Once more with feeling…
In 1958, Ian Fleming was hard at work adapting his bestselling Bond novels to the silver screen. After a disastrous relationship with the CBS anthology show Climax birthed a (largely, outside of Bond fandom) forgotten adaption of Casino Royale (now known as Casino Royale-no-not-that-one), Fleming teamed with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham to develop an original Bond adventure. When that fell apart in 1961, Fleming took his toys home and turned them into the ninth Bond novel, Thunderball…without crediting McClory or Whittingham. They promptly – and quite rightly – sued, beginning a legal battle so protracted it prevented Thunderball from being the first Bond film. McClory and Whittingham eventually won the right to have their names attached to the story and any movies resulting from it, as we saw in Thunderball‘s opening credits. McClory also retained the rights to remake Thunderball after either ten or twelve (sources vary) years.
So far, so good. But after Thunderball paved the way for three more Bond adventures, McClory started demanding rights, not just to the story he worked on, but to every idea developed for that story – including SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That’s why Bond’s “Arch Nemesis” basically disappeared from the series with Sean Connery, after Diamonds Are Forever and was unceremoniously killed off at the start of For Your Eyes Only.
Having finally rebuilt what he always viewed as his toy collection, McClory set out to remake Thunderball with a little help from Orion Pictures…a company that would go on to release some of the most influential films of the the 1980s (The Terminator, RoboCop, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and 90s (Silence of the Lambs, Dances with Wolves, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), until its sale to MGM in ’98. Of course, Orion also let fly some of the stinkiest crap those decades had to offer, so this film really could’ve gone either way…but it eventually went to crap.
At least McClory hired well, giving Connery three million plus final approval over the script and the cast (Kim Basinger and Bernie Casey both apparently owe their roles to him), as well as a cut of the final profits. After Peter Hunt, editor of the first five Bond films and director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, turned this picture’s Big Chair down, McClory hired no less than The Empire Strikes Back‘s Irving Kershner. At the time, everyone was sure Kershner had a brilliantly successful directing career ahead of him. After watching these two hours of passion-free, workmanlike competency, I can’t help wondering, Why was that, humanity? The film also poached two production designers (Philip Harrison and Stephen Grimes), an assistant director (David Tomblin) and a director of photography (Douglas Slocombe) from Raiders of the Lost Ark, so at least you know it looks nice. Why shouldn’t it? That’s where all the money went (I assume…because it certainly didn’t go into the script, or the sets).
After all the trouble everyone went through, it’s sad to see the final result turn out so dull. Despite the lack of Eon’s production team, Never Say Never Again can’t help feeling like a Bond film from the wacky alternate universe where Connery never left the franchise…to everyone’s detriment. Especially audiences. It’s slower, fatter, and more annoying than the legal snarls behind its creation. You’d think the opposite would be the case because you haven’t factored screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. into your mental equations. This is the second well-intentioned-but-ill-paced remake Semple turned out in under a decade, the other one being Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. Subsequent rewrites by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais probably added more self-conscious camp to a film that didn’t need it. After all, Semple made his name as the Executive Story Editor of 1966’s Batman TV series.
A question occasionally comes up among film critics: “Why don’t they just remake bad movies?” Plug a plot hole here, crank up the pace a bit there, and suddenly your mid-60s snorefest becomes an early-80s spy-fi thriller. So the thinking goes. Some aspects of Never Say Never Again do improve over Thunderball. There’s no Junkanoo sequence, less scuba diving, and at least two gadgets (the laser watch and the fountain pen/missile launcher) that have become as iconic as Thunderball‘s plot.
But in the end it’s still a remake of a film I’ve honestly never liked. Rather than fixing Thunderball‘s problems, Never Say Never Again re-stages most of them with a less-attractive (but better known to 1983 audiences) cast. I don’t care how many covers of Playboy Barbara Carrera once graced, she’s no Luciana Paluzzi and her character – Fatima Blush – sure as hell ain’t no Fiona Volpe. Kim Basinger is a more nuanced leading lady than Claudine Auger…but that’s not very difficult, since Movie Domino was never more than Honey Rider 3.5, and Vicki Vale has the unfair advantage of playing a better character (her Domino might actually have feelings for Largo) and acting with her natural voice. Still, she seems a woman barely alive in this, her fourth (credited) movie in a career that would see her be progressively less lifelike…but at least she doesn’t scream as much as she would six years later, in Gotham City.
