Never Say Never Again

"Good to see you Mr Bond. Things've been awfully dull around here. I hope we're going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one!"
The fall out from the Fleming/Whittingham/McClory court case left Kevin McClory with the legal potential to make his own James Bond film apart from the established series of adventures produced by Eon. He agreed to sit on his rights for at least ten years when he took on a co-producer's role for the 1965 adaptation of Thunderball produced by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman but once that time period had elapsed he soon began making noises and plans of his own. You can hardly blame him. In the seventies McClory planned a Thunderball remake project known as Warhead and roped in thriller writer Len Deighton and none other than Sean Connery to work on the screenplay.
It seemed somewhat bizarre that Connery, a man who had walked away from James Bond because he was apparently sick to death of it, would agree to spend his spare time writing a Bond film (that he claimed he had no interest in starring in) but nothing came of the project (which had by this stage undergone a name change to James Bond of the Secret Service) in the end. All the while the legal eagles of the official Bond filmmakers were watching events carefully, threatening to sue McClory into a distant galaxy in the far reaches of space if he ever tried to put a rival Bond film on the screen.
In the early eighties the film that most thought would never see the light of day began to slowly fall into place. Jack Schwartzman joined the project as the producer (weirdly, despite his long battle to get a remake of Thunderball off the ground, Kevin McClory had little to do with the eventual production the film) and Lorenzo Semple Jr (sixties Batman, The Parallax View, Flash Gordon etc) was hired to write the screenplay. Despite previously claiming he didn't want to appear as James Bond again the inevitable happened when Connery was asked to play 007 in the film and couldn't resist saying yes. Who else were they going to ask? Anyone other than Connery would have been a dreadful anti-climax and the actor was still only 52 (which made him younger than the official Bond Roger Moore).
Connery wanted Tom Mankiewicz to polish the screenplay but Mankiewicz declined for obvious reasons (loyalty to Cubby Broccoli, whom he'd worked for on the seventies Bonds). So Connery hired Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais instead, two British writers best known for their work on the classic television shows The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Porridge, and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
Connery's wife suggested the title Never Say Never Again and Irvin Kershner, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back, signed on to direct. Kershner had no particular interest in James Bond but took the job because Sean Connery was an old friend and asked him. An impressive and colourful cast was assembled around Connery. Klaus Maria Brandauer would play Largo while Max von Sydow would be Blofeld. Edward Fox and Alec McCowen would be M and Q respectively while Barbara Carrera and Kim Basinger would become the latest (unofficial) Bond girls - one good one bad in the classic tradition. It appeared that the ingredients for a classic film, or at least a very good one, might be in place but Never Say Never Again would be hamstrung by budget problems (a lack of spectacle and action is a frequent criticism of the film) and many production troubles.
Connery and Jack Schwartzman did not get on and according to many accounts the actor took over production himself, believing the producer to be out of his depth. Some planned sequences were canned and the final picture does sometimes play like it needed a few more months in the editing suite. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais later revealed that even as the film was shooting they doubted it would ever be released because of the fierce legal rumblings emanating from the Broccoli camp. The film did somehow clear the remaining the legal obstacles and make it into cinemas though. But was it any good?
The premise sticks closely to the original Thunderball with some changes to mark the passage of time. Some of these are offbeat and enter the arena of guilty pleasure. I must admit to having a soft spot in particular for the sequence where Bond and Largo face off over a three dimensional holographic computer game of some sort called Domination! The double-0 section is reactivated by M in Never Say Never Again and James Bond is back to annoy his new boss with his usual penchant for property destruction and general insouciance. M feels that Bond is an anachronism and an out of shape anachronism at that thanks to free radicals. "They're toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread and too many dry martinis!" "Then I shall cut out the white bread, sir," quips Bond.
Sent to the country health farm Shrublands to get back into condition, Bond discovers a SPECTRE plot to use a drug-addled US air force officer named Jack Petachi (Gavan O'Herlihy) to replace two test warheads with nuclear ones for a cruise missile flight. SPECTRE plan to retrieve the warheads and then hold the world to ransom - as they usually do.
A lot is made of Never Say Never Again having one arm tied behind its back from the start because it can't use the trademarked staples of the official series but I don't think you really miss the absence of a gunbarrel or a Binderesque title sequence for one film and we are course aware that this is a renegade James Bond production. We know going in we aren't going to get the Bond theme and a gunbarrel etc. The first time you watch Never Say Never Again the anticipation of how they get around some of these moments is a big part of the experience. Filling the screen with 007 logos and morphing through them is as good a way as any to get around the missing gunbarrel.
