*½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max Von Sydow, Edward Fox
screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
directed by Irvin Kershner
by Ian Pugh After decades of legal wrangling, producer Kevin McClory had finally won the right to make an autonomous James Bond flick out of Ian Fleming's Thunderball, and 1983 seemed like the perfect time to capitalize on it, what with resident Bond Roger Moore's age catching up with him and the original series running out of steam as a consequence. A household name, the character of Bond has enough cultural heft and influence that he warrants interpretations from independent sources besides, and given that Sean Connery was lured out of a twelve-year retirement from the character--hence the title, Never Say Never Again--as well as the room for improvement left by the original Thunderball, the film had the potential to be more than just a cynical cash-in.
Led by a statelier, more businesslike Blofeld (Max von Sydow), SPECTRE commandeers two American nukes with which to blackmail NATO. Recently re-inducted as an active field agent, fifty-something Bond (Connery) follows the scent to the Bahamas, where he must face off against philanthropist/video game designer Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) with the help of Largo's mistress, Domino (an absurdly young Kim Basinger). Before the release dates were inevitably rearranged, the plan was to pit Never Say Never Again in direct competition with Octopussy at the multiplex--and yet, for something pitched as an alternative to the status quo, Never Say Never Again is a let-down in almost every respect. Some see this version of the story as a psychological thriller about an aging spy in a changing world (and some find Brandauer's Largo to be complex and sensitive; I merely find him bland and tiresome), but there's really nothing to the damned thing beyond a dusty, misguided nostalgia attempting to resurrect Connery's glory days.
Despite its maverick reputation, Never Say Never Again feels more like a product of the bourgeois Establishment than the official franchise itself ever did. Maybe it's the impeccable Etruscan sets, maybe it's that Connery's perpetual superiority complex goes unchallenged, or maybe it's the simple fact that the action sequences seem restricted by a single-digit speed limit dictated by the relatively miniscule budget and the star's advanced age. The film is certainly aware of everything it must contain for street cred (guns, cars, shagging), but bringing the actor synonymous with 007 into its corner appears to have infected the production with a laissez-faire attitude--such that even when the picture does muster the will to deliver on convention, it does so without the slightest trace of ingenuity or gracefulness. There's not a single moment in all the movie's 134 minutes that doesn't feel recycled or redundant; you wince with embarrassment early on when Bond disposes of henchman Pat Roach with a jar full of his own super-urine, and once you reach the end of the inglorious mess that follows, you have no idea who's shooting at whom, or why. Thunderball may be hopelessly formulaic, but everyone from that production at least cared enough to strive for coherence--and there, too, Fleming's invincible hero had the advantage of an inherent spontaneity* ruled out by Never Say Never Again's bad case of déjà vu. Bound by the courts of law and box-office expectations to adhere to a very limited perception of what our hero was capable of accomplishing, Never Say Never Again explicitly states its desire to ladle out "some gratuitous sex and violence," which it does--in the most blank, perfunctory way possible.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
In conjunction with MGM's Blu-ray issues of their James Bond titles, Never Say Never Again arrives on the format from parent company Fox so as to set it apart from the genuine article. Still, it's evident that some amount of effort went into this restoration/remaster, as the 2.35:1, 1080p widescreen image looks...appropriate. The film's dull beige palette, wonderfully emblematic of '80s film technique (read: bland and suffocating), is rendered with an organic fidelity that only becomes problematic in optical shots and a handful of nighttime sequences that exhibit worrisome levels of grain. Similarly ideal but harder to appreciate as an upgrade to previous editions, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is reedy and less than immersive--purists probably would've forgiven a from-scratch remix in this case. Occupying another track is a mildly interesting, mostly-one-sided conversation between Kershner and James Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin. Being the guy who injected The Empire Strikes Back with a welcome irreverence, Kershner was the right man for the job, though it's pretty obvious how little emotional investment he had in this particular tentpole: He spends most of the yakker walking us through the plot with superfluous elaborations on the necessity of a well-rounded narrative that are only buffered by the occasional personal anecdote. At one point, he also admits that Thunderball was the weakest of Fleming's novels in terms of its potential for cinematic adaptation.
Flying in the face of Never Say Never Again's presumably-vindicating box-office success, the disc's documentary supplements are a bit more straightforward in establishing the film's general worthlessness. For that you might consider them must-sees for cinephiles in addition to Bond completists, as they offer not only vital lessons in how the legal aspects of filmmaking affect the creative aspects, but also the ever-so-vague hope that we'll one day be equally dismissive of Michael Bay's boffo bullshit. Kershner repeats many a statement from the commentary, while credited screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., simultaneously the logical and illogical choice as the author of the King Kong and Flash Gordon reboots, explains that no love was lost when he was dismissed from the project. Script doctors Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement (Across the Universe) subsequently chime in to take pride in beating the screenplay into a workable shape but express discomfort over how their taut title sequence was marred by the picture's awful title song. In retrospect, all seem to understand that Never Say Never Again is perhaps best regarded as a cautionary tale: When a movie like this is produced as a simple prerogative of copyright, no one's going to feel terribly passionate about it.
Indeed, "The Big Gamble" (16 mins., 480i) makes no bones about the forces that brought the film to life: With Connery's presence as the driving force in the midst of a lawsuit from Cubby Broccoli, Kershner and producer Jack Schwartzman (here represented by his widow, Talia Shire) smashed four scripts together and ran everything past their lawyers to ensure the film never strayed from the parameters of Thunderball. It eventually culminates in the common confession that, because everyone had grown so tired of playing Red Rover every step of the way, when it came time to shoot an ending no one gave a shit anymore. Explains a lot, doesn't it?
"Sean is Back" (8 mins., 480i) gathers cast and crew to reflect on how delightful it was to have Connery reprising his signature role after so long out of the saddle--readily ignoring the actor's listless interim career and still-obvious 007 fatigue. (The fact that Connery stopped caring around 1967 is apparent from his disastrous voice work in the equally-disastrous From Russia with Love video game, although he continues to be unrivalled in his timing of "Bond, James Bond.") Sans Basinger, "The Girls of Never Say Never Again" (10 mins., 480i) surveys the various female-types involved in the production, many of whom were relatively new to the biz--and we come to the unsurprising conclusion that all were intimidated by Connery's commanding presence. From the sounds of it, Barbara Carrera--whose role casually expanded as she collaborated with Kershner--was probably the only one having any fun on set. A HiDef photo gallery and the film's theatrical trailer (a sedate, self-explanatory thing more suited to contemporary television) finish off the platter. Originally published: May 12, 2009.
*It's easy to forget that the best Bond films aren't necessarily built on their action set-pieces. 007 spends about half of Goldfinger in helpless captivity, for example, but his battles of will and ego against the titular villain were enough to make that film an instant classic. return
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