And then there’s Our Villain. Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo might’ve been a boring Goldfinger’ clone but at least he looked intimidating. Klaus Brandauer’s Maximillian Largo is the Andy Warhol of Crime, and like Warhold he gets a lot of credit for doing absolutely nothing...save threaten Domino and send Fatima out to kill Bond. After an hour and a half of this, Largo (eventually) captures Bond and tries to sell Domino into sexual slavery, but it’s too little, too late. Somewhere along the way, someone must’ve decided to distinguish this Largo from the First by toning him down. This was a monumentally bad decision on everyone’s part, since Brandauer’s not the most physically intimidating guy to begin with. Stand him next to Sean Connery and the two look like an especially dysfunctional father-son team. Lacking an eye-patch, never feeding henchmen to his sharks….indeed, completely lacking a shark tank all his own…the Second Largo can’t stand up to his own predecessor. And he can forget standing up to a Bond who was handing supervillains their asses when Brandauer was still in “university” (as you English call it).
At least Connery looks more energized than he was in his last two outings. McClory and co-producer Jack Schwartzman tried to match that by increasing the ambient spectacle. As you’d expect, the budget promptly spiraled out of control. But because they decided not to employ Ken Adam, the sets look smaller and less elaborate. Outdoor locations are heavily favored. The casino is the only set that sticks in my mind, and only because of its Room o’ Classic Video Game Cabinets…but now I’m waxing nostalgic.
That’s it! This is a nostalgia trip for all those old-school fans who either hated Roger Moore outright, or fell off the wagon somewhere around Moonraker (or For Your Eyes Only, depending on taste). No wonder it feels so carefully calculated to tick all the right boxes. We open in mid-action sequence, with Bond infiltrating some South American-looking place but – oh snap – it’s a classic Bond Movie fake-out. Turns out this opening was a training exercise. Which is why the “henchmen” Bond “dispatches” give out audible death rattles…yeah, that makes sense.
Bond fails, so our second new M of 1983 (Edward Fox) sends Bond to…the same health spa from Thunderball. Where Bond stumbles across…basically the same plot. Instead of altering a SPECTRE agent to look like an American Air Force pilot, Largo and Fatima got actual Air Force pilot Jack (Gavan O’Herlihy) hooked on heroin, turning him into SPECTRE’s willing servant. Jack agreed to get a copy of the U.S. President’s cornea (because SPECTRE just has one laying around) implanted into his right eye so that he might load two cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads and redirect them into SPECTRE’s hands.
But since Jack and Fatima go to the same health spa as Bond, Our Hero spies (har har) them arguing through their window. For some reason, he accidentally/on purpose pulls the window shade up, giving his position away. This means Fatima can send Pat Roach (whom you might remember as the big ass Nazi mechanic from Raiders) into an extended fist-fight with Bond through several levels of the spa. A fist-fight that might’ve been good if it weren’t ultimately decided by the most humiliating Bond Villain defeat since Roger Moore sent Toshiro Suga through that piano.
This fight is a good metaphor for the film as a whole. A good idea is executed horribly and undercut by the film’s sense of humor, which vacillates between sophisticated:
Fatima: I’ve got you all wet
Bond: Yes, but my martini’s still dry.
to the quite actually funny
Q: Now that you’re on this, I hope we’ll have some gratuitous sex and violence.
Bond: Well, I certainly hope so, too.
to the nonsensically juvenile. So Bond throws his own urine sample into Pat Roach’s face, causing Pat to back into a shelf full of glass bottles. The laws of physics conspire to make sure they all shatter and shove themselves into Pat’s back and fight’s over! Time to forgot it ever happened…once M’s done ranting about the collateral damage. Sure, someone tried to kill your agent while he was on leave in the middle of your own damn country, but it’s obviously no big deal. Typical, everyday bullshit for MI6. Couldn’t possibly be connected to those two stolen nukes the Americans are on about…could it?
The plot holes spiral outward from Jack’s creepy-looking Presidential eye. What idiot makes a junkie the lynch-pin of their Evil Plan? (Besides that idiot Dr. Kanaga/Mr. Big?) I’m still not one hundred percent sure how Bond figures out Largo’s responsible for Jack’s turning. I know he finds a matchbook with Largo’s two black-and-yellow flags on it hidden under Jack’s mattress…but that’s not exactly sound reasoning, is it? That’d be like some “stupid policeman” deciding my neighborhood pub’s responsible for all the horrible things I’ve (allegedly) done after finding one of their branded pint glasses in my dishwasher.
