Directed by Irvin Kershner
Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr
Story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ian Fleming
Release Date: 7th October, 1983 (U.S), 15th December 1983 (U.K)
‘Battle of the Bonds’ screamed the press during 1983. While we’re waiting patiently for the release of one new Bond film in 2021, due to the legal situation involving Thunderball and Kevin McClory, audiences and fans of the Bond series ended up with two James Bond films being released into cinemas for 1983, even if one of them ended up being more or less a remake of 1965’s Bond epic.
In the end, that was all McClory and the Never Say Never Again production team could end up legally doing. McClory might have talked at length about what he was going to do with his rights and the films he wanted to make, not to mention the amount of litigation that kept himself and Eon busy as the years continued as well as all the crazy ideas that he and writer Len Deighton might have put into the script they and Connery collaborated on in 1976 (Warhead or James Bond of the Secret Service were the mooted titles), but in the end any film that McClory made based on the rights he held to Thunderball meant that all he could really do was another version of Thunderball.
General consensus has always described Never Say Never Again (and 1967’s Casino Royale) as unofficial, and while very much not part of the canon that is Eon’s Bond series, truthfully both this and 1967’s Bond spoof aren’t ‘unofficial’, even though it’s a term that is easily applied to them in order to differentiate the films from Eon’s series.
At the end of the day, both Charles K. Feldman and McClory had the screen rights to the Fleming novels in question, so for all intents and purposes, 1983’s other Bond picture isn’t technically an unofficial one.
My first experience with Never Say Never Again came in Christmas of 1996 when the film was screened on television. Bond films on television at Christmas are not an unusual thing in the UK, in fact throughout the 70s, 80s and a large chunk of the 90s, Bond films were frequently a big part of the Christmas television schedules, with ITV sometimes scheduling the premieres of Bond movies right after The Queen’s Speech (a tradition entertainingly detailed in Mark O’Connell’s wonderful book Catching Bullets).
What made Never Say Never Again unusual to my eyes was that the film was being shown by the BBC, a strange conceit given that Bond was always shown on ITV and was also a mid-80s Bond starring Connery. From what I could tell the film wasn’t even anywhere to be seen in the VHS collection of Bond movies that were frequently advertised on the back of movie magazines in those brilliantly put together collections were the spine made up a grandiose image of all the Bonds together with copious explosions and action in the background.
My confusion was added to when I sat down to watch the film and wondered where all the trademarks of a Bond film had disappeared to. Where was the Gunbarrel, the Maurice Binder title sequence and the stock company of Bond actors such as Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Geoffrey Keen, Walter Gotell and, since this was the mid-80s, Robert Brown as M?
It was one of those things were as a young fan of the series I was glad to be seeing a Bond film I had never seen before, but you also couldn’t shake the feeling that something was different, or off by just a little bit.
Of course, as I got older, I read copious amounts of books on the subject of Bond and the history of the character and realised why we not only ended up with this movie, but why it was remarkably similar to Thunderball.
It’s a piece of the Bond lore that is endlessly fascinating, perhaps even more so that the actual products that ended up on screen.
The perception of the rogue Connery Bond is that it’s easily discounted because it isn’t part of the Eon cycle, but there are still aspects to it that make it a curio worth watching for sure. It’s perhaps somewhat heresy to say it but I have always rather enjoyed it despite some very obvious flaws, and make no mistake, since this is a Thunderball remake it ends up making some of the same mistakes as 1965’s version of the tale.
The one thing it doesn’t have, however, is the sense of epic filmmaking that at the very least makes Thunderball worth a watch. When McClory got together with Eon to make the film in 1965, they went above and beyond to outdo the influx of spy movies that were following in the wake of the success of 007. While Thunderball’s script has its share of issues, the widescreen framing, sense of scale and the way it pulls off its underwater climax makes it, at least aesthetically, an impressive piece of work.
Going into Never Say Never Again, it doesn’t have the same pedigree, even though it managed to put together a team that promises something impressive. Director Irvin Kershner had just come off the back of directing The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best Star Wars film. The script is credited to Lorenzo Semple, Jr, a fine writer who had previously delivered not only The Parallax View but also contributed some of the best scripts to the 1960s Batman television series as well as 1980’s big budget version of Flash Gordon (starring future Bond Timothy Dalton), not to mention uncredited contributions from Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement, while director of photography Douglas Slocombe had gorgeously photographed Raiders of the Lost Ark and would do a similar job on the next two Indiana Jones movies.
