Friday, December 07, 2012

The Films of 1983: Never Say Never Again

While watching Skyfall (2012) a few weeks back, I was struck by all the quips about James Bond's (Daniel Craig's) advancing age, and the film's reckoning with powerful idea that "time has passed." The new 007 film clearly recognizes that time waits for no man, and preserves no man.   This thematic strand reminded me that another film in the franchise (at least unofficially) also played with those very ideas once upon a time.

Of course, that film is Never Say Never Again (1983), the return of Sean Connery to the 007 role after an absence of a dozen years.  The film came out during the very year that many media outlets dubbed "The Battle of the Bonds" because Roger Moore's Octopussy (1983) was also released.

In Never Say Never Again, the audience encounters an older, slower -- but still lethal -- agent 007 as he faces both Blofeld's SPECTRE and also the specter of looming retirement.  More than that, Bond must deal with the idea that he is outmoded...a "dinosaur."  And indeed, we get words to that effect in Skyfall as well.  But in NSNA, Bond must recognize that he is, finally, getting old.

At least that's according to the new "M' (Edward Fox), who -- in a great reaction shot -- physically recoils after seeing Bond head-butt an opponent during a training exercise (the pre-title sequence which opens the film.)  He has no taste for such messiness; such brutal improvisation. 

The world has changed...and apparently passed Bond by in the process.  But, as Bond reminds us, in reference to his beloved Bentley, he may be old, but he's still "in pretty good shape."

Perhaps the quality I most admire about Never Say Never Again is its ability to pit an older, but still in good-shape Bond, against a buttoned-down era that seems, well,  drained of life  As Bond's over-worked, under-paid gadgeteer, Algy (Alec McEwen) comments mid-way through Never Say Never Again: "Bureaucrats running the old place.  Everything done by the book.  Can't make a decision unless the computer gives you the go ahead.  Now you're here.  I hope we're going to have some gratuitous sex and violence..." 

This amusing comment may serve a double, subversive purpose.  First, Q's comment works contextually, regarding the "re-activation" of the 00s (and Bond) in the narrative of Never Say Never Again, particularly against the backdrop of the new era of the corporate, computerized 1980s. 

But metaphorically, the line also serves as a pointed jab at the official EON James Bond film line, which had -- during the reign of Roger Moore as Bond -- adopted the apparently official stance that James Bond represents Disney-fied violence; or "violence for the family."

The re-activation of Connery's original, craftier Bond in Never Say Never Again is therefore not merely a breath of fresh air in terms of the movie's PC world; but in terms of a real-life world where the aging James Bond feature film franchise was no longer considered legitimately dangerous or cutting edge. 

After all, audiences at this point had seen Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Dirty Harry...and more was to come.  The Terminator, Lethal Weapon, Batman and Die Hard franchises were just on the horizon.

Accordingly, Never Say Never Again feels like the most dangerous, edgy, unpredictable Bond film in ages (particularly after the toothless and farcical -- if absolutely enjoyable -- Moonraker [1979]). 

Where the Bond films had long ago reduced main characters to off-the-shelf, familiar types like the General Villain (Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Stromberg, Drax, etc.) and the Soldier Villain (Odd Job, Nick Nack, Jaws, etc), Connery's return film largely restores the humanity and individuality -- and therefore the unpredictability -- to these familiar cliches and stock types.

Spectacular (if fantasy-based) stunt-work is also largely eschewed in Irvin Kershner's Never Say Never Again, in favor of the aforementioned head-butt and a concentration on more grounded, macho and personal fisticuffs (a hallmark of Connery's early, grittier era, back in the 1960s). 

So nobody is dangling from blimps-in-flight over The Golden Gate Bridge here, if you get my drift. Not that there's anything wrong, inherently, with the other approach. It's just a matter of preference, about how you like your 007.

There is also a deliberate, overt focus on sex in Never Say Never Again (particularly in Bond's coupling with the evil Fatima Blush [Barbara Carrera].)  Bond beds no less than four women in the course of the movie, actually.  Again, this is an approach that the official Bond series reversed by the late 1980s, making Timothy Dalton's Bond a one-lady-kind-of-guy (to accommodate in the culture the emergence of AIDS).

In short, Never Say Never Again feels a bit more passionate, a bit more human, and a lot less rote, less predictable, than some of the 1970s Bonds...even though it is loosely a remake of 1965's Thunderball.  

Your Reputation Has Preceded You; Or You Were a Very Good Secret Agent.  Really.

In matters of death, SPECTRE is strictly impartial...
Never Say Never Again tells the story of a wicked gambit on the part of Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) and SPECTRE. 

