Fans of the James Bond film series remember 1983 as the year that brought two James Bond movies to the silver screen. The so-called “Battle of the Bonds” pitched the official EON Produced Octopussy against the unofficial Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again. But aside from the obvious contest between Sean Connery and Roger Moore, how should Never Say Never Again be regarded?
Fundamentally, Never Say Never Again ought to be compared to its contemporaries. By the late-seventies, early-eighties, the quality of the Bond films had become inconsistent. EON seemed incapable of deciding whether they wanted to produce thrillers or action comedies. Thus, for every The Spy Who Loved Me, there was a Moonraker.
None of this is to say that Never Say Never Again is a good movie. Ultimately, it is an average movie – and a bad James Bond movie. Part of the problem is that the film cannot decide whether it wants to be a “Bond” movie or not. There are clear attempts to emulate the official Bond series. Bond asks for a “vodka martini, shaken not stirred”, Lani Hall’s song “Never Say Never Again” replaces the traditional title song, and it is hard not to see the superimposed “007” logo at the start of the movie as anything less than a substitute for a gun-barrel.
The film’s plot is average, at best. Never Say Never Again’s plot mirrors that of Thunderball. Bond is sent to track down the whereabouts two nuclear bombs stolen by SPECTRE. Along the way he encounters the beautiful Domino, a femme fatale in the form of Fatima Blush, and the psychotic Maximilian Largo. There is plenty of sex and violence, and the film ends with Bond recovering the bombs and saving the day.
Despite making some minor improvements, Never Say Never Again fails to live up to its source material – both literary and cinematic. The film is filled with the kind of ridiculous shenanigans that could make Moore’s adventures so unbearable for fans of the Connery era. It is not possible to alter your eye to match someone else’s. Not now, and certainly not in 1983. The sequence with the remote-control sharks pushes the suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point. And Bond’s presence in the Bahamas serves absolutely no purpose.
Most of the film’s characters are boring and one-dimensional. James Bond (Sean Connery) is presented as a veteran character ravished by time (and an extremely poor lifestyle). But even this isn’t wholly original. Both For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy had leant into Roger Moore’s advancing years. The difference was that Moore’s Bond was presented as an elder stateman: a wiser, more dignified man who mostly pursues relationships with age-appropriate women. Connery’s elder Bond is merely an older version of Connery’s younger Bond, just with greyer hair.
The film’s most interesting character is its villain, Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Largo is a man who appears personable, even charming, on the surface. This affable facade, however, hides the psychotic individual lurking just beneath the surface. The film critic, Roger Ebert praised Brandauer’s decision not to turn Largo into a cliché. It is a compliment I largely agree with. Brandauer’s sense of subtle evil is far more menacing that Adolfo Celli’s Emilio Largo in Thunderball.
After Largo, the film’s most interesting character is Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera). She is a manic psychopath – a Class A lunatic who dances in joy after she’s killed people, keeps snakes as pets, and pursues Largo as a romantic interest. Even then, Fatima Blush does not possess the same level of nuanced malevolence that Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe possessed. Blush may not be Lady Macbeth, but she’s certainly fun to watch.
By contrast, the most boring character in the movie is Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger). The only thing that defines her as a human being is her troubled relationship with Largo (which is handled better here than in Thunderball). Their relationship is defined by Largo’s possessiveness and punctuated by his pathological bouts of paranoid jealousy. He refers to her as his possession and even tells her that he will kill her if she tries to leave him.
The biggest downfall of the film, however, is that it represents a missed opportunity. Those who watch the film know they are not getting a regular James Bond movie. The film’s director, Kevin McClory could have used this as justification to do something original with James Bond. He could have revived the danger, conviction, and sex appeal of the original films by making Never Say Never Again more ruthlessly violent and sexually explicit. McClory could have chosen to produce a film along the lines of From Russia with Love or The Day of the Jackal. Instead he chose to produce a bland James Bond movie.