This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
So does this count? Never Say Never Again stirs many arguments by shaking up the official James Bond movie order, splitting fans on the issue of its legitimacy. Ruins pub quiz questions such as “How many actors have played M?” due to the inevitable argument whether Edward Fox should be numbered. Put such issues aside and enjoy what remains: a sly, witty semi-pastiche that doesn’t attempt to recapture past glories but can easily hold its own alongside Diamonds Are Forever and Octopussy. And with much less swimming than Thunderball.
The Villain: Ignore Emilo: Maximillian Largo is his own maniac. Short, tubby, lanky blond hair receding, Largo is Draco Malfoy gone to seed. Easily visualized shuffling around Comic Con, accompanied by Mr. Kidd and the reformed Jaws. Yet Largo is one of the film’s strengths. A creepy, unbalanced megalomaniac, motivated by a Napoleon complex and the chip on his shoulder — doesn’t grow into the film so much as you grow into him. Largo – like everybody else – cannot escape the fabulously attired shadow of the explosive Fatima Blush.
The Girl: Well, you can’t win them all. Domino Petachi is blonde and bland; better than Mary Goodnight and Stacy Sutton, a far cry from Pussy Galore. Mildly annoyed to discover her BF killed her bro but is soon frolicking in the shower with her Bond. Presented as the woman to tame Connery; hopefully he kept the other Domino’s number. No points for killing Largo due to its total narrative implausibility.
For a man who hated playing James Bond, Sean Connery sure spent a lot of time playing James Bond. This is Comeback Number 2, a full twelve years after the supposed swansong (okay, goose-croak) of Diamonds Are Forever. Moreover, Sean is no longer the undisputed champion but rather the creaking figurehead of an unsanctioned breakaway division. Fortunately the boxing analogy perishes here – the Bond franchise didn’t split into multiple warring factions to the point where 11 different actors claim to be the “real” James Bond in 2015.
Besides, we all recognize the true champ. Big Sean comes out swinging in an energetic credits sequence that sees the old bruiser take out dozens of guards only to be stabbed by the not-so-distressed damsel on the bed. But fear not! For it is but a training mission and the only thing hurt is Bond’s pride (although I worry for the guards: Bond’s attacks look pretty vicious. Can you fake-garrotte someone?).
Detaching the film from its star is a tricky, possibly futile exercise. Let’s try.
I received the Official Bond Boxset a couple of years back and sporadically rewatched the series. And as a child I devoured the whole lot many times over. Hence I usually have a sense of each retrospective before I write a word.
But Never Say Never Again wasn’t in my official boxset. I only watched it once, many years back. Last Monday I came to the film totally cold, save a couple of blurry memories and a vague sense of hostility.
And? And I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, low expectations played a part. Plus an enjoyable sense of transgression: it’s not EON but I’m covering it anyway. Naughty. Also bolstering goodwill was the thought I could make this retrospective shorter than the rest, partly to acknowledge Never Say Never Again’s rogue status (it’s lucky to even be here), mainly because I can skim over matters like…
The plot? It’s Thunderball. Next. Aren’t remakes great?
Okay, not this one. But it isn’t terrible, not by any stretch. Never Say Never Again was released the same year as Octopussy, hence the media-driven “Battle of the Bonds” (no rivalry existed between Roger and Sean). Summer release Octopussy grossed slightly more (approximately $187 million to $160 million), Never Say Never Again boasts a better aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes (a fair 60% to a harsh 42%). Last week somebody made the very astute point that Octopussy accentuated the Moore gags and clowning to distinguish from its highly publicised rival (with the clowning, they may have gone a little far).
Safe to say, Never Say Never Again is not a tightly coiled, bruised-knuckle thriller in the mould of From Russia With Love. Indeed, bar the obvious parallels with Thunderball, the final Connery could easily pass for mid-Moore. Stress-free, good natured, happy to welcome anyone along for the ride. Fully aware of its own inherent ridiculousness; fully happy to embrace it.
The idea of a middle-aged Bond is teased but ultimately shelved. The opening evaluation and Bond’s subsequent dispatching to Shrublands certainly suggest a spy gone to seed. M’s neutering of the 00s chimes with this theme. A Bond physically incapacitated, no longer the agent of youth – now that idea has wheels.
