theory should be at the top of their game. Forget everything you know about the film for a minute and just think about the concept of Christopher Lee as a Bond villain. The man who was Dracula, Lord Summerisle, would one day be Saruman himself, facing off against 007. Shouldn’t that be potentially the greatest thing in the world ever? His villain even has a cool name, Scaramanga (you can tell it’s cool because it has the word “scar” in it). What could possibly go wrong?

But that’s the problem. Nothing does go wrong particularly… it’s just that nothing goes right either. This is not a bad Bond in the same way Moonraker or Die Another Day is a bad Bond, it’s just desperately insipid. There’s a real sense of going through the motions about the whole endeavour (Bond even says at one point "I have run across similar situations"), a lethargy that suggests everyone is there out of a sense of duty rather than that they really want to make another Bond, just ticking off the points that go into a typical Bond formula. In a way, it’s unsurprising: this was, after all, the ninth Bond picture, the fourth for director Hamilton, one that was rushed into production following the success of Live and Let Die to continue the momentum surrounding Moore, and one that really does smack of a rushed job. At times the confused screenplay feels more like an early draft rather than a shooting script, full of huge plot holes and half-thought-through ideas, without a single genuinely new concept or moment of inspiration to be found anywhere. Together with a louche-like central character who is at times painful to watch, a bizarre characterisation of the lead villain which doesn’t work at all, and a half-hearted climax which neither shakes nor stirs, and the feeling one comes away with is wondering how two hours passed, given so little of consequence seems to happen.

The film opens with Bond receiving a death threat through the mail in the form of a golden bullet with 007 inscribed on it. Only one man is known to use such bullets, the mysterious Francisco Scaramanga, the world’s greatest assassin with a fee of a million dollars per contract. Determined not to be his next victim, Bond travels to Hong Kong to track the killer down before the guy puts a hole in his head and there, teaming up with the inept Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) discovers there’s a connection between Scaramanga and MI6's hunt for a missing Solex Agitator, the film’s mcguffin that does something or other with solar power and which mustn't fall into the wrong hands. And thus many hijinks ensure as the two adversaries play cat and mouse around the city before they all head back to Scaramanga’s island for a lunch of mushrooms and a deadly duel on the sun drenched beach.

As a screenplay it’s very undeveloped, with the main problem being a lack of focus. There are two disparate plots running side by side - Scaramanga’s apparent contract against Bond and the hunt for the Solex whatsit - that only come together through a rather improbable coincidence. As a result, the audience is never quite sure what Bond’s primary mission is once he’s tracked Scaramanga down: is he trying to get his solar doodad, is he trying to kill Scaramanga, is Scaramanga trying to kill Bond (something he himself seems to change his mind about on every meeting between them) and so on. The goalposts change so often one ends up confused, but even with this haphazard approach there isn’t enough story to merit a two hour film. The schizophrenic feel to the piece is down to the fact that original screenwriter Tom Mankieweicz (who had also written or co-written the two previous Bonds) wanted to do something entirely at odds with Hamilton. The latter wanted to make a lighter, more frivolous movie, the former a darker and more serious piece, at the centre of which would be a great battle of wits between two great killers, Bond and Scaramanga. As a result of this creative disagreement Mankieweicz left the project, to be replaced by veteran Bond scribe Richard Maibaum, but there wasn’t enough time to completely change Mankieweicz's original script before shooting started, resulting in the hodge podge it became, one in which the broad humour of Miss Goodnight sits right next to the drama of Bond slapping around Scaramanga's mistress for information.

The most disappointing consequence of the rewrite is how Scaramanga was redrawn. At odds with what Mankieweicz had envisaged and Lee himself had wanted to play, Hamilton told the actor constantly to “play it light,” with the result that Scaramanga is perhaps the least scary cold-blooded assassin in history. Indeed, far from being the emotionless enigma one would expect a man in his position to be, he’s positively jolly, not at all the recluse M tells Bond about at the beginning, exchanging good humoured banter with his sidekick Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) and socialising freely, even going so far as to seize the assets of a former client who he decided needing offing himself. There is no menace to the man at all (quite a feat from Lee) and as such the audience never feels threatened by him. Even the more over-the-top Bond films usually get this right: for example, as nonsensical as the events surrounding him are, one always feel Hugo Drax means business. Here Scaramanga is rubbish: he might be a good shot, but that matter not a jot - indeed, Bond comes across as far tougher in the aforementioned scene with Scaramanga’s mistress (who, incidentally, is played by future Octopussy Maud Adams). Lee is his usual charismatic self in the role and quite the best thing in the picture, but that doesn’t make the fact his performance is a miscalculation on the part of the director any less true, and a real missed opportunity. (It also doesn't help that his ultimate aim is one of the weakest of any Bond villains; basically he wants to steal electricity which, next to Blofeld's desire to start World War Three, hardly ranks as a dastardly scheme).

