You Only Live Twice (1967)

Thunderball was terrible, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about movies is that you can never underestimate a franchise’s ability to get even worse. Enter right stage You Only Live Twice, a movie cobbled out of Bondesque elements. The problem is that none of these elements complement each other or even fit into something cohesive. And it’s not as if this film couldn’t have worked, it has plenty of potential, but poor execution.

For instance, the opening sequence of the film is stages the death of James Bond (Sean Connery). For some reason, it feels the need to reference Thunderball by having Bond buried underwater, shuffled off by scuba divers and find out that M (Bernard Lee) is stationed on a sub. It’s a cool change of locale, but it has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the plot. There is no reason for Bond to stage his death or for M to be stationed in a sub. It’s simply ancillary plotting padding the two hour run time.

The rest of the film is filled with similar sequences that have little to no bearing on the overall plot. They don’t get Bond any closer to discovering the identity of the group who has stolen a US space vessel while in orbit. Some of these sequences might be cool in and of themselves, but they don’t develop the plot. This film could have been trimmed down into a 45 minute TV serial. So far, the Bond films have at least entertained me but this one I found to be an overall bore.

I wonder if this is because the filmmakers themselves aren’t sure what this movie is going to be. Instead, it’s a cobbling of scenes and characters from previous films. There are several Bond girls, one that’s almost exactly like Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, another like Sonny from Dr. No and others that appear briefly and are reminiscent of other Bond girls. There’s also the evil henchmen who is, essentially, a taller version of Oddjob and a returning villain that hardly has any screentime.

The plot is akin to Dr. No, it starts off in a seaside town,  as Bond searches for clues, and then it moves to the more exotic natural areas and then finally the secret base. The whole space conceited also is straight out of Dr. No. The problem is that there isn’t as distinct a villain as Dr. No. I wasn’t even sure who the main baddie was supposed to be for the longest time because it seemed like there were several vying for the role.

It’s also anticlimactic when the baddy is revealed and then turns out to be as dumb as a rock. In one scene he tells Bond that there is no way he will even stop his nefarious plan even though less than a minute before he all but told Bond if he just pushes this one button the plan would be foiled. This is why I find Austin Powers so funny, it makes fun of stupidity like this. I’m not asking for a Bond villain to be particularly realistic or complex, but at least don’t make him a retard with short term memory loss.

What distinguishes this film from the others is the Japan setting, a perfect opportunity for a good old culture clash. Bond is so very West with his suave, bold ways while the East is a lot more subdued and seeped in years of tradition. However, this potential conflict is never addressed in any meaningful way. It would have been a compelling contrast in sensibilities and customs, but instead the film wastes itself on small cultural vignettes (such as sumo wrestling) that don’t add anything to the story.

Bond even gets trained as a ninja and it has no bearing or implications on his character. The East is known for their sense of control and discipline and could have Bond grappling with his brash and bold nature. Imagine Bond being taught the most menial things, frustrated at the methodical pace and so brash that he consistently fails at sword duels and is general humiliated until he learns patience and control. But instead the film brushes aside all the implications of Eastern culture, making Bond’s training a nice little montage of dudes swinging bamboo sticks around.

What’s even worse is that when the ninjas finally are in action they use guns. Yes, that’s right, ninjas using guns. Even worse is that they are just as brash and bold as Bond. Being a ninja is about speed, stealth and sharp objects, not guns. This film is akin to spiting in the face of every Eastern person in the world, totally Westernizing everything about the East instead of embracing the unique culture they have.

And that did it in for me. There is so much potential for a fantastic film here but instead it wallows in trying to cobble together elements of the previous films into something that resembles a Bond film. The result is an absolute mess of a film that doesn’t understand how any of the elements at play and how should interact with each other, if they do at all. It also has ninjas using guns, which is now in my top 5 worst things I’ve seen on film, in-between seeing Jack Black topless in Nacho Libre and the entirety of Crank: High Voltage. You may only live twice but, luckily, I only have to watch this movie once.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

You Only Live Twice [DVD]

  • Dan

    I think this is when they started to take Bond a little less seriously. Post Austin Powers, the undergound lair and all the preposterousness might seem stale and dated, but I prefered this to the Connery’s first two outings.

  • edgarchaput

    You know what, I think you would like the novel ‘You Only Live Twice.’ It takes the Eastern setting more seriously. The problem is that it is a sequel to the previous book, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, so you’d have to read that first, but I think you might find it more interesting. I know I do.

    Totally fair review, by the way (even I though I was more kind to the film).

  • Silver Emulsion

    Everything you said here it true. Even still this is one of the funnest Bond pictures and I never tire of this one.

    I have to second what edgarchaput says above, the books are great. Book Bond is a lot less dependent on gadgets and they are more of detective novels in a way.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I like the detective aspect a lot more than the gadget action stuff, but both are fun when done properly.

  • Dylan

    Completely understand all of your gripes with this one. It’s seriously executed poorly and left a ton of potential on the table. Despite all that, I enjoyed it, probably largely because of Austin Powers. This seems to be the film (of the first five that I’ve watched thus far) that lent the most to (at least the first) Powers film, and it’s hard not to enjoy it solely due to that. Well, that and I legitimately dug the Super Secret Villain Lair. It’s ridiculous, but very well-crafted in its cheesy 60s way and lent itself not only to Powers but to The Incredibles, so I am contractually obligated to enjoy it. I wanna hang out there.

    Also, I imagine that this film was highly influential in getting Connery the role and/or influencing his character in Rising Sun, which is a trashy flick that I just love.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Yea, I’m glad it exists because I love some of the stuff it inspired, but it mostly just reminded me of how much I enjoy those other things way more than I enjoy YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.

  • opencurtin

    Interesting that Charles Grey starred as Henderson in this and then Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever 1971..