3.5 of 5 stars
A.k.a. “The Shaft Bond.” Live and Let Die revives the Bond franchise and marks Roger Moore’s debut as 007. In this blaxploitation Bond, the British secret agent goes interracial to expose a prime minister’s complicity in a drug-trafficking scheme, and proves once you go black, you don’t go back. (Literally, this is the only Bond film with a black villain.)
Bond is awoken in the middle of the night by his boss, M, after three Brits are murdered—one at the U.N., one on a street corner in New Orleans, and the third on a Caribbean island known as San Monique. Bond assumes the three murders are connected and heads off on the first flight to New York to investigate.
Soon after arriving in the Big Apple, 007 find himself in the clutches of one Mr. Big, a black crime lord who runs the drug rackets in Harlem. Mr. Big gives his lackeys an order to “take this honky out back and waste him.” Bond easily escapes, and then goes down to the fictional island nation of San Monique for the next stage of his investigation.
Bond begins to suspect a connection between Mr. Big and the Prime Minister of San Monique, Dr. Kananga. He wonders aloud why a Prime Minister would associate with a New York gangster. Bond’s American counterpart asks why a powerful crime lord like Mr. Big would need a “two-bit island diplomat” like Kananga. The question should be how didn’t anyone notice the connection earlier, given Mr. Big and Kananga roll with the same crew, but have never been seen together, and Mr. Big looks a lot like Kananga wearing a bad prosthetic face?
While traversing around San Monique, Bond discovers a secret, large-scale poppy-growing operation (I didn’t realize growing poppies was illegal. Also, couldn’t Kananga, as the prime minister, legalize it so there wouldn’t be a need to hide it? Am I over thinking this?), protected by the locals’ fear of voodoo symbols surrounding it, including Baron Samedi, a voodoo spirit by day, and (bizarrely) a minstrel show performer by night. Here, Bond is assisted by a bumbling CIA double-agent named Rosie Carver. Bond makes love to her before revealing he knows of her duplicity. He holds a gun to her face, and she says, “You couldn’t, you wouldn’t, not after what we’ve just done.” Bond replies, ‘I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before.’ Bond finds a true ally in Solitaire, Kananga’s virginal tarot card reader, who Bond tricks into sleeping with him by having her draw her fate from a tarot card stack he has replaced entirely with “Lovers” cards.
Finally, Bond goes to New Orleans to establish the connection between the poppy fields on Kananga’s island and Mr. Big’s chain of soul food restaurants, Filet of Soul. Bond is captured again and Mr. Big reveals himself to be Kananga (spoiler!). Bond is taken to a crocodile farm where he is left to be fed to the reptiles while no one is looking. He escapes in a motor boat, leading to one of the best chase sequences in the series, as Bond speeds down the river while being pursued by Kananga’s gang and Sheriff J.W. Pepper, who, by the looks of it, is apparently an actual Louisiana sheriff who doesn’t know he’s on camera.
In the final act, Bond returns to San Monique to confront Kananga and rescue Solitaire, only to be recaptured and tied to a “ridiculously slow-moving dipping mechanism” where he will be fed to sharks (unfortunately without frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads).
Bond manages to cut himself loose and kill Mr. Big by shoving a compressed gas pellet down his throat, causing him to inflate like a balloon and explode.
Solitaire asks, ‘Where’s Kananga?’ Bond quips, ‘He always had an inflated opinion of himself.’
Rejected lines from earlier drafts include:
There’re bits and pieces of him all over.
Now I know why they called him Mr. Big. He blew up real BIG before he exploded. (wink wink nudge)
Despite the silliness of Live and Let Die, the movie was a step in the right direction after the cheese fest that was Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery’s last outing. There is plenty to like about this film, not the least of which is the boat chase (even though the sequence goes on too long after it has run out of steam). The theme by Paul McCartney and Wings is the best in the series, and redeems the line from Goldfinger where Bond says, ‘My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ‘53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!’ Jane Seymour is stunning in her first major role. Now I know why my grandpa was in love with her!
Mr. Big/Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) is the only black villain in the series, and is a refreshing change from the Eurovillains who pervade the rest of the films. The choice of supporting cast was also excellent, especially Earl Jolly Brown as Mr. Big’s henchman Whisper. Brown was a real-life friend of Kotto who got the role at Kotto’s insistence because he was actually unable to speak above a whisper.
Moore was 46 in this first of his Bond films—five years older than Connery when he bowed out in the previous film. Nevertheless, Moore’s take on the character was fresh and amusing. He didn’t have Connery’s screen-presence, but he breathed new life into the series and helped audiences accept that someone other than Sean Connery could play the role.