Of course, it doesn’t help the credibility of a contract killer when he lives on an island complete with its own fun house and has as a sidekick a comedy French dwarf. Unlike most I don’t actually mind Nick Nack that much: once one accepts the film as a whole is below par, he makes for an amusing diversion and brightens up otherwise boring sequences. Paradoxically he’s also arguably the most interesting character in the film, as he spends his days serving Scaramanga while at the same time trying to find people to bump him off. That’s what the fun house is for: Scaramanga uses it as a training ground, Nick Nack finding suitable stooges to put in there for Scaramanga to stalk, the twist being that Nick Nack actually wants the stooge to win. That said, he seems quite happy about the fact they never do, and in general seems very happy with his place in life. He’s preposterous, but works for me in a way that Scaramanga doesn’t; at least he seems a well conceived concept character, and Villechaize is an amusing performer to watch. Although pushing it, I don’t think he’s unsuitable for a Bond film, although if one was serious about the whole thing he should probably have toned it down slightly.

But then one can’t be serious about the whole thing, because Hamilton wasn’t. The level of humour is upped here, and although it’s not nearly as bad as it would get, it’s a far different film tonally than the Sixties ever saw, particularly in regard to the characters. Emblematic of the style the director wanted is Mary Goodnight, the klutzy attaché Bond has to work with in Hong Kong. Poor old Britt Ekland doesn’t get treated with any respect at all, as she’s there purely as cotton candy, serving as either comic relief (such as her kidnap in Scaramanga’s car) or decoration (the last quarter of the film she spends her time running round in a bikini). For those reasons, she’s perhaps the most irritating Bond girl of them all, albeit one perfectly in keeping with the film’s ethos that if it either amuses or looks good it stays in. Just as unwelcome is the return of redneck Sheriff JW Pepper from Live and Let Die who joins Bond in a car chase although at least, unlike his first appearance, he does get some moderately amusing lines.

It’s this preponderance to humour that allows Moore to get away with a performance that would otherwise have been rather sickening. His Bond is at his most lounge-lizard-like persona, constantly schmoozing with any woman who comes near him, in a manner which makes the secret agent slimy rather than sexy. That sexism runs right through the film - as mentioned, see Ekland, particularly in a toe-curling moment when she first rejects Bond’s advances and then comes crawling back, saying she was weak and couldn’t possibly turn down the chance. “Oh James, I never thought this would happen,” she gasps. Oh God, I really wish it wasn’t happening. That aside, Moore gives a typically Moore-ish performance throughout the picture, and only once comes alive, in the scene in which Scaramanga says they are very alike. Bond’s anger is genuine there, and Moore comes across surprisingly powerful in his rejection of the comparison, almost as though he temporarily wakes up from his automatic acting pilot before slumbering again. Moore championed the progression towards a more light-hearted Bond so it's an irony his finest moment in this film is such a serious one.

Over everything hangs a profound sense of ennui. With the exception of Lee none of the actors seem alive with the secondary players distinctly unmemorable - even Adams, a world away from her more spirited performance in Octopussy. There’s not even a great attempt made to capture the locales the film is set in. Unlike most Bonds, which go out of their way to paint a picture of the culture and atmosphere of whichever country they are set in, here detail is almost incidental. A boat chase shows various shanty towns out of the corner of the picture, Hong Kong itself is completely anonymous and could just as easily be downtown London with a few Chinese signs put up, while the karate school is bland and not nearly as interesting as the ninja equivalent in You Only Twice. It’s not just the exteriors that bore either; the interior sets are a pretty dull lot this time around too. Scaramanga’s HQ is a generic Supervillain Base with no distinguishing features whatsoever (with the exception of the Fun House which doesn’t really count) and I’m straining to think of one memorable detail from the other places Bond visits, with no luck. When one considers these places include a belly-dancing club in Beirut, another club called Bottoms Up in Hong Kong and the den of a major Chinese criminal one can see that it truly takes a complete lack of exertion to make none of them remotely interesting. The one exception to the rule is the MI6 base which is found in a capsized liner in Hong Kong harbour: the rooms are all built at a slant and it’s an amusing and well put together set (although, in keeping with much else of the film, unbelievable in the context of a series Bond picture).

