Serial, Super Serial: Never Say Never Again

Connery

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

All of the films I’ve previously talked about have been produced by Eon Productions, and mostly produced by the team of Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. In fact, all James Bond films minus two were produced by Eon — the 1967 spy spoof Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. Directed by Irvin Kershner, best known for The Empires Strike Back (Episode V for those under 20), and despite a solid cast, it doesn’t quite live up to the talent involved.

While Casino Royale obviously lives outside of the Bond world, poking in at it, Never Say Never Again tries very hard to be a “serious” Bond film that can live amongst its contemporaries. And it mostly succeeds — if it was randomly playing on TBS, I probably wouldn’t realize this was the “unofficial” film. Obviously having Sean Connery back in the role of James Bond legitimizes the movie and I imagine many Bond fans at the time were very happy to see their favorite super spy back in action. Really, having Connery back is interesting — I certainly prefer him to Roger Moore at this point in their careers, and sort of wish he would have just continued with the Eon productions all along. To say that Never Say Never Again would be a minor film without Connery is an understatement, as he is the major and only draw for this film.

For me, it doesn’t help that Never Say Never Again is a remake of Thunderball, one of the least memorable Bond films in my opinion. While you can tell the filmmakers wanted to do their own thing, they made sure to include enough of the Bond touches to be noticed — many of the characters are here with different actors, the plot structure remains mostly intact, and there’s still an emphasis on broad comedic moments (although the comedy never works here). One thing they have definitely jacked up is the sex appeal. Sure, all of the Bond films feature scantily-clad ladies with little thought, but here we see much more exclipitness in Bond’s sexual encounters. While we don’t see any nudity, his sex scene with Fatima Blush is as close to softcore porn as we’ll probably see.

Overall, the results are mixed. While I did greatly enjoy seeing Connery back and the film improves on the villains here, I will never again underestimate what the Eon films do with their action setpieces. There are looooong stretches in Never Say Never Again without action and the whole film is slowed down because of it. Maybe it has something to do with Connery’s age or ability, or the filmmakers wanting to make a more plot-driven film, but this is certainly one of the more boring Bond installments, official or not.

[Bond, James Bond]

The Bond franchise has gotten used to having an aging star, but none of the films ever fully embraced it before Never Say Never Again. As I’ve mentioned before, Connery is actually younger than Roger Moore, yet the films have always wanted you to believe that Moore was still a spry young lad. Here, though, the film makes an effort to introduce the character as a bit over the hill, with an opening scene where Bond is chastised for needing to live a healthier life with more exercise and a strict diet. Not surprisingly, however, this is dropped pretty quickly once the action kicks in, even if Bond’s physical tasks aren’t as high as some previous films.

Seeing this film made me realize just how much I didn’t realize how much I missed Connery. It feels like he doesn’t miss a step in the role, like he was never gone, a real tribute to his naturalism and charisma. Fairly, though, if he was the star of films like Moonraker or For Your Eyes Only, he probably wouldn’t have made that much of a difference.

[The Mission]

The mission of Never Say Never Again follows that of Thunderball pretty closely — with two nuclear missiles hijacked and Bond visiting the Bahamas to find out where they are before its too late.

In my post on Thunderball, I talked about how the presence of nuclear devices in the plot was enough to raise the stakes, especially in a world where we understand the evils of real-life terrorists. Here, though, is the first time where government officials seem to react in a realistic way — once SPECTRE has announced their power, the U.N. goes completely crazy. It’s refreshing to see the usually composed and super-cool suits getting all up in a tizzy.

One major difference from the plot of the original film is that NSNA scales back the subplot where Domino’s brother is killed and replaced by a man who has undergone extensive plastic surgery to take his place on board the U.S. aircraft. Instead, Domino’s brother actually has some sort of eye transplant procedure to be able to override the eyeprint from the U.S. President needed to deploy the nuclear weapons. While this plot change seems simpler than its predecessor, it is still quite preposterous and feels less dangerous. Previously, we saw the crazy extent SPECTRE would go to hijack these missiles, including what must have cost thousands of dollars in surgery and years in pilot training. We replace that with more screen time for Jack Petachi, who isn’t much more than a snivelling wimp with little given motivation for helping SPECTRE. But even without capturing the horror potential in Thunderball, I still prefer its version.

[The Villain]

Like Thunderball, two villains are featured here: Ernst Blofeld and Maximillian Largo. This time around, Blofeld is played by legendary actor Max von Sydow (now the fourth actor to take on the role). The idea of von Sydow as the head of SPECTRE just totally works — the menacing presence and incredible voice offer a lot to his villainy — but he is really underutilized. Of course, Blofeld wasn’t a big part of Thunderball, but if you have Max von Sydow in your movie, you should use him as much as possible! He’s only seen near the beginning of the film, sending a message to the United Nations that SPECTRE has hijacked the nuclear missiles.

