It’s difficult to present a review of the most famous “non-Bond Bond movie” without delving first into the tangled history of how this one-off came to be. As terms of the legal settlement that allowed Thunderball to be filmed in 1965, Kevin McClory agreed to refrain from producing a competing Bond movie for at least ten years. At the time, this must have seemed like a good way to dissuade him permanently, for back then, no one could have conceived the potential of a single film franchise running much beyond that. But as Bond went on, McClory (who once referred to the situation as “the greatest act of piracy in motion picture history”) merely bided his time, and in the early 70’s began putting together his own brand new 007 screenplay with the assistance of Sean Connery himself, to be called either James Bond of the Secret Service or Warhead. McClory filed suit against Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions to prevent them from using Blofeld and SPECTRE in The Spy Who Loved Me. Countersuits from Broccoli’s people ultimately prevented McClory from producing an original Bond story – he was permitted only to remake Thunderball, absent familiar elements like the gunbarrel opening and iconic James Bond theme which were intellectual properties of Eon. And so, despite it being almost 20 years later and excepting a few surface aesthetic touches, that’s all Never Say Never Again is: Thunderball Redux.
After failing a training exercise, a semi-retired James Bond (Connery) is sent by the penny-pinching M (Edward Fox) to the Shrublands health clinic to recuperate, where by coincidence, American air force pilot Jack Petachi (Gavan O’Herlihy) is recovering from surgery to replace his right eye with a copy of that of the President of the United States, in a plot by SPECTRE agents led by Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to steal two nuclear bombs and hold the world hostage. Petachi’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger), who happens to be Largo’s girlfriend, is unaware of her brother’s complicity in the plan and ultimately teams up with Bond to recover the bombs before it’s too late. Because they were restricted to the basic Thunderball plot, the filmmakers attempted to refresh the tale by acknowledging Bond’s age, having Q’s department short on funds, making Felix Leiter African-American and throwing in, for comic relief, Rowan Atkinson as snivelling bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett. They also update the original showdown between Bond and Largo from the baccarat table to a video game that gives its players electric shocks when they lose points. But one thing nags at you throughout the entire affair – if Kevin McClory had fought so long and so hard to be able to make his own Bond movie, why does the result seem so incredibly half-assed? It was his chance to prove to those who considered him a bitter also-ran choking on sour grapes that he’d been right all along, that he knew how to make Bond sizzle, and instead, he completely blew it – whether it was in the personnel he hired to carry out production, or whether from simply being misguided, we’ll never know. But that is inside Hollywood dish, and what matters to us is what we the audience are left with, which is a very boring movie.
Despite heavyweights in the cast like Brandauer and Max von Sydow (as Blofeld), no one seems to be giving it their all, with one major exception – Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush, this movie’s equivalent of Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe, only twice as scorching and about twenty times as insane. Carrera, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here, is gorgeous, playful, bewitching and thoroughly, remorselessly evil, whether she’s tossing a lethal snake into Petachi’s car, planting a bomb on Bond’s air tanks, dancing through a lobby after having drowned a girl in the bath or reclining stylishly poolside as she dynamites Bond’s hotel room. She is way over the top, certainly, but when everyone else is playing it so dour and humourless, it’s like a jolt of electricity crosses the screen every time she appears. In the time-honoured tradition of Bond baddies, Fatima is undone by her own ego, insisting that Bond write a confession naming her as the greatest lover he’s ever had, and unwittingly giving him the chance to blow her up with an explosive pen, leaving behind – in homage to The Wizard of Oz – nothing but her high heels. The trouble is she’s killed off much too early, and the movie then goes on for another hour and a half with little else to hold our interest. The miscast Basinger in particular seems like she doesn’t want to be in the movie at all, and the acclaimed Brandauer has never been more unengaging. Connery is trying, at least, to get everyone to live up to his standard, but one can’t help but thinking even he finds it all terribly familiar; like the audience, he too grows bored once Carrera is gone.
Ultimately, Never Say Never Again is burdened, like Thunderball, with having many of its scenes set underwater, and it seems that nothing has been learned in the ensuing twenty years of how to tighten the pace of those sequences. Director Irvin Kershner, who made the best Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, seems curiously out of his depth here, unable to marry crisp action and strong character the way he did just three years previously. The cinematography and editing is so sloppy it borders on incompetent, and the whole movie has a faded look that makes it look cheap, despite the obvious robust expenditure on actors, sets and locations. And quick – can you hum the theme song to Never Say Never Again? I’ll wait. Music has always been a critical component of the James Bond movies and composer Michel Legrand drops the ball here. As dull as “All Time High,” the theme to Octopussy was, it at least had a melody that could be carried through the rest of the film as leitmotif; I’m not entirely sure what Legrand is up to with his disorganized collection of random notes that sparsely populate the movie’s running time. It, like so many other elements of Never Say Never Again, is a wasted opportunity.
Sean Connery has alleged with his trademark Scots frustration that after the movie’s credited producer Jack Schwartzman abandoned the project, it was left to him and the assistant director to produce the final movie. Never Say Never Again is something of a textbook example of what a movie would look like if nobody really cared about making it – if it succeeds at any level it’s only because of Connery’s charisma and Carrera’s wildly sexy villainess. One is forced to speculate if, for Kevin McClory, the enterprise wasn’t so much about producing a quality feature but simply sticking it to Cubby Broccoli, and that the actual grunt work of production was never that interesting to him. McClory would try again in the 1990’s, with rumours swirling of a rival Bond movie called Warhead 2000 A.D. starring Timothy Dalton to go up against the Broccoli family and Pierce Brosnan. But it wouldn’t happen, and Never Say Never Again would remain McClory’s singular contribution, this oddity in the history of the cinematic James Bond that was born of lawsuits and animosity and never, it seems based on the finished product, the desire to entertain.