Oh, Sean Connery, how I’ve missed you. Even if you were in some terrible films, at least I always had your rough accent and suave style to carry me through even the most painful Bond films. In the waning years of Roger More as 007, Never Say Never Again was released, an unofficial remade Thunderball that went up against Octopussy.
This isn’t an attempt by competitor to cash in on Connery and the Bond name, it’s a full-blown effort. The story comes out of a controversial collaboration by Kevin McClory and Ian Flemming on the original Thunderball and the film production is helmed by Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back fame. In other words, this is an effort with the talent and writing of the best of Bond.
For one, the passage of time since Connery has played the role gives the film a chance to get a fresh look at Bond. Here, the new M (Edward Fox) believes the double-Os have outlived their usefulness and puts Bond on the path to retirement. And while age and waining health is teased at, more than anything else, it suggests the idea of what would happen if Bond outlived his usefulness?
Bond is fighting for his very life in some of these scenes. There’s a great sense of danger in the fights, the sense that he may not be as quick, as fast or as strong to save himself. But more than that, the opening action sequence suggests that he may not be as quick with his wits as he should be. This shows a Bond of struggle, one that could easily die with the smallest of slipups.
While Bond is also out to save the world once again from evil, he’s also trying to prove that he’s still got it. And boy, does Connery still have it. When put up against the last three Moore Performances, Connery runs laps around Moore. The opening action set-piece shows Connery can still sell the physicality and his gruff voice and deliberate pacing makes those one-liner’s as sharp as ever.
After watching the cripple one-liners and feigned double-entendres of Octopussy, it was an absolute delight to see the playful writing and witty delivery in Never Say Never Again. What makes it work is that while it’s clearly laced with double meaning, on the basic level, it often fits with the conversations, even though the audience and Bond know it’s a bit of foreplay.
But the film refuses to be a tease when it comes to action. The opening set-piece is remarkable. The momentum, physicality and the twist make it a blast to watch, but also an important way to set the tone. While the action is fun, it’s also a bit more grounded and gritty than before. There’s more weight and mass to these fights.
While none of these set-pieces are conceptually boggling, Irvin Kershner’s direction and the skill of the stunt team pull off some great stunts and give the action just the right feel. At times, it’s close to being a Bourne film. In fact, one of these set-pieces seems like prime inspiration for one of the vehicle chases in The Bourne Ultimatum.
However, as magnificent as the film can be, it still has a few of those silly moments where I wonder what they were thinking. One involves Bond splashing a liquid into an enemy’s face and when the film reveals what the liquid was, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Another is this fantastical moment where James Bond is shot in a missile which bursts open into some strange rocket contraption that he uses to slowly descend to his insertion point.
The film also brings back SPECTRE, which we haven’t seen since Diamonds are Forever, the last official Bond film of Connery’s career. I think there’s a reason why they died off with the end of Connery. Especially in this setting, they seem like such a fantastic and irrational organization. Their ideology is so evil that it’s hard to believe they would have the people are resources to pull off these plans.
That being said, I absolutely loved Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the main villain of the film. He’s charming, respectable and always polite, but there’s a beast behind those cool eyes. When Klaus Maria Brandauer says he’ll cut his girlfriend’s throat if she ever leaves him, he delivers the line as if he’s said nothing of consequence. This moment makes it clear that he’s a dark version of Bond, very similar in charm, but clearly evil.
Never Say Never Again shows where Bond could have gone. It still holds on to some of the silliness of ‘60s Bond, but it’s a film that is more mature than Moore’s films. And yet, I resent the film a bit because it gives us a taste of what Bond could have been if Connery kept going. Still, we’re lucky this film ever came out and luckier that it ended up being one of the best Bond pictures.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing