Welcome weary interweb traveler! So glad you could make it to this little exploit of mine. If you haven’t heard, which I find incredible to believe in this modern day and age, I’m going through what I consider to be the worst to the best James Bond movies every single day. Chances are this should lead up all the way through Christmas. Unless I’ve miscalculated, which is an impossibility to be sure. After all, there are as of right now, 24 James Bond films from EON Productions. What are the odds that there would be some kind of upstart production company making some kind of rogue James Bond movie? Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about that at all. I mean, there would have to be some kind of huge legal loophole that was the result of the creator of James Bond doing something incredibly stupid over 50 years ago that would tie the film series up for decades in courtrooms. Yeah, I that’ll never happen. Never, I tell you!
Oh, no. Wait a minute… Looks like I spoke too soon. I will under no circumstances utter with my mouth the word “never” in my life ever again. Are you ready for some legalese that will make you more bored than you have ever been in all your life? Yeah, me neither, but like a spoonful of castor oil, I suppose it’ll be good for us until we hear otherwise.
Way back in the distant past, James Bond creator Ian Fleming decided that he wanted to make a James Bond movie. He joined with Kevin McClory and three other collaborators to write an original screenplay that wasn’t going to be based on any previous 007 book for some reason. Fleming soon became disenchanted with the process and needing material for the follow-up to his short story collection For Your Eyes Only, he went ahead and wrote the next Bond novel, Thunderball. Unfortunately, Fleming decided to use the story from that unproduced screenplay, not giving any of his collaborators credit. While it is true that Fleming did contribute a lot of the material, the court thought otherwise and McClory was granted the literary and film rights to Thunderball, while Fleming received the novel rights.
In the meantime, Fleming was courted by film producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli in order for them to receive the film rights to the Bond books. Fleming gave them the rights to the entire Bond canon with two exceptions. The first was the legally complicated Thunderball and the second was Casino Royale, because that book had been separately optioned years prior by Gregory Ratoff and then by Charles K. Feldman.
Still with me? When Broccoli and Saltzman’s EON productions were going ahead with the films, there was talk about using Thunderball for the first Bond movie. The bestselling book was the most recent at the time and having a rather strong story didn’t hurt either. However, EON took one look at the legal quagmire that sat ahead of them in adapting Thunderball and decided to make a change. Dr. No was the first Bond movie instead. Then after the worldwide success of Goldfinger in 1964, EON was looking for a bigger adventure to film. Since Ian Fleming had died, there was no worry about offending him, so EON decided to work with Kevin McClory as a producer, finally bringing Thunderball as the fourth James Bond film.
Well, that should be it, right? McClory made his Bond movie with EON productions and it was yet another global box office hit. So we should all be good now, right? Nope, not even close. EON, in order to not unnecessarily irritate the Russians, decided back in Dr. No to change the bad guys from the novel from the actual Soviet group SMERSH to the fictional non-Soviet group SPECTRE. That would have been fine, but SPECTRE as well as Blofeld were first introduced in the book…Thunderball. EON had also used SPECTRE and Blofeld in five of the next six Bond films. McClory then started suing left and right claiming that he had the rights to the use of SPECTRE and Blofeld and that EON owes him from any movie that used them. He also claimed that he owned the rights to James Bond himself, which was rather ludicrous, but imagine the consequences if a court said McClory was right…
The film series couldn’t help but be successful after Thunderball. McClory, being no fool, said that he could also exercise his original film rights to Thunderball later on down the road and make his own James Bond film. Fortunately for McClory, the plot to Thunderball was always going to be relevant what with SPECTRE stealing two nuclear weapons and holding the world hostage. This can be translated at any time into a film and McClory knew this. For years he threatened to make his own Bond movie and millions of lawyers lined up to face each other in mortal combat in case it ever happened. EON never thought he would actually make good on his threats.
Besides, who would go see it? Roger Moore by that time had been established as 007 in the public’s eye over the course of 5 successful outings. EON was even putting Octopussy into production, which would be Roger’s 6th (!) time around as Bond. Even if McClory did get it made, who would want to see a brand new face in an “unofficial” Bond? Knowing this, the production team went for broke and pitched the idea to a known 007 commodity: original James Bond star, Sean Connery.
Connery always felt screwed over by the Broccolis and EON Productions and when the chance came to turn the screws on them by being in a rival Bond movie, he jumped at the chance. His name alone managed to secure financing for this picture, bringing an air of respectability to the proceedings. He was also very hands-on with the production. And as Connery was the movie’s bread and butter selling point, this made perfect sense.
Okay, enough legal history already! Actually the background history of this topic never ceases to fascinate me, so sorry for dragging you into it, but not really. I do have to fill bandwidth you know. And think about it: this wasn’t finally resolved until 2013 with EON now owning SPECTRE and its head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. So Fleming’s foolish blunder took over 50 years to figure out and heaven knows how many lawyers were able to live off of the proceedings in the meantime.
