On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
'Live and Let Die' was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008. Portions of this article first appeared in our original review of that disc. However, the audio and video technical sections have been freshly updated.
"What are you, some kind of doomsday machine, boy?"
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's 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', arguably 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, Moore 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 that attempts to cash 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 who plans to monopolize the American drug trade. The storyline would probably seem more racist if not for Kotto's 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. This is the actor's only absence between 1963 and 1999, but his 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. (Ironically, Connery had made a disparaging quip about the Beatles in 'Goldfinger'.) Other memorable moments include a New Orleans jazz funeral, a double-decker bus chase, Bond racing a grounded plane around a runway, and a 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's 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 fall to 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.
Aside from the physical labeling and artwork, the copy of 'Live and Let Die' in the 'Bond 50' box set is identical to the Blu-ray released in 2008. It has the same menus, the same audio and subtitle options, etc. For fans who don't care to (or aren't able to) purchase the whole box set, MGM Home Entertainment has also released a standalone reissue of this movie in its own separate keepcase.
'Live and Let Die' was one of the Bond titles fortunate enough to receive a 4k scan by Lowry Digital for the Ultimate Edition DVD set in 2006. When I reviewed the Blu-rays that were released in 2008, I was particularly impressed with this disc. Upon rewatching it now, my feelings have mostly held up, though some flaws stood out to me more during this viewing than I noticed before.
Even though the franchise 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 and sharp. At times, it seems too bright. Some dark or shadowy scenes appear washed out and grainier than the rest of the film. Colors are mostly solid, but the image has a bit of a yellow push, often noticeable in flesh tones. (It's likely that this may also account for the elevated black levels.)
To make up for that, the picture fortunately has very strong textural detail in facial features and clothing fabric. At times, it's actually too revealing of production issues, such as the plastic snake held by the Voodoo priest, or 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. I consider that level of transparency to be a good thing.
I made a decision not to re-read my old review of this disc before watching it again, because I wanted to approach it from a fresh perspective. About 30 seconds after the movie started, I realized that this was a mistake. If I'd read that review again, I would have been warned about how seriously screwed up the soundtrack's levels are. Right off the bat, the volume of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix nearly blew me out of my chair. The music is abrasively loud, about 10 dB higher than any other disc in the box set. It sounds like someone accidentally spun the volume dial all the way to the top and didn't notice. Meanwhile, dialogue and sound effects are much lower in comparison. I found it very difficult to find a compromise setting that wouldn't leave me riding the volume control all through the movie.
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.
Sadly, the original mono track (only available in lossy Dolby Digital) is certainly no better. It's very weak, quiet and shrill, with generally poor fidelity. When forced to choose between the two, 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. There's a worthwhile assortment of material in here.
The 22-film 'Bond 50' box set is an outstanding collection of one of cinema's most enduringly popular franchises. 'Live and Let Die' may be a middle-of-the-road James Bond adventure, but it's a fair enough introduction to the Roger Moore era. The star wouldn't really hit his stride for another couple films.
Even though the Blu-ray is a simple reissue of a disc first released in 2008, it still looks pretty good and has a compelling selection of bonus features. The Blu-ray rates a solid recommendation whether you purchase it on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package.
James Bond will return.