Using a heroin-addicted American air force officer, Jack Petachi (Gavin O'Herlihy), a villain named Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and Fatima Blush, or Agent 12 (Carrera), steal two American W80 thermo-nuclear warheads during a routine training exercise centered at Swadley's Air Force Base. 

Blofeld blackmails the West (NATO, in particular): pay an exorbitant fee or see the bombs detonated in two days time. 

As one anxious diplomat describes the plot, it is "the ultimate nightmare," this nuclear blackmail. And ironically, this story of loose nukes seems more timely and relevant in the 1980s -- a span when the hawkish, Peace-Through-Strength Reagan decried the "Evil Empire" and jokingly announced that "bombing begins in five minutes," -- than it did in the 1960s, when Thunderball premiered.

Agent James Bond (Connery), 007 -- who has spent most of his time in recent years teaching --  is re-activated and sent out by the officious M to recover the bombs. 

Following a stint at the health farm, Shrublands, Bond heads to the Bahamas, where Largo's yacht, the Flying Saucer, may be carrying at least one of the warheads.  There, Largo executes SPECTRE's plot, code-named "The Tears of Allah," all while deceiving his beautiful girlfriend, dancer Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger), about the death of her brother, Jack.

Now Bond must outwit and outfight Fatima with the help of his CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey) and discover where the jealous Largo is hiding those warheads.  In doing so, he will require Domino's help...

Shaken but not stirred.
Behind-the-scenes, Never Say Never Again represents Sean Connery's return to the iconic role that made him a star following a dozen-year absence. 

It's an unofficial Bond film as well, one born from producer Kevin McClory's (1926-2006) early efforts with Ian Fleming to first bring James Bond to the cinema in 1959. 

A lawsuit awarded McClory the rights to produce a remake of Thunderball, a story that he initiated, and which was known, over the years as both Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service.   But because the film Never Say Never Again was unofficial at the time of its successful theatrical release, it could not make use of such official Bond film touches as Monty Norman's world-famous theme song, and the trademark gun barrel opening. 

For some, this is enough to disqualify the effort from serious consideration as a great Bond film.

The title of Never Say Never Again itself arises not from Ian Fleming, but from Connery, who -- after 1971's Diamonds are Forever -- declared that he would never again don the tuxedo, order dry martinis, and carry a license to kill.  So the movie title -- much like Algy's line quoted above -- plays on two amusing levels; both as Bond's declaration to Domino that he intends to retire; and as an in-joke aimed at Connery who, despite protestation, is back as Bond one more time.

Just One More Game for the Rest of the World...

Domination, video game style.

Today, at least one scene in Never Say Never Again stands out as being a legitimate Bond classic. 

At approximately the hour-point of the narrative, James Bond tricks his way into Largo's casino in Nice, France. 

But rather than engage his wily opponent in high-stakes poker, or the oft-seen Baccarat (Chemin de Fer), Bond duels Largo in...a video game.

And it is no average video game, either. 

Rather, Largo has designed and constructed "Domination," a video game battle for ownership of the world itself.  The objective, Largo states, is "power."  Two players battle for territory, for land, while racking up dollars on the big screen.  The left-hand joystick controls two nuclear missiles that can be launched against an opponent; and the right-hand joystick controls missile shields which can block the W80 thermo-nuclear warheads. 

Players target with their lasers small geometric territories that light up on their screens.  The player that hits the territory first is the winner and owner of said territory.

Armchair general...
And Largo -- being a super-villain -- has wired his elaborate video game to deliver electric shocks to the players every time one's defenses are breached, or the enemy gets ahead. 

"Unlike armchair generals," suggests Largo, players of this game will "share" the pain of soldiers in the field. 

This is an important distinction in the world of Never Say Never Again.  Bond is one of those aforementioned soldiers in the field; and knows all too well about physical pain.  But the world of the 1980s apparently has little use for James Bond and his skill-set post-Detente, and the men who deploy him in the field  (armchair generals like "M") have no idea how -- as he states early in the film --  "adrenaline" (another word for pain) provides him an edge in the heat of the moment.

And that's how Bond beats Largo, literally, at his own game here.  

Largo may know better the game he created, of course.  He's holding all the cards (as he's also holding the missing nuclear weapons...) but Bond still has his "edge" in the field to rely upon.  The pain of the electric shocks gives him just the kick he needs to get back in the game (come out of retirement) and fight back for "just one more game...for the rest of the world."

...versus a soldier in the field...
This tense, brilliantly-executed sequence with the Domination video game is the most significant one in the film for a number of reasons.

