In my review of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) the other day, I wrote briefly about trends involving the youth demographic in the 1980s, and some of the tension in America at the time over age, at least so much as related to its popular President, Ronald Reagan.
This was the era during which the M.P.A.A. rating PG-13 was born; so that younger audiences could see more “adult” movies, for instance. This was also the age of MTV’s blazing ascent and influence on everything from marketing to the specifics of film cutting.
Another genre film from approximately the same time period — the “unofficial” James Bond picture starring Sean Connery, Never Say Never Again (1983) — also benefits from this very historical context.
In this film, the audience encounters an older, slower — but still lethal — agent 007 as he faces both Blofeld’s SPECTRE and the specter of looming retirement.
Where Captain Kirk in The Search for Spock must not only contend with real ideological foes (the Klingons), but higher-ups amidst the “young minds and fresh ideas” of Starfleet/The Federation, here James Bond must deal with a vastly changed (and highly officious) new iteration of MI6. He’s outmoded: a dinosaur or relic of another age.
At least that’s according to the new “M’ (Edward Fox), who — in a great reaction shot — physically recoils after seeing Bond head-butt an opponent during a training exercise (the pre-title sequence which opens the film.) He has no taste for such messiness; such brutal improvisation.
The world has changed…and apparently passed Bond by in the process.
But as Bond’s over-worked, under-paid gadgeteer, Algy (Alec McEwen) comments mid-way through Never Say Never Again: “Bureaucrats running the old place. Everything done by the book. Can’t make a decision unless the computer gives you the go ahead. Now you’re here. I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence…”
This amusing comment may serve a double, subversive purpose. First, Q’s comment works contextually, regarding the “re-activation” of the 00s (and Bond) in the narrative of Never Say Never Again, particularly against the backdrop of the new era of the corporate, computerized 1980s.
But metaphorically, the line also serves as a pointed jab at the official EON James Bond film line, which had — during the reign of Roger Moore as Bond — adopted the official stance that James Bond represents Disney-fied violence; or “violence for the family.”
The re-activation of Connery’s original, craftier Bond in Never Say Never Again is therefore not merely a breath of fresh air in terms of the movie’s PC world; but in terms of a real-life world where the aging James Bond feature film franchise was no longer considered legitimately dangerous or cutting edge.
After all, audiences at this point had seen Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Dirty Harry…and more was to come. The Terminator, Lethal Weapon, Batman and Die Hard franchises were just on the horizon.
Accordingly, Never Say Never Again feels like the most dangerous, edgy, unpredictable Bond film in ages (particularly after the toothless and farcical — if enjoyable — Moonraker .
Where the Bond films had long ago reduced main characters to off-the-shelf, familiar types like the General Villain (Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Stromberg, Drax, etc.) and the Soldier Villain (Odd Job, Nick Nack, Jaws, etc), Connery’s return feature largely restores the humanity and individuality — and therefore the unpredictability — to these familiar cliches and stock types.
Spectacular (if fantasy-based) stunt-work is also largely eschewed in Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again, in favor of the aforementioned head-butt and a concentration on more grounded, macho and personal fisticuffs (a hallmark of Connery’s early, grittier era, back in the 1960s).
So nobody is dangling from blimps-in-flight over The Golden Gate Bridge here, if you get my drift. Not that there’s anything wrong, inherently, with the other approach.
There is also a deliberate, overt focus on sex in Never Say Never Again (particularly in Bond’s coupling with the evil Fatima Blush [Barbara Carrera].) Bond beds no less than four women in the course of the movie, actually. Again, this is an approach that the official Bond series reversed by the late 1980s, making Timothy Dalton’s Bond a one-lady-kind-of-guy (to accommodate in the culture the emergence of AIDS).
In short, Never Say Never Again feels a bit more passionate, a bit more human, and lot less rote, less predictable, than some of the 1970s Bonds…even though it is loosely a remake of 1965’s Thunderball.
Bond may indeed be a bit older here, but as the film deliberately points out (in regards, expressly, to the character’s beloved Bentley), he’s “still in pretty good shape.”
Your Reputation Has Preceded You; Or You Were a Very Good Secret Agent. Really.
|In matters of death, SPECTRE is strictly impartial…
Never Say Never Again tells the story of a wicked gambit on the part of Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) and SPECTRE.
Using a heroin-addicted American air force officer, Jack Petachi (Gavin O’Herlihy), a villain named Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and Fatima Blush, or Agent 12 (Carrera), steal two American W80 thermo-nuclear warheads during a routine training exercise centered at Swadley’s Air Force Base.
