We continue our mission to review every James Bond film ever released as we make our way towards the release of Skyfall in October…
Well, here it is. The ‘unofficial’ James Bond film. The competition for Octopussy. The return of Sean Connery. The remake of Thunderball. Is it a case of Never Say Never Again or Never See Never Say Never Again?
Let’s bore you with back-story first, shall we? Well, I say ‘bore’ you but, in fact, the opposite is true. I implore you to search out ‘The Battle For Bond’ by Robert Sellers, to see how fascinating the reason this film got made actually is. It’s a long, intricate story and one which there isn’t room for in this review. But, essentially, Ian Fleming collaborated on a film treatment for his iconic literary hero, four years before Dr. No became the start of a movie franchise. His pitch was written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, entitled Thunderball, and was to potentially star Richard Burton as James Bond 007 and have Alfred Hitchcock as the Director.
Obviously, history shows us that nothing came of this fascinating alternate universe, so Fleming turned the screenplay into the novel of the same name, without crediting his two co-writers. They took him to court and got equal rights to the story and the elements contained within (for example, Blofeld and SPECTRE). From thereon in, and with the official film version being co-produced by McClory alongside regular producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the story of how Never Say Never Again came to be becomes a constant battle between Broccoli (sole producer of the Bond franchise by the time of The Man With The Golden Gun) and McClory (co-owner of the rights to Thunderball).
In 1975, when The Spy Who Loved Me was in production, McClory announced he was making a new version of Thunderball, called Warhead. It was written by Len Deighton and Sean Connery, with Connery returning as 007. The legal minefield that McClory and Broccoli started fighting across was vast and, at any moment, one of them was going to step on a mine and get blown sky high. Connery eventually bowed out, always having had a keen eye on the business side of movie-making and realising that this would be a nightmare of a production to get finished. Anyone who had seen the script would be quoted as saying it was one of the ‘great un-made scripts’, with allusions to it being like an underwater Star Wars.
However, in 1981, a triumphant McClory had found a production company set up by a top Hollywood lawyer and announced a new project. Connery was persuaded to return again, with a very hefty paycheck and, more importantly, complete creative control over the movie. It was he who chose the director, Irvin Kershner (who’s only other major movie was The Empire Strikes Back), and he also hand-picked the majority of the cast as well. We even have him to thank for possibly the most boring and uninspiring musical scores of any film inside and outside of the 007 franchise. And so, Never Say Never Again (a very silly title, derived from Connery saying he’d never return to play James Bond) became a reality in 1983 and as unofficial an entry as the 1967 version of Casino Royale.
I remember watching Never Say Never Again on the initial release and thinking it was a fantastic film. I also remember thinking that my Commodore 64 was fantastic too. Times change, as does your perception of youthful things (although I’m not, however cool it seems to be these days, wearing ‘80s style clothing ever again – even in an ironic or post-modern way. It was rubbish then and looks even worse now. Note to teenagers, you WILL be embarrassed at photos of yourself when you get older). Fashion and culture seems to be a cyclical thing, with anything from 20 or 30 years earlier coming back into the public consciousness and zeitgeist. When re-watching Never Say Never Again, the whole film screams of the 1980s – all style and little substance. It basically spends a lot of time being incredibly shallow and trying to convince you of how clever it is.
Irvin Kershner has more recently said that he wanted the movie to be a satirical take on the whole 007 franchise. He’d only seen Dr. No and From Russia With Love, so his draw for accepting the Director’s chair was simply because he wanted to work with Sean Connery. If you watch the film with your brain geared towards it being a semi-spoof, then it actually works better. The Roger Moore era had increasingly reverted to a parody of itself by this point and Octopussy – the film that was supposedly the direct competition for Never Say Never Again – seems to be the least serious Bond film of Moore’s reign in the role. So, the audience now expected Bond to be handy with a quip and be somewhat of an indestructible figure.
