Film Reviews

Never Say Never Again: The Year of Two Bonds

Never Say Never Again – Sean Connery’s unofficial Bond movie – exists. The Broccoli family probably wish it didn’t. Same goes for the Ian Fleming estate. Heck, by the time they finished making the movie even Sean Connery thought the whole thing might have been a bad idea. Yet, for anyone who ever wondered what 1965’s Thunderball might look like in 1983 with a fiftysomething James Bond, you’ll always have Never Say Never Again.

Personally, I’d always been kind of aware that there was this weird Bond movie that’s not actually a Bond movie and stars a too-old-for-the-role Sean Connery in his 007 swan song. Additionally, I’d heard many times that this film was horrible. Those reports, I’d say, are slightly exaggerated.

Never Say Never Again may indeed be one hair pierce too far for Fountainbridge, Edinburgh’s favorite son, and it certainly has its fair share of story and casting problems. However, any movie that drops Sean Connery into the ocean with real-life tiger sharks and gives Barbara Carrera a gun to point straight at 007’s prized jewels is crazy enough to be enjoyed.

How exactly the film happened…well, have you got a minute?

Just a Truly Joyful Moviemaking Experience. Sean Connery: “I Should Have Killed Him!” See, Like I Said, Total Joy

Behind the scenes stories from Never Say Never Again are filled with who rewrote who accusations, colorful language, lost money and long days, and Sean Connery casually admitting he almost quit the picture before deciding to take over and carry it past the finish line. Kim Basinger championed her leading man, “If Sean Connery hadn’t taken over, the film wouldn’t have any chance at all.” By the end, Connery and producer Jack Schwartzman were mortal enemies. “Schwartzman was totally incompetent, a real ass. In the middle of everything, he moved to the Bahamas with an unlisted number. It was like working in a toilet…I should have killed him,” Connery once said.

How did they even get that far?

How Is It That This Film Exists?

How does it exist? Simple: they wrote a script (credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr. with uncredited, but significant work from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais), got some money (reportedly as much as $36m), hired some people (Empire Strike Back’s Irvin Kershner to direct, Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera as Bond girls, Klaus Maria Brandauer as the villain, and a young Rowan Atkinson as a comic relief sidekick), traveled around the world (the French Riviera, Antibes, Bahamas) and filmed for a couple of months, before finally releasing their new baby out into the world with fingers fully crossed. I mean, really, what’s so different about that?

Actually, when you put it that way, Never Say Never Again sounds just like any other Bond film, right down to the presence of cutesy, but useful little gadgets like a fountain pen that fires an explosive bullet. However, in the years before production and right up until literally just a couple months before its release date Never Say Never Again’s true life-or-death battle played out in courtrooms.

[Bojack Horseman Voice] I’ve Heard of Development Hell, But This is Ridiculous

Kevin McClory – an Irish WWII veteran once romantically linked to Elizabeth Taylor and good friends with Ian Fleming – collaborated with Fleming and several other writers on a potential James Bond screenplay. After Fleming adapted the then-unfilmed script into the novel Thunderball, McClory sued, kicking off a legal fight that lasted from 1961 all the way to 2006. When Thunderball was later turned into Connery’s fourth and highest-grossing Bond movie, McClory was given an Executive Producer credit and legal assurance that in ten years’ time the licensing rights for the novel would revert back to him.

Just McClory’s luck, then, that by the time the rights returned Connery had moved on from the franchise but still maintained a “tremendous loathing” for producer Cubby Broccoli. (While promoting Never Say Never Again, Connery was asked by Johnny Carson to name the best Bond villain, and he instantly quipped: “Cubby Broccoli.”) In the late 70s, McClory and Connery announced a Thunderball remake entitled Warhead.

Lawsuits followed. Oh, so many lawsuits. The project was tainted as a result. Even after Broccoli and United Artists lost in court, McClory lost his backing from Paramount Pictures and couldn’t find anyone else in Hollywood willing to fund his project even though Orson Welles and Trevor Howard were lined up to play Blofeld and M, respectively. It took Jack Schwartzman – a well-connected entertainment lawyer-turned producer who happened to be married to Talia Shire aka Francis Ford Coppola’s sister – to come along, pay McClory to basically go away, and make the film a reality by raising independent financing from distributors around the world.