Blofeld blackmails the West (NATO, in particular): pay an exorbitant fee or see the bombs detonated in two days time.
As one anxious diplomat describes the plot, it is “the ultimate nightmare,” this nuclear blackmail. (And ironically, this story of loose nukes seems more timely and relevant in the 1980s — when the hawkish, Peace-Through-Strength Reagan decried the “Evil Empire” and jokingly announced that “bombing begins in five minutes,” — than it did in the 1960s, when Thunderball premiered…)
Agent James Bond (Connery), 007 — who has spent most of his time in recent years teaching — is re-activated and sent out by the officious M to recover the bombs.
Following a stint at the health farm, Shrublands, Bond heads to the Bahamas, where Largo’s yacht, the Flying Saucer, may be carrying at least one of the warheads. There, Largo executes SPECTRE’s plot, code-named “The Tears of Allah,” all while deceiving his beautiful girlfriend, dancer Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger), about the death of her brother, Jack.
Now Bond must outwit and outfight Fatima with the help of his CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey) and discover where the jealous Largo is hiding those warheads. In doing so, he will require Domino’s help…
|Shaken but not stirred.
Behind-the-scenes, Never Say Never Again represents Sean Connery’s return to the iconic role that made him a star following a dozen-year absence.
It’s an unofficial Bond film as well, one born from producer Kevin McClory’s (1926-2006) early efforts with Ian Fleming to first bring James Bond to the cinema in 1959.
A lawsuit awarded McClory the rights to produce a remake of Thunderball, a story that he initiated, and which was known, over the years as both Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service. But because the film Never Say Never Again was unofficial at the time of its successful theatrical release, it could not make use of such “official” Bond film touches as Monty Norman’s world-famous theme song, and the trademark gun barrel opening.
For some, this is enough to disqualify the effort from serious consideration as a great Bond film.
The title of Never Say Never Again itself arises not from Fleming, but from Connery, who — after 1971’s Diamonds are Forever — declared that he would never again don the tuxedo, order dry martinis and carry a license to kill. So the movie title — much like Algy’s line quoted above — plays on two amusing levels; both as Bond’s declaration to Domino that he intends to retire; and as an in-joke aimed at Connery who, despite protestation, is back as Bond one more time.
The year 1983 was widely heralded as “The Battle of the Bonds” since it pitted Roger Moore’s Octopussy against Connery’s Never Say Never Again, yet Connery and Moore always professed an admiration and friendship for one another, outside of such competition.
Just One More Game for the Rest of the World…
|Domination, video game style.
Today, at least one scene in Never Say Never Again stands out as being a legitimate Bond classic.
At approximately the hour-point of the narrative, James Bond tricks his way into Largo’s casino in Nice, France.
But rather than engage his wily opponent in high-stakes poker, or the oft-seen Baccarat (Chemin de Fer), Bond duels Largo in…a video game.
And it is no average video game, either.
Rather, Largo has designed and constructed “Domination,” a video game battle for ownership of the world itself. The objective, Largo states, is “power.” Two players battle for territory, for land, while racking up dollars on the big screen. The left-hand joystick controls two nuclear missiles that can be launched against an opponent; and the right-hand joystick controls missile shields which can block the W80 thermo-nuclear warheads.
Players target with their lasers small geometric territories that light up on their screens. The player that hits the territory first is the winner and owner of said territory.
And Largo — being a super-villain — has wired his elaborate video game to deliver electric shocks to the players every time one’s defenses are breached, or the enemy gets ahead.
“Unlike armchair generals,” suggests Largo, players of this game will “share” the pain of soldiers in the field.
This is an important distinction in the world of Never Say Never Again. Bond is one of those afroementioned soldiers in the field; and knows all too well about physical pain; but the world has had little use for James Bond and his skill-set post-Detente, and the men who deploy him in the field (armchair generals like “M”) have no idea how — as he states early in the film — “adrenaline” (another word for pain) provides him an edge in the heat of the moment.
And that’s how Bond beats Largo, literally, at his own game here. Largo may know better the game he created. He’s holding all the cards (as he’s also holding the missing nuclear weapons…) but Bond still has his “edge” in the field to rely upon. The pain of the electric shocks gives him just the kick he needs to get back in the game (come out of retirement) and fight back for “just one more game…for the rest of the world.”
|…versus a soldier in the field…
This tense, brilliantly-executed sequence with the Domination video game is the most significant in the film for a number of reasons.