First, it again reveals Bond out-of-his element in the modern, high-tech world.  This older, slower James Bond  is not part of the video game generation.  We are used to seeing him play and excel at cards, not manage a joystick.  So the game is a metaphor for Bond being out-of-step with the modern world.

Yet 007 soundly beats Largo here -- at the video game -- for the same reasons he ultimately defeats him in the larger narrative: because of his "edge," because the pain (delivered by the electric shocks, in this case) activates his adrenaline.

There's something about being a "soldier in the field" -- some combination of instincts and experience -- that takes over in Bond and refuses to "lose."  Largo -- for all his intelligence and savvy -- doesn't have that same sense of experience, and the game sequence makes this point.

Two video game monsters, side-by-side.
In one truly great and telling visual composition, Kershner even reminds us that Largo is a creature of today -- or the film's day in 1983 --  a video-game villain.  He stands perched beside an old arcade game on which a fantasy-styled monster has been painted, and the point is made by putting the two "creatures" in close-proximity. 

Even Largo's command center -- where Largo spends much of his time -- is highly computerized, consisting of a wall of screens and keyboards.  Largo also has a secret window (another form of viewing screen...) through which he can peek illicitly into Domino's dancing studio. 

Again, he's a watcher, not a doer -- an armchair general rather than a soldier in the field -- and that quality proves his undoing.  He doesn't understand what physical pain and danger can drive a man to do; what they can drive Bond to do.

The idea of video-games and computers taking over the world is one of the "big" ideas of the cinema of 1983, as we have seen from War Games, Superman III, and even the horror anthology, Nightmares.   

The overwhelming fear expressed in these films is that our technology will run amok, and challenge human civilization.  Never Say Never Again is "one of the pack" and it updates Bond for the video game age as much as Skyfall updates Bond for the Drone War Age.

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore...

In shades of black and white, Bond's space in the frame is squeezed out.

Pretty clearly, Never Say Never Again is a special Bond film for one reason primarily: it acknowledges that Bond is actually a human being who ages, and not an unflappable superhero in a white dinner jacket.   This 1983 film thus allows James Bond to age and evolve -- something the canon Bonds did not permit of this particular hero until the reboots with Daniel Craig. 

This idea of Bond aging (both gracefully and not so gracefully...) adds a layer of real human interest to the narrative.  Bond still has his edge; but it is it sharp enough -- in his mid 50s -- to get the job done?  

That's the movie's big question, and Connery is great here at playing the same man we love and remember, but some distance down the too-short road towards mortality; when he has more yesterdays than tomorrows ahead of him.

And secondly but of equal importance, director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back [1980] has executed a clever tactic in the visual presentation of Never Say Never Again.  To put it bluntly, James Bond no longer owns the frame.  

Rather, he intrudes into it and his space is intruded upon constantly.

Between a rock and hard place? More limited visual space for 007.
I always say that the medium of film reaches its apex when visual form echoes, reflects or augments film content, and that's precisely what Never Say Never Again accomplishes with tremendous flair.  

Remember, the overriding idea here is that Bond is a man out of step with the "new," high-tech but bloodless world of the 1980s.  He is not the swaggering, cocksure, center-of-the-frame hero of the 1960s.

It's a more dangerous world for the older, less-physically imposing Bond, and so he has to fight for a foothold in it every second.  Accordingly, Kershner provides the audience these moments of tremendous spontaneity and danger, during which Bond must put his instincts (and that adrenaline; that edge...) to the test.  

In other words, Bond is not blocked and framed in Never Say Never Again as he is in the canon Bond films.  He is not an impervious figure of power.  Rather, he's visually jeopardized and threatened, almost constantly.

During a fight, Bond flees...into a slamming door.
For instance, during a deadly, extended fight at Shrublands -- which goes from a weight room, down a flight of stairs and into a working kitchen -- Bond attempts to escape his opponent by hiding, first, and then running away, escaping. 

In a great and laugh-out-loud moment, a female chef flees the tight kitchen as the nemeses fight...and Bond tries to run after her...but the door slams in his face and he has a moment where -- using that edge -- he must improvise.  You can almost visualize Connery's Bond thinking, "thanks a lot, lady..." and then getting on with it.

Again and again, Kershner positions 007 in this unconventional and amusing fashion.  Emerging from behind a tree, even...skulking about.  Or in a tight shot of stark black-and-white shading inside his modern French villa; Bond's available space in the wide-frame "cut off" by the off-screen but nonetheless considerable threat of Fatima Blush.

I noted above that Never Say Never Again is an edgier, more dangerous style of Bond film, and that feeling suffuses the film, thanks to the manner in which Kershner perpetually frames the iconic character.   Bond is a man who is imperiled and affected by what is happening around him in the frame, and must -- by power of his instincts and edge -- forge his own positive outcome.

