I started writing this review in July 2014 upon revisiting the film after a long while. The review grew and grew and I decided to lay it down. Why waste time slamming a movie that is unanimously despised by most Bond fans anyway?
But six months later I suddenly felt the urge to finish this article. I could not longer remain silent.
This is one of those movies where the back story of its origin is probably more interesting than the end result itself. The subject of my review is the only Bond film that was not produced by the traditional “Home of 007” EON, but by producer Kevin McClory.
The story goes that McClory collaborated with Ian Fleming on the script to the classic spy movie-adventure Thunderball (1965). During the writing process, it came to a conflict between the authors, because Fleming submitted the script without any acknowledgement of McClory’s participation.
After a lengthy legal battle, Fleming admitted to his plagiarism and the court ordered that McClory would retain all rights of the story, including the use of several characters and the fictional villain organization “SPECTRE”, after a period of ten years so he could make his own Bond movie. As I only want to concentrate on the film itself and not on its (fascinating) history, I recommend the excellent articles at universalexports.net and filmnerds.com for further information.
Never Say Never Again is legendary for three reasons:
- It is the only “unofficial” Bond movie.
- 1983 marked the only year in history, when two Bond movies “dueled” at the BO (the other one being the Roger Moore-starrer “Octopussy”which won by a margin)
- Connery returned for a second time (after “Diamonds Are Forever”, 1971) to his most legendary role.
NSNA is a bad, bad Bond movie, but it is also a precious parable why you should be careful what you wish for.
Let me tell you why.
Actually, it starts out pretty good. To the tune of Lani Hall’s catchy title song “Never Say Never Again”, a decent riff on the official Bond songs, and after a neat “007” graphic graced the screen (the “gun barrel sequence” was not available, for obvious legal reasons) a helicopter shot takes us over the bayous of an unnamed South American state till we reach a picturesquely dilapidated mansion on a hill in the middle of the jungle.
Now the camera follows a man running on a road that is leading straight to said building. As he sneaks through the bushes to overpower one of the many camo suit-clad guards from behind, we can finally see his face as he parts the branches. It’s Bond, James Bond.
Bond manages to eliminate all of the guards thanks to his superspy abilities and of course two wacky devices, a kind of “Sound grenade” and – a frisbee.
After beating up and gunning down several revolucionarios, Bond finally reaches a room with a woman tied to a bed. 007 unties one of her hands and while he is distracted with cutting the remaining bonds, the girl reaches for a knife and stabs the agent into his kidneys. Bond dies.
You only live twice as they say and the whole scenario of the “teaser” sequence – another element lent from the official series -is revealed to be a simulation, whose video recording Bond and a disgruntled M (Edward Fox, the most British of all Brits) are now analyzing in M’s office.
M, who was just recently appointed as head of the MI6 in this version and his highly suspicious of 007’s old-school methods, berates Bond for failing in diverse simulation scenarios, being out of shape and his general lack of will to adapt to the new management.
“Too many free radicals, that’s your problem. (…) Caused by eating too much red meat and white bread and too many dry Martinis.” “Then I shall cut out the white bread, Sir.”
Unsurprisingly, Bond’s cheeky retorts aren’t quite helpful and gain him a compulsory stay at the “Shrublands”, a health resort for members of the British Navy, to knock him into shape again.
Moneypenny: Have you got an assignment, James?
Bond: Yes. Yes, Moneypenny. I’m to eliminate all free radicals.
When Bond arrives at Shrublands, a servant compliments his vintage car with the words “My word. They don’t make them like this anymore.” The whole first section of the movie is interspersed with self-aware witticisms of that kind, to the delight of the knowing audience. It’s one of the few examples where the writers addressed the advanced age of the protagonist without resorting to lachrymosity or cheap jokes. In general, the first third of “Never…” has not one false tone and is therefore quite promising. Enjoy it while you can.
This is also the moment where the bad guys, the organization “SPECTRE is introduced. Barabara Carrera, as Fatima Blush (!), plays the bad Bond girl and we see her entering the lair of evil, which comes in form of a subterranean complex underneath a bank. It has the flair of a technologically updated Gothic castle and appropriately the boss of SPECTRE, Blofeld, played by Max von Sydow with a glorious fake beard and an even more glorious fake Eastern European accent, looks a bit like a withered stone gargoyle.
Blofeld: In matters of death, SPECTRE is strictly impartial.
The fact that the constantly cat-petting Blofeld gives his devious orders to his agents in overseas via a metal skull which has a camera protruding from its mouth is the dot on the I of the Goth-tech look. The attending SPECTRE staff, a bunch of people who look like docile stuffy bureaucrats, complete the picture. Yet, this is also the moment where the first weak link of the movie is introduced, which is Klaus Maria Brandauer, who plays Blofeld’s No1 Maximillian Largo.
