WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: The ugly spectre of…SPECTRE raises its head again as it steals two American nuclear warheads and holds the world ransom for a quarter of its oil revenues. Even whilst recuperating Commander James Bond finds a link to the case, his hunch leading him to millionaire playboy Maximilian Largo and his girlfriend Domino. But what has Max done with the missiles?
I know very little – and care even less – about the legal wrangling that allowed Kevin McClory to realise his long-held ambition of re-making Thunderball using the name of James Bond and his various enemies and hangers-on. The only question which really mattered in 1983 was ‘is it better than the “official” Bond?’ and the answer is ‘probably’ – though largely on account of the manifest deficiencies of Octopussy rather than the strengths of this movie.
Bond (Sean Connery), having shown signs of sloppiness during some of his training missions, is packed off to a health club for a spot of relaxation by his blustering new M (Edward Fox), a toff with little time for the 00 spies. But 007’s instincts are sharp enough to know that something’s up when an American Air Force captain (Gavan O’Herlihy) checks in with a new eye and a sexually charged private nurse; the eye is a copy of the President of the USA’s and is used to turn a military training exercise into a live launch of nuclear weapons which are then delivered to the boat of Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Largo and the nurse – known as Fatima Blush or simply ‘Number 12’ (Barbara Carrera) – are both working for SPECTRE, an organisation run by Blofeld (Max von Sydow) who uses the missiles to extort the world for a quarter of the world’s oil revenues. Bond follows Largo and his squeeze, the now-deceased captain’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger) to the Bahamas, where despite the handicap of bumbling liaison Nigel Small-Fawcett (Rowan Atkinson) and the lethal wiles of Blush, Bond has a shocking encounter with Largo and a tango with Domino, whom Bond shocks with the news that SPECTRE has killed her brother. In the South of France and then the North of Africa, and with a little help from American contact Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey), Bond cheats death to track down the missiles, with Domino slowly warming to his charms and M reluctantly realising how much the world needs 007’s assistance, as the secret agent uses the latest in US technology to be on time for his showdown in Largo’s underground lair.
There must have been something in the water back in 1983, as neither Octopussy nor Never Say Never Again can bring themselves to take Bond seriously. But whereas Moore’s Bond is in on the joke – he literally joins the circus – only half the cast of Never Say Never Again have got the memo about having fun with their parts, which makes for a very uneven film. Connery, despite his advancing years, looks less tired playing Bond here than he did in Diamonds Are Forever 12 years before, and his (admittedly limited) exertions on land and sea are far more believable than anything Moore pretends to do. Furthermore, Connery can still do funny without being glib, demonstrated as he extracts information from Domino by posing as a masseur, and he is the real anchor of the film, as he should be.
Unfortunately, he is undermined by those around him: Brandauer makes for a middling-to-mild villain and von Sydow is criminally underused (the cat gets all the attention!), whilst Carrera’s overacting as the kinky Fatima is enough to make anyone blush and Edward Fox pitches ‘M’ at the most idiotic end of Upper Class Twittery (Rowan is simply Rowan, which is no bad thing, and Alec McCowen channels Michael Caine as the ersatz Q). The support, such as the actors in the ‘health club’ (including Pat ‘Bomber’ Roach’s mute thug), also add to an unevenly comic tone. Thankfully, both Bernie Casey and Kim Basinger follow Connery’s lead and play their parts straight, rightly or wrongly believing the film to be their big break*.
If only the filmmakers had shown some of Connery’s discipline. There’s a really good Bond film here (resembling but distinct from the original Thunderball), but it’s about twenty-five minutes shorter and cut with an entirely different soundtrack. The music in particular is grossly misjudged, usually arriving (late) with totally unwelcome saxophones and jazz overtones, putting a semi-comic spin on serious scenes; when Max Largo puts an axe through the turntable on his boat, the viewer knows exactly how he feels. The film as a whole also looks incredibly unpolished, due to an over-reliance on location shooting and an unwillingness to build sets (that said, the big set that is built – Largo’s Well of Allah hideaway – looks very fake indeed).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner is most at home with flying missiles and a deadly computer game Bond is forced to play with Largo. It’s an interesting nod to the times, but more likely a clumsy way of raising money from Atari, and the sight of a traditional Bond casino scene giving way to a room of women in cocktail dresses playing Centipede is both incongruous and unedifying. Such cheapness belongs to a comedy and makes you realise how much money is spent to make Bond – even bad Bond – look as sophisticated as it does. Indeed, Never Say Never Again, with its radio-controlled sharks and ‘gratuitous sex and violence’ (Bond beds four women), constantly flirts on the edge of parody, but just about remains credible thanks to Connery’s presence (I even like his cheeky wink to camera, though I shouldn’t).
Never Say Never Again doesn’t sound like a Bond film and, with its insistence on shooting most scenes in big echoey rooms, often doesn’t look like one either; but there’s enough spark in the performances and a good enough story to show that with a budget for re-shoots and the reinstatement of the ‘proper’ music, McClory’s rival Bond could have been a real threat to the established series. As it is, unlike Connery the film is a bit out of shape and in desperate need of losing weight.
NOTES: I am – or was, until writing this review – completely ignorant of Casey’s American Football career. That he comes across as an eager young(ish) actor is much to his credit.