First, it again reveals Bond out-of-his element in the modern, high-tech world. This older, slower James Bond is not part of the video game generation. We are used to seeing him play and excel at cards, not manage a joystick. So the game is a metaphor for Bond being out-of-step with the modern world.
Yet 007 soundly beats Largo here — at the video game — for the same reasons he ultimately defeats him in the larger narrative: because of his “edge,” because the pain (delivered by the electric shocks, in this case) activates his adrenaline.
There’s something about being a “soldier in the field” — some combination of instincts and experience — that takes over in Bond and refuses to “lose.” Largo — for all his intelligence and savvy — doesn’t have that sense of experience, and the game sequence makes this point (right down to the use of game-styled W80s mimicking the plotline of nuclear blackmail).
Furthermore, after Bond defeats Largo, he gives up his monetary winnings for “one dance” with Domino.
That too echoes the film’s finale. Bond retires from the service after foiling Largo’s plans…and it’s for one dance, again, with Domino. They become lovers and Bond steadfastly refuses to return to duty, even with M begging. The video game sequence telegraphs the idea of Bond’s final, victorious dance after one last game for the rest of the world.
|Two video game monsters, side-by-side.
In one truly great and telling visual composition, Kershner even reminds us that Largo is a creature of today, a video-game villain. He stands perched beside an old arcade game on which a fantasy-styled monster has been painted, and the point is made by putting the two “creatures” in close-proximity.
Even Largo’s command center — where Largo spends much of his time — is highly computerized, consisting of a wall of screens and keyboards. Largo even has a secret window (another form of viewing screen…) through which he can peek illicitly into Domino’s dancing studio.
Again, he’s a watcher, not a doer — an armchair general rather than a soldier in the field — and that proves his undoing. He doesn’t understand what physical pain and danger can drive a man to do; can drive Bond to do.
They Don’t Make Them Like This Anymore…
|In shades of b&w, Bond’s space in the frame is squeezed out.
I realize what I’m going to write next may anger some long-time Bond film fans, but Thunderball (1965) resides — for this critic, anyway — near the bottom of the 007 pantheon.
It arrived after arguably the best two Bond films ever (From Russia with Love and Goldfinger) and at the height of the Bond craze of the mid-1960s…but it’s nonetheless a big, incoherent spectacle. Thunderball is over-long, over-dull, and lacking in much by way of narrative or personal interest and impact.
It’s also the point in the series at which you can see Connery is growing bored with the role…and who can blame him?
Furthermore, the much-talked abou underwater battle sequences in the film are plodding and poorly edited (filled with continuity errors and confusing angles). The villains and Bond girl look great in Thunderball…but are given nothing of particular interest to do in the film.
|More unconventional framing for a movie hero icon.
|Thus, I find Never Say Never Again, the remake of Thunderball, superior to the original by a wide margin, and for two significant reasons.
First, the 1983 film allows James Bond to age and evolve — something the canon Bonds did not permit of this hero until the reboots with Daniel Craig.
This idea of Bond aging (both gracefully and not so gracefully…) adds a layer of real human interest to the narrative. Bond still has his edge; but it is it sharp enough — in his mid 50s — to get the job done? That’s the movie’s big question, and Connery is great here at playing the same man we love and remember, but some time down the road toards mortality; when he has more yesterdays than tomorrows ahead of him.
And secondly, but of equal importance, director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back  has executed a great tactic in the visual presentation of Never Say Never Again. To put it bluntly, James Bond no longer owns the frame. Rather, he intrudes into it and his space is intruded upon constantly.
|Between a rock and hard place? More limited visual space for 007.
|I always say that the medium of film reaches its apex when visual form echoes, reflects or augments film content, and that’s precisely what Never Say Never Again accomplishes with tremendous flair.
Remember, the overriding idea here is that Bond is a man out of step with the “new,” high-tech but bloodless world of the 1980s. He is not the swaggering, cocksure, center-of-the-frame hero of the 1960s.
It’s a more dangerous world for the older, less-physically imposing Bond, and so he has to fight for a foothold in it every second. Accordingly, Kershner provides the audience these great moments of tremendous spontaneity and danger, during which Bond must put his instincts (and that adrenaline; that edge…) to the test.
In other words, Bond is not blocked and framed in Never Say Never Again like he is in the canon Bond films. He is not an impervious figure of power. Rather, he’s visually jeopardized and threatened, almost constantly.
|During a fight, Bond flees…into a slamming door.
For instance, during a deadly, extended fight at Shrublands — which goes from a weight room, down a flight of stairs and into a working kitchen– Bond attempts to escape his opponent by hiding, first and then running away, escaping.