Never Say Never Again brings the humour, with a script by 1960s Batman scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. (and hefty unaccredited rewrites by the comedy writing partnership of Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais; who wrote such classics as Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Porridge – the latter having one of its best gags lifted wholesale for this film (even though it’s played out incredibly badly), when the Nurse asks Bond to fill a sample bottle that’s on the table away from him and he says “From here?”) The script parodies the indestructible nature of 007 by having the story be about Bond’s age and plays on him being slightly past it (which, of course, he proves wrong during the course of the film). Connery was 53 when he returned to the role and had got himself in fine shape for it but, however good he looked in the ill-advised tiny-white-shorts publicity photographs, he still looks like Roger Moore did in Octopussy – too old to be a secret agent.
But, that’s the main difference between Octopussy and Never Say Never Again in that the former ignores it and the latter acknowledges and references this fact. Of course, the worst decision of all time was to scrape some roadkill of the wheels of a 4×4, iron it a bit more stiffly and then stick it on 007’s head. Apparently, a large portion of the budget went on Connery’s wig and it’s safe to say there’s hell toupee.
Ahem. It looks like it’s on backwards, it’s so flat that it appears to be spray-painted on, and it seems to change colour throughout the film – which, coupled with a bizarre over-reliance on black ‘guy’-liner plastered around Connery’s eyes, makes him look a bit like everyone’s trying a little too hard to magic him younger. The thing about Sean Connery is that he actually looks better with age. He got more much more attractive as he got older and there was no need to try and de-age him with make-up and soft focus.
He’s the best thing in this film by a long mile and he knows it.
However, aside from this, Connery gives his iconic role a boost by bringing all the steel of his Dr. No days, all the physicality of his From Russia With Love days, all the throwaway quippage of his Goldfinger days, and all the star power of the acting legend he’d become, to make his much-publicised return a guaranteed success. He’s the best thing in this film by a long mile and he knows it. He was unhappy during production that the script wasn’t locked down and finished, due to constant court actions by Cubby Broccoli and EON productions (who even, on the eve of the premiere, were still trying to shut the film down and not allow its release), but his irritation doesn’t show through in the film as it had with You Only Live Twice, for example. He’s having fun with the role he had so bitterly disowned and the audience get to have fun with him.
The familiar trio of M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny are here – of course – played by different actors. It’s very interesting to compare and contrast them with their established counterparts in Octopussy. Edward Fox gives a dry performance as M, who recalls 007 back to active service to deal with SPECTRE’s theft of two nuclear warheads (which they are using to hold the UK and the USA to ransom). He’s an actor who – for me – is very difficult to like. So, his gruffness isn’t tempered by likeability (which Bernard Lee and, his successor, Robert Brown had in the official franchise). Plus, he has zero comic timing and an ability to sound like he’s consumed several G&Ts before he stumbled on to set. His scenes with 007 have the potential to be amusing but his youthful appearance, coupled with his flat delivery of the lines, just means Connery has nothing tangible to bounce off. Alec McCowan, sporting a very fake cockney accent, plays Q as a bit of a moaning, unappreciated boffin.
Unfortunately, his performance pales into significance alongside Desmond Llewelyn in Octopussy. Just because Llewellyn had played the role since From Russia With Love, he wasn’t kept on purely for continuity. He’s just genuinely perfect and it was the right idea to cast against that image and actor (and even accent) for Never Say Never Again but it just doesn’t work. The trouble with acting alongside Sean Connery is that he has a macho gravitas and charisma, as well as being very wryly dry. The humour is written for him and to play it slightly more exaggerated doesn’t work and it’s like being stupid enough to cast someone like Rowan Atkinson alongside him (oh, hang on…*). Finally, Pamela Salem as Miss Moneypenny would have been a fine addition to the official franchise, as she has all the right attributes for a love-stricken secretary and plays it just the right side of parody. There’s something of Lois Maxwell about her too, who’s Miss Moneypenny in Octopussy was the right age for Roger Moore’s Bond but slightly too old to be a sexy secretary anymore.