Fatima’s reasoning isn’t much sounder. She kills Jack (not because he asked for more money – oh no – this one buys it for the laughs…and to prove Fatima’s evil, of course) by throwing a snake into his car as both she and Jack are driving down the road, causing Jack to insta-crash. She then walks up to the wreckage (in broad daylight), retrieves the snake…and proceeds to set the wreck on fire with her hand-held detonator. Some might wonder, If Fatima could push a button and make Jack’s car go boom, why would she endanger her pet snake? The answer is, Fatima’s the worst type of villain: the kind that’s “insane” for no good reason, save that movies use “insanity” to justify their own laziness and reliance on contrived bullshit. Like motherfucking snakes in a motherfucking car.
Example: Fatima’s first plan to kill Bond by taking him into a shipwreck off the coast of Nassau and tagging him with an electronic shark-lure. (Reverse-engineered, no doubt, from Batman’s Shark Repellent Bat-spray.) Bond defeats the sharks in a sequence that predicts most of Jaws: The Revenge, but is otherwise overlong and unremarkable. It (like everything else filmed underwater) plays out at half-speed by necessity and the sharks look drugged instead of threatening. The radio controls on their fins don’t help, undermining the shark’s pure, Silurian menace with hilarious Super Science.
Seeing her brilliant plan’s failed, Fatima plants a bomb in Bond’s hotel. This is her back-up plan, significantly less elaborate than “kill him with radio-controlled sharks.” Why was this not Plan A? Well, I guess SPECTRE developed those sharks for something. Be a shame to waste that R&D, so they probably sold everything off to the military after Operation: Tears of Allah went tits-up, inadvertently helping to create the Sharktopus.
After all that farting around, Rowan Atkinson (who plays the most annoying Local Contact Bond’s ever worked with and would go on to make a career out of being the Odious Comic Relief in dramas or straight-up Odious in comedies) tells Bond where next to fart around: Nice, France, where Largo’s ship, the Flying Saucer, has pulled into port for some charity gambling. There Bond meets with Bernie Casey, who’s completely wasted as the Sixth Felix Leiter, and Nicole (Saskia Cohen Tanugi), who’s completely wasted because she’s this movie’s Paula. Forgot about Paula, haven’t you? Well, I did, too, so don’t kick yourself.
After wasting a bit more time (not like there’s an evil organization out there with two loose nukes to its name or anything), Bond poses as Domino’s masseuse to get the casino’s location out of her, slinking away before she can discover the truth. Because that’s not at all creepy. Domino certainly doesn’t seem to think so, never once calling casino security on the asshole who snuck into a salon just to feel her up. Then again, she’s with Largo, so we know her self-respect’s in the toilet. And I’m supposed to feel…what? Sympathy for her and her dead junkie brother, whom we only spent twenty minutes with in the first place? Why? Because she’s Kim Basinger…? That’s certainly a reason. Stupid, shallow, and completely unacceptable…but a reason nonetheless.
Usually this would be where Bond meets the villain over a game of cards. Instead, Bond and Largo engage in a game of Domination – a table-top video game of Largo’s own design. It looks like the illegitimate child Risk and Missile Command abandoned in a dumpster once they saw the little bastard came in 3D. The fact that each player gets two nuclear missiles for trump cards is supposed to remind us of the main plot, but this doesn’t help what is by far the dumbest thing in a film filled with dumb things, like radio controlled sharks and hitwomen named “Blush.”
I’ll admit, a video game/death trap was the coolest idea in the world when I was twelve and Super Mario World was regularly kicking my ass. (Yes, I’m that lame. See why I don’t review video games?) But now that I know even what little I know about basic electrical engineering I can’t help but wonder – What idiot would even design such a thing? Never mind build it!?
If it’s a death trap, designed to electrify anyone should they lose (or refuse to forfeit by letting go of the control sticks), why would Largo electrify his own controllers? If it’s a game cabinet that just happens to put out lethal voltage, why leave it unguarded in the middle of a casino, where any asshole can walk up to it and kill themselves? That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, and you don’t want one of those distracting you from the hard work of Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and/or Extortion. Not like these charity gambling functions. They’re not distracting at all.
By the way, did you know Max von Sydow’s in this film? Like Bernie, he’s completely wasted in all of two scenes. Why even bring him up when Largo’s your main villain anyway? It’s not like you have the Eon Series’ continuity problems, or pretensions of an overarching narrative. At least the Not-Blofeld from For Your Eyes Only tried to kill Bond with a remote control helicopter. Von Sydow’s Blofeld presides over a meeting (in a room nowhere near as cool as the meeting room from Thunderball) and makes a ransom video…that may also function as The World’s First LOL Cat video, depending on your definition. That’s it for this Blofeld. He’s a living, breathing, pussy-stroking bit of fan service…something you could as easily say about the film he’s in.