The hook? Connery, who’d only originally committed to helping write the script, would be returning on-screen as Bond for the first time since 1971.

Connery’s Swan Song

Thus, 1983 became the year of two Bonds – Connery in Never Say Never Again and Roger Moore in Octopussy. (They were initially due out the same summer but ended up coming out around 6 months apart.) It was also the battle of the geriatric Bonds, featuring dueling Bonds each in their 50s. Unlike Octopussy, however, Never Say never Again actually leans into the obvious fact of an older Bond.

The story opens with a rescue sequence that sees our clandestine hero infiltrating a jungle compound in search of a female hostage before the ticking clock expires. He’s outnumbered and outgunned. Ha! They never had a chance. Except there’s one thing Bond didn’t account for: what if the damsel in distress has gone full-on Patty Hearst?

Yes, Connery’s first sequence back as Bond ends with him one-upped by a woman he assumed to be perfectly harmless. Except her fatal blow doesn’t send him to the ground nor does it produce any blood. Hey, what gives? What kind of Mickey Mouse show are they running here?

That’s the twist! Similar to The Living Daylights opening, this is actually just a war game scenario/training exercise. In this case, it’s been forced on ole Bond by a technocratic new M (Edward Fox) who – like Judi Dench’s version over a decade later – would rather see the entire 007 program retired. Bond resents being neutered by M like that and insists he only let up at the end of the exercise because he knew it was all fake. Put him back into the field and he’ll be as right as rain.

Not Even Bond Can Escape the 80s Workout Craze

Before returning to action, however, Bond is ordered to report for a physical – a physical he only manages to pass because he seduces the lovely young doctor who seems charmed by his constant wise-cracking. (Wouldn’t you be?) He’s still under orders to attend a health clinic to get in shape, but since he’s Bond even a workout can’t go by without incident. After he catches a glimpse of Fatima Blush (Carrera) up to no good with one of the patients at the clinic, an assassin is dispatched to do away with him.

This results in a wonderfully long fight that plays an awful lot like Bond and his attacker marauding their way through a retirement home with largely oblivious, elderly folk in the background.

Put on Matlock!

Almost to his own surprise, Bond manages to defeat his much younger, much bigger attacker, but what the heck is Blush up to that she saw the need to send an assassin after him? Benoit Blanc, do you suspect a mystery is afoot?

Damn straight! Granted, that quote doesn’t really apply here, but I’ll take it. (Also, why does that guy look so familiar?)

Why Don’t You Just Guess What Happens Next?

After that, I…well, to be honest, we’ve already reached the part of the review where I admit the exact details of the plot escape me. As even Vincent Canby of The New York Times admitted in 1983, “I can’t remember one [Blond] plot from another without rereading old reviews.” In this case, Canby could have just read old Thunderball reviews since Never Say Never Again was legally barred from deviating too far from the original. As a result, the IMDB loglines for the two films are nearly identical:

Never Say Never Again: A S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Agent has stolen two American nuclear warheads, and James Bond must find their targets before they are detonated.

Thunderball: James Bond heads to the Bahamas to recover two nuclear warheads stolen by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Agent Emilio Largo in an international extortion scheme.

Yes, since McClory owned the rights, Blofeld (a barely seen Max von Sydow) and Spectre all make an appearance before ultimately giving way to the film’s true threat: Fatima Blush and her superior, Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a billionaire with a thing for dominating his opponents, allies, supposed loved ones (like Kim Basinger’s naive girlfriend character Domino), and – eventually – the entire world.

This is all made quite literal when Bond sits face to face with Largo on his luxurious yacht. Earlier, Bond posed as a masseuse to chat up Domino and gain useful intel – and shamelessly feel up her body, which obviously not cool by today’s standards. (When she learns of his deceit, Domino does the “i’m so offended, but also secretly flattered” reaction.)

Using that intel, Bond infiltrates the yacht and rather quickly butts heads with Largo in that way where Bond often has a non-fight scene fight scene with the main villain halfway through the picture. The same basic thing happens in Octopussy, except there Roger Moore’s Bond plays a good oldfashioned game of baccarat with his villain. Here, Connery plays…a video game?

Oh, 1983. You’re adorable.