As with most 007 films, we have a trio of villains. In a bit of a casting coup, distinguished actor Max Von Sydow embodies the role of Ernst Stavro Blofeld with just the right amount of menace, charm and megalomania. His deputy, Maximillion Largo (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) never seems like he’s a genuine threat and Brandauer seriously underplays the role to the point of looking comatose and lost in certain scenes. Whether this is due to the constantly fluctuating script and plot, that continued to be rewritten during the filming itself, or just his thinking that quiet and bland makes him seem more unhinged is uncertain but he’s a weak main villain when the film needed a strong one. He’s totally overshadowed by his right-hand (wo)man; the brilliantly arch and fabulously flamboyant Barbara Carrera as the rather wittily named Fatima Blush.
She brings exotic glamour, psychotic zeal and slap-happy anger to the role and really proves the real adversary for Connery’s Bond. Any scene with her in it immediately picks up the film’s pace and tone, especially one of the stand-out chases where she has murdered a female ally and screeches off in her sports car, with Bond giving chase on a souped-up black motorbike (provided by Q, which was rather nattily packaged in polystyrene!). But, unfortunately, she’s such a large character that she also overshadows the main love interest for 007 as well, in the form of Kim Basinger (playing Largo’s girlfriend, Domino, and soon-to-be enamoured lover of James Bond). You can see why Connery approved of the casting (suggested by his wife), as she is picture-perfect to look at but her acting comes straight from the school of ‘I’m Reading This Off A Script Still’. She doesn’t convince in any of her scenes and needed better direction and coaching to bring her performance on a par with her beauty, which she has proved in later years that she can do.
One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the atypical casino meeting of the villain and 007. Instead of being round a roulette table, this time they are ushered into an ornate room with an antique table suddenly turning into an overly-large, holographic, gaming console – with a pair of joysticks to control the lasers and missiles that are fired during the battle for world domination between them. It was a then-modern twist on the familiar card game one-upmanship and, for what it is, it actually works very well. The graphics are dated but the execution of them is simple enough to still be effective. The electric shocks the joysticks deliver when the defensive laser fails to destroy a missile being sent to obliterate a country are a nice touch and it’s a scene that, considering there would have been nothing for either actor to look at, both Connery and Brandauer give fantastically real performances. It’s certainly the best scene in the film between our hero and his main enemy.
The direction of the film is solid, if a little ruined by the awful editing that chops and changes angles and scenes so much that you wonder whether the job was given to someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. In the fight between a lumbering assassin (Pat Roach) and 007, in the Health Farm at the beginning of the film, there’s a lot of bad cutting that doesn’t allow you to see Connery’s face – which must of have been annoying when, if you study it on DVD, you can see it is him in the thick of the action and not an anonymous stuntman. As mentioned before, where the film really falls down is in the musical score by Michael Legrand (who provided the insipid title song too). There’s an old bit of wisdom that states if you can’t say something nice about someone, then you shouldn’t say anything at all. So, we’ll leave it at that.
In all fairness, Never Say Never Again cleverly gets round being a remake of Thunderball by being genuinely more entertaining to watch, with some clever choices that make it enough of a different movie to satisfy the public and also the eagle-eyed lawyers at Cubby Brocolli’s disposal. Though, as a bastard son, it still can’t ratchet up the tension or interest in the underwater scenes and the final climatic battle seems a tad too leisurely for Nuclear Armageddon to be at stake. Kevin McClory mounted several challenges to produce an ongoing 007 series after the success of the film – with one attempt using Timothy Dalton – but, finally, the courts ruled against him definitively in 2001 and he died five years later. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who own and distribute the official Bond movies, bought the rights to Never Say Never Again in 1997, so it’s the most official unofficial 007 movie there can be.
* In possibly the worst performance in the film, Never Say Never Again delivers its comic relief by the way of Nigel Small-Fawcett (Bond’s contact in the Bahamas). Rowan Atkinson is a brilliant comedian and actor but he pitches it like it is a sketch and not a movie; which is a failing of many a cameo shoehorned into movies – overplaying to be remembered. His lines are funny and he delivers them well but he just seems out of place. Again, it’s obviously a satire on the kind of bumptious British bureaucrat abroad but Connery seems to uneven the interplay by being… well… Sean Connery. It was Atkinson’s first foray into feature films and it’s a rather nice place to be given your cinematic debut.