The end of the Connery era, the culmination of the SPECTRE storyline, and finally seeing the face of iconic villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. You Only Live Twice captured my imagination like no other Bond movie as a kid. Volcano lairs and ninjas only furthered the childlike fascination and sense of wonder I felt. This was one of my favorite Bond movies growing up, which makes it all the more disappointing to report this is one of the Connery movies that most shows its age.
You Only Live Twice opens with a pre-credits scene burned in my mind, kickstarting with the murder of James Bond. Our famed secret agent has finally been caught out. The credits roll and we pop back to his funeral and the image of his body falling to the ocean floor. I was blown away at this and even more by the reveal that his death was faked to throw off the various baddies chasing after Bond. It’s great stuff.
It’s also undercut from the start by the very first line that James utters in the movie being a racist query about Chinese women. This, in a nutshell, is the problem of You Only Live Twice. In Roald Dahl’s script, the film almost seems to go out of its way at times to just chuck out a racist or sexist line or two. The charm and easy-going balance of a film like Goldfinger has been utterly lost and in its place has come this film with an audacious premise and tons of baggage along with it.
I once heard You Only Live Twice described as a travelogue for Japan and in many ways that’s a perfect descriptor for what this movie feels like at times. Never before has a Bond movie been as obsessed in ways good and bad about its location. Sweeping beautiful vistas and images of both the Japanese countryside and cities are presented in vivid detail. The history of Japan, its culture, and language are all shown off to varying degrees of success. Yet, it feels like very few, if any, native Japanese were consulted on the film. For as much as I love the movie’s infatuation with the country I also can’t help but feel the grain of a vacationing colonial viewpoint at times. Roald Dahl and his script fail time and again here.
Sean Connery is at his breaking point with the character of Bond here. Burnt out and exhausted by his run as James Bond and hounded by the press, he announced this would be his final outing as 007 midway through filming and that sense of impending doom seems to carry forward into the film itself. There is just a melancholy to You Only Live Twice that is unique to Connery’s era. And Connery himself gives a very unsure performance, his heart in it only half the time.
Everywhere you look, this odd feeling pervades. Aki is a great character for Bond to bounce off of and fall for and then we kill her off and chuck in Kissy in her place, a character with far less chemistry and whose sudden falling for Bond feels both out of place and jarring.
Tiger is a fantastic ally for Bond in the movie, but also features in one of the series lowest points in terms of its treatment of women with the bath scene between him and Bond. You Only Live Twice is bound up in this struggle between great moments and scenes and recurring issues of race and sex that, multiple times, it loses.
Blofeld’s reveal is iconic and one of cinema’s most famous, the volcanic lair might still remain the most famous not just in the history of the Bond series, but possibly in all of film in terms of villain hideouts. Production designer Ken Adams is at the height of his powers with this towering and magnificent creation.
The face to face scenes we get between Bond and Blofeld are great and a fantastic pay off to the prior films and the final battle scenes in the volcano are great stuff. Indeed, the last act as a whole, once Bond gets to the volcano lair, is really top notch all around and easily the film’s highpoint.
In many ways You Only Live Twice is the opposite of the film before it. Whereas Thunderball was largely good until its mess of a last act, it’s in the last act that You Only Live Twice truly comes alive and shines its brightest. This is what the movie has been wanting to get to all along.
You Only Live Twice is tricky. Featuring some of the most famous and iconic scenes and lines from the 59-year series, yet also brought down to earth by moral failings of Roald Dahl’s script. I can now say assuredly it’s not one of the best Bond movies, or even one of the best Connery films, which would have shocked 7 year old Logan. But that’s growing up. In the end it is a up and down film with both great moments and truly bad beats and for all else both a good and disappointing end to Connery’s original run as James Bond.
Best Moment –
The Little Nellie sequence is rad and still holds up so well. I like the fight in Osato’s office between James and one of Osato’s henchmen. And pretty much everything that happens in the volcano lair in the last act is great. From Blofeld’s reveal, Bond’s fight with Hans, or the many ninja vs. SPECTRE agents battling, it ends on a great note and is easy to spot why little Logan loved it so much.
The Villain –
Ernst Stavro Blofeld is James Bond’s most famous foe. Indeed the only main villain to appear in multiple films. Here in You Only LIve Twice, we get the most famous and enduring visual look of the character in Donald Pleasance’s clean shaven, with the scar over the eye, take on the character.
Pleasance is mostly unseen in the film and we probably only get him on film for less than ten minutes but he makes every single moment he gets count. Unnerving, intense, and larger than life I love this version of Blofeld; it’s the one I always think of when I think of the character. There are some, like Trevor, who it doesn’t work for as much because we get so little of him on screen, but for me it’s great. Pleasance shines as Blofeld in the last act when the film peaks and he is a large part of why. The only thing holding him back is we just need more of him.
As for the henchmen, Osato is neat, Helga Brandt is totally bland and Hans is the first in the long line of Red Grant big baddie Euro clones we will get. This is Blofeld’s movie and he takes the villains to a 9/10
Little Nellie let’s go fam. This tiny mini helicopter from Q is the only gadget that Bond gets on screen from the quartermaster but what a one to get. Absurd and fantastical but also an utter joy to watch on screen I’ve always loved the bright yellow and black look of Little Nellie. It is for me one of the enduring gadgets of the Connery era. 9/10
The Music –
Nancy Sinatra’s theme is great and a cool, slower take on a Bond theme that fits perfectly with the locale and vibe of the movie. It’s fantastic and one of my personal favorites. 10/10
Final Ranking –
You Only Live Twice is the end of an era for Bond. The five-film run of Sean Connery, from Dr. No to You Only Live Twice, defines what we think of as the classic era of Bond. Indeed in many ways it still serves as the benchmark and lasting image of who and what James Bond is. The series would never be the same after this film’s release in 1967. Yet, over 50 years later we can appreciate what those five films created and how, by the time credits rolled here, the series was in need of a new change. Sean Connery was done. That comes across both in his performance and also in the many public comments he gave at the time. Ultimately, You Only Live Twice represents both some of the best and also very worst about his run as Bond. A film with iconic locales, villains, and moments that operates at a very up and down pace and is plagued by its writing and dialogue. Connery deserved a better swansong than this jumbled film of good and bad. In the end though it’s ok, because as the film’s credits remind us, James Bond will return for a new adventure, always. 7.5 /10