Twelve years after he hung up his Walther PPK, Sean Connery returned for one last outing as 007 in the “unofficial” James Bond movie Never Say Never Again. No iconic gun-barrel intro. Here we make do with plethora of 007 captions and segue straight into the action.
An older, but still tough as nails, James Bond single-handedly wipes out a brigade of South American guerrillas, yet comes a-cropper when their lady hostage stabs him. It all turns out to be an elaborate simulation and a new, health-conscious M (Edward Fox) is disappointed with Bond’s performance. He dispatches him to a fitness farm in the country, where Bond stumbles onto the theft of two nuclear missiles, orchestrated by foxy Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) and hypnotised naval pilot Captain Jack Patachi (Gavan O’Herlihy). The clues point to SPECTRE, the criminal organization led by arch-fiend Blofeld (Max Von Sydow). 007 trails the organization’s number two, wealthy playboy Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and sets about romancing his mistress, Patchi’s sister, Domino (Kim Basinger). Being Bond he takes time to bed Fatima too. With Domino’s aid, Bond sets out to foil…uh, hey, wait a minute! Doesn’t all of this sound awfully familiar?
Well, yes actually because Never Say Never Again is a reworking of Thunderball (1965). Independent producer Kevin McClory owned the rights to just the one story he co-wrote with Ian Fleming. Lured back into the fold, Sean Connery also contributed to the messy, multiple-authored screenplay which presents us with a slightly jarring, alternative Bond universe. Elements familiar from the original movie mingle with some more faithful to Fleming’s novels (Alec McCowen’s gadget master, Algernon) and new innovations like blaxploitation star Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter (predating Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale (2006)), Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling consulate Nigel Small-Fawcett (a dry run for his Johnny English (2002)), and Edward Fox’s delightfully dotty M (eager to purge Bond of all “free radicals”). The holographic duel fought between Bond and Largo marks an obvious attempt to tap the then-current craze for arcade games, but like Bond unexpectedly riding a white horse to rescue Domino from Arabic slave traders, proves surprisingly good fun.
The film suffers from Irvin Kershner’s wayward direction. His ability to waver from frantic action (the hi-tech motorcycle chase staged by Remy Julienne) and witty moments (Bond’s impromptu tango with Domino) to sluggish, meandering filler should make critics re-evaluate how much George Lucas brought to The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Symptomatic of his mishandling are the opening scenes. By rights Bond’s shock-stabbing should be an attention-grabbing moment (the perfect time to segue into a credits sequence?), but it’s curiously listless, rendered worse when accompanied by the lacklustre theme song. Co-written by the legendary Michel Legrand, Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendez (Brasil ’66), and sung Mendez’s wife Lani Hall, the song was correctly pegged by cult film critic Tim Lucas as an “inexplicable off-day for four, very talented people.” Legrand scored Jacques Demy’s glorious The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1967), but his work here recalls the disco stylings of Bill Conti in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Tim Lucas recently discovered an unused theme song performed by Phyllis Hyman and penned by Stephen Forsyth, star of Mario Bava’s Hatchet For A Honeymoon (1969)!
As photographed by the great Douglas Slocombe, this remains a handsome movie although the climactic underwater battle pales before that of Thunderball. Sean Connery retains his grit and dynamism as James Bond. Older and balder he may be, but he’s in shape and charismatic as ever, bringing wry humour to his slapstick brawl with Pat Roach (familiar as the hulking Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)). He is complemented by a sly, faceted turn from Klaus Maria Brandauer and an underrated one from Max Von Sydow, whose cool, authoritative Blofeld is arguably superior to whiny Donald Pleasance. Rumours persist that a deleted scene sees Blofeld finally done in… by his pet cat. Elsewhere, Kim Basinger is no Claudine Auger and makes a truly vapid Domino, whereas Barbara Carrera’s psycho-minx is initially fun, but slowly lapses into cartoon hissing. She is also clad in some appalling, Joan Collins-style fright frocks and further Eighties fashion casualties include Hammer starlet Valerie Leon (who lends Bond some unflattering denim dungarees) and Prunella Gee.
Never Say Never Again tends to divide opinion. Some find it forgettable, others think it betters Thunderball in every aspect. Upon release it drew better notices than the more financially lucrative Octopussy (1983), and while supposedly the loser in the “battle of the Bonds”, $167 million worldwide ain’t exactly chump change. It isn’t better than Thunderball, but seeing Connery back in his greatest role still carries a certain frisson for many. As late as 1997, Kevin McClory was shopping a third version of the story titled Warhead 2000. Five years from now, whose to say we won’t see a disgruntled Pierce Brosnan hop onboard?