NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN was greeted with a wave of anticipation by James Bond fans in 1983 as it brought THE 007, Sean Connery, back on the job of world-saving after a twelve-year self-imposed exile from the role. His reluctant 1971 reprise, the lackluster Diamonds Are Forever, had faded behind the comic book splash of outlandish Roger Moore missions, the latest of those, Octopussy, released just four months before this remake of Thunderball landed.*
Whether that 1965 smash needed to be reworked seemed moot, as the 55-year-old Moore was losing steam playing the character (flogged into a parody); Connery, being Connery, was a magnetic draw for the faithful and his considerable clout on the $36,000,000 production helped land a sterling supporting cast. As this was not a project of the Saltzman & Broccoli/ Eon Production team and United Artists, the surviving Bond franchise regulars Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell were not contractually available. But things looked great because on hand were Klaus Maria Brandauer, Kim Basinger, Barbara Carrera, Max Von Sydow, Edward Fox, Rowan Atkinson and Bernie Casey. That talent lineup pretty much a lock.
Alas, it’s only the cast—and only some of them—that give the 134 minutes any pluck. Lorenzo Semple’s script has some good lines here and there, but it bogs down and draws things out, with a final quarter that simply collapses into exhaustion. Director Irwin Kershner was coming off a solid hit with The Empire Strikes Back, but his laggard pace here reminded people he had also been responsible for A Fine Madness, SPYS and The Return Of A Man Called Horse.
Connery at 52 looks better than he did at 40 in his last 007 assignment, and he handles it with customary aplomb, age-appropriate self-effacement and sturdy physical display. Brandauer is deft with insinuation as ‘Largo’ but he doesn’t project nearly much of a threat as Adolfo Celi did eighteen years back in Thunderball. This was a big break for the 29-year old Basinger, helped in the publicity by having her delayed 1981 “Playboy” photo shoot released to coincide. She was enamored of the leading man, frankly spelling it out in a quote: “I fantasize about riding an Arabian horse bareback with him along a sandy beach. We fall naked to the ground and, as the horse wanders off along the water’s edge, we make passionate love in the moonlight. It always leaves me hot and bothered —I just love the man.” She looks fab, and the character of ‘Domino’ is better delineated by the script and given more to do than the previous film, yet still rings hollow. The normally sublime Max von Sydow, as ‘Blofeld’, would seem an inspired choice, yet it’s one of his least effective performances, and the accent he chooses is distracting. Edward Fox likewise is off tempo, sputtering with little conviction as ‘M’. Bernie Casey can’t do much with the vapid ‘Felix Leiter’ gig and Atkinson’s pre-Mr. Bean comic relief just gets in the way, adding to clutter.
That leaves the gloriously sexy and aware Barbara Carrera, who almost single-handedly saves the movie as the happily homicidal ‘Fatima Blush’, one of the best of all the Bond Bad Girls. In full bloom of her exotic beauty at 38, dressed to kill, a stunning mix of the bold wanton with a giddy mischief, she seems to be having the time of her life stealing every minute of film she’s in.
Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is merely okay; not much is made of the locations in France, Monaco, the Bahamas and Malta, but the crucial gloss spark missing is due to the absence of the usual 007 team. Those great set designs of Ken Adams are AWOL, ditto the title sequence dazzle of Maurice Binder. The death blow is the substitution of the immortal John Barry soundtrack coating with a grade-F music score from Michel Legrand, which is utterly lifeless. He was prevented from using the Bond theme, but in lieu he came up with music fit for an aspirin commercial—it’s amazing they released it with this score. The title tune, put over by Lani Hall (Lani Who? ) is a cross of the era’s disco sound with a lounge act patina.
The long, confusing underwater and cave action sequence that wraps it up falls dead flat. There are some neat bits during the lengthy journey to get there, including a good weight-room & kitchen battle between Sean and bruiser Pat Roach.
Reviews were generally positive, with everyone praising Connery and particularly Carrera (and knocking the score). It grossed $160,000,000. With Gavin O’Herlihy, Alec McCowen, Ronald Pickup and Prunella Gee.
* After the silly Octopussy (which did out-earn NSNA), Moore finished his seven 007s with the terrible A View To A Kill, turning the rusting Walther PPK over to Timothy Dalton. Never Say Never Again had gone through years of development fits and starts due to wrangling over the rights to Thunderball, which was written by Ian Fleming as a novel in 1961, the ninth book in his Bond series. He’d concocted the story with/off Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, for a script that never came together. Script shelved, Fleming put his name to the novel, with no credit to the others. When the film series was under way, with Dr.No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger hitting progressively bigger jackpots, a deal producers Broccoli & Saltzman made with the ticked off and litigious McClory allowed him to co-produce the eventual movie version, which emerged in 1965. Factoring for inflation, Thunderball was the biggest hit worldwide of the entire lot until finally being usurped by Skyfall. The catch for McClory was he could not do another version of it—one to his satisfaction—until ten years had elapsed, in 1975. Even with the success of the movie, McClory was still rankled, in part because the script was written by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins (scorecard?). Eight more years of legal tussles, script hassles, title changes and deals falling through elapsed before this finally hit theaters. Court squabbles continued until 2006, forty-five years after McClory, Whittingham and Fleming tried to put together what was supposed to be the first movie in the series. With Lorenzo Semple Jr. getting screenplay credit for the 1983 version, and having uncredited assistance from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, we have a total of eight writers pitching in and patching up the plot. All of which would be more fascinating if it didn’t have such a crummy music score—and I’m damned if I’m going to rehash all this when I review Thunderball (now stirred, have martini shaken). Can’t take anything away from Ms. Carrera, who can laughingly toss a boa constrictor in my car window any day….