Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Such Is Life
Released in October 1983, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN remains an odd duck in the history of the James Bond franchise but it was probably never going to be anything but that. Though it was star Sean Connery’s long-awaited return to the legendary role that made him famous even the casual observer could probably tell that the film wasn’t part of the usual series—no UA logo, no gunbarrel intro, no James Bond theme, no martinis ordered shaken not stirred, no familiar recurring actors, not to mention the whole thing just has a different overall feel. Less discussed at the time was how the film is essentially just a remake of 1965’s THUNDERBALL, the fourth in the series that Connery starred in, and even Roger Ebert’s positive review makes absolutely no mention of this fact. It’s possible that most people didn’t realize this was even the case, coming before the widespread popularity of cable and watching films on video countless times—probably the most recent exposure anyone had to THUNDERBALL, eighteen years old at the time, was during a handful of ABC airings on the Sunday Night Movie (fun fact: the network premiere of the film was in 1974, nine years after it opened). The background history of NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN is an extremely complicated one, beginning during initial attempts back in the fifties to make a film out of Ian Fleming’s character, who had already appeared in multiple books at that point. The unsuccessful outlines worked on by Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Wittingham (who each get story credit here) were eventually taken by the author to create his original novel THUNDERBALL, creating endless legal wranglings that continued through the next several decades. Specifically, producer McClory’s claims to the property allowed him to serve as producer on the official version of the film THUNDERBALL but it also granted him the rights to that basic story featuring the character of Bond and some of the elements within, though legally he was not allowed to do anything else with the property for not less than ten years after that film’s release. No doubt at the time, who would have been looking ten years into the future? What film series could possibly go on that long? But even his legal right to undertake this new production (not the first attempt he made at it, either) was a question mark through much of the shooting, with it constantly in legal jeopardy from Albert Broccoli’s EON Productions, the unit in charge of the Bond series and injunctions were even taken out against the film in the days prior to its release.
Like any Bond film, opinions on it tend to vary wildly as to what are its strengths and drawbacks maybe moreso in this case with even a fan edit circulating online a few years back that attempted to slightly recut the film, as well as placing more Bondian music in it but that website seems to have disappeared. As for me, I think that some of the film, directed by Irvin Kershner (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), is certainly enjoyable but it hasn’t really aged very well. Without a strong story it contains no real forward momentum, not nearly enough action, feels chintzy around the edges and has a climax that goes on forever. Connery is certainly terrific, no surprise, but for a number of reasons it never really settles firmly on a consistent tone or even a vibe that would be right. All of that said, I have a certain fondness for the film if only for the phenomenal supporting performance by Barbara Carrera, an actress who’s a personal favorite of mine, here undertaking the best role she ever had in her career. The actress not only uses her part to run away with the film she basically demolishes it in her path to the point that without her there really is no film and I mean that pretty much literally. So it’s not like I really mind that NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN exists. When you come down to it, it’s at least sort of a James Bond film and there’s nothing really wrong with that. I just wish it were better and considering what an event it was that Connery was returning to the role it’s a shame that it isn’t.
Shortly after being “killed” in a field exercise, the still alive but barely active James Bond (Sean Connery) is ordered to spend time at the Shrublands health spa to get into better shape and “eliminate those free radicals”. Meanwhile, the still active SPECTRE, run by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Max von Sydow) is about to begin their greatest plot, to steal a pair of American nuclear missiles. Part of their plan involves using Air Force pilot Jack Petachi (Gavin “Chuck Cunningham” O’Herlihy) who has just undergone surgery to have one of his eyes be the exact replica of the President and use that eye to enable them access to pull off the crime. Recovering from the surgery at the same clinic where Bond happens to be staying, Petachi is under the thumb of gorgeous but deadly SPECTRE assassin Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) who keeps a close watch on him as well as noticing Bond nearby, leading to their quick departure and once the hijacking has been accomplished Blush murders Patachi. Bond is soon pressed back into service in an attempt to locate the missiles, sending him to the Bahamas as well as the south of France in an attempt to locate SPECTRE mastermind Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who keeps his lover Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger) who also happens to be Jack’s sister, close at hand.
