Light Bondage: Appendix 2: “Never Say Never Again”

This is it, folks, the end of Light Bondage. For a whole year now, I’ve been taking this trip through the history of the last half century of film, trying to entertain and inform while brushing up on the biggest modern myth this newfangled storytelling medium has wrought for us. It’s not always been a great ride, but it’s never been not fun, and I hope that you’ve all enjoyed as much of it as you’ve followed along with. I do it for you as much as I do it for me.

While we’re done now for good (or at least until the next Bond movie) we’re going out on one of the more complex notes in the series. You see, the one Bond film I haven’t covered yet is one of the most complicated ones, a movie whose production history is by far more notorious and well-covered than the movie itself. There are whole books and documentaries on the subject, but some understanding is absolutely necessary to understand why this movie exists at all. It’s also one of the most ridiculous stories of rights mismanagement I’ve heard in Hollywood.

In the early 1960s, Ian Fleming was working on a script with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for an original Bond film. They gave up the idea as too expensive, but Fleming decided to continue to work on it even as his other Bond novels began to draw interest for movies of their own. In the end, the idea became the novel Thunderball, with Fleming taking sole credit. McClory sued Fleming, and the matter held up production long enough to prevent Thunderball from being the first Bond movie. Eon Productions, already starting to churn these out, cut a deal with McClory that he could produce a version of the story, but only after a ten year period after Eon’s own version, which came out in 1965 (and has its own write up from way back when that you can read here).

In the 70s, McClory started working on it again. Almost instantly, Eon began to accuse McClory of taking too many liberties with his adaptation, which was limited to the material in the novel only and not any changes made for the original film or subsequent Bond franchise. A number of producers and screenwriters were brought in, chipping away at the array of legal problems as they tried to adapt the script. Connery, already long-retired from Bond, was brought in to help sell the idea. In fact, it was his recanting his promise to never play Bond again that gave the film its title. Which is how we ended up with the only real Bond re-adaptation to date.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

James Bond is getting on in years. Connery was already old in Diamonds Are Forever, his last Bond film, and a decade’s time has passed since that point. As the story opens, Bond fails a field exercise, causing a new M to express concern that his outdated, hard-living lifestyle is not only a liability, but might be starting to catch up to him in a more serious way. He orders Bond to check himself into a health clinic in order to recover, relax, and get back into fighting shape.

At the same time, SPECTRE is checking in an agent into the same clinic. A US Air Force captain has been outfitted with a replacement eye by SPECTRE that emulates the retinal patterns of the US President, in order to subvert the locks in place on nuclear warheads. Blofeld (Max von Sydow, of all people) instructs SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) to accompany him. The captain they’re using is only helping them under duress, as his sister Domino Petachi is being held by senior SPECTRE member and architect of this plan Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer).

James Bond, looking pretty old. Vintage, as the kids say.

Bond, sick of seaweed and soy beans, manages to sneak around and stumble into Fatima and her patient, realizing that there’s some sort of plot going down he’s not aware of. When Fatima realizes they’re being tailed, she turns a SPECTRE assassin loose on Bond, nearly killing him and managing to destroy a good portion of the health spa in the process. This gets Bond into even more trouble with M, but it also pulls him back into the field when they realize the people Bond were tailing have gone on to steal two live nuclear warheads during a training exercise. Now SPECTRE is holding the world hostage to nuclear attack, and Bond is the only likely candidate to stand up to them.

Bond goes off to the Bahamas in search of Maximillian Largo, running into Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey, being awesome and paving the way for Jeffrey Wright to take on the role over a decade later) and inserting himself in Largo’s path to try to trip him up. Largo, it seems, has fallen in love with his captive Domino (Kim Basinger), but she’s there under false pretenses, believing that her brother is safely on his way to her (in reality, Fatima killed him after he activated the warheads with his eye). Bond manages to set himself up as much as a romantic rival to Largo as a threat to his operation, which allows him to get aboard Largo’s boat and save the day in typical Bondian fashion.

Bond still charming his way onto boats and into the arms of ladies.

What’s really surprising about this movie is just how different it all feels. The Eon Productions Bonds quickly found a formula that worked and stuck relentlessly to it for decades come hell or high water. While that’s great for churning out movies, Never Say Never Again presents an alternate universe of Bond where the very idea is recast in a more modern, less franchise-minded context, and while it’s certainly jarring it really works. This is a Bond who has already seen his best days, bordering on retirement. Q and M have already been replaced by younger men, M a fussy paper-pusher with little use for the 00 program and Q an eccentric gadget freak who seems in love with the Bond myth and eternally annoyed at the rise of computers as the forefront of espionage. Even Bond gets a protege of sorts when a Foreign Office representative gets foisted upon him, played by a nervous and bumbling Rowan Atkinson, presaging his own turn in a Bond spoof by years.

