There was never a Beatles reunion. Bob Dylan and
Joan Baez don't appear on the same stage any more.
But here, by god, is Sean Connery as Sir James Bond.
Good work, 007.
- Roger Ebert
Never Say Never Again
Book: 1961 (#9)
If for some reason you haven't read the Thunderball page already, you should go do that first, or some parts of this one aren't going to make a lot of sense.
In the original version of this project, I didn't have a page for this film at all. I didn't consider it legitimate and I didn't remember it as being good enough or different enough to distinguish it from Thunderball, which I consider the most boring (if not actively the worst) of the Bond films.
But since then I've read The Battle for Bond and acquired a trifle more sympathy for Kevin McClory, and I've rewatched the film a couple of times and decided that, not only does it have merits of its own, it's probably a more watchable film than Thunderball - which, of course, is a low bar.
Film vs. Film
There doesn't seem to be much point in a Book vs. Film for this one. I'll list where the two films differ instead.
Fiona Volpe is replaced with the deranged Fatima Blush (the name came from an early Thunderball treatment) and is kept alive much longer (to the film's benefit). The ridiculous body-double plot is discarded (and thus the character of Angelo), but replaced with an even stupider eyeball-transplant idea, because otherwise we have nothing for Bond to discover at Shrublands. The nuclear blackmail affects all of NATO, which defuses the first film's problem of "why go after the bomb if Britain is already willing to pay?" but exacerbates the problem of "why wouldn't America be swarming CIA agents all over the globe, and why are we focusing instead on one old British agent?" The missiles are captured in flight, instead of the more plausible and much simpler idea of just flying off with the plane.
Emilio Largo is Maximilian Largo and is played as a psychopath rather than a mobster. Domino is very white and very American (actually, the whole film is very American, and not to its benefit). Felix Leiter, on the other hand, is black. Domino's brother's name is Jack and he is a drug addict who can be bought/manipulated.
One bomb is found before the other; the two are hidden in separate places. This leads to a Middle Eastern finish which is both disappointing (just when you thought it was safe, we go underwater!) and implausible (the Tears of Allah pendant).
Any reservations one might have at Connery being too old for the part must instantly be defused by the fact that he is three years younger than Roger Moore, so if Moore could still plausibly be playing Bond in 1983, so could he.
Actually, Connery comes off the better of the two on the physical aspects of their "competition." (That's in quotes because Moore and Connery were good friends, and these films did not affect that a whit.) I've already mentioned I like Connery's appearance much better with his wider, older, less-ratlike face, and his body is revealed here to be in better condition than Moore's. Moore wins on hair, but that's never bothered me (and I wish they hadn't given Connery one of his series of bad film toupees).
In terms of character, the script takes its cue from For Your Eyes Only - this is a Bond aware of his age and his limitations, and prepared to vary his repertoire as fits an older, more exhausted man. (Notice how he is forced to get sneaky in the Shrublands fight with Lippe, whom he cannot hope to best on a direct physical level.)
Connery in general is in very good form, even when he is not served well by the script or the production values (see below). The only time he looks seriously misplaced is when he's forced to play that idiotic video game.
He is something of a fashion victim throughout, but manages to radiate not giving a damn, and besides, this is 1983 and everyone in the film is a fashion victim.
Here is a tale of two women who cannot act and the crucial difference between them. Barbara Carrera succeeds in her role and Kim Basinger does not.
In Basinger's defense, Domino is underwritten, but the problem (as in everything else I've ever seen her in) is mostly her. She just never seems to be invested. She apparently believes acting is a matter of standing in front of a camera, reciting lines as if reading from a sheet of paper, and occasionally smiling winningly or frowning.
Carrera clearly has no idea how to depict a character or show emotions realistically, but she throws herself into the part with gusto and conviction. She might be doing a horrible job, but by god, she's going to give it the best try she can. She also seems to be enjoying herself, which for me covers many sins. (There's a sequence where she dances down stairs from the sheer joy of being told she gets another chance to kill Bond, which is just great.) In a subtler or more demanding character, the damn-the-torpedoes approach wouldn't work, but in an over-the-top Bond villain, it gets her through just fine. Fiona Volpe was better, but it's hard to compare because Fiona was only in Thunderball for what feels like about ten minutes, whereas Fatima has to be the primary active villain for two-thirds of this film.
Bond is neither particularly well-mannered nor too overtly condescending to either one - but he does appear to be genuinely unnerved by Fatima's crazy levels at at least two points, which is a refreshing thing. He exploits Domino, but that's baked into the plot and can't be avoided, and at least with thirty-year-old Basinger in the role it doesn't feel like he's manipulating the emotions of a teenager (Claudine Auger was twenty-four in Thunderball and looked about seventeen).