When his image appears on the video wall, showing him wearing tinted aviator shades and a polo shirt with a turned up collar under a white V-neck sweater in best 80s snob fashion while sporting a thick Austrian accent that is more authentic than but lacks the charm of Sydow’s OTT made up accent, he sticks out like a sore thumb in the timelessly stylized surrounding. His appearance is a precursor of (the bad) things to come, but first we return to “Shrublands”.
Bond is not very amused about the ordeals he has to go through for his fitness and neither the wine and the caviar he smuggled into the institution, nor the willing pediatrician can lighten up his mood in the long run. Things get interesting when he notices weird noises in the room nearby and it turns out to be Fatima beating up the treacherous Air Force officer Jack Petachi, of whom she has to take care of. Petachi is recovering from an ocular surgery that turned his right eye into an exact replica of that of the US-president. But he has been naughty and smoked a cigarette which is detrimental to the healing process, so he naturally needs a good beating.
Bond starts inquiring, but his investigation does not stay unnoticed by the villains. Lifting weights in the gym room, James is attacked by a behemoth of a man, which leads to one of those prolonged duels that became a staple of the Bond movies since the train fight in “From Russia With Love”. After brawling through several corridors and destroying half of the furniture, the fight comes to a halt when they reach the medical laboratory where Bond defeats his opponent with the help of his own urine sample.
Cut to a naval airbase: Petachi, a willing servant of SPECTRE, uses his “presidential eye” that is hidden under a coloured contact lens, to get access to the nuclear weapons control program and replaces the dummy warheads two test missiles are carrying with functioning thermonuclear devices. The computer-controlled missiles suddenly get out of reach for the Navy and plummet into the sea, where SPECTRE frogmen harbour and transport them away.
Then there is the first head-scratching inducing scene of the movie, as Fatima kills Petachi by driving her convertible next to his car and dropping her pet snake through the car window on his lap. The seemingly highly ophidiophobe (who can blame him? Not me) Petachi panics and loses control over the steering wheel, causing the car to flip over and crash into a house. Fatima salvages her snake and blows up the car with a bomb.
What follows is Bond villain procedure as usual: Blofeld threatens to ignite the nuclear warheads on two secret targets, if the wealthiest NATO member countries refuse to pay the sum of one million doll… a sum that equals 25% of their annual oil purchases within the following seven days.
Without any other options left, Bond is brought back into business and can soon use the advance in knowledge he gained by spying on Petachi in “Shrublands” to trace down the main suspect, Maximilian Largo, a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist who lives on his yacht, cruising the world’s seas. But first 007 is in need of some technical support though and visits Q (also called “Algernon” here and fabulously played by Alec Mc Cowen), who resides in a dark and desolate laboratory in the basement of the MI6 building. With his scarf, his shabby coat and the half-frame glasses he looks like one of those guys you see usually hanging around in libraries or coffee shops, but none of them will ever build you a rocket-propelled bike, a wristwatch with a built-in laser and a exploding pen (yeah, one of those that had to serve for a bad pun in Skyfall) with a Union Jack motive.
I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.
…says Algernon, thereby both unintentionally expressing some hidden desire to live vicariously through his lad James and simultaenously stating the undercurrent of every Bond movie.
Unfortunately, what follows does not live up to this promises, because as soon as Bond leaves his home country, the movie falls apart. Every goodwill built up to this point is actively destroyed in the remaining 90 minutes.
The following plot roughly follows the outlines of the original Thunderball. Bond tracks Largo and his big yacht down in the Bahamas and tries to unveil him as the mastermind behind the missile theft and to subsequently thwart his devious plans. Besides that, he hooks up with Largo’s sweetheart, the young Domino, sister of Jack Petachi, who is unaware of her brothers death and her lover’s criminal endeavours. The only irritation are Largo’s henchman, led by Fatima Blush, who unsuccessfully attempt to kill the Queen’s best agent in an overly complicated fashion. Bond-business as usual.
So where to begin with counting the reasons for the film’s failure?
Major point number one are the actors and the characters they play, because believe it or not, this movie is very much driven by the interplay of its characters and less by the plot, which is a bit unusual for a Bond flick.
As I already alluded to, the best members of the cast are Fox as M, McCowen as Q and Von Sydow as Blofeld, but their combined screen time sadly adds up to about ten minutes or less. So we are stuck with the other players.
Let’s start with the minor ones: There is Rowan Atkinson as bumbling contact man Small-Fawcett, whom Bond meets in the Bahamas. A few other comic relief characters had their turn in Bond movies before (like Sheriff Pepper in Live and Let Die) and not all of them were gold but he must be the worst one with his astounding ability to take you right out of the movie every time he appears on screen. Well, I admittedly never found Atkinson to be that funny anyway, so there is that.
