Roger Moore's stint as secret agent James Bond 007 began inauspiciously. His debut in the role, 'Live and Let Die', made a respectable introduction for the actor, if little more. The film allowed Moore to confidently tailor the character to his own screen persona, but otherwise was a rather bland and derivative adventure, lacking the innovation or larger-than-life thrills that made Bond such an icon in the 1960s. Unfortunately, his second entry, 1974's 'The Man with the Golden Gun', represented more of the same.
By Bond standards, 'Golden Gun' is a low-key and small-scale affair. The story pits 007 against Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), an elite assassin renowned for charging his wealthy clientele $1 million a hit. Scaramanga has never been caught or even identified. All that's known is that his weapon of choice is a custom golden pistol, and his only distinguishing feature is a redundant third nipple on his chest. (It's more common than you'd think.) Scaramanga, it turns out, admires Bond greatly, and challenges the agent to what he considers a battle of equals. Super spy vs. super assassin, may the best killer win.
Of course, Bond has to find him first. The trail of clues leads 007 on a whirlwind tour of exotic locales from Beirut to Macau, thence to Hong Kong and Thailand. Assisting him in the mission are agent Mary Goodnight ('70s socialite Britt Ekland, more famous for her short-lived marriage to Peter Sellers than her limited acting abilities), and Scaramanga's abused girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams making her Bond debut -- the actress would later return for the title role in 'Octopussy'). Desmond Llewelyn, who was absent from 'Live and Let Die', returns as Q, though is given little to do here. He provides Bond with a helpful bit of intel, but no gadgets of note.
Indeed, as a change of pace, the villain has most of the cool toys in this outing. Scaramanga's car converts into an awkward and goofy-looking airplane. His signature gun can be assembled from a pen, cigarette case, lighter, and other assorted bric-a-brac in his pockets (a trick that John Malkovich would later steal for 'In the Line of Fire'). And the plot's primary MacGuffin is a "Solex Agitator" in his possession, a remarkable little doodad that could solve the world's energy crisis. Or, in this case, can be used to power a handy laser cannon that was apparently purchased from the Auric Goldfinger estate sale. Funnily enough, Scaramanga could be considered the first "green" Bond villain. His fabulous secret lair is powered entirely by solar energy and other sustainable resources. I'm sure he even recycles.
Naturally, every good villain requires a good henchman. Here we have Hervé Villechaize as the diminutive Nick Nack, who acts as Cato to Scaramanga's Clouseau, a personal valet that cleans up after the dirty work and routinely sets up elaborate booby traps throughout the lair to help hone his master's fighting skills. He also greets all new arrivals to the private island, a job that would later define the remainder of the actor's career.
Director Guy Hamilton had previously been responsible for both one of the best Bond pictures ('Goldfinger') as well as one of the worst ('Diamonds Are Forever'). His work here is more or less a duplication of his efforts on 'Live and Let Die', falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, neither great nor terrible in any distinct measure.
The action in 'Golden Gun' is generally uninspiring. Although Moore's fight scenes are a bit more energetic than the absurd featherweight one-hit knockouts that populated 'Live and Let Die', the star is still entirely unconvincing as any kind of physically imposing threat to his adversaries. A bit of kung-fu fighting nonsense (the movie followed in the wake of Bruce Lee's breakout success and tried to cash in on the martial arts fad) looks especially ridiculous. A boat chase and car chase are well-staged but break no new ground. The picture has one truly amazing stunt, in which Bond's car jumps a broken bridge and does a complete spiral in the air. Mind you, this was in the time before CGI artists could simply paint any crazy thing they wanted on screen. A real driver actually performed this feat live in front of the cameras, in one take. However, what should be a breathtaking, white-knuckle moment is completely undercut by an idiotic slide whistle sound effect on the soundtrack.
Also ruinous to the proceedings is the return appearance of Clifton James as the comic relief, redneck racist Sheriff J.W. Pepper, who we're meant to believe is on vacation in Thailand just as Bond gets there. He even conveniently happens to be at a car dealership when Bond steals a vehicle. Why in the world this man would want to buy a car in Thailand is a question I suppose we're not meant to ask. The character was inexplicably popular at the time, but the alleged humor has not aged well at all.
