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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Never Say Never Again

#13 1/2?I have to admit it--I'm at something of a loss of how to approach my review of Never Say Never Again.

I can't approach it exactly like the Eon Bond films, because it's not Eon...it's produced by another production group/studio, so comparisons to other Bond aren't necessarily valid...or fair.

Then again, the makers of Never Say Never Again desperately wanted this to be seen as a legitimate Bond film, and perhaps the start of a rival franchise. So does it become fair game to compare sets and stunts and other factors to the "real" Bond franchise?

And, for convoluted legal reasons, they only had various versions of the Thunderball story to use--so the movie had to be, by definition, a remake. So how much of my review do I spend comparing it to the Eon Thunderball??

Oy, the headaches. I think I'll vamp for time by explaining (to those of you who aren't already familiar with story) how this rival Bond came about. Allow me a couple of caveats: I'm no lawyer, and many of the facts of this matter are still disputed 50 years later. Many, many sources can't even seem to agree on the most basic facts. So please, take what I'm relaying here as a layman's understanding of the story, and not a legally informed judgment.

No, I haven 't read it yetAfter having sold the right to Casino Royale (which was made into an uninspiring U.S. TV one-hour movie) and Moonraker (which resulted in nothing), Ian Fleming was approached by producer wannabe Kevin McClory, who convinced him that the best cinematic future for Bond was in original movies. Working with screenwriter Jack Whittingham, they went through many drafts of a movie alternately known as "Warhead" or "James Bond of the Secret Service." The storyline that eventually evolved was what we would recognize as the book and movie Thunderball, introducing Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the stealing of nuclear warheads for blackmail. Reportedly there were as many as 15 drafts, with major and minor variations.

The project collapsed, as McClory was unable to find financing. But then Fleming decided to re-write the material into a new Bond novel, Thunderball. No credit was given to McClory and Whittingham for their contributions, so they sued Fleming. Nine days into the trial, there was a settlement: aside from monetary damages, all future printings of the book would carry the line "based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming." Most importantly for our purposes, McClory was given the film rights to the Thunderball story.

Still unable to find financial backing, he reached a deal with Saltzman and Broccoli to "collaborate" on a Thunderball movie. McClory would be named producer and got a share of the proceeds. In return, McClory agreed not to make another movie from his Bond materials for at least 10 years.

Well, unsurprisingly, McClory came back, threatening lawsuits over Eon's use of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (which was one of the reasons there was a longer than usual break between The Man With The Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me), and eventually finding financial backing to make his remake of Thunderball, helped in no small part by the promise of having Sean Connery back on board.

And so we have Never Say Never Again (a great Flemingesque title, taken from what Sir Sean's wife replied when he had said after Diamonds Are Forever that he would never doing Bond again). In a year that Eon was scheduled to release their own "real" Bond movie, Warner Brothers (via Orion) we were scheduled for a head to head "battle of the Bonds." Octopussy beat NSNA to the screen by a few months, but still, for the first time, Eon's James Bond had a direct competitor.

So what do we have here? A curious creature that wants so so desperately to be Bond, but because they seriously hoped that somehow this could be the start of a rival series, they had to somehow make it unique and distinguishable from the "real" Bond series. Which was going to be a nearly impossible task, given that it starred the best known and most popular Bond actor in a story that was a remake of the highest-grossing Bond film ever. The producers were sort of caught between Scylla and Charybdis there.

One of the steps they took was to create a hostile work environment for 007. His superiors no longer believed in him, or the Double-Os. We hear several times about budget cutbacks and bureaucracy, about how the CIA is so much better funded. This, I think, is a miscalculation. Part of the fantasy appeal for Bond (and almost any adventure series) is being free of such petty bureaucratic complaints, and having the whole of the English treasury at your disposal to fight evil. Nobody wants to hear Q complaining that he doesn't have enough money to make gadgets and about labour unrest...that's just a sad reminder of our own pathetic lives, instead of the fantasy we crave. Nigel Small-Fawcett is worried that 007 will hurt the tourist trade. Is that really how they expected to make their Bond better--by making everyone else around him worse? Did they really expect to sell their version of Bond by making his life dingy and drab?

British upper-crust=constipated?Similarly, the decision to make M into a upper-crust jackass with no support or appreciation for 007 is all wrong...it's a trope from an American maverick cop movie, not a James Bond film. Bond should be fighting for his government, not in spite of it. So when Edward Fox plays M as a clueless buffoon who constantly threatens Bond with suspension and dismisses all of his ideas, but then promises Bond lunch at his club when he needs him, the movie becomes too divorced from a healthy Bond/M relationship. We're given a "comedy" relationship that never really succeeds, either in comedy terms or in a dynamic that makes this type of movie work. They make M into Dilbert's boss, which is not a winning strategy. The audience shouldn't hate M, but NSNA leaves us little choice.