Next on the list is Barbara Carrera. Her “Fatima Blush” was fun in the first 40 minutes when the character was served in little doses. As soon as more space is given to her antics, the act starts falling apart. Fatima Blush is not a cunning femme fatale who is a fair match for Bond but a dumb male projection, an archetypical shrew who is alternately throwing tantrums or diabolically cackling, created solely for the purpose to be taken down in a not very heroic fashion by 007, to the guilty delight of the audience that was tricked into hating her by her incessant bitching. The character/Carrera’s performance sadly can not be described as campy, amusing or funny, it’s just annoying, undignified and a disgrace to other great evil Bond girls.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we have Domino (played by a doe-eyed Kim Basinger in her breakthrough role), a girl that is everything Fatima Blush is not, a man’s fantasy: Naive, vulnerable and light-hearted she dances, clad in a pink leotard with leg warmers, her way through life, a pretty flower only waiting to be picked by a strong fatherly type.
Basinger’s performance remains pale, which is admittedly not her fault though- to paraphrase a quote by Jessica Rabbit: She was written that way! She mainly exists as a catalyst to further the plot every time it grinds to a halt- which happens with a disturbingly high frequency- as she is the subject of desire whose “ownership” symbolizes the ultimate trophy in the power play between Bond and Largo.
Speaking of Largo, K.M. Brandauer probably gives the most outlandish performance as a Bond villain ever and that includes the angry French Rumpelstiltskin from “A Quantum of Solace”. One gets the feeling the character just walked in from a tonally completely different film.
Look, Brandauer’s noble intention to endow his character with some psychological complexity is kind of admirable on the surface: His Largo is far removed from the larger-than-life version of Adolfo Celi in Thunderball, he reinterprets the character as a tragic villain who is suffering from an indelible inferiority complex he is desperately trying to compensate with villainy, power plays and status symbols like a really loooong yacht and of course- Domino. He is doomed to be forever “Number Two”, but it is uncertain if he was happier if he was on top.
Brandauer expresses the angst and melancholy of the antagonist with the bad posture and the feathery hair through a seemingly laid-back attitude that is reinforced by his Viennese singsong accent that is dripping with phoned-in friendliness, but his devious intentions are always palpable under the polite facade, like a lurking snake waiting for an opportunity to strike. The dirty underbelly becomes visible when Bond steals Largo’s “favourite toy”, Domino, and his ego snaps, revealing his volatile nature.
That would be all fine and dandy if it wasn’t so out of place in that movie- he has no place in the stylized Bond universe. Brandauer leaves no doubt that this is a pure ego- show for him. Apparently his hijinks are never reined in by the director and enable the possibly most vain performance in the history of the spy saga.
Worst of them all is Connery though. If you thought he phoned it in in his first return to the role (Diamonds are forever), think again. The producers must have been so happy about their casting coup that they missed the little detail that Connery does not act at all. He gives his later on-screen son Harrison Ford a run for being the most obviously bored actor to fill a well-paid lead role in an A-production.
In the first half hour, when he has to play a broken Bond, he is kind of alright- maybe that part was more interesting from his perspective as a thespian. But as soon as the movie changes location, he makes no secret of his disdain for the role that made him famous.
Do you know this situation when you get to know a person who just goes through a low in life and is kind of sympathetic in his/her display of vulnerability, but turns out to be a complete asshole as soon as the ego is repaired and back in full effect? This is a little like one of those cases. On top of that his hairpiece is particularly unconvincing and he was put into some of the ugliest suits and shirts Bond ever had to wear.
And it does not stop at the actors: The rest of the movie also follows suit and takes a sloppy nose-dive into the realm of the almost unwatchable.
Director Irvin Kershner earned himself a fixed place in the movie Olymp and the hearts of all nerds worldwide by having directed one of the best sequels ever (The Empires Strikes Back, 1979), but he apparently decided to rest on those laurels for the rest of his career.
Rarely has the action in a Bond movie been that sparse and underwhelming. Solely one scene featuring Bond fighting a shark, beautifully realized with some breathtaking stunt work (the stuntman gets really, really close to the shark), is worth a mention.
A chase with Bond utilizing his gadget-laden super-bike is the supposed action flagship, but apart from a few passable stunts, which have been already done better in earlier Bond adventures, it is terribly paced and weirdly unengaging and the inappropriate whimsical jazz score does the rest to sour the enjoyment.
Not much better is the showdown, an unspectacular shootout in a subterranean cave followed by a confusing and sloppily choreographed underwater fight between Bond and Largo, that is again put to shame by the original showdown from Tunderball.
The rest? A slew of bafflingly absurd, overlong scenes, held together by a few tenuous plot threads and – lots of filler material. Did we really need so many scenes of Basinger aerobic-dancing? I guess Connery did. Like I stated above, the film is mostly driven by the interaction of the central three characters, whose actors radically clash with their different acting styles.