Furthermore, Kershner contrasts his visual depiction of Bond (fighting for survival and placement in the frame) with his depiction of the colorful, even flamboyant, highly idiosyncratic villains. 

Effortless, dangerous power in the foreground.
Fatima Blush, for instance, is often filmed from a low angle (atop staircases, or looming over Bond, right before her demise), giving the impression of tremendous power and constancy. 

When she detonates a bomb in Bond's hotel in the Bahamas, Fatima does so without even a casual look over a shoulder, and Kershner's gorgeous framing again suggests a villain in total, effortless control of the environs.  

Again, look at that careful, beautiful framing and placement above for just a second.  What you see there is raw, well-established power dominating the foreground of the frame, while chaos reigns -- unimportant -- behind her.

Kershner also permits seemingly spontaneous, apparently unplanned moments from Klaus Maria Brandauer play out for maximum impact.  This villain is a dangerous character, and the actor virtually steals every second he can get in the limelight...and perhaps more too.  This Largo is a power-hungry grabber, a drama queen, a man who solicits attention, and Brandauer goes nuts with the role.

Swapping spit with Largo.
Whether it's delicately blowing a soothing kiss on his electrically-shocked hands after losing to Bond  in Domination, or kissing Domino for so long -- and so passionately -- that a line of spit visibly connects their lips, Largo "dominates" the frame too.

Again, Kershner's patience and unique approach to the performances (particularly with the quirky Branduer) make Never Say Never Again feel more dangerous, spontaneous, edgy and immediate than many official Bond films of roughly the same era.  Where they rigorously adhere to a specific formula and template, Never Say Never Again attempts to explode the formula, presenting a vulnerable, mature Bond who must, again and again, really fight (and improvise) for his life. 

In my book, Brandauer is the most deadly threat to Bond since Goldfinger; an amused sociopath who is drunk with power, and this Bond -- going back to Ian Fleming's literary vision -- seems the most human (at least until Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig came along...) 

Never Say Never Again suffers a bit from a weak, anti-climactic finale (Domino spears Largo and the whole affair is over...), but otherwise the film must rank as one of the best of all the Bond films.  It showcases another side of the hero, and in defining Bond's "edge" helps us to understand -- finally, after twenty years and a dozen films -- what makes this hero tick; what makes him thrive.

Just as the Bond character was growing stale and old, and distinctly non-edgy, a fifty year old Connery (and a brilliantly-stylish Kershner) provide the hero just what he (and the audience...) needed:  a healthy dose of gratuitous sex and violence...shaken, not stirred.   Skyfall features many callbacks to the Bonds of yesteryear, but it owes the most, in my opinion, to Never Say Never Again.

Valedictory head-butts for everyone...


  1. Great review! I too thought this was one of the best Bond films, despite not being part of the Eon Productions series. You really feel like this is a movie unto itself with a character who is going through an emotional arc rather than just another adventure. My only two quibbles is that 1) you get a been-there-done-that feeling from the Thunderball storyline and 2) the Michel Legrand score is way too laid back for an action movie. I'm sure James Horner was quite busy during this time, but I think he could have provided a more exciting soundtrack.

    1. Neal,

      I couldn't agree with you more about both the rerun storyline -- which is dull -- and the not-very-appropriate Legrand score. We're used to our Bond films sounding great, thanks to John Barry and others, but the Legrand score just doesn't reach that high benchmark. I couldn't agree more.

  2. Anonymous11:36 AM

    John, well done, both excellently thoughtout and brilliantly detailed review of NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN(1983). I consider Connery still the best Bond with Craig, Dalton, Moore, Brosnan and Lazenby following in that order. Because Connery needs to be both anchored in the real world and a believably lethal man. I think that Eon Productions[Broccoli] needs to acquire the absolute rights to NSNA to make it apart of their official Bond dvd releases in the future. The BOND 50:Complete 22 Film Collection dvd boxed set release should be 23 films including NSNA. Eon needs to realize that Connery as Bond makes NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN an official Bond 007 film.


    1. SGB:

      I concur that NSNA should be considered a canon or official Bond. I certainly look at it that way.