Aside from one unfortunate track suit, Lee makes an elegant and well-spoken foe. But, in the end, he's just not one of 007's greater challenges. In fact, their final confrontation wraps up fairly quickly, after which the movie pads out its climax with some pointless explosions (it couldn't be a Bond picture without a bunch of expensive sets and miniatures getting blown up) and a Rosa Klebb-style comedic denouement.
The film's theme song by Lulu has corny lyrics and isn't particularly memorable. On the other hand, the production design and art direction are pretty terrific. The slanted sets for the secret MI6 base hidden in the wreckage of the RMS Queen Elizabeth are a standout, and play like something out of a German Expressionist silent. Scaramanga's funhouse obstacle course is a silly and frankly nonsensical plot gimmick, but is a lot of fun visually.
At this stage in the franchise's history, Roger Moore was comfortably settling into the role of James Bond. Sadly, 'The Man with the Golden Gun' is another middle-of-the-road adventure that largely wastes his talents. The actor wouldn't truly hit his stride until the next entry, 'The Spy Who Loved Me'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Man with the Golden Gun' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). This film and 'Licence to Kill' were initially released to the Best Buy chain in March of this year, packaged in an exclusive box set with 'Quantum of Solace'. The individual discs later hit general retail separately in May.
The Blu-ray comes in a standard keepcase with slipcover. Unlike previous waves of 007 titles, neither 'The Man with the Golden Gun' nor 'Licence to Kill' has been issued in Steelbook packaging as of this writing.
Like all of the James Bond catalog Blu-rays, 'The Man with the Golden Gun' has undergone some measure of clean-up work by Lowry Digital Images. However, according to the credit at the end, this one hasn't had the benefit of a new 4k scan, as their best remasters have. What this generally means is that Lowry was handed an existing high-def master and did their best to tweak it a bit. The results on earlier discs like 'The World Is Not Enough' were uneven, to say the least. Fortunately, despite this, 'Golden Gun' looks pretty terrific for the most part.
As he had for 'Live and Let Die', Guy Hamilton shot 'Golden Gun' at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This would be the last Bond picture composed for that narrower format. (Most are photographed for "scope" 2.35:1.) The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is exceedingly sharp and detailed. It's especially revealing of the sloppy makeup applied to Bernard Lee's (M's) face. The picture is bright and vividly colorful, which is a rare quality for a movie made in the typically drab 1970s. The contrast range is also well-defined, with a nice sense of depth and very good shadow detail.
Some ringing artifacts from artificial sharpening occur every so often, but are usually minor and unobtrusive. (The problem is worse on 'TWINE', for example.) Unfortunately, posterization and digital blocking artifacts are sometimes quite severe in contrasty scenes with heavy colors, such as almost all of those set in Scaramanga's funhouse. Dark scenes and shadows are also distractingly noisy at times. Whether this is due to the AVC encode or some of the other digital tinkering, I can't say. But it detracts from an otherwise good-looking disc.
Once again, MGM has remixed the movie's soundtrack into DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. The original monaural mix has also been included in standard Dolby Digital 1.0 format. Prior 5.1 remixes for the series have been hit-or-miss in quality. Thankfully, 'Golden Gun' falls on the favorable end of that range.
John Barry's score is presented with good dimensionality and musicality. It sounds to have been remastered from the original stereo recording stems. (If not, the work is good enough to fool me.) The music is broad, loud, and clear. The track remains primarily focused on the front soundstage, but has been given a bit of surround action. Fortunately, nothing too forced or gimmicky. Directional pans sound organic and natural, and work well during the car chase.
Dialogue is crisp and always intelligible. Sound effects are sharp, especially the cracking gunshots. (It must be noted that the pistol belonging to the hit man at the beginning is awfully loud considering that it quite visibly has a silencer attached. But that's a fault of the sound designer, not the Blu-ray audio.) Bass action is moderate, but explosions deliver a nice thump. All in all, this is one of MGM's better 5.1 remixes for the series.
All of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 have made their way to the Blu-ray.
'The Man with the Golden Gun' is certainly far from the worst of Roger Moore's run in the James Bond franchise. It is, however, also far from the best. The Blu-ray has very good picture and sound, and a bunch of interesting supplements. 007 fans will find it worth owning.