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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1983) Part 2

13.5. Never Say Never Again

The press dubbed it the Battle of the Bonds. It’s a long story but I’ll do my best to summarize it. In the fifties, Ian Fleming co-wrote a screenplay for a potential James Bond movie with Kevin McClory. The movie wasn’t made, obviously, but Fleming would later recycle the script into the book, “Thunderball.” He would also fail to credit McClory, who came up with many of the story elements, including the villain Blofeld and his organization SPECTRE. McClory sued and would eventually win the rights back to those characters. Ever since winning that law suit, McClory had plans to launch his own James Bond franchise, a rival film series to Eon Production’s long-running series. He even lured Sean Connery back, mostly with a three million dollar paycheck and a promise of more creative control over the project. It took years but eventually those plans grew into a film. Cheekily named “Never Say Never Again,” a reference to Connery’s oft-repeated plea to never play Bond again, the movie was essentially a remake of “Thunderball.” It went head-to-head at the box office with the same year’s “Octopussy.” Though that film would gross slightly more, “Never Say Never Again” still made lots of money and received better reviews, many critics gladly welcoming Connery back to the part that made him famous.

The Royal Secret Service has changed but James Bond has stayed the same. A new M wants to do away with the double-0s all together and forces Bond, who is beginning to feel his age, to undergo new diets and new training regiments. When SPECTRE steals two nuclear warheads, holding the world hostage with them, Bond is put back in service. Heading to the Bahamas, he meets up with Maximilian Largo, the SPECTRE agent in charge of this operation, and Largo’s beautiful mistress, Domino. Bond travels the world on Largo’s trail, pursued by bad guys, teaming up with Felix Leiter, and bedding more then a few beautiful women.

McClory and his production company, which included director Irvin “The Empire Strikes Back” Kershner, had to be careful not to step on Eon’s copyright. Thus, “Never Say Never Again” feels like an alternate universe version of the Bond we all know and love. This is most evident in the opening credits sequence. The famous gun barrel intro is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the audience is greeted with a barrage of 007s, the camera zooming through the center of the zero. The film makes no attempt to emulate Maurice Binder’s famous, stylized credit sequences. Instead, the credits play over an action sequence of Bond infiltrating a compound and killing some bad guys. It’s an action sequence designed to show that Sean Connery can still be an action hero, garroting goons, swinging into windows, and blasting away with a machine gun. “Never Say Never Again” at least maintains the tradition of a title song. Lani Hall’s number is not much better then Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High.” Both songs are hampered by sleep-inducing, smooth jazz backing music. The lyrics are better though, as they describe a woman who thinks she can tame Bond, and Hall’s delivery is dripping with sensuality. It’s still not going to crack anybody’s top ten Bond themes.

The bizzaro world feel of “Never Say Never Again” continues throughout the movie. John Barry’s famous theme song is legally barred from appearing. Instead, Michel Legrand’s electronic, smooth jazz score barely provides the required amount of energy. M as an older authority of Bond is nowhere to be seen. Instead, M is a young up-and-comer, at odds with his most famous agent. Desmond Llewelyn’s avuncular Q is replaced with a cockney-accented younger man who complains about budget cuts. The character is never referred to as “Q,” instead going by Algernon. Mostly, “Never Say Never Again” has a very different feel from the Eon series, striking a different balance between realism and exaggerated comic book adventure. It’s not bad, just really different.

Yet in other ways, “Never Say Never Again” maintains Bond expectations. The film is, after all, a remake of “Thunderball.” Both films begin with Bond in a health spa. In both films, he is nearly offed by an assassin, uncovers the missing pilot, and seduces his nurse. (Luckily, that last point involves less blackmail this time.) Both films have the secret agent heading towards the Bahamas. This one, however, flies the spy all over the world, to France, South Africa, and the Middle East. SPECTRE’s plot of stolen warheads is primarily the same. However, “Never Say Never Again” does away with the subplot of stealing the pilot’s identity. A no-less-convoluted plot involving contact lens and heroin addiction is used instead. Emilo Largo becomes Maximilian Largo. Fiona Volpe is replaced with a similar character called Fatima Blush. Blofeld is still around though and is still stroking that white cat. The movie is different enough to be pawned off as an entirely new story while still obviously following many of the same dramatic beats.

The most important question to ask about “Never Say Never Again” is: Does Sean Connery still have it? The Eon produced series rolled along, ignoring Roger Moore’s advancing age. McClory’s film, meanwhile, makes Connery’s senior citizen status a plot point. Bond’s superiors consider him a relic of another age and the agent has trouble keeping up with modern trends. Of course, he proves them wrong since, as another Bond would say two decades later, “some times the old ways are best.” Connery’s wrinkled face and more-obvious-then-ever toupee are impossible to ignore. Physically, he is still in pretty good shape and was, inexplicably, still a sex symbol at the time. Connery is more energized here then his sleep-walking performance in “Diamonds are Forever.” The rough edges of a sixties he-man have been polished away. He doesn’t smack any ladies, kicks a little less ass and with a little less brutality. However, Sir Sean remains capable, as he can still smirk and say a one-liner. His best moment comes when he tricks an unsuspecting doorman into thinking he’s holding a bomb.

