James Bond 007: Never Say Never Again (1983)

In his review of the 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale, Aren suggested that it teased us with an alternate reality for James Bond on screen, where Eon productions never formed, and Sean Connery never created his most famous role. The 1983 non-Eon James Bond film, Never Say Never Again, also suggests an alternate reality, but one where Sean Connery never left his role as the iconic British secret agent.

The film itself exists as the result of a lawsuit surrounding the 1965 Eon production, Thunderball, between Ian Fleming and his co-writer Kevin McClory, which I covered in my review of the film. The suit left co-writer McClory with the legal right to remake the film after a 10-year moratorium. After numerous efforts to get the film off the ground, McClory managed to convince his producing partner, Connery, to take up the role of 007 one last time. The title of the film, which went through earlier drafts entitled Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service, came from Connery’s wife, who suggested that after he had vowed he would never return to the role after his disappointment with Diamonds Are Forever, to “never say never again.” By the time the film eventually got made, it was set to go head to head against the “official” Eon production Octopussy and opened a few months after the Roger Moore film, in the autumn of 1983. While Octopussy managed to win the box office war between the dueling Bonds, suggesting that audiences either preferred the continuity of the official series (or simply that Octopussy came out first), Never Say Never Again is not without its charms.

The primary pleasure of Never Say Never Again is in offering audiences who never let go of the idea of Sean Connery as the only legitimate James Bond one last shot to see their hero in action. One area in which the film succeeds where the later Moore films don’t is in helping us to believe in the effectiveness and plausibility of an aging Bond. The premise of the film is that Bond is called out of retirement after a period where he has been acting as a training officer for the service. Reprising the plot from Thunderball, Bond is sent to be rejuvenated at the health spa Shrublands by a new M, one with little patience or use for the 00 agents that he sees as relics. While there, Bond, once again stumbles upon SPECTRE’s plan to steal NATO nuclear warheads and heads off on an international caper, while engaging in, as Q says, some “gratuitous sex and violence.”

Never Say Never Again is fairly self-referential about both Connery’s age and in the changing social and sexual mores between his prime in the 1960s and the film’s early 80s setting. Pulling up to the health spa, the valet comments on Bond’s car being “still in pretty good shape,” and Connery is pleased to agree. This balance between acknowledging the passage of time and trying to update the plot to the contemporaneous moment is one that the film must constantly attempt. While at Shrublands, Bond is initially rebuffed by his nurse after a comment that would be outright sexual harassment by today’s standards. A clever smash cut to the nurse entangled with a shirtless Bond is revealed to be her chiropractic work on his aging back, rather than romantic in nature. But of course, Bond eventually has his way with her, seducing her with his contraband suitcase of caviar and martinis, items banned at the health conscious Shrublands, as much as he does with his undeniable charm.

Connery is the most successful element in achieving that balance of bringing the film into the present day while acknowledging the character’s history. He gets plenty of one-liners that land, making the film fairly successful in the comedy department. Connery’s Bond is also still plenty capable of fighting and in pretty good shape. Had he wanted to he could have continued in the role, especially considering that Roger Moore is 3 years his senior. In fact, despite some aging in the face and greyer hair, Connery is probably in better shape in Never Say Never Again than he was in Diamonds.

However, the film itself in its effort to update Thunderball to the 80s and differentiate itself from its predecessor makes some strange choices. Not all the choices were up to McClory or Kershner. For instance, absent is the opening gun barrel shot as well as the credit sequences the Eon films are famous for. For legal reasons, they couldn’t be used. Instead the title song plays over the film’s opening action sequence, which has Bond infiltrating a central American guerrilla stronghold to mount a rescue. The music is tonally in opposition to the violence of Bond’s attack, which draws more on the kind of macho, machine-gun action that was in vogue in the 80s—think more Commando or Rambo than classic Bond. Any tension built in the opening is then undercut as it is revealed to be a training exercise, which leads to Bond being sent to Shrublands.