  3. As ever, a terrific investigation and critique. NSNA was the first Bond film I ever saw in the theater and it made a huge impact on me -- mostly due to Barbara Carrera, who was, to my 11 year old self, a revelation. Up to then I had never encountered such an intensely, openly erotic performance before. Not to overstate things, but Fatima Blush ushered in my puberty with a bang (so to speak). Holy mackrel. What a woman! The rest of the movie's good too, BTW. ;)

    1. Count Zero,

      Your comment made me laugh, in part because I so strongly identify with it. I was thirteen when the film came out, and Fatima Blush was...a revelation. Absolutely. Carrera's portrayal of the character -- over-the-top erotic -- makes Fatima my favorite femme-fatale. (I even prefer her to Onatopp...who plays like second rate Fatima to me!)


    2. Oh, yes, I agree completely. As lovely as Famke Janssen is, her Onatopp isn't close to being in the same league with Fatima. For one thing, however flamboyant the character may be she's never made a cartoon or the brunt of a joke like Onatopp with her killer thighs and sexual climax every time she draws blood. Fatima Blush may be evil but she seems to actually enjoy her sexuality for its own sake rather than merely as another edged weapon. She swaggers and struts through the film, seeming about to burst with sheer delight at her own ridiculous sexiness. And Carrera carries it off magnificently, with utter confidence, walking away with every scene she's in. She makes you believe that it would unquestionably be worth risking your life to sleep with her. Now THAT'S a femme fatale!

      Whew! Other things: Not many people mention the title song, which isn't much next to classics like Shirley Bassey's 'Goldfinger' but which I have always liked, especially the end title version with Herb Alpert's trumpet solo. Good stuff. I don't find Legrand's music as offensive as some. No, it's not the classic Bond sound but for me it works alright even if it is fairly forgettable. Also, Bernie Casey -- best Felix Leiter ever. Seriously, has there ever been another Felix who comes across like he could remotely hold his own with Connery's Bond other than Casey? Casey's one of those character actors who automatically raises the quality of any movie they're in just by showing up.

  4. Ampersand1:48 PM

    Wow. What a terrific analysis of one of my favourite Bond films. Makes me want to watch it again!

    So John, I have to ask you and your readers, what do you think of the fan theory that "James Bond" is not the name of an individual, but a code name given to whoever takes over the 007 position? In other words, Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig were actually playing 6 different people who were all doing the "James Bond job". I think this ties in nicely with Connery's Bond being brought back in for "one last job" in NSNA. Moore's Bond was too busy dressing up as a clown to handle Largo at the same time ...

    (There's a lot more discussion at about the "many Bonds" theory, and also a pretty good summary at, of all places. Apparently Lee Tamahori, director of Die Another Day, also bought into the theory, and in fact wanted a cameo from Connery as "old Bond" but was overruled by EON!)

    1. Ampersand,

      I love the Many Bonds theory, but there are a few problems. Although slight, the series -- at least until Craig's era initiated a reboot -- had a loose continuity.

      Moore's Bond is reminded of Tracy in both The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only. And the Dalton Bond is as well, in Licence to Kill. So it doesn't make sense that different men would remember the Lazenby Bond's personal tragedy, you know?

      On the other hand, the Many Bonds theory explains why Lazenby quips at the beginning of OHMSS that "this never happened to other guy..."


  5. I'll confess, I've never thought much of this film... I saw it years ago, back in college, and remember dismissing it as a fairly dry remake of Thunderball done without official sanction and thus without the familiar trappings of a "real" Bond film. I didn't like the film's pacing, or the slower, older Connery, or what I took to be a cheesy attempt to be relevant to an early-80s audience through the emphasis on video games. (I saw it in the early '90s.) But your take on the movie makes me want to give it another try now that I have a more, ahem, mature perspective on life.

    You've accomplished what I think really good critical writing ought to: you've made the reader reconsider his thinking about something. Good job, and thanks!

    1. Jason,

      Thank you so much for those supportive words. I appreciate them.

      I know what you mean about the film seeming like a "fairly dry" affair.

      I remember watching Never Say Never Again in the 1990s too and kind of writing off it, myself. The print was muddy, the pace seemed slow, and I wondered what I had seen in the film in the first place.

      But I watched it again on stunning blu-ray, and -- with the visuals cleaned up significantly -- began to see the fine qualities the film does possess.

      There are still some pacing and soundtrack issues (as Neal P. rightly addresses in his comment), but you could probably say the same thing of many Bond films.

      What I found so vital here was:

      1.) the idea of an aging Bond, taken as a thematic through-line, which is a revolutionary move for a Bond film.


      2.) the visual aplomb. Kershner didn't have a Bond-styled budget to work with, so instead he focused instead on a visual approach that excavated and revealed character (in terms of Bond, Largo and Blush).

      It's a well-made film, to be certain, though certainly paced differently than movies made today are. But there's a lot of nice, almost gentle humor in it, and Connery is great.

      Thank you for your comment, and for making my day!