Bondathon #5: You Only Live Twice (1967)

Posted: March 18, 2016 in Movie Review
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You Only Live Twice (1967)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsuro Tanba, Teru Shimada, Karin Dor, Donald Pleasence, Bernard Lee

All good things come to an end and, while the James Bond franchise is still going strong today, it became clear in 1967 that the end of an era was on the horizon. Sean Connery made that much a reality when he announced his retirement from the role that brought him fame during the filming of “You Only Live Twice.”  I can understand any actor getting tired of playing the same character over and over, especially when you’re still young and are afraid of getting typecast. Still, the uncertainty of whether or not one can duplicate their success in other projects would give most anyone pause. Yet, when you’re as burned out as Connery was, there’s really no other option, other than to continue producing sub-standard material by not putting forth the best effort. “You Only Live Twice” shows the early signs of this, and so it can be argued that Connery did in fact make the correct, if unpopular decision.

James Bond is dead… or so that’s what MI6 would have everyone believe, especially SPECTRE. In reality, Bond is being sent on a new mission to Tokyo, Japan. An American spacecraft has been intercepted by an as yet unidentified second space vehicle. While the United States pretty much automatically suspect the Soviet Union’s involvement, the British government have turned their attention to the Japanese based on the site of the anonymous vessel’s landing. Once in Tokyo, Bond meets with Japanese secret service agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) who puts him into contact with a fellow MI6 agent with some useful intel. Before Bond can get much out of him, however, the agent is killed. Bond kills the assailant and poses as him to get the driver to take him back to the headquarters of Osato Chemicals. Bond then wins a fight with the driver and steals some documents. The actor portraying the driver is pro wrestler Peter Maivia. You may not know him, but you are no doubt familiar with Maivia’s grandson: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

Bond’s theft does not go unnoticed, and he requires help from Aki to survive. Aki  brings Bond to her boss, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba). Examination of the documents point to the cargo ship Ning-Po as being somehow tied in with the missing spacecraft. Eventually, Bond meets with Osato (Teru Shimada), who unbeknownst to Bond is a SPECTRE agent. Osato hands the assignment of killing Bond to Helga Brandt (Karin Dor). Outside the building, Bond once again narrowly dodges assassins’ bullets with the aid of Aki, who is driving a getaway car. They reach Kobe where they locate the Ning-Po, which Bond boards and is met face-to-face with Brandt. He thinks he has won her over with his charm, as has worked on so many other women in the past. However, when Brandt agrees to fly Bond back to Tokyo. But Brandt then sabotages the plane and bails, leaving Bond to seemingly perish. Her plan fails when Bond manages to land the plane and escape in time before it explodes. Not that I would have wanted her to, but why didn’t she just shoot him?

Tracking the Ning-Po’s movements, Bond discovers SPECTRE’s base… hidden inside a dead volcano… when his helicopter comes under fire. At the same time, SPECTRE is capturing a Russian spacecraft, thus confirming that their plans are to push the Americans and the Soviets into war. SPECTRE’s leader, Number 1, is furious that Bond is still alive, and feeds Brandt to his man-eating piranhas. Without knowledge that his cover is already blown, Bond undergoes training as a ninja and is made up to pose as Japanese. Maybe it’s the cheap makeup, but the ‘disguise’ is laughable, making Connery more closely resemble Burt Reynolds with a bad toupee than a Japanese citizen. An assassin sent by Osato tries to poison Bond in his sleep, but mistakenly kills Aki instead. Still foolishsly continuing the ruse of being Japanese, Bond is “married” to a student of Tanaka’s named Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Kissy’s only other contribution to “You Only Live Twice” is to send for Tanaka’s squad of ninjas once Bond has located the entrance to the SPECTRE base.

Up to this point, “You Only Live Twice” has been a pretty decent Bond film. Not anywhere near “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger,” but at least comparable with “Dr. No” and “Thunderball.” That all changes in the final twenty minutes. For reasons I’m still not exactly clear on, the Americans tempt fate by launching another spacecraft. Meanwhile, Bond has found his way inside the base, freed the imprisoned American astronauts, and is posing as an astronaut with the intent of boarding SPECTRE’s Bird One and halting Number 1’s plans. How he planned on accomplishing this is beyond me, since I question whether Bond has that kind of training. It doesn’t really matter, since Number 1 has recognized Bond and has his men bring 007 to him. It’s here that Number 1 finally reveals himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). The entire series had been building up to this moment… and it just falls flat. Pleasence’s version of Blofeld has none of the menace that the character’s previous dark and mysterious appearances promised. He’s the Wizard of Oz after the curtain has been pulled back.

Blofeld launches Bird One, and the Americans and the Soviets prepare for what seems like imminent conflict. However, Bond is able to get Tanaka’s forces inside the building. The ensuing melee allows for Bond to sabotage Bird One and save the day. Blofeld then aims a gun at Bond, but shoots Osato instead as punishment for his failures. He then turns the gun back on Bond, but is stopped at the last instant. It’s not as though “You Only Live Twice” was the first Bond film in which the villains could and should have easily killed him when the chance fell their way, but it’s the most egregious violation so far. Instead, Blofeld escapes and sets the base to self-destruct. Our heroes escape just in time to watch the destruction from a safe distance.

Up until now, I’ve refrained from making any “Austin Powers” references. Through the first four films, there are certain scenes which anyone familiar with the Mike Meyers comedies will recognize. However, without “You Only Live Twice,” there would be no Austin Powers. From the secret volcano lair to the elaborate battle scenes between two large armies… and the fact that Pleasence’s Blofeld is the direct model for Dr. Evil… There is much about the first two “Austin Powers” features in particular that owe everything to the fifth James Bond adventure. Its inspirational qualities in that regard do help to make the movie more enjoyable, but it’s obvious that something had to change after “You Only Live Twice.” Only time would tell if the series would enjoy a second life.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Again, I agree with and admire your review. I’m fond of the memory that my parents treated me like an adult when I turned 15 and took me to see this movie, but it just wasn’t up to snuff; and I, too found Donald Pleasence not very scary. I do love him in many other roles, of course, just not as Blofeld.

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