Who won 1983s "Battle of the Bonds"? Matthew Kresal is in Connery's corner...
1983 was “the battle of the Bonds”. That year both Roger Moore and Sean Connery starred in two separate James Bond film, the former (Octopussy) was produced by the “official” makers of the Bond films, while the later (Never Say Never Again) was produced “unofficially” by a group led by Kevin McClory who held the film rights to Thunderball. Surprisingly enough it is the “unofficial” film that is better, despite the obvious flaw of missing elements from the official films and the fact that Never Say Never Again is a remake of Thunderball.
Never Say Never Again has the distinction of sporting one of the best casts ever assembled for a Bond film. It all starts with Sean Connery, returning to the play Bond for the first time since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Connery might be older then he was then but he looks better here than he did over a decade earlier. Gone is the bored Bond of Diamonds and in is an older version of the Bond of the early Connery films. The Bond of Never Say Never Again is the sleek and dangerous shark of Dr. No or From Russia With Love, just a few years older. Connery’s delivery of one liners and dialogue is as dead on as it ever was. The one downside to Connery’s age is his believability, especially when it comes to the ladies of the film. Let’s face it even Connery, despite being in top physical shape, looks as odd as Moore when he is bedding women half his age. Yet despite this believability issue, Never Say Never Again shows Connery in one of his better Bond performances and a definite improvement on his two earlier Bond performances.
Kim Bassinger plays Domino in one of her early film roles. Bassinger plays the role with considerable confidence for a relative newcomer and she makes the character believable. She holds her own against her co-stars and has substantial chemistry with them as well. While her part is smaller than that of her Thunderball counter-part played by Claudine Auger, Bassinger does a very good job and is definitely amongst the film’s highlights.
Then there’s the villain, Maximilian Largo played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Brandauer’s Largo is everything a James Bond film villain should be: suave, charming, evil and above all believable, none the less. One can believe in the villain of this film, a billionaire playboy with an evil streak in him that remains well hidden. Brandauer makes the role realistic and chooses not to fall into the trap many other Bond villains have fallen into by going over the top. He plays Largo with a silent menace and charisma unseen in many adversaries of 007.
The excellent ensemble extends into the supporting cast as well. Barbara Carrera makes a fine henchwoman in the guise of Fatima Blush and the screen lights up whenever she appears. Max Von Sydow makes a rather nice appearance as Blofeld, though this is more akin to a cameo role. Rowan Atkinson makes an early screen appearance as Bond’s bumbling contact in the Bahamas, which makes for some of the best scenes in the film. With all that the highlight of the supporting cast comes from the MI6 staff, from Edward Fox’s M, who makes for a great contrast to Bernard Lee, Pamela Salem who makes a fine Moneypenny and the icing on the cake with Alec McCowen’s wonderful Q. The supporting cast has a couple of misfires though in the form of Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter (the first African-American to play the role incidentally) and Gavin O’Herlihy as Jack Petachi who both seem to lack credibility in their respective roles. Otherwise this film sports one of the best casts ever assembled for a Bond film.
On top of an excellent cast the film has several other essential ingredients: good action sequences, good special effects and good direction. From the opening Central America sequence to the fight at Shrublands, to the underwater sequences and motorbike chase, this is a film where the action sequences are not only great but service the plot as well for the most part. The film also sports good special effects in terms of cruise missile models, explosions, and all the things we expect from a Bond film. Irvin Kershner, then fresh off doing The Empire Strikes Back for the Star Wars series, brings a tight sense of direction to the film especially in sequences like the substation of nuclear warheads and the subsequent theft of the cruise missiles.
Yet this film is far from perfect. Never Say Never Again is easily one of the most dated of the Bond films with its heavy use of 1980’s computers and video games. While technology dates any film after a time, the heavy reliance on it, especially in the hijacking of the cruise missiles and the Domination sequence, makes the film look incredibly dated some quarter of a century after its release. The script also tends to suffer from predictability due to the very fact it’s a remake of Thunderball.
Yet for all its predictability the script for Never Say Never Again is pretty good. There are good dialogue scenes, not a single cringe worthy one liner (how many of the Roger Moore era scripts can you say that about?), some humorous situations, and yet is watchable and tense for the most part. Once you look past the fact that it’s a remake, there are quite a lot of good things in the script for the film.
Music is in fact the biggest weakness. Due to the “unofficial” status of Never Say Never Again, the James Bond Theme could not be used. That said this could have shown that with the right composer a Bond score without it could work. Unfortunately first choice James Horner (fresh off Star Trek II at the time) was passed over in favor of Michael Legrand, whose score is far from adequate. It is totally out of place in a Bond film and there is only one or two places where it actually works. To make matters worse the film is also lumbered with one of the worst title sequences ever to grace a James Bond film.
Yet despite being heavily dated, somewhat predicable, and having a bad score Never Say Never Again is still a good Bond film. With one of the best casts of any Bond movie, good action sequences, good special effects, good direction, and some terrific dialogue. Never Say Never Again proves that “unofficial” isn’t a bad thing. In fact it is better than quite a few official films, is definitely better than Octopussy, and the winner of “the battle of the Bonds”.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
James Bond will return next Thursday...