The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) might be the Bond franchise’s creative valley, a movie made up of recycled sequences done better in other films, some even from other Bond pictures. It has but one inspired invention, a location; the rest is either overdone or undercooked.
Even the plot is unambitious. James Bond (Roger Moore) is used to saving the world, protecting the planet from the megalomania of mad men bent on controlling the world’s wealth, pitting the world’s armies against each other or generally dispensing global mayhem. Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), our villain here, wants only to kill Bond, which is what all the others want to do at a minimum. There’s a convoluted element involving a MacGuffin of an energy device worth millions, but it boils down to a hit man with a contract out on 007. Scaramanga is the most feared assassin in the world, one whose services cost a million dollars per body. No one’s ever seen him before, but his victims can be identified as his because they’ve been killed by a golden bullet. Also, it’s known he has a third nipple, which incredibly becomes an important plot point. A golden bullet with Bond’s name is sent to MI6 and the secret service is so frightened of Scaramanga that they pull Bond off an important assignment for fear that he might get assassinated while on it. Bond responds by striking out on his own to find his assassin before his assassin can find him.
The search takes him through much of the Far East, including Macau, Hong Kong and Bangkok, and through a number of lame homages to sequences in better films, including a duel in a fun house lifted from The Lady from Shanghai (1947), plenty of shoehorned kung fu displays (Bond movies have always been absorbers of the current cinematic fashion, and martial arts are the style de jour in this one), and a boat chase that’s reheated from the last Bond movie, Live and Let Die (1973), except without the invention or fun. Even the final sequence is bungled. It’s set up that it will be Scaramanga’s one bullet versus Bond’s six. Bond is lured into Scaramanga’s island fun house and as he begins firing rounds, we keep track in our head anticipating that it will come down to the final bullet, but sadly it, like the tension in the scene, doesn’t even come close. All and all it’s a depressing slog from one uninspired moment to the next.
Even the performances let us down. Moore, who is the funniest Bond, falters when he’s asked to portray real menace, and here there are times when he demands answers with force when he’d be better off using his charm. Lee has the capacity to dominate a movie and cast a shadow of danger over the whole thing, but here, dressed in tacky white suits and short–sleeved tropical shirts, he looks and sounds like someone’s uncle. The two women, played by Maud Adams and Brett Eckland, are never allowed to be more than a cardboard symbol of virtue in Adams’ case and a buffoonish foil in Eckland’s. Only the sidekick Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) seems to be having any fun, and Villechaize saw better scripts on Fantasy Island.
One scene stands out as an example of the film’s disconnect with recognizable human behavior. Bond is at a boxing match; Scaramanga sits next to him with Nick Nack behind him with a gun to his back. They’ve got him. Bond discovers that the energy device is lying on the floor at his feet, something that is missed by eagle-eyed Scaramanga. As Scaramanga yammers away about his childhood, Bond stops a peanut seller, who also is Bond’s man in Asia, and pretends to drop his money, then smoothly exchanges the device for a bag of peanuts. All while Scaramanga looks ahead, barely noticing, telling some story about an elephant he knew as a boy. What kind of target apprehension is that? On what plane of existence would Bond simply want a bag of peanuts in that situation, and what kind of dolt do you have to be to just let him get one? Scaramanga tells Bond “not to bother” with the gun in Bond’s pocket when he first approaches him, but if they aren’t going to notice much when he orders a bag of peanuts, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to pull a gun out and pop the both of them.
There are plenty more scenes as lazily unthinking as this one. As Bond arrives in the bay of Hong Kong, we’re shown a half–sunken ship, the Queen Elizabeth, that we file away in our memories as an arresting image not to be revisited. But when Bond is taken aboard and we find that it actually serves as a secret MI6 headquarters, we’re struck—something interesting to look at! An original piece of filmmaking with its own unique art direction! The ship, which is slanted because it’s half submerged in water, is outfitted with new floors that run flat but the walls and the artwork are all at 45-degree angles. These are the small and brief pleasures of The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond shares a drink with a woman and raises his glass and says something in an Asian tongue. “To this moment and the moment yet to come,” he translates. I’ll drink to the second part.