Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oddball Film Report: NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983)

   1983 was a banner year for Bond fans. That year saw TWO 007 hits roaring toward theater screens in an event the media quickly dubbed "The Battle of The Bonds." 

   In one corner, Roger Moore was returning* in the official franchise entry OCTOPUSSY. In the other corner, the original Bond himself, Sean Connery, was slipping back into his tuxedo to star in Kevin McClory's oft-delayed remake of THUNDERBALL, still considered one of the all-time great 007 epics. Who would win the day? Moore had established himself as 007 by this time, but could he really compete with Connery? After all, in the minds of most Bond fans, the tagline of 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE still rings quite true: Sean Connery IS James Bond!

(* Moore stepped in at the last minute to star in another Bond epic, and would do yet another -A VIEW TO A KILL- before finally saying goodbye to the part. For a time, though, Moore had decided not to pick up the PPK for another mission and the producers were scrambling to find a replacement actor. American actor James Brolin was screen tested and all but cast in the part when Moore decided to come back. Noted for his generosity, Moore usually came back to the part as a favor to the producers. Sir Roger eventually did the largest number of official Bond films. Interestingly, the number was evened with Connery when the original Bond made NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.)

   OCTOPUSSY eventually won the day with a higher gross (and Connery himself reportedly felt Moore's film was the better of the two), although fans had reason to rejoice in the release of NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. While in many ways a remake of THUNDERBALL (McClory had helped prepare the story with Ian Fleming as the first Bond film, but delays resulted in the story being turned into a novel. McClory sued Fleming when he felt the book was a steal of many of his own ideas and a long legal battle ensued. Ultimately, the story was brought to the screen as the fourth 007 film. Not long after, McClory sought to remake the film on his own. The resultant film wouldn't get made until 1983, however), the most important factor was that Sean Connery was back as Bond!

   And, it must be noted, Connery still looks much the same as he did in the previous decade's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

   Not being an official entry in the Eon series, however, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN took a different approach than might be expected. The film resides in a weird parallel universe where the double 0's have been retired by the new M, Q-branch has been drastically cut back, and Felix Lieter is played by Bernie Casey! (They do have Felix joke about having a device blowing up in his face, presumably as a cute riff that he's now being played by a black man.)

   Plot-wise, the film is a remake of THUNDERBALL, but it manages to be it's own adventure. Were it not for a couple of returning character names, it probably would have avoided recall of what it still considered one of the best Bonds of all. For what it's worth, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN is based on earlier drafts of the THUNDERBALL script, from before the novel version and eventual EON motion picture.

   With the double 0's having been retired, Bond is now little more than a teacher for younger men. The validity of the double 0's in the modern world is put to test in training exercises and Bond has been partaking in several. We open observing one of these exercises and see Bond infiltrate a phoney enemy encampment to rescue a hostage. Said hostage gets the drop on Bond and he is 'killed.' The new M reviews Bond's poor performance (although Bond insists the field offers a certain edge one doesn't have when they know the experience is a fake) and sentences him to a heath spa to get him back into proper condition.

   At the spa, our hero finds trouble. Bond happens onto something fishy involving Petachi, a patient who has undergone recent eye surgery, and his sadistic nurse. Bond's snooping gets him noticed and an assassin later tries to kill him.

   The previously mentioned nurse is actually SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush, who has been put in charge of the organization's most ambitious scheme yet: the theft of a pair of atomic bombs from a USAF base close by. The mentioned eye surgery gives Petachi the same eye print as the President of the United States. This allows him to substitute the dummy warheads, to be used in a test flight of a new delivery system, with the real items. The missiles are fired and fall into the sea, where they are taken aboard a yacht owned by millionaire Maximilian Largo, another agent of SPECTRE.

   His part in the scheme concluded, Petachi is killed by Blush when she throws a snake into his car and causes him to run off the road. Erasing all evidence, Petachi's body is incinerated with a bomb as well!

   SPECTRE blackmails the free world with the atomic bombs they now possess and M is forced to put the double 0's back to work. For Bond, this means going to the Bahamas to investigate Largo. In due time, Bond meets Largo's kept woman Domino (Petachi's sister) and gets close to her. He manages to turn her against Largo, and the trail eventually leads to the oil fields of the middle east, where one well-placed atomic explosive could wreck the world economy.

   The film tries to balance the fondly remembered Bond of the 60's with the freshness of the 80's, thus such timely elements as middle east oil fields and a high-tech video game at which Bond bests Largo in a casino environment. These are mixed with traditional Bond elements like exotic locations and high fashion, so the film looks like one of the Moore vehicles, only starring the original Bond.

   The production values are quite high, so this isn't some cheap mock-Bond as no doubt many would be tempted to write it off as. It's quite handsome, and gives one an idea of what the series might have evolved into had Conney not hung up his holster twelve years earlier. The set design for the climax, in particular, is stunning.

   A fine cast is assembled, including Edward Fox, Alec McCowen, a young Rowan Atkinson, and Max Von Sydow as Blofeld! Barbara Carrera plays Fatima Blush, the SPECTRE agent who gleefully kills. Kim Basinger plays the new Domino. While not as stunning as Claudine Auger, she does possess some nice gams which are given acceptable coverage. Keep an eye peeled for Valerie Leon, former Hammer queen who played two minor parts in Bond films, the other being Roger Moore's own THUNDERBALL, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

   In the original film, Aledfo Celi played Emilio Largo, the imposing, one-eyed thug who kept his Domino under his thumb with force and fear. In this take, Max Largo is played by Klaus Maria Brandauer as a considerably more charming figure. He's always smiling and in good humor, and his Domino is happy to be his woman. He looks like the kind of guy who hired bigger kids to protect him when he was in school, so his revealed psychotic nature is less expected. It's hard to say which is a better approach. The original Largo was dangerous from the start, and only grew more impressive as the stakes got higher. This newer version, though, is in keeping with 80's sensibilities. 

   What hurts the film is the absence of the Monty Norman-penned James Bond theme. Although the music used here is fine, and the theme song "Never Say Never Again" is easily as good as any of the Moore era ballads, the spy's personal theme is so closely connected with him that it's absence is glaringly obvious. No doubt this helped to re-enforce (even subconsciously) in audiences' minds that Roger Moore by this time WAS Bond!

   NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN tries to use Connery's presence to let audiences know Bond is going back to basics, to the 60's aesthetic that made him so popular to begin with. With Bond/Connery back on the job, Q notes "I do hope we'll see some gratuitous sex and violence" as if it's been missing from the franchise since his departure. Bond's sex appeal is also played up, as virtually every female who sees him stops to leer as this Dream Man walks past. This was something Connery himself was no doubt familiar with after becoming the biggest star in the world by playing Bond in the 60's.

   Both films' ad campaigns screamed that their star "IS James Bond." Today, Connery's position as top Bond is more than secure, but Moore has a huge fanbase as well. OCTOPUSSY eventually won the Battle of the Bonds, by virtue of it's more original plot. Had NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN not re-used the character names of Largo and Domino, it might have had a better showing. That's not to say the film was a flop or anything, but it's remembered today mostly as a re-run footnote to THUNDERBALL.

   I recall rumors around the turn of the century that Connery was considering again donning his tuxedo to play 007 in yet another remake of THUNDERBALL! There were then rumors that he would play Blofeld (!) in an official Bond epic for EON. Needless to say, neither happened, much to the disappointment of fans the world over.


  1. 1983 also saw George Lazenby make an appearance as "J.B." in "The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.," so all three Bond's were back in action!