Never Say Never Again (1983)
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Written by: Dick Clement, Ian Fleming, Ian La Frenais, Jack Whittingham, Kevin McClory, Lorenzo Semple Jr
Starring: Barbara Carrera, Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Sean Connery
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 133 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After 007 fails a training exercise, ‘M’ orders him to a health clinic to get back into shape. While there, Bond encounters sadistic nurse Fatima Blush and a mysterious bandaged patient who is actually Jack Petachi, pilot-turned-SPECTRE-operative who’s been hooked on heroine and has had an operation on his right eye to make it match the retinal pattern of the US President, which he uses to circumvent iris recognition security at a US airbase in Swindon. This enables SPECTRE to replace two dummy warheads with real ones and then steal them and demand the equivalent of 25% of the annual oil purchases of the NATO countries. Under orders from the Prime Minister, ‘M’ reluctantly reactivates the double-0 section and Bond told to track down the missing weapons, heading first for the Bahamas where SPECTRE agent Maximillian Largo, whom Bond suspects of being involved, currently is….
I re-watched Never Say Never Again over and over again on video [we were a naughty family, making use of our two video players to copy movies we hired out] when it came out, though I’ll admit that was primarily due to Kim Basinger being my first real film crush. Since then I haven’t seen it that often, being as it’s not an ‘official’ Bond, but viewing it again the other day revealed it to be really rather good. It’s hampered by being a remake of one of the best Bonds Thunderball, and is inferior in some respects but not in all of them: for example Never Say Never Again may have less action scenes, but it moves a bit faster. There are just about enough changes and variations to warrant its existence, such as for example Bond not meeting Domino until over half way through, and you could say that several other Bonds were almost remakes, especially The Spy Who Loved Me [of You Only Live Twice]. It lacks some of the gloss of the Eon films and looks and feels much lower budgeted [which it significantly wasn’t], but brings back much of the sophistication of the 60’s Bonds. In fact there may be more great lines in this than any other Bond, and there are many chuckles including much gentle mocking of 007, while still mostly resisting full-on buffoonery. I didn’t really want to enjoy Never Say Never Again as much as I did, but I have to admit that Kevin McClory, Jack Schwartzman and Warner Bros. turned out a Bond film that’s better than some of the Eons.
McClory, who still owned the rights to the Thunderball book [see review], tried to set up a Bond film in 1976, and had Len Deighton work on a script for Warhead that involved SPECTRE scuppering boats and planes in the Bermuda Triangle and using three robot sharks to carry bombs to targets if their demands aren’t met. George Lazenby was considered to star until Sean Connery confirmed he wanted the role as long as he had script and star approval. Eon said that the project went beyond copyright restrictions, and plans stalled until 1981 when Schwartzman became involved and cleared most of the legal issues. He got Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay, though Connery had Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais re-write it, although they went uncredited because of a restriction by the Writers Guild of America. It was Connery’s wife Micheline who suggested the title, reminding him how he said he’d “never” play 007 again. Filming, which included much of the Raiders Of The Lost Ark crew, took place on the French Riviera, Nassau, and Spain’s Almería doubling for North Africa [country unspecified!]. Steven Seagal was the fight choreographer and broke Connery’s wrist while training, though Connery didn’t realise this until a decade later. The intended opening sequence had Bond in a jousting tournemant and a horseback chase across London, but it was too expensive. The film went way over budget and Connery took on many of the production duties with assistant director David Tomblin, Schwartzman not seeming to know what he was doing. A final attempt by Fleming’s trustees to block the film was made but twas thrown out. Released several months after Octopussy, it got much better reviews, but it ended up taking slightly less money.
One of the reasons why Never Say Never Again isn’t generally well thought of by fans must be that many of the Bond film trappings are absent, like the gunbarrel and the James Bond theme. The best they could do for titles was have lots of cut-out 007 signs disappear as the camera zooms into the opening scene, but luckily it’s a good one despite the fact that the Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman-written and Lani Hall-sung song doesn’t really fit despite being quite a catchy number on its own with its typically odd Legrand harmonies. Bond storms a tropical fortress and dispatches various nasties to rescue a woman – only for her to stab him and it’s all a training exercise. This sets up a major theme of the film, Bond possibly being “past it”. He’s sent to Shrublands on a mission to “eliminate all free-radicals” and generally get back in shape, but sees some suspicious goings-ons and is attacked by a heavy which results in a good lengthy fight [at last, what a joy, we haven’t had one in some time] that spans a kitchen, a library, and a laboratory, and where Bond has to use his wits to overcome a seemingly invincible assailant. SPECTRE carry out their plan similar to before, the eye recognition device a nice touch though the shots of the flying missiles are quite poor even for the time. Unfortunately Semple just has Bond go to Nassau on a hunch that Largo may be involved rather than the much better reason in Thunderball, and there’s an equally weak bit later when a pendant happens to reveal where one of the bombs is – though that’s not as poor as the whole story of the other bomb being related entirely second hand.
