Live and Let Die: Supernatural, But Unremarkable James Bond

Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die

Digging through the James Bond catalogue has been one of my go-to film pleasures over the years. To my knowledge, few other film series can match the continued output and relevance of Bond. There are a whopping 25 films in this franchise (including the soon-to-be-released No Time to Die), and 27 if you count the non-Eon produced films.

For me, the appeal of Bond films is that they’re romantic. Bond may be a killer, but he’s a lover of life. His adventures take him to various exotic locales and through stunning architecture. As a secret agent, the wind in his worldly sails is the need to thwart some nefarious plot, but he takes time to savour local cuisines and women. Death and danger await, but Bond always seems to have a way to topple his mastermind opponents and arise (mostly) unscathed.

Strangely, the notion that action and drama films can be romantic appears to have fallen out of vogue. The tones of most contemporary films I’ve seen this year are, at least, emotionally ambivalent, and at most, bleak and cynical. Nowadays, the cinematic goal of celebrating life is delegated almost exclusively to comedies. So in that sense, these aging Bond movies are actually refreshing.

But the Bond franchise has its fair share of stinkers. And after getting my hand on the James Bond blu-ray set this past week, I found one in 1973’s Live and Let Die.

Live and Let Die movie poster

Live and Let Die isn’t a major departure from the standard Bond formula. However, there are enough shake-ups here to make it stand out among the other films. Coinciding with the blaxploitation era, Live and Let Die prominently — and tastelessly — features black culture and black villains. But without digging too deeply into the controversy there, suffice to say that the black content is merely window dressing.

Instead, Live and Let Die subverts convention by introducing supernatural elements that bend the film’s reality. With some exceptions, most Bond films are grounded affairs: Guns shoot, knives wound, and people drown. But principles like those don’t always apply in Live and Let Die.

One of the film’s villains is Baron Samedi, the character of the same name from Haitian Vodou. As the “loa of the dead,” Samedi is a supernatural force that isn’t bound to the same principles of reality as mortal men. That strangeness becomes apparent when Bond encounters him in one of the film’s final showdowns. Bond pops him in the head with a pistol, hoping to dispatch him like any other henchman, only to have him reappear:

It’s a shame because Live and Let Die’s voodoo island scenes like the ones above are by far the most interesting in the film. The setup is that the film’s villain is preying on the island residents’ fear of voodoo spirits to prevent them from discovering his opium grow-op. And in execution, these scenes succeed at creating an ominous and foreboding atmosphere, one that seems to unnerve even Bond himself (certainly no easy task). But like in most Bond films, the island ends up being just one detour in a string of setpieces.

To me, the concept of challenging Bond by having him contend with an unfamiliar, supernatural evil is one that deserves more screentime. Imagine Bond arriving on the island to investigate the film’s villain, only to lose contact with MI6 upon venturing deeper into the brush. While trying to uncover the truth, he’d have to fend off attacks from the very occult members who are perpetrating the island’s voodoo-defence scheme. Bond would find some of their tactics to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors, but others would test his will and sanity.

A voodoo scarecrow in Live and Let Die

But alas, we don’t get much more than a hint of that with Live and Let Die. The rest of Bond’s dances with death in the film are pretty stock. There’s an animal entrapment scene with crocodiles for southern flair, a boat chase sequence, and a violent altercation on a train. Boxes. Checked.

It’s not all bad, but aside from the voodoo island scenes, it’s pretty unremarkable. Live and Let Die is the kind of film that made me wonder about what could be, rather than what was.