Our tough-as-titanium-nails Judge Nicholas Sylvain takes on a reader's request: a review of the bastard son of the James Bond franchise.
I hope we're going to have some gratuitous sex and violence, Mister Bond!
A slightly more ponderous remake of Thunderball with a not-quite prime Sean Connery and stripped of some of the classic Bond gilding, Never Say Never Again still manages to be a reasonably entertaining film in the style and tradition of the canon films. Perhaps unsurprisingly, MGM treats Never Say Never Again as the barely-tolerated black sheep of the Bond canon that it is (as opposed to the bizarre Casino Royale, which still wanders in exile).
Facts of the Case
M (Edward Fox) finds 007 (Sean Connery) wanting after a series of training exercises and assigns 007 to have "toxins" and "free radicals" purged from his body at the Shrublands health clinic. While sneaking in vodka and patè for his meals and seducing the nursing staff, 007 still manages to uncover the evil plot of SPECTRE. The renowned evil organization is using a heroin-addicted American Air Force officer as a means to hijack two nuclear weapons with which to blackmail Western Europe and the United States. The head of SPECTRE, Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) has tapped his chief deputy, Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to run this "most audacious" operation. He, in turn, calls upon the homicidal, sensual talents of Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) to ensure all matters run smoothly.
Naturally, this sort of activity gets the Western powers all sorts of nervous, causing Britain to send her best agent, 007, into the fray. The available clues lead James Bond down to the Bahamas as he catches onto the scent of Largo, whose girlfriend turns out to be Domino (Kim Basinger), sister of the traitorous Air Force officer. The cat and mouse game between Bond and Largo soon begins, where shockingly upscale video game is a substitute for open conflict and Domino is a prize and a pawn in their private war. As the countdown to nuclear disaster gets shorter and shorter, Bond's charms lead to Largo's secrets, but then the fight is on, for SPECTRE will not give up without a fight. 007 must cheat death more than once, fight to save the innocent Domino, and battle Largo and his SPECTRE minions to recapture the nuclear weapons and avert catastrophe.
If you are a Bond fan, you probably already know the tangled web of rights, credits, lawsuits and such that led to the genesis of Never Say Never Again. For the rest of you, let me briefly summarize. Around 1960, the "father" of Bond, Ian Fleming, and Kevin McClory collaborated on a screenplay which was eventually abandoned, but not before Ian Fleming wrote "Thunderball." To Kevin McClory, the book seemed a direct rip-off of the screenplay, and out came the flesh-eating lawyers.
When the dust settled, Kevin McClory retained the rights to the story, which he soon licensed to the Broccoli/Saltzman production team for their Thunderball film. However, he retained the right to make his own Bond film based on his story, which after much legal wrangling with the dynamic Broccoli/Saltzman duo, he was allowed to do. Released in competition with Octopussy in 1983, Never Say Never Again made a respectable box office showing against its canon competitor. Sadly, the upshot of this legal fracas was that SPECTRE faded out of the Bond canon, as it was considered to be a part of McClory's story.
Other than for purely mercenary reasons, I have never have clearly understood why McClory couldn't leave well enough alone and insisted on remaking Thunderball. The situation gets even weirder when you learn that since Never Say Never Again was released, Kevin McClory has periodically announced plans to mount yet another variously-named remake. Fortunately, he has apparently never found financial backing for another remake, for I fear that a remake of a remake could never be more than superficial Hollywood guano.
On its own terms, Never Say Never Again is still only one generation away from the original, and fortunately employs the original and still unparalleled Sean Connery (Entrapment, The Hunt for Red October, Outland) in his final appearance as the gentleman-spy. He is as charming as ever and still possessed of a rugged, macho persona, despite his age, but he seems caught in transition. Not as young and dashing as he used to be, but not quite yet the wise, finely matured man he is now; he looks a bit too much like the creaky Roger Moore of A View to a Kill.
As for the other cast members, you get a mixed bag. On the plus side, Barbara Carrera (Condorman) gives a scenery-chewing, over the top performance with a generous helping of exotic sexuality that does not seem out of place in a Bond film! She does tend to overshadow the quietly bland Klaus Maria Brandauer (The Russia House, Out of Africa), never a good thing for the primary Bond villain, but he does have a sharp psychotic edge. The Q role, inexplicably named Algernon, is as small as ever, but Alec McCowan (Longitude, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V) puts a delightful zest into his by-play with Connery.