It’s a game that seems to have been co-created by Atari and Stanley Milgram, walking two combatants through a mini-war while the electrodes attached to their joysticks send out steadily-increasing electric pressure to literally force the losing player into submission. No one has ever beaten, Largo, he’s proud to say. Sure, evil billionaire, but you’ve never played against James Bond. He’s about to kick yo…

Oh, bugger. Bond just lost. Come on, what do you expect? He’s 52-years-old! Poker, baccarat, these are his games. Not Domina…

Well, shut my mouth – they played another round for more money, and Bond won big! Suck it, Largo. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks. Take that, younger generation!

He’s Not Dead Yet

“Take that younger generation!” is ultimately Never Say Never Again’s motto. Connery had approval on the script, director, principal cast, lighting cameraman, and a sweet deal paying him millions with an undisclosed share of the gross. With that control, he produced a Never Say Never Again that initially makes light of his advanced age and acknowledges the changing world around Bond in a way the Moore films refused to. In the end, however, Never Say Never Again is carried along by that most tantalizing of mid-life mottos: he’s still got it.

This Bond might be older, his hairpiece grayer, and the ability to quickly recover from injuries increasingly diminished. He might have an idiot younger boss at work, a bumbling sidekick (Atkinson), and a tech-savvy villain. (In addition to the video game, Largo enjoys video recording Domino’s dance sessions without her consent. He’s just the worst.) But, dammit, Sean Connery is still James Bond, and he still sets the girls’ hearts afire – in one case, literally.

That unifying ethos might lend Never Say Never Again the unmistakable feel of a vanity project, but as a universe-balancing effort by Connery to go out on his own terms it’s a surprisingly watchable film dastardly villains, exotic locales, fun gadgets, and, of course, the true bane of Bond’s existence: sharks!

1983 was the year of the two Bonds, and if you go by the box office, Moore won that battle handily. However, while Never Say Never Again isn’t an altogether great film it’s at least trying to advance the Bond character and acknowledge the obvious. Octopussy is more content to play to the cheap seats. Both approaches are valid, but I appreciate Never Say Never Again more. This is a film, after all, which has Q outright state: “Good to see you, Mr. Bond. I hope we are going to see some gratuitous sex and violence.” How meta of you, 1983.

MARATHON NOTES

Thoughts on the Bond Women: Kim Basinger is ill-served as Domino, but Barbara Carrera’s super sexually-charged work as Fatima Blush predicts Famke Janssen’s GoldenEye femme fatale by a good 12 years. Blush’s demise is perhaps needlessly cruel but few Bond villains I’ve seen get to say a line like “You know that making love to Fatima was the greatest pleasure of your life!” while aiming a gun at Bond’s not-so-secret weapon between his legs.

Ian Fleming Connection: Well, it’s a remake of the Thunderball film, book, and even pulls some of its ideas from the early Thunderball drafts from the 60s.

Bond Song Thoughts: Lani Hall’s “Never Say Never Again” is not my cup of tea and it really doesn’t go with the rest of the movie. In general, the strangest thing about Never Never Say Again is not the older Bond or new people playing familiar characters but the complete lack of the iconic John Barry score.

Coolest Scene: Bond’s underwater fight with actual tiger sharks.

Biggest regret: That Sean Connery’s pitch for a Roger Moore cameo at the end – who was apparently very willing to do it – was nixed by EON.

Little Known Fact: Future EON second unit action director extraordinaire Vic Armstrong doubled for Connery through much of Never Say Never Again.

Box Office: $160m worldwide ($412.8m adjusted for inflation), 14% shy of Octopussy’s total from earlier in the year. Plus, Octopussy cost less to make.

Favorite Line

Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero

Tomorrow: Octopussy

7 comments

  1. While I admit I thought Bond a bit too old at the time- it was flippin’ Sean Connery- he was the original and best of the Bonds and if he wanted to be Bond one more time, then let him. Nowadays, many male action heroes are in their 50s (inc the current Bond).

    1. I ultimately agree. Connery got one last big pay day, went out on his own terms, and made a movie that while not perfect isn’t exactly embarrassing either. Plus, he’s damn charming with his various quips throughout. It is crazy to think, though, that he’s roughly the same age here as Daniel Craig is in No Time to Die. Being an action star in your 50s looks a lot different in 2020.
      https://www.gq.com/story/daniel-craig-james-bond-no-time-to-die-cover-2020

  2. Mr Bean is in this one? And um no gun barrel intro. Lacks the bond signature but agree Connery carries this movie.

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