Only the wheels don’t turn. Age does not wither Bond; only frays him a little at the edges. As in Skyfall, our supposedly run down hero is soon leaping around with nary a wince or a creak. Perhaps this durability is part of the joke – just like the middle-aged Connery’s effect anyone female. Every single woman swoons over him. When Bond enters a beauty salon, the female inhabitants fix their gaze like lionesses sizing up a lone buffalo. Definitely a gag; and really quite a good one.
Small wonder Connery has such a blast. Absence makes the heart grow fonder; and twelve years away from Bond certainly rekindled Connery’s mojo. He’s on fine, teasing form; spreading an infectious sense of enjoyment throughout. This would not have worked, at all, if Connery went through the motions.
The villains steal the film. Klaus Maria Brandauer portrays Largo as a spoilt, petulant rich kid who grew up only in years. Spying on Domino reflects his desire for control yet also betrays insecurity. Largo is the nerd who bagged the Prom Queen – and is certain she’ll leave at any moment.
Largo and Bond embody the ancient enmity of the nerd and the jock. Largo, unable to match Bond physically, tries to assert superiority through his homemade computer game. Initially his experience tells; but Bond’s inherent toughness and skill ultimately prevail. The high-concept battle is an inspired alternative to the card table; I’m not sure how it would play in a proper Bond film, but the zapping works brilliantly within the looser stylings of Never Say Never Again.
Fatima and Largo believe Bond can easily seduce Domino, because that’s what jocks do. They steal the nerd’s girlfriend. On seeing Bond and Domino kiss, Largo won’t confront his rival directly. He destroys the studio in fierce yet impotent rage. What you gonna do, Max? Beat him up?
He’s a richly layered character, far more sinister than his looks might suggest (I stress the physical aspect only because Largo is so atypical, so bizarrely ordinary in appearance). Ironically Largo would slot nicely into the Moore Rogue’s Gallery, the missing link between the unimposing lineage of Drax, Kristatos, Kamal and the wacky bloodlust of Zorin. Maria Brandauer is wonderful. If you rank him – do you rank him? – then he ranks high.
Names aside, Largo and Domino are strikingly different from their Thunderball equivalents. Wise move. Don’t copy the classics – play your own tunes. The standout character in Thunderball was SPECTRE hitwoman Fiona Volpe. Yet here the writers take an opposite, seemingly suicidal approach. Rather than keep name, change character, they preserve the characteristics of Fiona and lose the name. Thus Fatima Blush, a Black Widow unmistakably woven from the same thread as Fiona, a surely doomed attempt to improve on one of the great villains of the series.
Oh me of little faith! Fatima Blush is Fiona Volpe, only better. She tears through the film with the Joker’s mentality and Cruella De Vil’s wardrobe. For once we need not fret on Never Say Never Again’s legitimacy because Fatima transcends the series the film might or mightn’t belong to. Barbara Carrera gives one of the most gloriously deranged performances in all cinema.
She beats up poor Jack Petachi for smoking. She coos over a snake. In the space of ten minutes she seduces Bond, plants a shark magnet on him, goes dancing, discovers his survival and promptly blows up his hotel room. The woman does not mess.
Holding Bond at gunpoint, Fatima doesn’t allow herself to be disarmed or taken by surprise (seriously, note Carrera’s taut watchfulness: reminiscent of Red Grant). No, Fatima’s downfall is her insistence Bond write on scrap newspaper that she was his best shag ever. This allows Bond to shoot her with his fountain pen. Nothing happens, then Fatima starts cackling and explodes.
Great scene. Too silly to achieve tension but very engaging and enjoyably acted. Fatima is so bonkers the sexual affidavit feels psychologically credible. Nice, too, that a villainess is finally afforded a worthy death. (Klebb and Fiona are both shot, Irma Bunt survives.) Enjoy the classic Connery response to Fatima’s demand: “It’s against the policy of the secret service to give out endorsements.” Masterful.
The film sags once Fatima exits. How could it not? That being said, the Flying Saucer interlude ticks over nicely. Bond exploits Largo’s jealousy of Domino to send an SOS while his rival trashes the ballet studio. As with Thunderball, the love/hate triangle of the three protagonists provides some strong moments.