Largo, though, is played quite differently than his first incarnation. Some of the touches are there, especially his use of man-eating sharks, which have been updated with a strange tracking device that leads them towards their prey. Everything else has been changed, from the eye patch to actionless demeanor. Instead, Largo is a charming presence with a layer of threatening psychosis underneath. Largo doesn’t feel like the typical megalomaniac Bond encounters, but instead much more modern and unstable. A really strong performance by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer really delivers an attractive personality while also being a total creep.

[The Bond Girls]

Much like Largo, the villainous Bond Girl we previously saw in Thunderball (though now with a new name) is much more unhinged than we’re used to seeing. Fiona Volpe has remained one of the stronger women in the series, and Fatima Blush takes it to a whole new level. Here is a woman that beats up men while using her sexuality to trap them. Through the first half of the film, she really feels like the main threat to Bond; even though we’ve seen villainous women before, Fatima is unhinged enough to actually harm him. Her stand-off with Bond has her shrieking for him to draft in writing that she was the best lay he’s ever had. This behavior mirrors psychological horror films like Fatal Attraction more than your typical Bond Girl.

On the other hand we have Kim Basinger as Domino Patachi, one of the more iconic Bond Girls. In this film, though, she’s little more than a trophy wife to Largo and a complete object of desire. Throughout the film, she’s a victim of the “male gaze” — from both the viewers and the male characters of the film — since she’s constantly watched through two-way mirrors and as she’s performing. Unlike their relationship in the first film, however, we can understand why she’s with Largo, and his attitude toward her feels a lot like the dynamics of abusive relationships. Her being a much more passive character than Domino Derval feeds into this — I’m surprised there wasn’t a “he’s not all that bad” speech at some point.

[The Gadgets]

While Never Say Never Again isn’t heavy on gadgets, there are a few that make an appearance. Bond is given a pen dart gun and a laser watch, two gadgets we’ve seen before in various films. There is a strange weapon used by one of SPECTRE’s henchmen that really grabbed my attention, though — a sort of whip that slices directly through metal objects. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but the effect on screen was pretty cool.

An interesting difference from the official Bond world is the portrayal of Q, who is no longer the old and stuffy nerd, but a cockney sort. As he meets with Bond, he tells him he hopes he encounters a lot of action and sex, which would be a pretty obvious bet. Seeing the different interpretation of the classic character is interesting, but there isn’t much of Q in the film to take more out of.

[The Song]

Lani Hall’s tune “Never Say Never Again” is the typical ballad that we get during the credits scene, but here the credits are played over the film. Instead of the obligatory naked silhouettes bouncing around, we see Bond on a training mission, though we don’t know he’s in training at the time. The effect of seeing Bond killing dudes under a sappy love song is a little strange and gave me another reason to miss the bouncing beauties.

“To get mixed up with a man who says never
May be big trouble, but then
I just could be the woman to take you
And make you never say never again.”

[Random Thoughts]

- Thunderball: Now with slightly less scuba diving!

- The sexy one-liners we normally see are undercut here when a nurse asks Bond for a urine sample and if he could fill an extraordinarily large beaker. Across the room, he asks “From here?” — before cutting the scene, we get a confused reaction shot from the nurse. I guess she’s not into that sort of thing.

- I’m surprised the film passes up the obvious joke of a couple fighting as being mistaken for having sex. Lost opportunity.

- Another urine joke, with a baddie getting Bond’s urine thrown into his face. I’m not quite sure why he reacted like it was acid.

- This seems to be the first Bond film to feature any computer graphics, especially prominent in a scene where Bond and Largo play video games with each other. Yes, you heard that right. Oh, didn’t I mention that, in his free time, Largo designed his own video game? No? Did I also mention that this scene takes up about 15 minutes in the middle of the movie? Don’t they know it’s not fun to watch other people play video games?

- Ah… for Moneypenny to be young again…

- Rowan Atkinson in a Bond film as a bumbling government lackey just makes sense.

- Largo holds benefits for children and has an unusual interest in video games… I think we’re asking the wrong questions.

- Why doesn’t Bond use his watch laser against his enemies? Seems like a pretty easy way to get rid of someone.

- Only seven stuntmen listed in the credits tells you something about this film.

- Another reason I’m glad I read the credits: Talia Shire Schwartzman was a “consultant to the producer.” Did the producer just want her around so he could randomly yell “AAADRIAN?” Also: had no idea she was Jason Schwartzman’s mother. Learn something every day.

- And after all that, I’m still not sure what we’re never saying never to.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in A VIEW TO A KILL

tags: irvin kershner, james bond, never say never again, super serial

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