Roger Moore takes a lot of grief for his stint as James Bond. Looking back at his time in the role, countless fan polls have named him the least favorite actor to play the character. He is also typically blamed for the franchise's deterioration throughout the 1970s and early '80s. Certainly, it's undeniable that he starred in some of the very worst James Bond films (including 'Moonraker', still the nadir of the series). During his tenure, many of the Bond movies became progressively sillier, blander, and dumber. However, it's unfair to lay all the blame on Moore personally. Agent 007 took his first drop in quality as far back as 'You Only Live Twice' (1967), a ridiculous and ungainly mess of a spy adventure. Frankly, Sean Connery's final appearance in 'Diamonds Are Forever' (1971) is a turkey almost as bad as anything to follow. Personally, I feel that Moore usually isn't given enough credit for his better movies (like 'The Spy Who Loved Me' or 'For Your Eyes Only') and for so capably taking over the part from Sean Connery. As much as Connery was the perfect James Bond for the 1960s, Roger Moore was the right Bond for the '70s.
Lest we forget, he was a popular choice at the time. In fact, the actor had been an early favorite for the 007 role before Sean Connery was eventually cast, and was at the top of the list when producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman needed to replace Connery. If not tied up with other commitments, he might have stepped in as lead in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1969) instead of George Lazenby. When Lazenby didn't pan out as a long-term replacement, the producers convinced Connery to come back for one last hurrah in 'Diamonds Are Forever' before beginning the search for another star. Moore's name came up once again, and this time he was available. The fans approved. His background playing suave, dashing adventurers in the successful TV series 'The Saint' and 'The Persuaders!' made him seem a perfect fit. By the time 'Live and Let Die' was released in 1973, there was a real excitement to see Roger Moore become James Bond. In many respects, he tackled that challenge with panache.
What Roger Moore did very smartly right from the beginning was tailor the Bond role to his own personality and strengths as an actor. Whereas Lazenby had largely tried to play Bond just as Connery previously had, which only left audiences feeling that he was no substitute for the real thing, Moore made the part his own. While obviously not as rugged or macho as either of his predecessors, Moore didn't pretend to be. Instead, he played up the debonair, sophisticated side of the character. Moore's Bond is a real gentleman spy, quick of wit and beguilingly charming. The actor also had a reputation as a clotheshorse, and made for perhaps the most dapper of all the Bonds, even when trapped in the fashion nightmare of the 1970s. In 'Live and Let Die', Moore's wardrobe remains perfectly impeccable in every scene, standing out from the atrocious bellbottoms and pimp hats all around him. His Bond is truly a man apart.
As for the movie itself, 'Live and Let Die' makes a decent introduction for Roger Moore, but is among neither the best nor the worst of the franchise. It's a particularly dated adventure, cashing in on the Blaxploitation fad that had started a few years earlier with the likes of 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' and 'Shaft'. The plot finds Bond traveling from Harlem to New Orleans to the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique (really Jamaica) on the trail of the villainous Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), that nation's prime minister. In his spare time, Kananga also has a sideline career as Mr. Big, a jive-talkin' crime lord planning to monopolize the American drug trade. The storyline would probably seem more racist if not for Kotto's memorably charismatic performance. Like any good Bond villain, Kananga of course has a secret underground lair with a monorail and shark tank. But he also has a pimpmobile, which makes him immeasurably cooler than any of Bond's prior adversaries.
Assisting 007 are his CIA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who would reprise the role 16 years later in 'Licence to Kill'); Quarrel Jr., son of the character that befriended Bond in 'Dr. No'; and Rosie Carver, a 'Cleopatra Jones' wannabe with a gloriously large afro wig. Bond's tryst with Carver marks the series' first interracial love scene. Among the baddie's henchmen are the soft-spoken Whisper, the claw-armed Tee Hee, and the dancing Voodoo priest Baron Samedi. Jane Seymour makes her feature film debut as Solitaire, Kananga's virginal Tarot reader whom Bond will naturally be unable to resist deflowering. Sadly, Desmond Llewelyn does not appear as Q, his only absence between 1963 and 1999. The character is mentioned by name when Bond receives his primary gadget, a wristwatch with a powerful electromagnet. Also of use are a grooming kit with bug detection equipment built-in and a shark gun that shoots explosive gas pellets. (Gee, I wonder if that will come in handy during the movie's climax.)
Director Guy Hamilton had previously helmed 'Goldfinger' and 'Diamonds Are Forever', respectively the best and worst of the earlier 007 movies. 'Live and Let Die' falls right in the middle. In its favor is the blazing theme song by Paul McCartney and Wings, which finally brings James Bond into the rock & roll era. The song is still a classic and inarguably one of the series' best title themes. Other memorable moments include the New Orleans jazz funeral, the double-decker bus chase, Bond racing a grounded plane around a runway, and the speedboat chase through the Louisiana levee system. A fight aboard a train recalls the similar battle in 'From Russia with Love', though without as much success. In a stunt as audacious as it is idiotic, Bond crosses a pond by leaping across the backs of a line of crocodiles (while wearing crocodile shoes, 'natch).
