Good to see you, Mr. Bond. Things have been awfully dull around here ... now you're on this, I hope we're going to have some gratuitous sex and violence!
If one counts foreign films and television shows, the James Bond franchise begat thousands of imitations, including a few productions with a semi-official claim to the 007 bloodline. 1966's comedy spoof Casino Royale came about because the rights to Ian Fleming's first Bond book had been sold to television way back in 1954. A 1967 United Artists release known as Operation Kid Brother (or O.K. Connery) was a cheap Italian effort using several familiar Bond actors in support of Neil Connery, Sean's younger brother. But the most daring incursion into the franchise came with 1983's Never Say Never Again, which brought Sean Connery back to the role after twelve years. Connery had sworn never to play the character again, which accounts for the film's title.
The independent production began back in the 1950s when Ian Fleming and two partners wrote a spec screenplay. When the yarn failed to sell, Fleming converted it into his book Thunderball. The co-ownership of the film rights were more or less forgotten until 1965, when Fleming's partners won a participation in the production of the Thunderball feature film. Not only that, they eventually won a court decision giving them the right to use the James Bond character in a remake, provided they didn't copy anything from the original feature. A hefty profit participation lured Sean Connery from retirement to play the action-oriented secret agent -- at the age of 52.
The story outline is similar to the 1965 film. Spectre operative Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) steals two nuclear bombs, not from a NATO jet but from a pair of American cruise missiles. Tracking Largo's yacht The Flying Saucer to the Bahamas, Bond beds a willing sportswoman (Valerie Leon, notable in several Hammer horror films) and is seduced by the ruthless Spectre assassin Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera). Bond penetrates Spectre's inner circle by befriending Largo's girlfriend, dancer Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger, in one of her first feature appearances). He pursues Largo to the South of France and from there to North Africa, where he escapes from a Moorish fortress in time to foil Spectre's plan to use one of the bombs to irradiate a Saudi oil field.
Never Say Never Again is a pretty tired show despite a number of OK fight and action scenes. Bond spars with a hefty assassin at the health spa, engages in a lot of scuba diving and even rides an Arabian horse, as he did in The Wind and the Lion. The new "Q" (Alec McCowen) provides 007 with a fancy motorcycle that naturally arrives just in time for an exciting chase in a French seaport. An attack by "radio-directed" sharks is very impressively handled by the underwater sequence director Ricou Browning, and is better than most of the scuba scenes in the original Thunderball.
The script went through many hands and was subject to careful legal scrutiny to avoid infringing on the rights held by the official Bond franchise. But the independent production probably could not afford Thunderball's lavish action scenes, in any case. The conclusion comes as a letdown, an uninteresting gun battle followed by an underwater showdown in an Arabian well.
Director Irvin Kershner's strong suit has always been serious drama, not genre fantasies. He plays to James Bond's lighter side but fails to inject excitement or urgency into the recycled plot. The one fresh idea is Bond's advancing age. When the story begins 007 has been deactivated; he can really use the tune-up at the health spa. Connery appears to be having a fine time, as if he were enjoying pulling the rug out from under his old employers with this wildcat production. He certainly sells the bad jokes as well as Roger Moore, at one point even resurrecting the spirit of W.C. Fields:
Fatima Blush: "You know that making love to Fatima was the greatest pleasure of your life."
James Bond: "Well, to be perfectly honest, there was this girl in Philadelphia... "
The new "M" (Edward Fox) is a health nut that doesn't believe in double-0 agents. Neither he nor the new Moneypenny (Pamela Salem) is given as much attention as Rowan Atkinson's silly-twit field agent, a weak bid for comic relief. We almost expect 007 to join Atkinson in a Pythonesque "silly walk." Bernie Casey's Felix Leiter, the C.I.A. whiz and close Bond associate at least has an action function to perform, and enlivens the concluding gun battle.
The villains fare somewhat better. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Largo as a jealous near-madman, who spies on his captive trophy Domino through a one-way mirror. We're never quite convinced of this Largo's motivation. The producers give him an enormous yacht but make the mistake of substituting the expected baccarat for a rather pathetic video game that dispenses powerful electric shocks to the loser. Watching James Bond zap colored triangles on a screen is about as exciting as having Errol Flynn play with paper dolls. Third-billed Max von Sydow is a restrained Blofeld, on screen just long enough to deliver a threatening speech or two.
One thing Never Say Never Again definitely has in its favor are its Bond girls. Barbara Carrera's fine villain Fatima Blush is convincingly athletic when water skiing or running up stone steps in stiletto heels. A man-hating sex fiend, she's more memorable than most of Bond's female opponents in the official series. Newcomer Kim Basinger looks great and really fills out Domino's revealing costumes. She retains her dignity even when being auctioned off to a group of stereotyped lustful Arabs. Yet the script and Irvin Kershner's direction often use Domino as a decoration, and leave her standing in the corner while Bond and Largo confront one another.
With such an accomplished actor's director on board, Never Say Never Again was a splendid opportunity to take 007 in a different, less gaudy direction. Some of the original Ian Fleming books cast James Bond as older and worse for wear, with a less jaunty attitude about his work. The producers instead choose to emulate the official series' emphasis on silly humor and cartoonish action. The atomic extortion threat never seems very serious, and the movie doesn't build to much of a climax. Yet, no doubt due to the drawing power of Sean Connery, this wildcat Bond adventure performed quite well at the worldwide box office.
If the rights to the Thunderball property were still in flux, it would be a great idea to do a second remake, with an 80-year-old Sean Connery dealing with atomic terrorists in a completely different manner. Along the way he could touch base with his favorite Bond girls -- several are only in their sixties!
Fox Home Video's Collector's Edition Blu-ray of Never Say Never Again is a solid transfer of a visually uneven movie that lacks a strong design scheme. The cinematography varies from gorgeous shots of the female stars to many scenes with heavy filtration, such as Bond and Domino's odd Tango exhibition. An establishing view in the video game sequence blurs Sean Connery on the left of the frame (the shot is an optical). The action sequences on land and underwater may not be as spectacular as those in the official series, yet they're just as well photographed. On the clearly recorded soundtrack, Michel Legrand's listless music score often seems as if it were composed for a different movie altogether, one with a more relaxed tone.
Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin and Irvin Kershner handle the commentary, covering the same information as the disc's three featurettes. In The Big Gamble we learn that bucking the official Bond franchise involved an enormous risk, should an unforeseen legal decision suddenly go against the producers. According to various accounts, the unflappable Sean Connery acted as a stabilizing agent on a nervous and insecure production. For some reason, some of the stills in the featurettes appear to be vertically squeezed.
Sean is Back examines Sean Connery's decision to do 007 one more time, without the actor's participation. A featurette on The Girls of Never Say Never Again likewise makes do without a Kim Basinger interview, but Barbara Carrera, Pamela Salem and Valerie Leon offer their thoughts on camera. All three still look quite lovely. A photo gallery rounds out the package, along with the film's perfectly awful original trailer. The standard DVD edition carries the same extras.
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