You Only Live Twice marks the moment where the Bond movie franchise crossed over from semi-realism into the realm of action/fantasy, almost bordering on science-fiction.
Thunderball was billed as "The Biggest Bond Of All", which of course it a ludicrous claim to put on a movie poster as you're basically saying from here on out it's all downhill. Fifty years of record breaking Bond movies have proved that wrong, but it did obviously pose a challenge when it came to making Bond 5.
The stakes had to be higher, the threat had to be bigger, the gadgets had to be more gadget-y! Little Nellie, anyone?
Our higher stakes plot is the imminent threat of World War III. The catalyst for this is a craft of unknown origin which has hijacked a US spaceship. The Americans accuse the Russians of the theft, which the Russians deny. The US Government then announces that they will be sending another craft up into space in just three weeks, and if that one is stolen as well then they will declare war on Russia.
However, British Intelligence satellites pick up an unidentified flying object going down in the seas of Japan. The Americans still think it's those pesky Ruskies, so now its over to James Bond 007 to find those responsible for the theft. Because of the high stakes and the time pressure, MI6 needs to make sure that Bond will not to be distracted by his old enemies, so they fake his death and the world hears that 007 has been assassinated and buried at sea in Hong Kong.
Once in Japan, Bond forms an alliance with Tiger Tanaka (the head of the Japanese Secret Service), Tiger's competent (and of course female) agent called Aki, and some ninjas. Remember, 007 has three weeks to fix things, surely he's got time to take in some sites? Go see Mount Fuji or Osaka Castle. Well, any plans Bond might've had for sightseeing go straight out the window when a Russian spacecraft is hijacked in a similar manner as the original US one. So now the Russians are accusing the Americans of retaliation, and the Americans (quite illogically) decide to bring the launching date of their next rocket nearer. And again, they re-iterate the threat of immediate war if their property is hijacked.
007 discovers that SPECTRE are behind the hijacking, and the future of mankind now rests with Bond and his Japanese alliance. But before he can storm the SPECTRE lair, Bond has to undergo Ninja training. This apparently takes three days and involves chest hair bleaching and an ever so slightly racist make-over.
Clearly You Only Live Twice is totally different to the first two movies in the series (Dr. No and From Russia With Love), it is intentionally extravagant and more than a little far-fetched. It draws on elements from Goldfinger and Thunderball, but reaches an apotheosis of sorts in terms of ludicrous set pieces. It's also the first Bond movie to be radically different from the novel it was based upon (from a screenplay by Roald Dahl), in fact the only real similarities are the existence of Japan, the Japanese secret service and main antagonist (we'll get to hin). Probably because of this You Only Live Twice gets a lot of negative criticism from many Bond fans.
For me though, the most disappointing element of the movie is Sean Connery himself. After a run of performances each eclipsing the last, Connery really scrapes by in first gear. Having already announced his resignation from the Bond franchise, his lack of enthusiasm shows (and it was even worse in Diamonds are Forever). Watching now it feels like a contractually obligated performance, showing up in front of the camera because he has to, not because he wants to.
Thankfully You Only Live Twice has an ace up its sleeve. One of the most memorable characters in the history of the James Bond films, and the finest portrayal of him to date. Ernst Stravo Blofeld finally decided to show his face, and it really was worth the wait. Donald Pleasance plays him with chilling effect. He had a screen time of maybe only 15 minutes, but in that small time Pleasance totally dominates the film. His soft voice, his blank but menacing expression, his white cat, his pool of piranhas, Pleasence created a villain unrivaled by any in the Bond series. Why he did not reprise his role has always been a mystery to me. Telly Savalas made for a decent enough Blofeld but when reading any of the Bond novels, the image of Blofeld I have is Pleasance, and nobody else.
You Only Live Twice set the foundation for the camp-filled Bond films of the 1970s (and the Austin Powers series of movies). The exotic locations and over the top ideas are things that would be further exaggerated and expanded upon throughout the Roger Moore era of the character. And whilst not my favourite film in the franchise it's not the worst Bond, not even the worst Connery Bond (or even the worst 'official' Connery Bond).
There is still plenty to enjoy in You Only Live Twice - the action is tight and fast paced, the story is simple to follow and is actually quite exciting, the Japanese backdrop is stunning, and the haunting theme song by Nancy Sinatra still remains one of the best Bond themes. If you're looking for a couple of hours of escapism, you could do much worse.
By day, an ordinary bloke in a dull 9 to 5. By night, a tired ordinary bloke. Martin still hasn't worked out what he wants to do when he grows up. He is currently 46.
James Bond will return next Thursday...