Now, what about the movie that resulted? Well, the best thing that I can say about Never Say Never Again is there is a good cast for the most part. Connery easily slips into playing a Bond that understands he is older but can still be a valuable field agent. He looks rather trim and fit and even better than he did 12 years earlier in Diamonds Are Forever. More importantly, his hairpiece doesn’t distract and when the 53 year-old Connery throws a punch, you believe it. Connery also has a wealth of witty lines throughout and plays them with such ease; you start to get pissed off that he never did all the Bonds.
Klaus Maria Brandauer plays main baddie Largo with a quirky psychotic zest that is refreshing. After all, this list so far has been in the doldrums when it comes to describing the villains of the 007 Universe. Finally, we get someone that is able to play with the character with some evil relish. Barbara Carrera too, as flamboyant killer Fatima Blush, is another breath of fresh air. She can’t stop chewing up the scenery and lovingly finishes every bite.
Legendary Swedish actor Max Von Sydow plays Blofeld with a quiet reserve. It would have been great to see him in some kind of a follow-up picture, but after you’ve played chess with death, tangling with James Bond is kind of chicken feed for someone of his stature. Bernie Casey plays Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter rather well. Most fun is watching Edward Fox and Alec McCowen play the M and Q parts respectively. Fox makes M a cantankerous bureaucratic fussbudget who can barely stand Bond. McCowen plays Q as an underpaid servant of the Crown who is truly glad to have Bond back so there will be “plenty of gratuitous sex and violence”.
On the other hand, and I’m sure you saw that coming, that’s about all this film has going for it with the main cast. The rest of them don’t quite make it. I do love Rowan Atkinson, but you can tell his part was just jammed in the middle haphazardly. He doesn’t really do anything for the plot aside from comic relief. You could take his part right out and it wouldn’t affect the storyline whatsoever. But at least Atkinson tries and frankly he’d probably make a better villain. Imagine it now: “Mr. Bond, you’ve met Lord Blackadder of course?“
Then we come to Domino played by Kim Basinger. Perhaps it is because Barbara Carrera is such a force of nature in this movie that Basinger just pales in comparison. She is even more wooden than her character’s counterpart in Thunderball, which does say a lot. I don’t know if it was nerves due to having to act with Connery or the fact that she just really isn’t that good of an actress, but she comes off as only being cast in the movie; she just isn’t in the movie. It is the same reason why she is the sore thumb in Batman. She’s there, but she isn’t.
The less said about the soundtrack, the better. In fact, don’t mention it at all. If you’re looking for something tinny and rather off-putting in an AM radio kind of way, you’re in luck! Perhaps the producers needed to distance themselves from the EON series by commissioning bad music that is rather sparsely orchestrated. I will say this only once: a full brass section, think about having one, please? Won’t you? Thank you.
Also the title song sounds like it was recorded to be a bootleg. Although why one would bootleg this music is beyond me. Even more angering is that they placed this song under the opening credits action scene which is quite good. In fact, the only thing that could improve that scene would be scoring it with, oh I don’t know, action music. Yes I’m extremely radical in my thinking but a Bond movie should have an actiony score at the very least.
Overall the film just has a low-priced look. This comes from the inevitable comparison with the “official” series. The EON Bonds would always use people like Ken Adam or Peter Lamont who usually made the sets and the production values shine on the screen. Never Say Never Again just looks cheap and you simply cannot half-arse a James Bond film, especially after the regular series had been going for 20+ years at that time. You have plenty of other movies to contrast this one against.
Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay is rather thin at times too. The less said about Largo and Bond playing a boring incomprehensible video game instead of battling at boring incomprehensible baccarat, the better. By far the most offensive is having Connery and Basinger tango together so Bond can relate exposition to her. Oh, and I mean a literal tango, with a badly recorded orchestra. Yes, James Bond…tangos. Let that sentence keep you awake at night.
The viewing public back in 1983 managed to make this movie a hit, grossing over $160 million. The flipside is when McClory produced this movie, he kind of shot his thunderball. He didn’t have any legal rights to any other Bond stories, so it would be nigh impossible for him to get another Connery Bond movie going. Yet in the 1990s, McClory threatened to make yet another film version of Thunderball, trying to get ex-Bond Timothy Dalton to take the reins of 007. Kevin McClory died in 2006 and even then he filed lawsuit after lawsuit in order to make his own time of death at a later date. These injunctions also failed and so far McClory has remained dead.
When all is said and done and said again, Connery acquits himself well as Bond and doesn’t embarrass himself at all. It is a shame that the movie isn’t better given the majority of the cast involved, but the sad fact is that this movie kind of exists as a cheap curiosity of legalities rather than a rousing fun action movie.
Special Bond Bonus Fact: if you want to royally irritate yourself, and who doesn’t, take a moment to watch Never Say Never Again on Special Edition DVD. Director Irvin Kershner, who also directed The Empire Strikes Back by the way, has a commentary track. Commentary tracks are give or take on an entertainment level, but Kershner’s is mind-numbingly awful. He treats the commentary track as if he is providing the English audio subtitles for the visually impaired and just parrots the action and plot taking place on the screen in real time. Even the moderator trying to get any behind the scenes production insights from Kershner just gives up after a while.
Okay fine, I’ll come clean. I’m the only person that ever listened to the commentary track for Never Say Never Again. I just want others to share in this pain. Please? Please?!