The one moment everyone remembers from the film is the car jump across the river in a three hundred and sixty degree roll. As I say in my You Only Live Twice review, a major appeal of Bonds is down to the fact that a lot of the stunt work seen on screen is real, and never is that truer than here. The idea of the stunt came from a demolition derby and stunt car fair promoter WJ Milligan, and the technical aspects were worked on what was then a sophisticated computer program. Come the day of shooting, however, no one was quite sure if it would work, but work it did - so well, in fact, that Hamilton, feeling it had looked a little smooth and improbable, asked if the driver, Lauren “Bumps” Willard, would mind doing it again. Milligan, politely but firmly, said not bloody likely. It’s a great moment, although frustratingly cheapened in the final film by the addition of comedy sound effects. (Since that day Milligan’s shows have often featured the stunt, which was christened the “Astro Spiral.”) There certainly isn’t anything else in the film to compete with it, certainly not set piece wise, with a half-hearted climax that is virtually identical to the pretitles sequence and a few fist fights making up the bulk of the action (one of which leads to a real WTF? moment: Bond has been taken to the karate school to be bumped off, only to be rescued by pal Lt Hip (Soon-Taik Oh) and his two nieces. Having got him out of the building they seem satisfied they have done their job because, despite the fact Bond is being chased by a multitude of very cross martial arts experts they cheerfully drive off, a particularly bizarre example of the slapdash approach to the film).

That said, it’s possible, if one turns one’s brain off completely, to garner some enjoyment from the film. It’s a sloppy concoction that smacks of a creative team needing time off, with nothing notable in script, design or main players, but if one takes one’s pleasures from Lee and Nick Nack and the fact it's drivel it could be a worse viewing experience. There’s much entertainment to be had from spotting reflections of cameramen in mirrors - even I, who don’t usually notice such things, counted at least two instances and according to the imdb there’s even more - and there are much worse, offensively bad Bonds out there. Ironically, although the stories are almost entirely dissimilar, TMWTGG the film is not unlike TMWTGG the novel. The last Bond novel Fleming wrote, he died after completing the first draft only so that it has none of his stylistic touches or moments of brilliance that can be found in nearly all his other works are present. It follows the formula but doesn’t have the style of the earlier books, just like the movie. Even John Barry’s music sounds as though it’s coasting. Originally this was a film that could have been made several Bonds previously in 1966 only to be shelved (the reason being the producers had wanted to film in Cambodia and shortly after discussion became serious all hell broke loose there) and it’s interesting to wonder how things would have been different had it been made at that period in the franchise’s history as opposed to this, when silliness was becoming an ever-more prevalent factor.

Unsurprisingly, the box office was severely down from Live and Let Die, so much so that the plan to pump out a Bond a year was quickly shelved although, to be fair, that also had to do with the fact this was the last film Harry Saltzman would be involved in. He and Broccoli had had problems in their professional relationship for some time, and the last few Bonds the pair had alternated creative control (Broccoli was in charge of this one) but things soon blew up after the release of this film with Saltzman’s financial situation that led to him, after much acrimony, leaving the franchise forever. A shame this was his last film, then, but one suspects that he, much like many others at this point, were just tired of Bond. It was time for a rest, a rest that three years later was to pay dividends.

The Disks
As with all other UEs, the film comes on two disks, Disk One having the film itself and commentaries and Disk Two all other extras. Disk One follows the pattern of the others by opening with a trailer for all the UEs, but it can be skipped.

The main menus are the same as in all previous UEs, with a stylised background into which slots clips from the film. Very atmospheric, and very Bondian. All the extras bar the Commentary are to be found on Disk Two.

For a look at more of the menus click here.

The film is presented in its original US 1.85:1 ratio, uncut, in an anamorphic transfer. An odd transfer, in that it starts off quite poorly but then about twenty minutes in suddenly gets far better. The opening scenes are grainy with very noticeable compression difficulties but once Bond heads to Beirut it improves noticeably. Paradoxically looking better than some of the more recent Bonds on these UEs (notably Goldeneye) but not as good as some of the improved Connerys, this transfer is successful, with only the occasional suspicion that flesh tones are a bit rich. Eminently watchable but not worth upgrading for if you already have the acceptable SE.

Aurally this is not the most exciting of Bond pictures, with precious few big bangs, so this is not one of the films that benefits most from the new DTS. For that reason alone it's not worth upgrading; the DTS is fine and ups the ante slightly from the still adequate 5.1, but there's nothing notably more impressive here.

As with all the reviews for these Ultimate Editions, the Extras have been broken down into New and Old, depending on whether they have appeared on a previous DVD release of the film. The second disk is divided up into five main categories: Declassified: MI6 Vault, 007 Mission Control, Mission Dossier, Ministry of Propaganda and Image Gallery and which extra comes from which section has been indicated accordingly.

New Extras

Commentary with Roger Moore
Another enjoyable commentary from Moore, which has much rambling but is still enjoyable to listen to. There are periods of silence, however, but not so many that they are a major problem.

Declassified: MI6 Vault

The Russell Harty Show (2:51) Rather rashly edited collection of clips of an interview Moore and Villechaize gave on Harty’s talk show. These are literally snippets, no more than a sentence or two at a time, pasted together without any overriding pattern, resulting in what comes across as a jerky series of soundbites rather than a useful interview. Looks like an entertaining show, too, which makes this all the more frustrating. Irritating.