Blackadder is constipatedOf course, that's also reflective of the biggest problem of this film--everyone is playing at different levels. Whether due to Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s screenplay or Irvin Kirshner's direction, all of our characters are acting as if they're in different types of film. Rowan Atkinson's Small-Fawcett is a character from Casino Royale (1967) or a Pink Panther movie (not to mention, once again playing up the incompetence of the British Secret Service). It's impossible to take a movie seriously that matches up his performance with Bernie Casey's or Sean Connery's. It's completely tonally inconsistent. The same goes for many of the other characters--Fatima Blush is a cartoon character, Largo is a Lectoresque psychopath, Domino solidly grounded in the real world...everyone is playing at different levels of fantasy/seriousness, and it rarely meshes well. Yes, they decided to play up the camp in this movie a bit...but you still need to establish a base level on which all the characters interact, and NSNA fails to find this.

Yes, this movie does camp it up. I suppose that's a good strategy to differentiate yourself from "the other fella." And Sean Connery does a good job at standing at the center of the silliness and winking at us (as he actually does in the last shot). They never push it into farce, as the "comedy" Casino Royale did, but this movie takes itself far less seriously than even the Roger Moore movies do--and that's saying something. The villains are more cartoony, some of the traps just silly even by Bond standards (radio-controlled sharks??), any sense of danger or tension undercut by the direction and the jokiness. It's not a type of Bond movie that I prefer, but they do a decent job with it, by not letting it get too out of hand.

Which brings us back to Sir Sean. And let me be blunt--without Connery, this movie is a complete failure.

The other times we've changed Bonds, we've had the rest of the original cast around, and the situation was the same. This time, we've got a Bond we're familiar with, but everything around him has changed...it's a different universe than the 007 we're used to. And frankly, if some other actor were there, it just wouldn't work. Without the rest of the trappings to tells us this was a Bond film, a new actor would have made this just another spy movie...and not a particularly good one. Not only would a different actor required the removal of about 1/2 the dialogue for its coy (and not so coy) references to Connery being back, but only Sean Connery could bring in the audience goodwill to suspend its disbelief enough to accept this situation as Bond. That audience identification--Connery=Bond--is the only thing that makes this film a Bond movie.

This one's for the ladiesSir Sean himself is in great form. He's in awesome shape, physically and in performance. He's able to roll with the punches, as it were, by being the only actor on screen who can take his performance to the level required to make the camp successful. He can be wry without being silly; he can wink at us without breaking character; he knows how to look disgusted at some of the shenanigans going on around him, thus keeping the audience on his side. And most importantly, he seems to be enjoying himself.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the film seems...well, lesser. I don't want to say cheap, because its production budget was only $2 million less than that of Octopussy. But throughout it seems less professional, less polished, and, well, cheaper than the Eon productions. Take the opening scene (no teaser!) of Bond infiltrating a rebel camp, apparently in Latin America. Yes, we later find out it's all a training exercise, but nonetheless its terribly non-involving. Not much stunt work, no clever use of location, no exciting fights...from the way it's shot and presented to us, it might as well be James Bond breaking into a Bronx tenement or a London hostel. There's nothing to approach the "over-the-topness" that we've come to expect from Bond action sets, nothing to excite the audience. It's all very...pedestrian.

(I should note that the sequence isn't helped in the least by the music. The decision to play Lani Hall's rendition of the theme song over that opening scene is pretty disastrous. No matter what you might think of the song, it is completely incongruous with what's supposed to be a tense action scene. And Michel Legrand's score--which sounds like nothing so much as a late-night-on-Cinemax-soft-core-porn soundtrack--has a similar stupefying effect on most of the rest of the film.)

And throughout NSNA, there's an unwillingness to commit to what's needed to make the movie competitive with Eon's Bonds. Some of the special effects, such as the cruise missiles or the horse jumping out of the fortress, are fairly poor, even by 1983 standards. The exterior shots of the submarine are reused from the movie Ice Station Zebra (seriously). The underground temple that leads to the underground river is particularly unimpressive...it's all new and shiny and styrofoamy. Instead of the impressive meeting room from Thunderball, here Blofeld has just a drawing room with a bunch of wooden chairs (I know, Ken Adam is an unfair comparison to anybody, but still...). Instead of the dozens of underwater combatants we get in Thunderball's climax, we get 2. Even the sound effects sound as if they're recycled from other movies. The bomb in Washington is found and defused off-screen, with no help from our hero. The overall air is one of...well, I hate to say it, but cheapness.