Domino is the weak link. Kim Basinger lacks the allure and intrigue of Claudine Auger, although admittedly the character is far duller than in Thunderball (I’m blonde and perky. Now I’m sad. Now I’m perky again!).
Making Domino a willing girlfriend, rather than kept mistress, only works if she proves harder to seduce and loyal to her evil beau. Yet Bond plays a rather large trump card with the whole ‘Largo killed your brother’ revelation and Domino duly comes onside. Removing the dead twin would freshen up the narrative but make life harder for the writers. I don’t blame them for not.
Rather randomly we find ourselves in North Africa. This departure from Thunderball’s beaten track proves a misstep. The location switch jars so late in proceedings; not unlike Octopussy’s climatic return to India. Good that Never Say Never Again tried to go its own way; unfortunately it swiftly gets lost.
Best glide over the Arabian tribesmen desperate for some white female flesh. And Bond literally rescuing Domino on horseback. Save that for your ‘Post-Imperialist Fantasies in 20th Century Cinema’ dissertation. Alternative title for the slackers: James Bond: Occasionally Slightly Racist. Come back, the India of Octopussy and your misplaced Taj Mahal. All is forgiven.
The Tears of Allah necklace is totally dumb. Have a worthless trinket that happens to show the location of my stolen nuclear bomb. Did you know the swirly patterns are actually a teeny-weeny map? And look, it says “Deux ex,” I mean “Domino” on the back.
The finale wheezes into view, red-faced and spluttering. A subterranean cave gunfight could work but not when Bond is pushing Plaster of Paris ancient statues down onto enemy heads. We know the drill. Everybody shoots. The baddies miss. The goodies don’t. Extras expire as flamboyantly as possible.
A shame the film finally removes its tongue from its cheek. We don’t need another by-the-numbers shootout – and Never Say Never Again had a unique opportunity to offer something different. Lighter, funnier, bolder (heaven knows what, exactly. I’m here to critique, not rewrite the bloody film. Kill off Felix for starters). An opportunity for subversion existed but was ignored.
We finally end underwater; Bond jumps into a well and pretty much lands on Largo. (Small place, the ocean.) A brief two-man skirmish is infinitely preferable to an extended scuba melee. But Domino killing Largo is totally false – a duplication that makes no sense in this version. Why did the Navy let her tag along? How did the rescue party arrive so rapidly? Bond’s much-vaunted shortcut saved about thirty seconds.
Legally, I suppose, Never Say Never Again needed to copy the novel Thunderball – but were the characters’ names also a legal requirement? Rechristen Domino and Largo and the film would feel much less of a knockoff. The plot can’t be helped, but then The Spy Who Loved Me reworked You Only Live Twice only with less space to its ships. Unfortunate that Thunderball proved one of the last of Ian Fleming’s stories to be adapted faithfully; film the novel Diamonds Are Forever under a different title and the crossover would be negligible.
At least Sean got to say goodbye properly. With a smile and a wink, sipping cocktails in the sun, a beautiful woman draped over him. Worse ways to go. And this time the legacy is secure: Connery helped build a franchise that had already survived his loss.
But the franchise can never escape Connery – anymore than Connery can escape his defining role. Five actors have played James Bond, one man was James Bond: from the first cigarette to that final wink. Was, and is. Connery not only made history but also the present and future. Skyfall dripped with homage; Spectre further resurrected his ghost.
As the franchise grows, so does the legend. Those early films now have a near-mythic quality, so often does the series, and wider culture, revisit them. Casting lingering glances back to a gloriously fresh beginning that can’t ever be recaptured. I rephrase what I wrote in my first retrospective. The Craig-era has brought the series critical acclaim and unprecedented commercial success. And all those millions would be traded if somehow it could be 1964 again, and Sean Connery still played James Bond.
But then Connery’s playing Bond all over the world. On DVDs, online streams, countless television channels, theatrical rereleases, clip shows, in memory and, immovably, popular imagination. He’s awaiting Professor Dent in the shadows, facing down Red Grant on the Orient Express, reasoning with Goldfinger as that laser edges upwards…
Goodbye Sean. Remember that first line? Turned out more prophetic than you thought.
Best Bit: The final confrontation with Fatima.
Worst Bit: Those charming “native” horsemen.
Final Thought: Can Sony or somebody please design Largo’s Domination game? I for one would totally play it.