The biggest problem Never Say Never Again has in generating its own Bond atmosphere I feel is with the music score. Michel Legrand's jazzy music never quite feels right and the lack of an immediate action beat is much missed. The music in the film mostly either just washes over you or feels a little eccentric. Someone like Roy Budd might have been able to bridge the gap. Watch Who Dares Wins and listen to Budd's music to see what I mean. Lani Hall's title song is not brilliant but has an annoying habit of sticking in your head for days afterwards. Strange!
The song plays over the extended scene of Bond infiltrating what looks like a South American jungle mansion while the credits roll. It's a pretty good sequence and Connery has clearly whipped himself into shape but perhaps Clement and La Frenais' rejected idea of having this play out to a ticking clock to build tension should have been adopted. Edward Fox plays M exactly like you imagine he will. Maybe it makes the character cartoonish but its quite comical to see Bond deadpanning this insufferable toff. Alec McCowen as Q also plays it for laughs. His Q is more at home in handyman's overalls than a tweed suit and he has a Vics decongestant inhaler to hand as the futuristic Q lab of the Eon films is more like a draughty warehouse here.
I don't know if the film is meant to have a subtext about Thatcher (this is 1983) budget cuts or they just maybe thought it was a decent joke to go in the opposite direction from the Eon films but the MI6 of Never Say Never Again seems to be constantly complaining about not having enough money. It could be a metaphor for the film's shrinking budget maybe. I have no idea why Q seems to be called Algy. Answers on a nice seaside postcard.
The Shrublands scenes are fun I think. Bond revealing that hamper full of expensive food and drink, the fight with Pat Roach (funny cameo by Derek Deadman here), and Barbara Carrera's over the top performance as Fatima Blush always admirably trying to give the film some energy. Carrera is enjoyably unrestrained and her frequent change of (often surreal) costumes and clothes is fun. Kim Basinger doesn't have the same charisma as Domino Petachi when she's introduced but then she doesn't have the most well written part and isn't the greatest actress in the world to begin. It's interesting though to see her just before she became a big star. Klaus Maria Brandauer is terrific as Largo and makes him a genuinely unhinged villain who looks like he is always desperately trying to suppress his blatant nuttiness behind a cool fake exterior. It's great casting.
Max von Sydow as Blofeld is hard to express much of an opinion on because he's hardly in the film at all! You want much more of him delivering those pompous Blofeld speeches. "I am Supreme Commander of SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Yesterday morning, the American Air Force launched 2 cruise missiles from Swadley Air Base in Great Britain. Through the ingenuity of SPECTRE, the dummy warheads they carried were replaced with live, nuclear warheads. Your weapons of destruction are now safely in our possession and will be moved to two secret targets. Please note the serial numbers of the missiles; they will confirm the truth. Your weapons of deterrence did not deter us from our objective! A terrible catastrophe now confronts you. However, it can be avoided by paying a tribute to our organization, amounting to twenty-five percent of your respective countries' annual oil purchases. We have accomplished two of the functions that the name SPECTRE embodies: terror and extortion. If our demands are not met within seven days, we shall ruthlessly apply the third: revenge!"
Pamela Salem as Moneypenny and Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter are both solid choices but neither has an awful lot to do. The official films never really made you remember Leiter much (it probably would have helped if Jack Lord had stuck around for the duration of the Connery era) and Never Say Never Again doesn't do an awful lot to improve matters when it comes to Bond's American friend. When the action moves to the Bahamas the film gets a nice dose of colour and Rowan Atkinson does his thing as a bumbling idiot Foreign Office representative who Bond has to meet.
Connery has some decent lines ("...but my martini is still dry...") here and there during this section of the film. The modest budget that Never Say Never Again has to juggle is a definite problem though. The motorbike chase in France is fun but never really seems to cut loose and you really want at least two or three set-pieces of this type rather than a modest one. Connery is made to look slightly ridiculous when he passes himself off as an assistant in that health spa (!) but he dances a mean Tango and still looks good in a tuxedo.
I suppose much was made at the time about the "real" Bond being back and some were maybe hoping for a tougher type of adventure than the Roger films were delivering at the time but Connery is very much in his jovial Diamonds Are Forever mode in Never Say Never Again. The hostage/escape sequence in North Africa is not bad at all but ruined for me by the horse plunging over a cliff into the sea. This was apparently done for real and there was some sort of cruelty to animals investigation. I don't want to see innocent animals put in danger for the mere making of films so I refuse to watch this moment now.
The film teases a big battle climax but although you get some of this in the underground caverns at the end the picture as a whole seems to fizzle out to an abrupt close when you are still expecting more for your money.
Never Say Never Again is a strange one to be sure. You could nitpick it all day and it has a lackadaisical nature that never makes it especially exciting but there are loads of moments you remember (Barbara Carrera's nutty performance, Bond shoving that chap in the broom cupboard with a gyroscope thing, The Tango, the videogame, the opening credit sequence, Edward Fox as the bad-tempered comically posh M etc). I wouldn't pretend it's one of the very best Bond films but I always end up having a decent enough time when I watch it and at the very least it's great that one more Connery adventure exists out there in the Phantom Zone of the Bond universe somewhere.

- Jake

c 2015 Alternative 007

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