Decidedly a detriment is Moore's unsuitability as a physical man of action. He is utterly unconvincing in the fight scenes, which hilariously feature plenty of one-hit knockouts. Just a tap from Moore's featherweight punch and his opponents are on the ground cold. Even the famous chase scenes are awkwardly staged so that there's always a convenient ramp in the road for a motorcycle to fly off into the ocean or a car to crash on top of an airplane. The comic relief appearance of the bigoted hick Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is especially grating. Somehow, the character was immensely popular at the time, enough so that he was brought back for 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. James parlayed the role into a whole career of similar appearances in features from 'Silver Streak' to 'Superman II', as well as numerous TV show walk-ons. He also essentially formed the basis for Jackie Gleason's character in the 'Smokey and the Bandit' movies. For whatever reason, people found cartoonishly caricatured racists to be a laugh riot in the '70s and '80s. The humor doesn't play nearly as well in retrospect.
Even with all its faults, 'Live and Let Die' is a respectable entry in the James Bond canon with some solid entertainment value. If not a timeless classic, it's also not quite the sort of travesty that some of the later Roger Moore pictures would become.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Live and Let Die' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) in a few packaging options. The movie is available singly in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover or in a Steelbook case exclusive to Best Buy stores. 'Live and Let Die' is also included as part of the 'James Bond Collection: Volume 1' box set with 'Dr. No' and 'Die Another Day'.
Upon loading, the disc prompts a BD-Live network connection for no particular reason. There is no BD-Live content on the disc. The Blu-ray is Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone BD player. At the time of this writing, many standalone players are having problems loading the disc at all. Several manufacturers have released or announced impending firmware updates to resolve playback problems with this first wave of Bond titles. Fortunately, the Sony Playstation 3 and the Panasonic DMP-BD50 used for this review are unaffected; both play the disc without issue.
As had become a habit with all of MGM's DVD releases of the James Bond franchise, the disc has overly-elaborate animated menus that are obnoxiously designed and confusing to navigate.
In my reviews of earlier Bond Blu-rays, I was floored by the stunning restoration work performed by Lowry Digital Images on both 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia with Love', but was less enamored with 'Thunderball'. I'm glad to say that 'Live and Let Die' returns to the same high standard of those first two titles. The disc looks terrific.
Despite the franchise having moved to Panavision 2.35:1 widescreen for its last four movies, director Guy Hamilton brought 'Live and Let Die' back to narrower proportions. The Blu-ray is properly presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is bright, sharp, and colorful. The picture has strong textural detail in facial features and clothing fabric. The image quality is especially revealing of the plastic snake held by the Voodoo priest and the lack of bite marks on the first victim's neck. On Quarrel's boat, the topless pin-up photos that were somehow snuck into this PG-rated movie are clearly discernable. The awful makeup on Mr. Big doesn't hold up well to high-def scrutiny.
Mild film grain is apparent but well handled for the most part. Colors are vibrant, and the contrast range is rendered with strong black levels and excellent shadow detail. Some very minor edge ringing on occasion and a few rare patches of noisy grain are the only demerits to this otherwise outstanding transfer.
Like the previous Bond titles, MGM offers the 'Live and Let Die' soundtrack in either its original mono (encoded as lossy Dolby Digital 1.0) or a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. The quality of the remixes on the earlier movies was hit-or-miss, and unfortunately this film is more on the "miss" side. For one thing, the levels are a mess. The musical score is REALLY FREAKIN' LOUD, like someone accidentally spun the volume dial all the way to the top and didn't notice. Meanwhile, the dialogue and sound effects are virtually silent in comparison. The track will have you riding the volume control constantly.
The score's artificial stereo processing isn't very convincing. Directional steering and surround effects are gimmicky. Bass activity has also been boosted to obnoxious effect, and throbs inappropriately throughout the movie. Yet explosions are strangely underwhelming.
With all that said, the mono track is certainly no better. It's very weak, quiet, and shrill. Since we have to choose, the 5.1 option is probably the lesser of two evils. Of course, that's hardly an enthusiastic recommendation.
All of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 have been carried over to the Blu-ray. Once again, there's a worthwhile assortment of material in there.
'Live and Let Die' is a middle-of-the-road James Bond adventure. It's a fair enough introduction to the Roger Moore era, but the star wouldn't really hit his stride for another couple films. On the plus side, the Blu-ray looks terrific and has a compelling selection of bonus features. Recommended.