In a great and laugh-out-loud moment, a female chef flees the tight kitchen as the nemeses fight…and Bond tries to run after her…but the door slams in his face and he has a moment where — using that edge — he must improvise. You can almost visualize Connery’s Bond thinking, “thanks a lot, lady…” and then getting on with it.
Again and again, Kershner positions 007 in this unconventional and amusing fashion in the frame. Emerging from behind a tree, even…skulking about. Or in a tight shot of stark black-and-white shading inside his modern French villa; his available space in the wide-frame “cut off” by the off-screen but nonetheless considerable threat of Fatima Blush.
I noted above that Never Say Never Again is an edgier, more dangerous style of Bond film, and that feeling suffuses the film, thanks to the way that Kershner perpetually frames the iconic character. Bond is more imperiled than ever before and as a result, the audience roots for him as never before too. This isn’t a non-plussed quipster sauntering through his movie in an unblemished white dinner jacket…he’s a man who is imperiled and affected by what is happening around him in the frame, and must — by power of his instincts and edge — forge his own positive outcome.
Again, I must stress that this dedicated visual approach welcomes the viewer in. We don’t sit back and marvel at incredible stunts or special effects here. Rather, we’re in the field ourselves, with Bond, rooting for him to improvise and beat a much bigger, much more physically-imposing foe.
Furthermore, Kershner contrasts his visual depiction of Bond (fighting for survival and placement in the frame) with his depiction of the colorful, even flamboyant, highly idiosyncratic villains.
|Effortless, dangerous power in the foreground.
Fatima Blush, for instance, is often filmed from a low angle (atop staircases, or looming over Bond, right before her demise), giving the impression of tremendous power and constancy.
When she detonates a bomb in Bond’s hotel in the Bahamas, Fatima does so without even a casual look over a shoulder, and Kershner’s gorgeous framing again suggests a villain in total, effortless control of the environs.
Again, look at that careful, beautiful framing and placement above for just a second. What you see there is raw, well-established power dominating the foreground of the frame, while chaos reigns — unimportant — behind her.
Kershner also lets seemingly spontaneous, apparently unplanned moments from Klaus Maria Brandauer play out for maximum impact. This villain is a dangerous character, and the actor virtually steals every second he can get in the limelight…and perhaps more too. This Largo is a power-hungry grabber, a drama queen, a man who solicits attention, and Brandauer goes nuts with the role.
|Swapping spit with Largo.
Whether it’s delicately blowing a soothing kiss on his electrically-shocked hands after losing to Bond in Domination, or kissing Domino for so long — and so passionately — that a line of spit visibly connects their lips, Largo “dominates” the frame too.
Again, Kershner’s patience and unique approach to the performances (particularly with the quirky Branduer) make Never Say Never Again feel more dangerous, more spontaneous, more edgy and immediate than many official Bond films in the valhalla. Where they rigorously adhere to a specific formula and template, Never Say Never Again attempts to explode it, presenting a vulnerable, mature Bond who must, again and again, really fight (and improvise) for his life.
In my book, Brandauer is the most deadly threat to Bond since Goldfinger; an amused sociopath who is drunk with power, and this Bond — going back to Ian Fleming’s literary vision — seems the most human (at least until Daniel Craig came along…)
Also, there’s something I find absolutely fascinating about these powerful, alpha males who are past their physical prime. Kirk (William Shatner) in The Search for Spock and Bond (Sean Connery) in Never Say Never Again.
Look at how they continue to lead; how they dominate, how they find crafty, tricky means to assert and re-assert superiority over dangerous situations even though they are no longer the physical powerhouses they were in their youth.
I don’t know, but in some way, an older James Bond and an older Captain Kirk — forced now to rely on their wits and experience — are infinitely more appealing and heroic to me than the characters were as dashing, insufferably handsome, youths. They have to work harder for what once came naturally to them, and in bracing that challenge, I find them infinitely more heroic and sympathetic.
Never Say Never Again suffers a bit from a weak finale (Domino spears Largo and the whole affair is over…), but otherwise the film must rank as one of the best of all the Bond films. It showcasess another side of the hero, and in defining Bond’s “edge” helps us to understand — finally, after twenty years and a dozen films — what makes this hero tick; what makes him thrive.
Just as the Bond character was growing stale and old, and distinctly non-edgy, a fifty year old Connery (and a brilliantly-stylish Kershner) provide the hero just what he (and the audience…) needed: a healthy dose of gratuitous sex and violence…shaken, not stirred.
Valedictory head-butts for everyone…