Even though the official series had been keeping the character up-to-date with the times for a while now, “Never Say Never Again” still feels the need to update Bond for the eighties. Bond no longer bests Largo around the baccarat table. Instead, the villain owns a fancy resort outfitted with a video arcade. (Which, for some reason, contains about fifty copies of “Centipede.”) Bond and the bad guy sit down at a high tech video game, one equipped with a holographic projector and electrified controls. The game is essentially a higher stakes version of "Missile Command." The sequence is horribly dated and doesn’t generate anywhere near the suspense as it wants to. Also somewhat embarrassing is a motorcycle race. Bond riding around on a gadget-laden bike is fine, expected even. However, the movie feels compelled to show the character’s hipness by have him jumping the bike three or four times. The sequences feel dated in a way the similarly of-the-moment Roger Moore films never did.

Some of the other updates the film makes to “Thunderball” work a little better. Emilio Largo's swarthy disposition and barrel-like physique probably wouldn’t have flied in 1983. Maximilian Largo is a younger guy, with a sinister accent of vaguely Eastern European origin. He has a balding head and glasses, like an evil tech tycoon. He’s psychologically possessive of Domino, situating his secret hang-out next to her dance studio, so he can always watch her. When she asks what will happen if she ever leaves him, he threatens to slit her throat. Klaus Maria Brandauer has a cold and calculating quality to him, making him a solid villain. “Never Say Never Again,” weirdly, resists the chance to create a cool henchman. Max von Sydow, meanwhile, makes a fine Blofeld, bringing his innate authority to the part. It would have been interesting to see Sydow as the character in an official Bond film.

The film features plenty of Bond girls too. Barbara Carrera makes the biggest impression as the wicked Fatima Blush. She beats another man in a fashion obviously meant to imply a dominatrix. She later proves her further superiority by killing the same guy. She immediately wants Bond and the two share what is probably the steamiest sex scene out of any of the films, the two tumbling around on the floor of a boat. Blush’s undoing is her ego, as she tries to get Bond to admit she’s the best lay of his life. Carrera goes nicely over the type, creating a psychotic female adversary for the famous secret agent. Kim Basinger fills the role of Domino. Basinger is no Claudine Auger. She’s not as appealing, as exotic, or as strong. She’s a perfectly serviceable Bond girl, sharing decent chemistry with Connery, especially during their dance number. If she was playing a character besides Domino, I’d probably be fine with her.

Even if it has a radically different Q, “Never Say Never Again” doesn’t skimp on the gadgets. In keeping with series’ tradition, Bond’s collection of secret toys saves his ass multiple times. The best one is a fountain pen that shoots an explosive dart, which gets Bond out of a scrap and provides one of the best laughs in the movie. The movie also features a laser-shooting watch, a device I can’t believe hasn’t been in a Bond movie before. That particular device allows Bond to escape his ropes. Not all the gadgets are cool though. One of the most perplexing moment has 007 and Felix Leiter flying onto the beach inside weird missile/hovercraft combinations. The effects in this scene are awkwardly and the rocket-crafts contribute nothing else to the plot.

Sean Connery can’t quite trade blows like he could back in the sixties. However, “Never Say Never Again” still features some decent action scenes. The assassin sent to whack Bond at the health spa attempts to crush the guy while he’s lifting weights. When that doesn’t work, the two tear through the entire hospital, the fight scene concluding in a lab. While escaping the African castle, he tosses a guy out a window and into the ocean. (This scene also features an escape via horse, which is probably the cheesiest special effect in the movie.) Even in an unofficial Bond movie, the story still has to conclude with a big raid on the bad guy’s lair. This time, Bond, Felix, and the CIA swims into the Persian temple Largo is hiding in. While there’s plenty of shooting, explosions, and chaos, Bond himself spends most of this sequence avoiding trouble. When he corners the bad guy in the watery depths, we’re treated to an awkward scene of two actors fumbling around in dark water. In keeping with “Thunderball,” Bond doesn’t kill the main villain either. However, it doesn’t make as much sense here, since Domino appears suddenly into the scene.

Since it’s an entirely different continuity, “Never Say Never Again” has to fill out the usual Bond supporting roles with new actors. Edward Fox is fine as a bitchy M, playing the character as an obstructive bureaucrat. Though Alec McCowen is unrecognizable as the Q we know and love, he certainly leaves his mark on the character. My favorite bit of casting is Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter. Casting a black actor in the role was meant to bring attention to the frequently overlooked character. Casey has a great persona, as a laid-back, fun-loving guy who sees Bond as a best friend. Oddly, the movie throws in a comic relief character in the form of Rowen Atkinson’s Small-Fawcett. Atkinson is mildly amusing as the clownish character but he ultimately adds nothing to the movie.

“Never Say Never Again” is decently entertaining and fresher then the same year’s “Octopussy.” It stands on its own all right and is fascinating as a what-if for Bond fans. Connery returns to the part nicely, the plot is well constructed, and the supporting cast is aces. Despite further litigation, Kevin McClory would attempt to extend his rival Bond series. A sequel called “Warhead” was kicked around as late as the early nineties, with a returning Timothy Dalton or Liam Neeson being considered for Bond. Another attempt to launch a separate Bond franchise happened when Sony, who also owned “Casino Royale” at the time, purchased McClory’s assets. (This attempt was sued into non-existence.) After McClory’s death in 2006, the issue seemed to have been dropped. In time, MGM would purchase the rights to the film, putting it under the same roof as the official Bond universe. It’s probably for the best that a secondary James Bond wasn’t running around, diminishing the value of the brand and all that. As a one-off though, “Never Say Never Again” is pretty interesting. [Grade: B-]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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