It takes even longer for Bond to go on his mission here, though once he does things really do generally flow very smoothly. Action is fairly sparse and even simple, but a shark attack and a car/bike chase are exciting anyway and show director Irvin Kershner’s superiority doing this kind of thing to Glen, though Bond’s horseback flight from evil Arabs with Domino ends with a horse thrown off a cliff [the shot is cut from the UK version], and the climactic gun battle and underwater Bond/Largo duel feel rushed. But the film really scores with many of the simpler scenes like when a bomb has gone off in Bond’s hotel room and we wrongfully think Bond was there due to clever cross cutting, or Bond’s ‘World Domination’ game with Largo which is rife with tension despite the dated graphics. There are times when the film feels cramped and even cheap compared to Thunderball, such as the restricted sizes of Blofeld’s and MI5’s headquarters, but I don’t think that this matters too much as they were mostly going for a more down to earth approach, with far more real interiors than usual. This film is also a little sexier than the norm, notably the shots of Bond’s tryst with Fatima, and, while he gets an extra lay in this one [Valerie Leon, who’d appeared in Casino Royale and The Spy Who Loved Me], his romance with Domino feels more genuine despite the fact that if the film were made today there would be complaints about his first encounter with Domino, masquerading as a masseuse, calling it sexual abuse!
There are a few gadgets, but a laser-firing watch is copied from Live And Let Die and a bike that arrives in a box is just that – a normal bike. There’s more emphasis on characterisation all round – even Largo and Domino get an establishing scene setting out their relationship – and some nice new changes, like the stuffy ‘M’ who doesn’t like Bond’s methods, and the first black Felix Leiter [even if he does little], though Rowan Atkinson’s inept agent is perhaps a little too goofy for this particular film, as is Connery’s final wink to camera. In general though the humour is exactly on the right level [double entendres are good as long as they don’t take over] and some of the lines are delicious and even just the right side of meta, from Fatima’s “I’ve made you all wet” and Bond’s reply “but my martini is still dry” to the glorious eulogy for Connery/Bond and older ways of doing things from ‘Q’: Things’ve been awfully dull ’round here. Bureaucrats running the whole place. Everything done by the book. Can’t make a decision unless the computer gives you the go ahead. Now you’re on this. I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence”. Another great bit is when Fatima has Bond at gunpoint and forces him to say how she was the greatest sexual experience of his life. While Barbara Carrera isn’t quite as strong an actress as Luciana Paluzzi who played the equivalent Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, Fatima is an even more magnificent villainess: sadistic, vain and seemingly never happier than when given the go ahead to kill someone, skipping down some steps and humming merrily. I also love it when she doesn’t even bother to look at an explosion she creates. And Largo is even better, a genuinely believable and convincing manic depressive-cum-psychopath. Klaus Maria Brandauer is utterly brilliant in the part: just compare him to Steven Berkoff as the silly loon in Octopussy. By comparison, Max Von Sydow’s Blofeld seems a rather kindly old man.
Connery, in better shape than he was in Diamonds Are Forever, gives his best Bond performance since Thunderball. It’s also his lightest, with a constant twinkle in his eye which was probably unavoidable, but fits in superbly with the film. Unfortunately his tattoo is visible throughout, little attempt being made to hide it. The film’s rather vague with its locations [somewhere in ‘?’] and hops from place to place without giving a flavour of where we are, but cinematographer Douglas Slocombe still does a great job, going in for soft focus in some places like the tango scene where Bond tells Domino Largo killed her brother. Interestingly, this was the only bit of Legrand’s score which a fan edit of the film didn’t replace. His efforts aren’t much liked, even by Kershner, but I don’t have a problem with them. Much of the oft-criticised big band stuff is source music [there is that one chase cue but I don’t think it’s too bad really], and there certainly is some good dramatic stuff plus a typically simple but infectious Legrand song Une Chanson D’Amour heard rather quietly during the massage scene. The main theme isn’t used much though and even then it’s only the first section. It’s obvious that Legrand worked very hard on this score and I wouldn’t want it replaced myself, And Never Say Never Again is, bar a few missteps, a fine Bond film that is just a bit better than Octopussy overall. It gets a lot right while also having a slightly different angle on Bond. It deserves to be much better regarded but will probably remain not that popular because it’s not an Eon film.