The plotting of both THUNDERBALL and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN is fairly generic in terms of how the basic Bond film template is generally perceived (along with getting spoofed in AUSTIN POWERS) but in each case the story winds up being somehow oversized and lacking in incident at the same time—nuclear missiles are stolen, Bond is sent to investigate, he essentially wanders around meeting people then it all climaxes with a big battle in a giant underwater setting. And that’s pretty much it. Not to mention how, just like in THUNDERBALL, it doesn’t do much for momentum to have the hero spend most of the first act chilling out in a health clinic. Part of the problem apparently was that in making this film, a remake already on shaky legal ground, the filmmakers were forced to adhere to the basic structure of the original book while staying away from the other film and having to come up with a script that could be approved by lawyers—let alone actors and producers to say nothing of just trying to make it any good—seems like such an impossible task that it’s amazing they were able to have any pages to shoot at all. The screenplay credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr. (also heavily worked on by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) offers clever flourishes throughout (seriously, I want to shake the hand of the man who decided to have James Bond say, “Well, to be perfectly honest, there was this girl in Philadelphia…”), enough that maybe there even should have been more but beyond the witticisms there isn’t very much in the way of actual plotting to give the story any sort of thrust. Part of what’s good about the movie and the script is that it just treats Bond as Bond, practically not dealing with the actor being older at all. The issue is dealt with in a few spare lines of dialogue (“Still in pretty good shape…”) and since they certainly don’t try to make Connery look like anything other than his age it never needs to be spelled out. The star looks great actually, in better shape than in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and certainly more engaged with everything around him than he was in his last few outings for the official series. Connery grounds the movie, he centers the movie, and his genuine authority provides something to look forward to in scene after scene but too much of what he has to work off of unfortunately fails him.
More than trying to make a Bond entry which blatantly apes the EON house style in any real way director Kershner clearly approaches the film in terms of making a sort of lighthearted spy lark (maybe for a double bill pairing with his 1974 film S*P*Y*S?) which is fine since there’s nothing saying he should have to make this a copy in any way beyond what he technically has to remake. There’s just not enough going on storywise too much of the time and what’s there is more than a little lopsided, mistakenly believing that all it needs is the presence of Connery to work—the film spends so many scenes not in a rush to do anything beyond Bond and the various bad guys sussing one another out that when at around the ninety minute mark it suddenly decides to focus on the ‘plot’ it does so at the extent of all the elements that have been enjoyable up until then so the momentum grinds to a halt. There’s a striking lack of incident to the narrative with much of the pacing lackluster to the point that it never really gets going and as a result sequences like Bond at Shrublands or the hijacking of the missiles seem to go on for much longer than they actually do. Of course, this was all true of THUNDERBALL as well—speaking as a longtime Bond fan the things in that entry I’ve always enjoyed the most are the ‘Bond on vacation’ stuff where it just feels like he’s hanging out in the Bahamas. The equivalent with this film that is a little more globe-hopping is just Connery hanging out wherever he is, luxuriating in the part he’s so famous for and doing a great job with it as he plays straight man to all the people who are annoying him. This is fine and, in a way, it’s really the reason the film exists anyway. He never seems particularly concerned about, well, anything at all including those stolen missiles with an awful lot of lounging about going on at the expense of decent action, with the exception of a pretty great motorcycle chase, and by a certain point that kind of catches up with the film. Bond goes to investigate in the Bahamas but nothing really happens beyond meeting Fatima Blush—I’m not entirely clear on why either of them are there in the first place—so the whole section seems to barely matter. Bond then goes to the south of France and, except for seeking out Domino, for a while he doesn’t do anything there either. THUNDERBALL had what felt like endless scenes of Bond flying around Nassau in a helicopter looking for where the missiles might be hidden underwater and that wasn’t all that compelling either but at least he was doing something.
Photographed by Douglas Slocombe (the first three INDIANA JONES films, among many other credits) the film looks great—he’s provides the various stars with fantastic close-ups—but never achieves any feel of genuine scope or epic nature and there’s a vague sense around the edges that the film didn’t quite have the budget it needed. Maybe part of the uncertain tone is that the cool jet-set 60s are just more fun than the glossier 80s which has a kind of style to it but maybe looks a little garish now like the women’s gowns that are very heavy on the shoulder pads. On the other hand, the bank of video games in the casino might date the film but they also look like a clever jab at the sort thing nouveau riche types in the south of France, bored with all that baccarat, might have done at the time and at least it’s a touch that is slight different. The legendary Domination sequence pitting Bond against Largo where they play a game battling each other for the world might also feel somewhat dated in its graphics but provides enough tension that at least for several minutes something is actually happening. It’s very well played between all involved and as goofy as it is it’s still one of the best scenes in the film. Odd, certainly, considering how it’s just two guys playing a video game and yet for once it feels like something is actually at stake.
