The Roger Moore era of "James Bond" finally hit its stride in "The Spy Who Loved Me," easily the best or at least most iconic Bond since the early Sean Connery films. Quick-paced, full of action and laced with clever surprises, the budget poured into the 10th official "Bond" pays off.
The previous few films under director Guy Hamilton, writer Tom Mankiewicz and co-produced with Harry Saltzman were particularly uninspired and formulaic. Whether the return of director Lewis Gilbert ("You Only Live Twice"), the addition of Gilbert's writer friend Christopher Wood or the reins being totally in Albert R. Broccoli's hands had anything to do with the refreshed mentality of "The Spy Who Loved Me" is anyone's guess, but it has a spring in its step to be sure.
Part of that strength could have been drawn from the outside in. The massive scale of "TSWLM" rivals any "Bond" film. Legendary "Bond" production designer Ken Adam absolutely outdoes himself in this film, which sees Bond among remarkable Egyptian ruins, a dazzling underwater villain's lair and aboard a nuclear submarine. The film spares no expense bringing these set pieces to life, undoubtedly adding a great deal of prestige too.
The story has Bond teaming up with KGB Agent Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) after British and Soviet submarines suddenly disappear. Following a lead that involves blueprints for a submarine tracking system in Cairo, Bond and Amasova - while attempting to outsmart each other - run in with the rich and powerful businessman Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) and his steel-toothed muscle, Jaws (Richard Kiel).
The movie definitely lifts elements from "Thunderball" and "From Russian with Love," but it moves like a shark and generally avoids the predictable patterns of its lesser predecessors. Stromberg and Jaws rank among the most quintessential "Bond" villains and henchmen, and though so much about her character disappoints, Bach feels more critical to this entry than most other "Bond" girls do to their respective films. A love story with a Russian spy at least adds some intrigue even if (in the '70s of all eras) she should be able to use physical strength and not just cunning to succeed. She doesn't go nearly as toe-to-toe with Bond as she ought too, especially when considering Bond kills her lover in the opening.
The opening ski stunt, the underwater car, the explosive finale - these are all gimmicks to make "TSWLM" more exciting, but they actually hit their mark because of how they're used and some clever touches (like the Union Jack flag parachute). Add in great American composer Marvin Hamlisch's score and original song recorded by Carly Simon and "TSWLM" manages to check off a lot of the boxes of what made the "Bond" movies so iconic in the early '60s.
The script also embraces more of Bond's past. Rather than bourbon, 007 is back to drinking vodka martinis, and at one point he's confronted about the lover he lost (specifically, who George Lazenby lost in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"). It's small, but in doing so the film tips its cap to viewers who have stuck with Bond over these 10 films.
Moore is also at his best, revealing, specifically, his underrated talent for spot-on facial reactions to some of the more ridiculous situations and happenings. The script seems to embrace the qualities of James Bond that he does best, namely the charm and guile.
"The Spy Who Loved Me" doesn't constitute a brave new direction for Bond by any means, but with all that it has going on and all that it has to look and marvel at, many of the clichés and formulaic bits feel polished and revitalized. And speaking from the perspective of nearly 25 "Bond" films, a great "Bond" simply gets us to fall in love with the series' class trademarks all over again, not grow tired of them. "The Spy Who Love Me" does just that.
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