Back in France, Fatima kills Not-Paula and I don’t care. This film has two broken arrows floating around somewhere, but it ignores them for most of its running time, preferring to throw rocket-powered motorcycles at us, like the one Bond uses to chase Fatima through the streets of Nice. It’s a nice chase, well-directed…but I feel the same way about this rocket-powered motorcycle as I felt about the one Captain America got in 1979…or the jetpack in Thunderball. It’s deliberately, desperately, unnecessarily cool, meant to provoke a Pavlovian reaction in the “cool-hunting” centers of my brain. Instead, it prompts disgust at this film’s willingness to pander. Bond should be too cool in and of himself to need a rocket-bike. And besides…there’ll never be another Lotus.
Fatima eventually corners Bond…but instead of chastising him and his whole “convert ’em with my dick” approach to spy work with a kick-ass speech, Fatima demands Bond write down and sign the following statement:
The greatest rapture in my life was afforded me in Nassau by Fatima Blush. Signed, James Bond, 007.
All so Bond can have an excuse to pull out his missile pen. Gee, that wasn’t forced or obvious at all. God, I hate Fatima. I hate this scene. Bond and Felix (who shows up at the last minute, after Fatima’s dead) escape the resulting explosion by stripping down to their underwear and casually jogging away. Because two guys out for an afternoon jog in their boxers’ll attract way less attention than two secret agents, at least one of which has a license to kill.
After we see that, and see Largo giving Domino the usual, “Everybody betrayed me! I’m fed up with this world!” schtick, Bond swims out to the Flying Saucer and immediate capture. All so the film can switch locations and visit a castle…that Largo totally owns…with his money…that he gets by…?…Bond and Domino eventually escape on a horse they ride over a cliff and into an extremely bad bluescreen shot (and for a Bond film, that’s saying something) before all three fall into a tank of water that’s supposed to be the Mediterranean (too clean and clear, I say). This stunt is one of the reasons all relevant films now say “no animals were harmed in the making of this production” somewhere in their credits. Little piece of trivia for you. That’s all this scene’s good for. Hell, that’s about all this movie’s good for. It’s the answer to a trivia question, separating casual fans from true devotes. “What was Sean Connery’s last James Bond film…? Ah-ha! Hipster douchebag points to you, sir!”
Thanks, Strawman I just made up. During Bond’s capture, Largo makes the classic mistake of monologing the location of one bomb (“under the president’s feet”) but not the other. This is meant to paint Largo as “smarter than your average Bond villain”…and it doesn’t, because this supposedly smarter Largo had the other bomb with him this whole time. Instead of nuking Miami – where people are – Largo plans to nuke the oil fields of…Generic Arabia…where no one lives…but that’s okay since it’s the 80s, when everyone shed what few qualms they had about valuing oil much, much more than they valued human life.
Thunderball ended with a big underwater fight directed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon (literally). This film ends with a half-speed underwater knife fight between Our Hero and Our Villain, neither of whom I like very much. As before, Domino kills Largo, avenging her dead borther. That part I still like. I just wish they’d found some way to do it besides having her show up out of nowhere with a squad of frogmen at her back. Does the Navy make a habit of letting civilians Avenge their Dead Brothers…? Okay, anywhere other than a country the American military is currently occupying? (Because that policy always helps “us” make “friends”…)
It’s obvious everyone involved wanted to put their own spin on this story. They wound up stripping it of everything that made Thunderball bearable without adding anything that wasn’t lame. Back in ’65, multiple characters spent the whole film reminding Bond of his ticking clock. Here, one anonymous sub captain informs Bond, over ninety minutes in, that he has five hours to wrap all this up before something goes boom. Not the White House, though. They found that bomb off-screen. Joy.
It’s a film I wound up liking a lot less than I thought I would because everything about it feels drabber, slower, less interesting than it’s not-quite-twenty-years-old-at-the-time predecessor…which wasn’t that good of a movie to begin with. It’s a collection of scenes everyone politely labeled a movie, probably because they were afraid of hurting Kevin McClory’s feelings. Must suck to be so close to something so profitable for so long, finally get the chance to cash in, and still fuck it up. Connery isn’t the problem. He can still pull off a one-liner with that trademark unflappability. The film around him, though? Substandard rerun.
And that sucks. Connery’s really-truly-we-mean-it-this-time last performance as James Bond (not counting video games) might, could, and should have been something memorable. As it is, the few memorable scenes never add up to much beyond frustration. This is squandered talent on parade. And since no one wants to see that (unless you’re one of those sick fucks who watches “Reality” TV), I can confidently declare I’ll never watch Never Say Never Again…again…
Oh, God, now that song’s in my head. Time to move back into something that’ll at least keep me awake…like the last entry of the Moore Era.