For Never Say Never Again, McClory and Connery  recruited director Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back fame, whom Connery had worked with before on A Fine Madness. Kershner was a step up from the mostly journeyman or novice directors the Eon series had utilized for the most part. Despite the film’s very 80s milieu, Kershner is often able to capture some of the visual elegance of the 60s Connery films in his compositions and staging. Especially in the film’s first half, at Shrublands and in M’s office, one could be easily think this were one of the early Connery films. The film’s mise-en-scène is quite good, including the costuming and set design. And certainly the action scenes are enjoyable. The battle between Bond and his would be assassin at Shrublands is thrilling and dynamic, and though it ends on a gag as Bond throws a beaker of his own urine sample in the assassin’s face and backs him into a mass of glass and tubes which stab the opponent in the back, the gag never undercuts the danger Bond is in. It certainly doesn’t hurt as well that his assailant is played by the imposing British actor, Pat Roach, who boxed Indiana Jones under the airplane rotor in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Other efforts to bring the Thunderball plot into the 1980s don’t fare so well. Firstly, instead of engaging Largo (here Maximillian—rather than Emilio—Largo is played by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) in a game of baccarat, Bond and his opponent play a rather dated looking 3D video game and the menace comes from the electric shocks the loser receives. The sequence is rather absurd, but fits with the generally more arch tone of Never Say Never Again. Since we’ve all seen this before, the filmmakers felt the need to tweak and change things for the sake of differentiation. Jokingly, Largo’s yacht is here called the Flying Saucer, the literal English translation of the Disco Volante from Thunderball.

The casting of the film is strong, though many of the actors give camp performances. Brandauer is charming and menacing, though he plays his role as if he knows he is a mad Bond villain. In Thunderball Largo is muted in his menace as a villain, while here Brandauer gives him an unhinged edge. Brandauer is the better version of the villain, entering into a fully established convention of the Bond villain that had been further developed in the Moore era. This Largo reports to a version of Blofeld that also is an inspired bit of casting, with European cinema legend Max Von Sydow as the head of SPECTRE. Though he doesn’t do much in the story, his presence classes up the proceedings.

In fact, most of the casting of Never Say Never Again is inspired. Bond is aided in the Bahamas by British foreign officer Nigel Small-Fawcett, played by a young Rowan Atkinson. While his performance is certainly silly, Atkinson is a gifted comic actor, and Bond’s reactions to this inept rookie are mirrored by the viewer. SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush, based on Fiona Volpe from Thunderball, is here played by Barbara Carrera as a completely unhinged femme fatale. Carrera’s performance is one of the more cartoonish in the film, and she shares what might be one of the strangest sex scenes of the Bond films in which her and Bond’s pairing is intercut with shots of the coral reef and fish. Carrera fully embraces her character’s outlandishness and gets an equally outrageous death by one of Q’s gadgets, a pen-gun, which Bond is able to draw on her when she maniacally orders him to put to paper her status as the greatest sexual partner in his life. Also, long before Casino Royale, Never Say Never Again casts a black actor as Bond’s American counterpart Felix Leiter: journeyman actor and former NFL player Bernie Casey. Casey acquits himself well, as one of the more memorable Leiters in the series.

Unfortunately, the biggest weak link in the film is the Bond girl, the new Domino played by Kim Basinger. Basinger seems out of her league, never projecting the class or grace of Claudine Auger in Thunderball. Her line deliveries are flat and both her concern for her brother and her interest in Largo are never adequately communicated. It's an underwritten role given to an actress who isn't able to elevate the material and it almost sinks the film since it puts her in nearly every scene after her introduction.

One other way that the film tries to tweak the formula is by moving the film’s finale to the Middle East, where Largo has stashed the nukes off the coast of Yemen on an island called the Tears of Allah. The mid-east locale is meant to make the political dynamic of the film more coherent in the 80s setting. However, the film falls back on stereotypes of Arabs that are uncomfortable, as when Largo punishes Domino for her betrayal by trying to sell her to some lusty Arab traders. Forcing contemporary geopolitics into the film, which in most other aspects has a light touch, just doesn’t work.

All in all, Never Say Never Again is a perfectly okay Bond film. It’s a better swan song for Connery’s Bond than Diamonds are Forever. For the most part, many of the changes are ostensibly upgrades, from a gifted director in Kershner to some nice supporting roles. But I’ve always liked Thunderball just fine, so the idea of a remake in one sense seems superfluous. I’m not against the idea of non-Eon Bond productions which can tweak the formula and try new things (as a digression, I was always intrigued by Tarantino’s comment once that he’d like the do a Bond film as a period piece), and it’s always nice to have one more Connery Bond film to enjoy. In the end Never Say Never Again is enjoyable enough to be worth tracking down, but not quite excellent enough to be essential or overshadow the main series.

6 out of 10

Never Say Never Again (1983, USA/UK)

Directed by Irvin Kershner; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr based on a story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming; starring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandhauer, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Carrera, Kim Basinger, Rowan Atkinson, Bernie Casey, Alex McCowen, Edward Fox.