Kevin McClory's ten-year exclusion clause expired in 1976. Since it was clear to anyone with a working pair of eyes that he'd begin trying to make another Bond film as soon as it did, a discussion of what happened in the seven years after that seems in order.
The first rumbles were in 1976 when he placed a full-page ad in Variety announcing the production of James Bond of the Secret Service, from a script developed by himself, spy novelist Len Deighton, and Connery. This is the script which we will identify in the rest of this as "Warhead." "Warhead" was apparently a fairly insane script, with SPECTRE being revealed to be responsible for the disappearance of ships inside the Bermuda Triangle, and fitting some bombs from some of those captured ships into mechanical sharks, to be commanded against targets from a base hidden inside the Statue of Liberty. No, seriously. Austin Powers-grade stuff.
However, a month after McClory's ad, a response in Variety from UA head Arthur Krim very literally laid down the law: McClory had the rights to film the book of Thunderball, and only Thunderball. No brand-new scripts, no significant alterations from the plot or characterizations, "and anybody who proceeds on any other premise does so at legal peril." That pretty much put an end to "Warhead" in everyone's mind but McClory's.
Connery had only participated in the script-writing at the time and had not had plans to actually play Bond. When asked to (during the period when McClory was backed by Paramount, they reportedly insisted on Connery), he gave a qualified yes - his condition being that there be a script which stood a reasonable chance of not being shut down by UA/EON lawyers, and that he be clear of any possible indemnity no matter what. By 1980, he was apparently convinced that condition would never come to pass, especially since McClory was still arguing against UA's interpretation of his latitude.
In 1981, though, McClory hooked up with Jack Schwartzman, an independent producer, who wanted to produce the film under the Taliafilm label (yes, that Schwartzman - Talia's husband, Jason's dad). Schwartzman, whose background was in entertainment law, refused to even contemplate purchasing "Warhead." He was buying into a straight remake of Thunderball, and he was very clear about it. He shunted McClory to "executive producer," got Warner Brothers to put up a $34 million budget, got Connery in by giving him veto power over almost all aspects of the film (plus legal assurances, three million dollars, and a percentage), commissioned screenplays from Julien Plowden and Lorenzo Semple Jr (the latter eventually got the screen credit), and hired Irvin Kershner (fresh off The Empire Strikes Back) to direct.
Unfortunately, the production was not a happy one. The biggest problem was apparently Schwartzman, whom Kershner later said was not a good or experienced film producer. Schwartzman himself admitted he had seriously underestimated both the time and cost of making a big action film. (He paid the cost overruns out of his own, fairly deep, pocket.) Connery was apparently disgusted with both of them; he said later that he and second unit director David Tomblin had in effect produced the picture. Connery also had some problems with Semple's script and brought in two scriptwriters of his own, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Since they were both television sitcom writers, it should not surprise you that their main contributions were humorous ones, so we can blame all the film's bad jokes on them. (Actually, the humor in this film is fairly restrained and sometimes even amusing.) It is generally believed that a brother-in-law named Coppola contributed a few uncredited alterations as well.
In the end, the film ran about two million dollars over budget and ran late enough that it was delayed to a fall release, giving Octopussy six months of breathing room, which probably did both films good. Its initial weekend take was a million dollars better than its competition, but in the long run, Octopussy won - about $34 million in US rentals, as opposed to this film's $28 million, and $187 million worldwide against $160 million.
McClory kept making noises about "Warhead" for the next two decades, including a version called "Warhead 2000" which he apparently somehow got Sony to sign on for. Sony also tried to sue on McClory's behalf for back royalties for the characters/concepts he felt he had a claim to. The former was settled out of court (and the film idea dropped) in 1999; the latter was thrown out in 2000 on the grounds McClory had taken too long to make the claim.
In 1997 MGM/UA bought the complete rights to Never Say Never Again from Taliafilm for $15 million, bringing it officially into the fold. McClory died in 2006, and in 2013 MGM and Danjaq acquired all his rights and claims from his estate, thus bringing a final and definite end to the possibility that a heir of McClory would keep trying to reinvent Thunderball every twenty years or so.
Most of the pleased critical response to this film was because of one factor and only one: Connery was back (viz. Ebert above). In fact, it has been argued that the joy over Connery prevented people from immediately realizing how severe some of the film's other weaknesses were. Even people who are not in the "only Connery was really Bond" school (e.g. me) admit that he is about as good as is possible for him to be in this film, given its other limitations. But we're also perhaps a touch quicker to notice its other limitations.