My personal theory is that Connery, Brandauer and Kershner, knowing that they had a surefire hit at hand with the unbeatable gimmick of having the most legendary Bond actor returning to the role, and being far away from the supervision of the producers on their set in the Bahamas, rewrote the script together to their wishes in one wine and rum-fuelled night at a Caribbean tavern, so they could make sure the shooting would be as indistinguishable from a luxury vacation as possible, which is confirmed by leisurely pace of the film that suggests “Hangover mood”.
Oddly enough, one of the most outlandish scenes still gets a lot of praise nowadays and that is the computer game duel between 007 and Largo. To be fair, there is a certain retro charm about it when they battle in a custom-made computer game called “World Domination, giving each other determined stares through the holographic monitor that is placed between them on a long table.
Yet, if you take a closer look, it makes no sense. While the direction suggests suspense, we actually never know what’s really going on as we don’t know how this game works. The fact that the player is punished for failing at the game with real electric shocks does not really add excitement. More interesting is the fact that Largo filled a ballroom with arcade machines to entertain his rich guests. Leave that kind of fun to the “normal people”, you decadent snobs.
Now Bond wins the game of course and turns down the prize money in exchange for a dance with Domino, with the intent to use the opportunity to exchange crucial information and provoke Largo while he is at it. That’s not untypical for Bond and one would expect a scene of him dancing slowly in the crowd while Largo is eyeing them from the bar.
Again, we are surprised with an absurd variation of that “standard procedure”: Out of the blue, Bond and Domino perform, accompanied by an orchestra, a stilted ballroom dance routine as the only couple on the dance floor while everybody is watching silently. Nothing about it screams “spy movie” or adds in any way to the plot or atmosphere.
Even more farcical is the maybe worst scene we ever had to witness in a Bond movie and I am fully aware that this is a bold assessment regarding the fact we have seen Bond wearing a Gorilla costume and sledding on a Cello case. But hear me out.
It takes place right after the chase scene. So Bond could escape on his bike into an underground vault system as suddenly Fatima Blush turns up in her plastic Disco Pirate outfit and holds 007 at gunpoint. She does not shoot him immediately, but first wants him to confess that she was his greatest sexual experience of his life, to which Bond answers with one of the most inexplicable Bond lines ever.
Well, to be perfectly honest, there was this girl in Philadelphia…
An enraged Fatima forces a written confession from Bond that declares “The greatest rapture in my life was afforded me in a boat in Nassau by Fatima Blush. Signed James Bond 007.” “Pride comes before a fall” comes true for Fatima when the pen Bond uses is revealed to be the shooting one he got from Q and he fires a bullet into her stomach. To Bond’s surprise, Fatima does not only die, but explode in a fireball, only leaving her smoking pumps. Loony Toons. When you thought it could not get any more stupid, Felix Leiter suddenly appears from behind a column, where he has been apparently hiding the whole time, observing Bond to see how he “handled the lady”. To escape the arriving police, Leiter and Bond do the only reasonable and strip down to their underwear, leaving the scene unnoticed as they are posing as jogging Boxer and cyclist respectively. Are we really ought to believe the script was written by an adult person?
At another point, a casually racist note is added to the already rampant sexist tone of the movie, when a disappointed Largo wants to sell Domino to a group of foul-toothed Arabs and Bond literally rides in on a horse to save her, which leads leads to another Loony Toons-like scene of them leaping down a cliff (still on the horse), realized with hilariously bad FX.
Permeated by a streak of the aforementioned kind of mean-spiritedness, NSNA does not even provide that certain level of mild amusement some of the more goofy Roger Moore- outputs have to offer.
The score is unremarkable, the visuals go full-on Emanuelle soft-focus as soon as Bond arrives in Nassau and the special effects are mostly poor. Also too many scenes showing dances and massages (!).
Never Say Never Again is, official part of the saga or not, one of the worst Bond movies ever, maybe even the worst. Yet, it is an important movie.
Why? 1983, when it was released, was a year when the saga had already seen a few artistic (if not financial) lows after its golden streak in the 1960s which led people to glamorize the Connery-era, which is, at closer inspection, not that immaculate at all. Thereby Connery’s decision to return, which was undoubtedly motivated by monetary reasons, was more than welcome.
Who would have expected that it would turn out as such a stale old man’s joke on celluloid?
The message: Be careful what you wish for, be it wanting to see Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones again, or to see Sly and Arnie return to their action roots in an ensemble movie or the old leads of Star Wars or Ghostbusters returning to their original parts after thirty years. In that case just think of NSNA, a sobering experience in hindsight.
As for Connery: “Never Say Never Again” is indisputably still valid as a saying, but when he was offered to return to his cinematic roots, he should have taken a clue from the title of his very first Bond movie and simply said:
James Bond will return.