There’s a real ‘who’s who’ of behind the scenes 80s blockbuster talent at work here and yet the production of the film would be somewhat chaotic, running over budget and generally making everyone who worked on it unhappy.
Given that Connery was older here, the story is repurposed to make Bond more of a middle-aged figure. Amazingly Connery looked better here than he did when he made Diamonds are Forever and the actor has the grace on an old pro about him in so many of his scenes. The best elements of the film are the ones that play with ‘what if’ moments, such as an aging Bond having to prove himself to an indifferent and irritated M (Edward Fox on somewhat over-the-top form), elements that would actually get utilised by Eon themselves when their series reached its fiftieth anniversary.
The idea of Bond coming out of enforced retirement for ‘one last job’ has so much potential, but the film never really runs with it and instead for the second half just turns into a basic Thunderball redux but without the sense of scale or panorama to the underwater scenes.
On the plus side of proceedings, despite what was meant to have been a lot unhappiness as the production continued, Connery is wonderful in what would be his last time playing Bond on the silver screen (he would voice the character for 2005’s From Russia with Love video game). His grace and gentle humour work well here and he’s a witty and fun presence throughout.
The rest of the cast which consists of Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max Von Sydow, Bernie Casey and Barbara Carrera are all fine, especially the latter in an increasingly unhinged and over-the-top performance, but everything about the film has the inescapable feeling of being like someone copying someone else’s homework but changing certain words so as not to look obvious.
Fiona Volpe becomes Fatima Blush, Emilio Largo becomes Maximillian Largo, the plot to steal nuclear warheads by substituting a pilot with a plastic surgery created double becomes one where they simply just get a USAF pilot hooked on drugs and blackmail him (which I don’t think is as much fun as the plastic surgery scheme which had a brilliant sense of 60s spy-fy preposterousness).
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the movie because I do. For one thing it is admittedly better paced at times than Thunderball and it never feels as drawn out as the 1965 Bond film did, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it doesn’t have the aesthetic elements that were part and parcel of Thunderball’s strengths. Given that Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back and Slocombe photographed the Indiana Jones movies, it’s somewhat of a shock that this movie doesn’t look or feel better and it’s here that you realise just what a balancing act that Eon does when it comes to making Bond pictures.
It is also, let’s not forget, a Bond film that substitutes 007 goading the villain at a casino table for one where they compete against each other via a video game called Domination. It was perhaps an attempt by everyone involved to make it as contemporary as possible; this was the 80s and video games were starting to make their mark on the technological and pop culture landscape, but to watch Connery in tuxedo using a joystick against Brandauer’s version of Largo feels like a misguided attempt to be ‘cool’ in a manner that would similarly destabilise Die Another Day with its use of CGI in 2002.
Given that Skyfall would play in a similar thematic pool as this film with an aging Bond having to prove himself again, you can see the difference that comes from having a production team that positively bleeds Bond telling these stories as opposed to one trying to compete with the real thing. The less said about Michel Legrand’s style of Bond music scoring the better.
While some critics might have been more prone to praise this movie at the time due to the return of Connery and not keeping any secret about how much they favoured him over Moore, the by-product has been that Never Say Never Again is now only looked on as a curiosity piece while Octopussy has gone through a period of rediscovery and reappraisal, particularly by a younger generation of Bond fans who extol the virtues of the latter as they have gotten older.
What has given a level of poignancy to 1983’s other Bond film is that this would be the last time on-screen that we’d see Connery in the role. The loss of the actor during the latter stages of last year was felt massively by fans of the series. The original big screen Bond, he has forever been the Bond by which all other Bonds are compared and it’s hard not to hold him up as the definitive screen 007. It’s frequently why actors who take over the role and do well in it are frequently labelled ‘the best since Connery’.
While his last time wearing Bond’s gun holster might have been for a rival production, the positive thing to take away from the existence of the film is that there is one last entry featuring the original 007 in the role. His impact on the series, the character and even cinema in general cannot be downplayed or even underestimated.
Even with the controversy surrounding the existence of the film, there is something rather heartwarming about the last time we see him as 007 being a moment where he is enjoying retirement by a swimming pool, Bond Woman at his side, winking to the camera as he says goodbye to the character one last time.
Bond, James Bond will return with…A View to a Kill.