Never Say Never Again will always hold a troubled spot in the James Bond film franchise, which is currently the longest running in motion picture history. On the one hand, it will always be the "unofficial" Bond film (not counting the 1967 spoof Casino Royale), meaning that it was not produced through Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's production company, which owns the rights to the James Bond character and Ian Fleming's original novels. On the other hand, it was the film that brought Sean Connery back to the role he had originated in 1962's Dr. No after a 12-year absence, which in and of itself was monumental. The title of the film, in fact, was coined by Connery's wife, who reminded him that he had proclaimed that he would "never again" play Bond after 1971's Diamonds Are Forever.
Never Say Never Again owes its existence to a lawsuit over James Bond creator Ian Fleming's 1961 novel Thunderball, which was produced as a film in 1965. Fleming's novel was actually written from a screenplay idea that he had concocted in the 1950s with producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham. When Fleming published the novel as sole author, McClory sued, and the case was eventually settled out of court. Part of the settlement allowed McClory to have cinematic rights to the story and characters, and nearly 20 years later he was able, with the help of producer Jack Schwartzman, to put together a new version of Thunderball, albeit one that had to be completely different from the previously filmed version of Fleming's novel.
Thus, Never Say Never Again was produced and released in 1983, not incidentally in direct competition with Broccoli and Saltzman's Octopussy, which was the second-to-last outing for Roger Moore. Bringing Sean Connery back to the role he had created was the filmmakers' biggest coup, and it is likely that the film never would have happened without his participation. Of course, by this time Connery was in his early 50s, which the screenwriters cleverly worked into the story (the screenplay is credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr., but nearly half the work was done in uncredited rewrites by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais). In this regard, Never Say Never Again marked a significant departure from the increasingly cartoonish Moore Bond films, focused as it was on an older, more psychologically attuned 007 who was essentially being pulled out of forced retirement to save the world once again. A good chunk of the film's opening takes place at a health spa where Bond's cantankerous supervisor M (Edward Fox) sends him to eliminate all "free radicals" from his diet of rich food and dry martinis. While taken directly from the novel, this sequence creates a humorous foundation from which to develop Bond's character in his later years, although that dimension is largely dropped by the end of the movie in favor of rote action.
The plot concerns the nefarious international terrorist organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which is run by the evil genius Blofield (Max von Sydow), stealing two American nuclear warheads and then threatening to detonate them unless the world's governments pay up. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is operating primarily through its number one agent, a billionaire industrialist named Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), whose dirtiest work is carried out by Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), a beautiful and exotically accented killer who takes psychotic pride in her work (one of the film's best moments features her dancing down a massive staircase to the tango after being given the assignment to kill Bond). The love interest is Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger, then a complete unknown), Largo's nave girlfriend whose brother (Gavan O'Herlihy), an Air Force officer, is key to Largo's plan.
In comparison to other James Bond films in the late '70s and early '80s, Never Say Never Again holds up relatively well, especially in the way it harkens back to the earliest films in the series. Connery easily sinks back into Bond's tuxedo, bringing all his confidence and wry humor while also tweaking them just slightly to account for Bond's older and, in some ways, rusty status. The plot tends to drag a bit at times, but director Irvin Kershner, who had recently helmed one of Hollywood's biggest follow-ups, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), still manages to keep it interesting. He finds a good balance between humor and action without ever letting the film become too campy or jokey (Rowan Atkinson, in his screen debut, comes closest as a bumbling British ambassador in the Bahamas). There are plenty of exotic locations and a few stand-out action setpieces, including a wild chase in which Bond races through a small French villa on a supercharged motorcycle, an underwater battle with a shark, and an amusing twist on the old stand-by card game between hero and villain that is here reimagined as the video game to end all video games.
Yet, at the same time, Never Say Never Again is hampered by some real obstacles, particularly the way it gets off on the wrong foot with an otherwise decent action sequence involving Bond rescuing a kidnapped heiress that is inexplicably scored to a cringe-worthy love ballad (an obvious sop to the rival series' use of songs during the opening credits). Some of the characters are a bit flat, too, including Basinger's Domino and Brandaeur's Largo, who is clearly intended to be a more human kind of adversary but, as a result, lacks a true villain's lethal panache. Luckily, Barbara Carrera is on hand, vamping up Fatima Blush's cold-blooded, man-hating ruthlessness without quite overstepping her bounds. She brings a sense of crackling intensity to every scene she's in, and it's almost a shame when her demise arrives, although you can't say she doesn't go out with a bang.
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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