Connery plays every scene he’s in exactly right and the actor is so good that for the first time while watching this film recently it occurred to me what a shame it was that he never did more work in actual comedies, even farce. His charm and strength carry this movie as much as humanly possible and there’s a genuine electricity to his very presence that makes the film compelling even when there’s nothing else to be compelled by. Maybe it’s not saying very much to make a statement like ‘Sean Connery is terrific in his performance as James Bond’ but considering how fed up he was with the character back in the sixties to the point his disinterest was sometimes apparent—making me wonder how good he actually would have been in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE—it’s hugely enjoyable here to watch how strong he really is in the part and his absolute confidence is undeniable.
Matched up against Connery is the rather awesome Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush (a character name that originated during the earliest Fleming outlines) in a Golden Globe-nominated performance that is simply amazing, ferociously sexy and one that not only takes over the film it almost transforms it into something more than just the lark it would be otherwise. The actress takes what in other hands might be a stock henchman role and turns it into something else entirely almost beyond camp, beyond cartoon, probably having just as much fun as her character is as she does something with this character that she probably never got another chance to do in her entire career, making each second truly, vividly memorable. She provides the film with an undeniable intensity during every shot she appears in as she literally dances and glides through scenes in those ultra-high heels, a vitality that is undeniably there even when she isn’t doing much beyond staring straight ahead but adding a great deal when she does more than that (Am I making my admiration for Barbara Carrera clear enough? I guess she kind of drives me crazy). Her final scene with Connery is completely ridiculous beyond words but the way both actors play off each other in the moment allows it to be truly memorable. As good as the scene is, of all the mistakes that NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN makes, that the film allows Carrera to depart so early, right before the ninety-minute mark of a 134-minute film, is pretty much disastrous and just brings everything down. There’s nothing else in the film to live up to her energy—the very cool Connery needs somebody to play off of, after all—and it’s hard not to wonder about an alternate version that might have dared to be genuinely different, maybe killing the rather dull Largo character off early on in a surprise twist and allowing Fatima Blush to take over SPECTRE’s mission. It’s not something the producers of the film would have likely done back then—and, considering all the legal issues they might not have even been able to—but it says something about the film’s production that it wasn’t able to keep track of what was genuinely working compared with what wasn’t.
Once Carrera is out of the film there’s nothing else to have really much of an interest in and certainly nothing to build to. Domino dealing with the death of her brother has zero emotional impact and the big climax that moves things to North Africa (featuring submarine effects shots from ICE STATION ZEBRA) and taking place underwater, above ground and in some kind of underground cavern all filmed in the most listless way possible, is frankly one of the dullest final half-hours ever put on in an action-adventure spectacular. Several days after watching this section I can barely remember a single thing about it. Seriously, if you’re going to make a movie that has a nuclear missile planted by terrorists underneath the White House you should allow us to actually see this happen, don’t just toss it in via dialogue as if the notion was inserted during a rewrite the night before. There’s so little tension to anything that happens here the film barely seems to notice when the threat the entire plot has been centered around gets resolved. The final scene feels basically like the whole thing is shrugging its shoulders when it realizes there’s nothing else to do so it just decides to roll the end credits.