I can't decide whether Edward Fox (The Bounty, Force 10 From Navarone) was miscast as a gratingly priggish M, or whether this was an intentional twist of the usual role. Also on the negative side of the ledger must fall Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential, Cool World, Batman), whose Domino is a limp, doe-eyed trophy girl for most of the entire picture. This is plainly not her best work. However, I must commend Bernie Casey (Spies Like Us, Revenge of the Nerds) for his affable Felix Leiter, Max Von Sydow (Needful Things, Dune) as an aristocratic Blofeld (head of SPECTRE), and Rowan Atkinson ("Blackadder," Bean) for his hilariously, awkwardly British functionary.
The anamorphic video transfer is not the best that this format has to offer, and may not be much of an improvement over the special edition disc of the nearly twenty year-older Thunderball. The opening credits are not a hopeful sign, what with the red lettering blurring and bleeding as well as being afflicted with a case of the shakes. Flecks and blips in the print are plentiful for the first few moments, but then subside to a less prominent but still consistent level. Colors are adequately saturated, digital edge enhancement is limited, and sharpness is okay. However, a serious flaw, presumably in the source materials, shows up at the beginning of Chapter 7 during the brief scene of planes taxiing at Swadley Airbase. The sides of the picture are clouded and the frame flickers for about four seconds. It is unavoidably distracting. I noticed a similar but much less obvious flaw in Chapter 27 involving a small area of the screen darkly flickering when the guard enters to find 007 has escaped.
The Dolby Surround track gets the job done but should not impress any but the most inexperienced of listeners. Though the front soundstage is reasonably broad with distinct channel effects and dialogue is clearly understood, the matrixed rear surround is used sparingly and your subwoofer is only called upon for incidental support. On a related note, I must agree with the critics who lambaste the score of Never Say Never Again. Bland, uninspiring, bereft of a good "hook" to get the audience involved in the thrill of action, this is a score that could bore, so perhaps we are the better off for the absence of an isolated music track, eh?
The main menu is a tastefully understated affair, using animation and movie scenes with a clip of the score. Sadly, that's one of the few high points of the DVD presentation, aside from the limited extras of the theatrical trailer and a booklet with four pages of production notes (a shorter version of the similar booklets that came with the releases of the "official" Bond films). Nice, but hardly adequate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In telling the story of Never Say Never Again, some of the faults of Thunderball (and a few new ones) come to light. As I note below, the scheme for stealing the nuclear weapons is exceedingly hokey, and as in the original the story drags at times. This becomes most evident during the final climactic battle scene, which has even less of a payoff than in Thunderball. Bond and Leiter's operation to recover the nuclear weapons is fairly nonchalant, signaling to the audience that there is no genuine risk of a nuclear catastrophe.
At a time when our nuclear secrets are the bathroom reading for the Chinese Politburo, I hesitate to point out the ludicrously poor security for the nuclear weapons stolen by SPECTRE. Even assuming the computer systems don't wonder why the President of the United States suddenly turns up at a NATO base in Britain and swaps nuclear for dummy warheads, how come not a single human notices? Furthermore, SPECTRE's method for disposing of its pawn lacks the dramatic style used in Thunderball. A snake thrown into a car by Barbara Carrera just can't compete with a rocket-launching motorcycle driven by spicy Luciana Paluzzi!
Though it suffers from being an undercooked remake of a decent James Bond film, Never Say Never Again still has some fine moments, such as the Shrublands fight, Largo and Bond's video-game proxy fight, Bond's massage of Domino, and the car/bike chase scene. It should be suitable as a rental for the average action movie-watcher, but even at a price reasonable for such a bare-bones edition ($20 retail), a purchase is recommended only for serious Bond fanatics (like me).
Having considered the matter carefully, the Court finds as follows: Never Say Never Again is still fun, despite its faults, and must be acquitted. MGM is reprimanded for its repeated indifference to its catalog titles and warned that the Court is likely to purchase fewer and fewer MGM titles if such behavior continues. Kevin McClory is remanded to custody until he promises never to make another Thunderball remake.
[Editor's Note: MGM had a few quality control problems with the first run that have been fixed. This review is of the "fixed" version of the disc.]
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