What sells it all, though, is a much more mature (both in content and in how many times it’s obviously been worked over) script and much more solid acting. I’ll talk about Basinger in the Bond Girl section, but special mention has to be given to Klaus Maria Brandauer, who manages to make his villain more than just a sneering cartoon, instead turning him into a man of ambition and vision, with his own quirks and hopes and dreams that just so happen to bring him into an adversarial role against Bond. He’s the rare villain that you’re fairly certain in another context could be a good guy, or at least certainly thinks of himself as such. That’s so incredibly rare, especially in Bond movies, but it really does make all the difference in the world.

The spa stuff works much more here than it did in Thunderball.

The real star here is Connery, though. For whatever reason, a decade off of Bond had actually recharged him and he seems much more comfortable in the role here than he did in the later half of his original turn as Bond. This is an older Connery, to be sure, wrinkled heading towards craggy, but he’s trim and wry and seems to understand his age and limitations a lot better. There’s less of the creepy ‘this guy is too old to be acting this way’ and more of a concept of a gentleman in middle age enjoying what could very well be his last adventure. It’s the kind of role Connery would end up inhabiting multiple times in his later career, but almost never as well as he did it here.

Another note: most of the Bondisms are stripped from the movie, including the look of the movie, which instead feels much more like a normal 80s action movie. I think we have director Irvin Kershner to thank for that, coming off of the success of The Empire Strikes Back with this movie. It’s expansive, but never really loses sight of the human touches. In one of the most amazing updated scenes, something that firmly but charmingly dates the movie, Bond walks into a private party where people are standing around playing baccarat and other typical Bondian games, but then the other half of the room has been converted into a makeshift arcade with dozens of games including such delights and Centipede and Gravitar. It seems silly now, but I can’t help but think that might actually have been enough of a novelty to be a thing that would happen in the early 80s.

Opening Titles/Theme Song:

There isn’t one! I know, I’m as shocked as you, but the movie really just opens, with the kind of average titles and credits you’d expect from a normal movie.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:

There actually are gadgets in this movie, including a cool watch laser that the Eon Bonds shamelessly stole back for GoldenEye. But the real winner here is the pen developed by Q, a giant British flag-designed monstrosity that when clicked and turned in the right sequence fires the nib, which is explosive, out like a rocket. It’s barely a concealed item due to it’s size, but it’s pretty effective at dispatching one of the bad guys in the movie.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:

Let’s talk about this, because Never Say Never Againhas probably one of the most nuanced ‘good’ Bond girls of its era and also one of the most ridiculous and over the top ‘bad’ ones. The villainess/love interest dichotomy is pretty frequent in these movies, so it doesn’t really necessitate explaining, but god damn is Fatima Blush a crazy villain. Wearing an array of giant, flashy pants and hats and outfits, made out of materials that have to be almost all plastic, she manages to cut an imposing figure even as she remains a thorn in Bond’s side through most of the movie. She’s kind of ridiculous, but in the memorable, slightly silly way the best mid-tier villains in Bond movies should be.

Pre-Batman’s girlfriend Kim Basinger.

Kim Basinger, on the other hand, manages to play innocent without being helpless. She spends most of the movie being beautiful and vulnerable, but you get the sense that once she knows the truth about her situation she’ll stand her ground. That’s actually what does happen, and you start to see some of the fiery version of Basinger that made her still one of the best parts of the 1989 Batman. What’s more interesting here is that she seems far more concerned about her brother and avenging his death than she is romancing Bond, which is a nice turn for Connery, who is probably the most aggressively womanizing of the Bonds outside of this movie.

Best Bondickery:

I don’t know! There really isn’t anything that stands out. Though Connery dumping Eon for these other guys with a huge payday is pretty dickish, if we’re going to be honest.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: Appendix 2: “Never Say Never Again”

  1. Film Jive says:

    I have to say that “Never Say Never Again” does hold a very special place in my heart, the exploding pen and ridiculous motorcycle chase are some of my very favorite “Bond” moments. I kind of missed the beat, not mentioning it on the podcast!

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