Judge Jim Thomas says "never" again and again.
Q: Good to see you, Mr. Bond. Things've been awfully dull 'round here. I hope we're going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one!
Bond: I certainly hope so.
The legal issues surrounding Never Say Never Again are well-known; what isn't as well-known is how the legal issues impacted the film's production. The judgment held that the film had to stick to the original novel, Thunderball, without taking anything unique to the previous movie. The conditions made developing a workable screenplay problematic at best; but to make matters worse, EON, Cubby Broccoli's company, had the production in court almost every day during filming, getting rulings on whether certain material could be included in the film.
In that light, it's amazing the finished product is at all coherent. But here at DVD Verdict, "partially coherent" just isn't good enough for Never Say Never Again: Collector's Edition.
Facts of the Case
SPECTRE, led by the sinister Blofeld (Max von Sydow, Minority Report) has stolen two nuclear warheads, and is holding the United States and the United Kingdom to ransom. Reluctantly, M (Edward Fox) recalls 007 (Sean Connery) to active duty to recover the bombs. Now Bond plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Max Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer, Out of Africa) and his murderous ally Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera, Loverboy). Aided by his CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey, In the Mouth of Madness) and largo's mistress, domino (Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential), Bond races to save the world just one more time.
The script issues were further complicated simply because much of the movie—including the opening "rescue" sequence—was more or less made up on the fly. With so many writers, and so many different interested parties at work, it's a simple matter of having too many chefs in the kitchen. The end result is a mass of tonal inconsistencies that never establishes a clear identity.
Director Irving Kershner claims that he wanted a slyly satirical movie, but one must wonder if that's not a little revisionism. NSNA might have been considered satirical next to Thunderball, but that earlier film of the novel had been made almost twenty years earlier; the then-current Bond movies, such as 1983's Octopussy, had already descended into self-parody. So with very few exceptions, such as Rowan Atkinson's near-Pythonesque turn as the clumsy attaché Nigel Small-Fawcett, the satire was a washout. The fight in Shrublands may have been intended as satire, but it comes off as just silly. In fact, the entire Shrublands sequence is just a pale imitation of the earlier movie.
Many of the problems with the movie could have been overcome with a stronger score. John Barry's score for Thunderball soars, even if the movie doesn't. To help the underwater fight sequences, Barry took a fast-paced fight cue from earlier in the movie and slows it down just a bit to match the slower action. NSNA has no such support. Michel LeGrand's score suffers from the same tonal inconsistency that plagues the movie. There's no distinctive style connecting the cues, romantic music shows up when an action cue is needed…it doesn't work on any level (Ironically, LeGrand copped an Oscar that same year for his work on Yentl).
Technically, this disc is a disappointment. The video still has many, if not all of the defects from the earlier release. There are still problems with the opening titles bleeding and flickering. Within the movie proper, the word is inconsistency. Flesh tones vary indoors and outdoors, exterior shots have fuzzy skies, etc. A 5.1 soundtrack has been mastered for this release. Technically, that is correct; I put my hand on the cone of one of my rear speakers, and yes, it was vibrating. But pretty much everything remains at the front of the sound stage, mainly in the center channel. Stick with the 2.0 track; it's not a marked improvement, but as you won't be expecting as much, you won't be quite as disappointed.
While the movie presentation hardly warrants an upgrade, the extras might. At the top of the list is a commentary track with Kershner and Bond expert Steven Jay Rubin. Kershner tends to just tell us what is happening onscreen, but eventually Rubin starts feeding him questions. There are three featurettes with comments from several of the principals, including Kershner and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., along with Talia Shire (widow of producer Jack Schwartzman) and John Schwartzman (Jack's son and cinematographer on The Rock). Connery, Brandauer, and Basinger are all absent. "The Big Gamble" details the troubled production; "Sean is Back" deals with Connery's return to the role that made him a star; and finally, the obligatory "Bond Girls" section.
Trivia: The underwater sequences for both Never Say Never Again and Thunderball were directed by Ricou Browning, most famous for his performances as the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, what did work? At the top of the list is Connery. With all due respect to Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig, Connery has a screen presence that few can match.
Overall, the acting is good, with the notable exception of Kim Basinger, who is just out of her league.
But the real strength of the movie rests in the characterization of the villains—it is the one instance in which Never Say Never Again is demonstrably superior to its predecessor. To illustrate, let's compare the two villainous pairs—Fiona Volpe and Fatima Blush, and Emilio Largo and Max Largo.
For all practical purposes, Fiona is a mirror image of Bond—she is a cool, ruthless killer for SPECTRE just as Bond is for MI6. She is just as calculating and resourceful as Bond, as seen in her capture of Bond's aide Paula or in the chase through the Junkanoo celebration. Hell, she's even into fast cars and casual sex like Bond. Being a hot redhead is just a bonus. Unfortunately, Thunderball's momentum nosedives after Fiona's death, primarily because there's no suitable replacement for her as Bond's antagonist. Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is perhaps the blandest of Bond villains. Yes, he tortures Domino after she betrays him, but that's brute thuggery, not villainy; it's Fiona who appears to be the brains of the outfit—she orders Largo to leave Bond to her. (Idle thought: what if they had eliminated Largo completely, elevated Fiona to the top villain, and used Vargas as her subordinate?)
Never Say Never Again doesn't make that same mistake; Fatima is as exquisitely lethal as Fiona, but Fatima is clearly Largo's subordinate. He tells her what to do, not the other way around. Fatima runs on emotion, not intellect—as witnessed by her flipping off Bond as she runs from his apartment after killing Nichole. And Max keeps her on a very short leash, like a particularly dangerous pet.
Max Largo, on the other hand, is more like Fiona. His relaxed, assured manner reflects his confidence in his own plan. He's worked it out with the same care as his other business ventures, and so at this point, in his mind, he can have a little fun—the fun of a puppetmaster watching his creations dance to his tune. At the same time, there's just enough of a psychotic glint in his eye, in his actions, to make us wonder what might happen if things don't go his way. Brandauer really does a wonderful job.
This Largo is a match for Bond in many ways, which is why one of the more effective scenes in the movie is the scene that easily could have been the silliest—the videogame battle between Bond and Largo.
It is a straightforward test of wills, each taking the measure of the other, Bond slowly but surely getting the upper hand, learning that Largo can be rattled when he thinks he's losing control. The sequence does a number of things—it proves to Largo that Bond is a greater threat than previously thought—which means that he may have to modify his plan. At the same time, Bond discovers—both through the game and by observing Largo's interactions with Domino—that Largo is unlikely to make a mistake unless Bond can force him into an emotional reaction.
That initial confrontation could have laid the groundwork for a similar test of wills in the final showdown. Unfortunately, the end of the movie had to stick with the book, so we get the underwater action ending rather than a more character-driven approach. There was so much potential in Brandauer's performance—it's a shame that it could never be fully realized.
Never Say Never Again never realizes its potential as a Bond film, but the combination of some strong performances with the movie's unusual pedigree makes it at least worth a look.
In the interests of national security, the verdict has been sealed. Fox has the court's thanks for providing a decent slate of extras, but is hereby reprimanded for the disc's shoddy technical performance.
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