No. 14: Never Say Never Again

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

The story behind our next film is astoundingly complex and thankfully has already been well-documented by a number of other fine web publishers so I’ll spare you the intricate details of its production. Suffice it to say that Never Say Never Again is one of the most bizarre anomalies of 1983 Hollywood, a film that seems so unlikely to have ever been made and yet was not only a huge commercial success but perhaps one of the most creatively successful installments of the entire James Bond franchise. If, that is, you can even consider it a part of the James Bond franchise.

Never Say Never Again was one of two Bond films released in 1983, the other being the wildly successful Octopussy that we’ll be reviewing later in our countdown. But unlike Octopussy (and every other Bond film ever made), Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again was not produced by EON Productions, the UK-based company that since 1961 has existed for the sole purpose of creating the James Bond film series. There’s a long and complicated history behind why exactly this happened (if you’re interested, Bond fansite Universal Exports has a fantastic write-up here) but I’ll give you the short version: Author Ian Fleming was having a hard time getting his James Bond novels turned into film adaptations and decided to collaborate with producer and writer Kevin McClory on a screenplay that made Bond into a bit more of a superhero, a story that eventually became the novel Thunderball but also contained a number of elements that became a major part of the Bond film franchise beginning with Dr. No in 1962. McClory sued Fleming and won and was awarded the film rights to Thunderball.

Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated. Despite the fact that there was a pending lawsuit, the folks at EON went ahead and commissioned a screenplay based on Thunderball and ended up purchasing the film rights from McClory on the condition that McClory would get the rights back after ten years so he could produce his own James Bond films.

And that’s exactly what McClory did in 1983 when he released Never Say Never Again, a second adaptation of Thunderball that once again starred Sean Connery as James Bond, just as the original adaptation did. The title comes from an apocryphal tale about Sean Connery telling his wife after finishing production on Diamonds Are Forever that he would “never again” play James Bond. Connery’s wife reportedly told him to “Never say never again”. I’m not sure I buy that Sean Connery and his wife speak to each other like characters from a Bond film but whatever, it works.

Connery’s return to the Bond franchise was a huge story in the entertainment world in 1983, as was the fact that EON was already simultaneously producing their next Roger Moore-starring Bond film scheduled for release on exactly the same weekend. Eventually, Warner Bros. flinched and moved Never Say Never Again to October, probably a good idea in the end as Octopussy had the advantage of a younger star and the always important factor of franchise legitimacy. The only equivalent I can think of in today’s Hollywood would be the studio-produced versions of Marvel franchises like Fantastic Four or Daredevil, movies that didn’t carry the same automatic credibility as the films produced by the new Marvel Studios. One would think that because Never Say Never Again featured the actor that was considered THE definitive James Bond, legitimacy wouldn’t be an issue but Connery’s face and voice aren’t the only things that make James Bond what it is as a franchise.

For one there’s the music. John Barry’s iconic theme music is perhaps more of a defining characteristic of the Bond franchise than any actor, even Connery, and out of respect for the folks at EON Barry chose not to participate in Never Say Never Again. This absence is definitely felt in the film as the music in its place, a bland, jazzy mix that sounds more suited to soft porn movies than an action film, makes a very bad impression right from the very opening frames of the movie when we’re typically expecting a psychedelic collage of female silhouettes while a brassy ballad blares in the background. Instead we get this soft Sergio Mendes-penned title theme that feels remarkably wrong as the soundtrack to Connery’s stealth maneuvers.

I’ll admit that after watching that, I felt that it was going to take a lot for Kershner to get me back on board and really thinking of this as a “Bond film” in my mind. Thankfully, Kershner stepped up to the challenge and delivered what I would consider to be a classic Bond film in every way, loaded with lots of thrilling action with a bare minimum of the cheesy, cornball humor that leaves audiences rolling their eyes at certain installments of the franchise. The film starts out with a small conceit that admits to Bond’s advanced age by having MI-6 send him to some sort of sanitarium for him to “detoxify”. While Bond is there relaxing we get our first real action piece of the film, an absurd fight scene between Bond and an assassin played by Pat Roach (who you might remember as the dude who got diced by a propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark) in which nearly every room of the entire building appears to be damaged.

The evil plot being hatched by SPECTRE this time around involves, as usual, stealing nuclear weapons and holding the world hostage but the method for stealing the weapons gave me a nice chuckle. Through her beguiling and evil ways, SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera in a ridiculous but Golden Globe-nominated performance) seduces an Air Force pilot who has undergone an operation to give him identical retinas to the President of the United States, thus giving him the key to unlocking the warheads. It’s one of those pitch-perfect, absurdly fun Bond story details that only makes sense when you’re watching a movie (it certainly doesn’t make any sense when you read or write it). Anyway, it isn’t long before the poor Air Force pilot is dispatched by Fatima Blush via the old reliable “pull up beside him and throw a poisonous snake into his moving car” method of assassination.

While Fatima is fairly ludicrous femme fatale, the main villain of the story, Maximillian Largo (played by German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) goes down as perhaps one of the most complex and interesting Bond villains in the franchise’s history. Brandauer wisely underplays the eccentric maniac and turns what could be a laughable super-villain into a jealous, insecure egomaniac working hard to protect his fragile confidence from the threat of Bond’s bravery and machismo.

Brandauer’s nice blend of brooding psychosis and traditional Bond Villain bravado is on display during perhaps the most interesting and outrageous scene in the movie, a video game battle between Bond and Largo. The special effects, which are absolutely cutting edge for 1983, aren’t really interacting very closely with the characters but they create a really intriguing blend of danger and technology that would eventually become an integral part of the Bond films as special effects continued to progress. At it’s core though, this is still a classic Bond showdown scene, with Bond keeping his cool as the villain continues to change the rules of the game, throwing in the occasional “Perhaps I didn’t explain…”

This movie is loaded with lots of unconnected little fun scenes, including a fun comedic performance from Rowan Atkinson in his first ever film performance, a truly excellent car/motorcycle chase sequence that is absolutely on par with any Bond car chase ever made, and perhaps most impressive a shark escape scene that appears to include a real stuntman fending off a live shark underwater. While I’m sure that last scene contains at least some amount of clever editing and trick photography, it contains enough unquestionably real shots of man and shark in the same frame that I’d have to call it the most impressive underwater stunt work I’ve seen.

I’ve yet to mention the performance of a young Kim Basinger and that’s probably because there’s not a lot to talk about there. Basinger certainly didn’t get the part because of her acting skills, which have grown more formidable with age, but her performance as Domino Petachi is largely about looking scared, being blonde and wearing tight jazzercise outfits. I’m not surprised she became a bigger star after being seen in this movie but I wouldn’t have predicted that she’d eventually win an Oscar based on her work here.

What starts off as a disappointingly “off-brand” feeling Bond film turns out in the end to be one of the better installments in the franchise in my opinion, at least from a pure action standpoint. While Warner Bros. distributed the film, it was produced independently by Jack and Talia Schwartzman’s company Taliafilm. If you aren’t familiar with the name Talia Schwartzman (who as it happens is the mother of actor Jason Schwartzman) you may know her better as her maiden name Talia Shire, star of the Rocky and Godfather films and sister of Francis Ford Coppola. There are various rumors and whispers that Coppola did made some uncredited contributions to the screenplay for Never Say Never Again, and if I had to guess I’d say his work probably involved turning Largo into the three-dimensional, emotionally tortured villain that he is rather than the predictably flat Bond villain he could have been.

Next Up: Hope you like Motown music and watching white people awkwardly dancing to it. It’s The Big Chill.