This film looks and feels cheap, and I'm not sure why. Some of it is that it's so very much an American 1980's film (and one which has dated very badly), but some of it is production choices which mystify. One of my sources points out that, under Kershner, the film visits many good locations, but shows no interest in any of them. Another notes "Thunderball had a specially staged carnival in Nassau; Never Say Never Again has eight men in fright masks with party hooters." The score, by Michel Legrand, is cut-rate; the credits sequence is MIA.
Amusingly, given both the low-budget aspects and the American-pandering, one of the film's best scenes is when Algernon (Q) gripes about his working conditions and budget cuts and how the CIA gets all the good toys. The idea of MI6 being subject to budget and political realities is one the EON series of films wouldn't catch up to until Judi Dench. Actually, in general, the best bits of the film are ones where it is self-aware - when Connery admits he knows what kind of Bond he's playing, and what kind of film he's playing it in. But there aren't enough of those.
One of the more interesting things I noted about this film upon a recent rewatch is that they "solved" the problem of how to keep up suspense about the bombs (which Thunderball flunked so badly) by ... not caring at all. The nuclear-blackmail plot is pretty much completely ignored for most of the film. You may, with justification, consider it a fault, but I take it as a matter-of-fact approach. "This is just a plot device and isn't what the film is really about, so let's get back to the good stuff."
Unfortunately, one of the key components of the "good stuff" is Klaus Maria Brandauer, whom I gather is a well-regarded actor in other roles, but who fails very badly for me here. Several commentators have praised his portrayal as one of the best bits of the film, but I agree with Bond Films that he is "about as threatening as the middle-ranking bank official he so strongly resembles." In order, then, to establish villain cred, he must occasionally lapse into psychotic episodes - sometimes involving incoherent rages or smashing things - which might work if they weren't utterly at odds with his presentation as a gentle, polite, forgettable Austrian man the rest of the time.
Of course, a man who really knows how to be a villain with panache is Max von Sydow ... so, of course, they cut most of his part. Blofeld's cat gets more screen time than he does in this film, and no, that is not an exaggeration. I have no idea why they did this, especially since at that stage in his career von Sydow probably charged them an arm and a leg.
On the whole, this film could have been a tidier, better version of Thunderball, but fails. It starts well, with the training sequence and a Shrublands sequence which holds up much better (including a nice fight with Lippe and Bond being much less of an asshole than in the other film). But after that it falls apart and neither Connery nor Carrera can keep it together (although they try hard).
It's obvious they tried to fix some of the earlier film's weak points and plot holes, which is commendable ... but in doing so, they introduced some weaker points and a few worse plot holes. If you don't agree, then consider this: How did they manage to get their hands on a copy of the President's retina in the first place?
Still, given a choice between watching Thunderball and this one, I'd watch this one, because as I've said before, the one thing a Bond film absolutely cannot be is boring, and this film, while often bad, is not boring except for the ten minutes underwater at the end.
This is Rowan Atkinson's first film role. I dislike Atkinson's roles most of the time, and I admit to bias, but even so this is not a particularly proud moment in his resume. Not only is he annoying, he talks like he's speaking with a clenched jaw.
The one positive thing I can say about the character is that I do like when the local rep is deeply suspicious of Bond (they usually have cause to be).
Bernie Casey is a pretty good Felix. I would like to think that he also helped pave the way for Jeffrey Wright later.
The chain of single entendres between Fatima and Bond upon their meeting would not be matched for sheer horribleness until the parallel scene in Die Another Day.
The horse-jump stunt is actually two shots - the horse jumping off the castle ramparts in front of an obvious matte painting, and the horse landing in the water which was the actual 40' drop. According to stuntman/trainer Vic Armstrong, the horse was not harmed during the stunt, and he had to stay on the horse's back throughout the drop to make sure the horse hit the water properly. "When I finally reached the surface he'd already swum ashore - I'd spent two weeks training him to do that," Armstrong said. Nonetheless, the RSPCA objected on the basis that the horse would not have possibly made such a jump willingly, and the water-landing half of the scene was cut in British screenings.
The lady on the fishing trip who "catches" Bond is named Valerie Leon. She has an unusual distinction: She has appeared in three Bond films from all three different production sources - this one from McClory, one from EON (The Spy Who Loved Me), and the 1966 Casino Royale.
Speaking of unusual distinctions, 6'5" Pat Roach, who plays Lippe, also played two big bruisers (the giant Sherpa and the chief mechanic who fights bare-chested and has a nasty collision with a propeller) in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This makes him the only man to ever beat up both James Bond and Indiana Jones.
Roach, an ex-wrestler, died in 2004 after having made a film career entirely of playing big imposing-looking brawlers. He did one thing and he did it well.
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