Finally making good on his threats, Kevin McClory exercised his bitterly fought, hard won rights to produce his own James Bond movie. The trouble was, said rights were pretty specific. Yes, he could use the characters who appeared in the ‘Thunderball’ novel and he had the rights to particular settings (Shrublands), gimmicks (a motorbike armed with rockets) and locations (The Bahamas) but any straying beyond the confines of that single story and he’d find himself in trouble. So, with little option, he set out to make “Thunderball Again” (later retitled “Never Say Never Again”).
When SPECTRE manages to hijack two nuclear warheads they hold the NATO governments to ransom, threatening to detonate the bombs unless their demands are met. Bond is sent to track down the one lead they have: Domino Petachi, the sister of an American Air Force lieutenant who is implicated in the thefts. The trail leads Bond to Maximillian Largo, a senior member of SPECTRE, leading Bond on a race against time from The Bahamas to the south of France and finally to a showdown off the African coast.
Unable to use the iconic gun barrel opening, the film sidesteps the conventional pre-credits sequence and avoids competing with Maurice Binder’s striking visuals by simply having what would have been the pre-credits sequence play during the opening credits, thus distracting you from the cheapness of the credits. The theme song, performed by Lani Hall, is as dreary and disposable as the visuals it accompanies and presages a score by Michel Legrand which is consistently terrible and ill-suited for a Bond movie.
The training exercise which opens the picture serves to reintroduce Connery as Bond but it’s drab, cheaply brutal and, crucially, lacks any Bond-ness at all. It does however serve the important story role of getting Bond sent to Shrublands for some early Eighties style new age health farming. Cue a cavalcade of jokes about enemas, herbal teas and the elimination of free radicals. There’s an entertaining fight scene with Pat Roach’s burly thug Lippe which rampages through the hospital only to fizzle out with a comedic and unconvincing cop-out ending.
The script, by “Batman” TV series co-creator Lorenzo Semple Jr is wildly uneven although this could be due to the uncredited rewrites performed by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (after Bond veteran Tom Mankiewicz declined) at Connery’s behest. Peppered with some clever set pieces and thrillingly staged sequences, the film still feels ever so slightly lifeless. It’s not helped by the location filming clearly having been done during the off season (with the exception of the sunny and vibrant establishing shots). The Bahamas sequences especially are noticeably overcast and cloudy and most of the key location filming takes place in dreary weather, robbing the exotic settings of much of their allure. As with the ‘official’ Bond series, the film makes an effort to avoid putting its aging star into unfeasibly physical action sequences without sacrificing the film’s action quotient too much and veteran director Irvin Kershner manages to get some standout sequences, especially an underwater tangle with some sharks which bests anything the official series has done with the toothy predators to date. Kershner does his best with what he has but he’s clearly hamstrung by the script and a budget which has secured a top drawer cast but left little in the kitty for anything else. The saving grace of the “Never Say Never Again” is in its principle casting, although the supporting players leave a little to be desired. Edward Fox is a fussy and officious M, accompanied by Pamela Salem’s drippy and disappointing Moneypenny. It’s in their scenes that Clement & La Frenais’ influence is most strongly felt and their performances largely serve to show just how good a job the official regulars do in the same roles, especially Lois Maxwell.
Connery, however, seems far more engaged than he did the last time he played Bond in “Diamonds Are Forever” and despite a more obvious hairpiece and a dubiously dark tan looks in good shape for his 52 years at the time of filming. As in his deal to return for “Diamonds Are Forever”, Connery asked for and was given a great deal of influence over the film. Apart from his fee and a percentage of the profits, he also got script and casting approval. On the latter, at least, he did a fantastic job. Kim Basinger makes for an appealing Bond girl, playing the role of prisoner/ lover of Largo well, especially as she comes to realise what has happened to her brother. Klaus Maria Brandauer is sensational as Largo, a neurotic, playfully charming ruthless egomaniac, his performance dancing on a knife edge between softly spoken conviviality and cold psychopath. Even his performance is upstaged however by Barbara Carrera’s sensational turn as SPECTRE assassin Fatima Blush. She electrifies every scene she is in; whether it’s her poutily manipulative faux sex kitten act with Bond or the twisted, darkly sensual sexual frisson she shares with Brandauer’s Largo she infuses the film with sorely needed life and energy. Given she declined the role of Octopussy to take the part of Blush, the official series’ loss is Connery and McClory’s coup.
Compared to the official series, though, “Never Say Never Again” has dated badly, thanks to its desperate attempts to be ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ in its own time. The iconic video game scene was wicked cool at the time but just seems twee and primitive now. Yes, it’s a key component that Bond beats his opponent in a game of skill and chance but computer games don’t really count. It feels too geeky. James Bond shouldn’t be good at video games; he should be good at gambling, drinking, fucking and killing. The whole scene smacks of trying to be ‘down with the kids’ rather than finding a new spin on the classic card game showdown. As a result, there’s more believable tension in “Octopussy”’s backgammon showdown than in a wire frame war game which is inexplicably rigged to deliver electric shocks to the plays (wonder why that feature never made it to the Xbox or PlayStation?). Credit where credit is due though: the game’s shield graphic resembling the classic gun barrel logo is a nice a nice tongue-in-cheek reference.
After much promise, though, the film simply runs out of energy before it runs out of time and the finale is less a cohesive showdown than an assorted grab bag of set piece gimmicks – such as jumping off a cliff on horseback – jammed together one after the other, the most ludicrous being Bond and Felix Leiter being launched in missiles which turn into the noisiest and slowest jet pack platforms ever invented; hardly the cleverest way to sneak up on your enemy’s base. Despite the brilliance of the earlier shark-laden underwater footage, the end fight is a disappointing anti-climax, a muddled scuba gear fight scene where it’s difficult to tell who is who until it’s all over.
In the end, the much hyped ‘Battle of the Bonds’ was won by the official Bond series. Although both films released in 1983 were box office hits, “Octopussy” grossed $24million more at the box office off a budget three quarters the size of its rival. While McClory would continue to attempt to get yet another remake of “Thunderball” off the ground throughout the Nineties and right up to his death in 2006, this was the only one that made it to the screen. Between this and “Octopussy”, it’s hard to resist speculating that if the makers had joined forces instead of competing against each other, we could have ended up with one of the best Bond films of all time.