On Location with The Man with the Golden Gun (1:26) Brief but entertaining glance at behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Bottoms Up Club in Hong Kong, narrated by Michael G Wilson. Complete with a couple of snippets from Moore and Ekland this makes for a lightweight but amusing featurette.

Girls Fighting (3:28) Utterly boring behind-the-scenes footage of the girls fighting at the ninja school. Michael G Wilson tries to raise some excitement at the beginning by telling us it’s all very intricately worked out but this is a featurette with a title that promises far more excitement than it delivers.

American Thrill Show Stunt Film (5:02) “If you want to stretch human believability to its limits, if you want to break attendance records, then you want the American Thrill Show!” This is a featurette made to promote a company that ran demolition derbies, headed by WJ Milligan of “Astral Spiral” fame. It’s very Seventies, very American and very cheesy, and as such is a highly amusing period piece - watch out for the awesome computer that can perform calculations in twenty seconds that a normal calculator would take a whole year to do! There’s plenty of footage of the somersault being practised as well, and its debut in front of an audience. All in all, great fun. Comes with an optional commentary from Mr Milligan himself.

Guy Hamilton: The Director Speaks (5:04) Hamilton recollects about his start in the business and goes on to talk about Bond in what sounds like an edited version of a radio interview, played over photos of Hamilton working on his various Bond movies. Vaguely interesting.

The Road to Bond: Stunt Coordinator W J Milligan (8:00) Mr Milligan returns in an extra similar to the Hamilton above, a sound-only track in which Milligan talks about his career up to and including working on the Bond.

007 Mission Control
Apologies to those who have read a lot of these reviews, but this is a rubbish section on all the UEs and, as they’re identical, I’m just cut’n’pasting my comments across each time. Almost a complete waste of disk space. This feature consists of series of clips from the film, organised into various categories, namely 007, Women, Allies, Villains, Mission Combat Manual, Q Branch and Exotic Locations. Most of these main categories lead to a submenu, in which individual character clips can be selected - for example, the Allies category lists M, Miss Moneypenny, Q, Lt Hip and J W Pepper. Each character has multiple clips, but no collection lasts more than a few minutes. The majority of this is utterly superfluous - does anyone really need to see all of JW Pepper’s finest moments collected together in one easy-to-watch package? Or all the fight scenes for that matter? Added to this the fact that some clips are repeated multiple times, and you have a section on the disk you can almost completely avoid. Almost: the two useful contributions being the chance to watch the opening sequence without any credits overlaid on them, and the Exotic Locations section, which is a five-minute sequence of clips accompanied by a commentary from Maud Adams in which she disperses interesting trivia about the places we are seeing - the only featurette that isn’t subtitled. These two aside, this is just padding the disks out.

Image Database
Most of the galleries on these new UEs have been much of a muchness, but this one attempts a slightly different approach, with the categories deviating a bit from the usual list of actors. Instead they are, in order, Portraits, Press Conference, Phuket, Bangkok, Bonding with AMC, Dojo 007, Aboard Scaramanga’s Yacht, Hong Kong, Pinewood, The Golden Gun and Flying Car and finally Around the World with 007. Other than that it’s exactly what you would expect, a mixture of behind-the-scenes material and publicity shots.

Old Extras

Audio Commentary
Maybe it's just because it's a boring film, but I found this a rather dull commentary. Even though it's exactly the same as all the other cut'n'paste commentaries on the Bond DVDs, superbly edited together from disparate interviews with plenty of people who worked on the film, nothing they say is really terribly interesting and my mind wandered. It's well put together, but not a thrilling listen.

Mission Dossier

Inside The Man with the Golden Gun (30:57) There’s little more that needs to be said about these Patrick Macnee-narrated documentaries: they’re superb, the highlight of all the Bond disks, and this one is no different. Featuring contributions from virtually everyone still alive involved with the production, including Hamilton, Moore, Lee, Ekland, Adams and so on there’s only one issue it skirts over, and that’s the departure of Saltzman. Other than that, good stuff.

Double-O Stuntmen (28:36) Enjoyable but bitty whistle-stop survey of all the major stuntmen who have doubled for Bond through the years, from Bob Simmons on. Each film is covered with brief comments from an impressive number of those involved in working on the stunts through the years and it’s a nice piece, but each scene is given too brief a time for it to be a truly effective piece. Still nice.

Ministry of Propaganda
Two theatrical trailers, two TV spots and three radio adverts make up this release’s trailer park. The original disk had one less trailer and no radio adverts, so it’s an upgrade of sorts.

You know you’re in trouble when the opening credits start and Lulu starts bawling out of your speakers. With the exception of the stunt featurette, the new extras aren’t much cop either, making this an utterly missable entry into the UEs.

4 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 20/06/2018 16:26:55

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