None of the other actors live up to Connery and Carrera, with some of them not even getting a chance. Kim Basinger isn’t bad at all—she and Connery play a rather charming first scene together and she has one terrific silent moment after he departs the massage. But the part is such a nothing as scripted so while she brings more life to it than any number of official Bond girls did to theirs, too often there’s nothing for her to play and the actress doesn’t have the experience yet to overcome that. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a great actor and has been praised in some places for this performance but to me he underplays to the point of distraction, chuckling to himself as if he doesn’t have any real ideas how to approach this character otherwise. The conceit of playing Largo as more of a sadistic businessman than larger-than-life villain makes sense (Phillip Seymour Hoffman probably pulled this off better in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III) but there’s nothing to him beyond that and ultimately Brandauer just blends into the scenery, a main bad guy that’s forgotten about as the interminable climax plays out around him. Bernie Casey is Bond’s CIA contact Felix Leiter which was probably forward thinking casting at the time and is nice to have around but like almost every other Leiter he doesn’t get to do very much. Max von Sydow has what is essentially a cameo as Blofeld, Edward Fox is M, Alec McCowen is Q, Pamela Salem is Moneypenny, Pat Roach of RAIDERS legend is the giant Lippe who Bond fights at Shrublands and Valerie Leon, also in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, is the beautiful woman who catches Bond later in the Bahamas. Rowan Atkinson makes his first feature appearance as Nigel Small-Fawcett of the British Embassy in the Bahamas, a broadly comical part that starts out like it’s going to be a running gag but ultimately is just a cameo. Actually, for a long time I’ve thought he might be an interesting Q but his involvement here and in JOHNNY ENGLISH (there’s a sequel coming!) would probably mean that’s not going to happen.
Also in the debit column is Michel Legrand’s music which has the reputation as being one of the worst Bond scores ever. Watching the film this time I didn’t think it was quite that bad and the recurring motif taken from the title song to underscore this more mature Bond’s casual nature works rather well. But while I can maybe see how using Legrand would have made sense since like John Barry there’s a connection to the jet-set nature of the sixties but too often what’s there is all wrong and like Eric Serra’s trainwreck of a score for GOLDENEYE—the one that really is the worst Bond score ever—it all too often adds next to nothing, overwhelmed by this film that it should be complimenting and at times just disastrously dropping out altogether, although the motorcycle chase is one of those old-school action scenes that wisely goes without any music at all (the soundtrack CD features a fair amount of music that was unused so maybe things could have been even worse). It’s not always badly done, particularly some of the lighthearted stuff, but it feels like it’s in the wrong movie. Maybe it’s just that James Bond films, even unofficial ones, were never meant to be underscored by xylophones. I actually don’t entirely mind the title song in an early 80s easy listening sort of way (since it’s sung by Lani Hall, that must be my fondness for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 talking) but its placement at the beginning of the film over what is supposed to be a suspenseful action scene is disastrous, almost deflating the entire film even before it starts. I also can’t help but find it a little interesting though that both this film and the also unofficial CASINO ROYALE from 1967 featured Herb Alpert (Hall’s husband) on the soundtrack but let’s face it, those are the kinds of things I focus on.
NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN was released several months after the official Roger Moore entry OCTOPUSSY and it may have even gotten some better reviews based solely on Connery’s presence but while the other film may have been looked at as more workmanlike at the time it has managed to age much better as well-crafted action, suspense and just as a James Bond film. At this point in time it appears that Connery’s promise to “never” play the character again has come true but a number of years later McClory tried once again to make a movie from the same basic plot (there were rumors it might star Timothy Dalton) leading to a protracted court case that resulted in him finally losing this ongoing legal battle which resulted in, among other things, all rights to NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN essentially falling in the domain along with the rest of the Bond franchise. It has its defenders and that’s fine. It’s not a movie I have any strong desire to dislike and besides—I’m the guy who’s said good things about A VIEW TO A KILL, so what do I know?. The story of why this film exists at all is a fascinating one and for anyone interested the book THE BATTLE FOR BOND is highly recommended, covering the full history of the property known as THUNDERBALL and its significance to the history of the Bond franchise, going from its beginnings in the fifties all the way to McClory’s death in November 2006, just days after the successful release of the updated CASINO ROYALE. As for NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN I can’t entirely dislike it no matter how much criticism I offer partly due to Connery, mostly due to Carrera and for the simple reason that it is, after all, a slightly different approach to Bond than what we’ve usually gotten. It just feels like an unfortunate fumble for any number of reasons. Even the name of Largo’s boat here says something—what was in THUNDERBALL called the Disco Volante now goes by the English translation the Flying Saucer, a dull, down to earth moniker in comparison with something that once sounded glamorous, other-worldly. It’s not an embarrassment for those involved. It just feels like it should have been more, that it should have been a film that lived up to the level of both the legend Connery had created with his character as well as taking full advantage of the amazing character that Barbara Carrera created in the one time she ever got to play her. But, as Bond says to Domino at one point in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, such is life.