NSNA also is lacking in action pieces. Seriously, this is one of the talkiest Bonds ever. And you can count the action set pieces on one hand--the intro, the Shrublands fight with Count Lippe, I suppose you could count the sharks in the Bahamas, the motorcycle chase, the horse running around the fortress, and the battle at the temple/underwater. That's it, unless you want to call Bond and Largo playing Death Pong an action sequence. For Your Eyes Only had more excitement and action in the first half hour than NSNA had for the entire picture (yes, I'm exaggerating, but barely). In between the sparse action, there's a lot of bureaucratic fuddy-duddying, a lot of comic relief, and generally a lot of coasting on Sean Connery's charm (which admittedly goes a long way).

Ah, yes, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Kong. Or rather Domination, as Largo wants to call it. You may remember my reviews of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, where I mentioned that the climaxes involved James Bond watching a view screen, and complained that nobody wanted to watch James Bond playing a video game.

Cyber-StrategoSilly me. NSNA's producers and writer decided that we really did want to watch 007 playing Electronic Risk (with Bonus Pain!). The Video Dominoes battle with Largo is particularly symbolic of this movie as a whole, because a) it's probably not something we want to see Bond doing in a movie (unless it was Guitar Hero, that would be kind of rad to watch Bond whip off a blistering solo), and b) it's not done particularly well. The actions of the competitors' joysticks don't match the on-screen movements; it's impossible to tell what the status of the game is from the visuals (and if there's anything better than watching a video game in a movie, it's having to have the game status narrated to us by the Cylon voice); and by the time we get to Largo's second "perhaps I didn't explain" we realize that it's not much fun to watch a "game" where the rules are being made up as we go along. What's better--they make us watch them play 4 TIMES!!!And Bond's sudden mastery of 3-D Hungry Hungry Hippo--what's up with that? The first 3 times he's trounced, and then he pulls out a complete whoopass on Largo? Was he playing possum, or are his video game learning skills really that awesome? (Or, more likely, just a poorly scripted scene...). Sadly, just like the idea watching the ultra rich hang around a video arcade, the Bioshock '83 game is merely a sad attempt to make Bond look hip while simply looking lame and incongruous.

And your little dog, too!Barbara Carrera is fun as Fatima Blush, but she's no Fiona Volpe. She's allowed to overplay to such an extent that she becomes a TV Batman villain, chewing the scenery with such relish that little is left afterward. Her uber-camp approach contrasts too strongly with everything else in the movie, putting her on a different plane, so her menace just ends up being cartoony, no more threatening than Julie Newmar's Catwoman or Frank Gorshin's Riddler. Her joyous, bouncy performance, always seeming to dance across the screen, is infectious, her constant costume changes into outrageous outfits fun; but you could say the same about Cher, and who wants to see her as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. #12? The frustrating part is, by allowing her to sail so far above everyone else, Kirschner damages the movie. When Blush dies, it's as if someone let all the air out of a balloon. The rest of the movie flags, all the energy drained...there's no one left to match the camp energy she gave off, so the last 45 minutes of the film becomes drab by comparison.

I'm ACTING strenuously here...Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo is an interesting performance, one I can never make up my mind about. I think my problem has been that it's all very one-note. He excels at the "charming psychopath," tossing off odd gestures and mannerisms. But he never has any other levels: you never really see any inkling of a man Domino could have fallen in love with, of a master planner, of a man capable of building a billion dollar empire. His air of bemused detachment, and the way he always seems to be laughing at some private joke, is fun. But he never drops it, and never engages with the rest of the cast. This is an odd analogy, but it's almost as if he's Rainman, playing in some different movie in his own head. That's not what makes a successful Bond villain. Most of the time, I like Brandauer's Largo better than Adolfo Celi's. I just wish Brandauer had completed the job and created a full-fleshed out character.

She's no Claudine AugerAah, Kim Basinger. Gorgeous, lovely, sexy woman. But this movie doesn't give Domino a lot to do. It's interesting that, in a film that tried to "modernize" Bond in so many ways, they gave us a throwback Bond Girl, one who's function is simply to look pretty and be rescued by James. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does seem a step backward from the more aggressive and helpful women of recent Eon pictures. The way the movie is written, it comes completely out of left field when Domino shows up at the last minute to harpoon Largo. I have no problems with Basinger's performance--hell, she's one of only two Bond women with an Oscar on her resumé--but she's surrounded by camp psychos, and her performance is the most serious, non-camp in the movie, which makes her look less interesting in comparison. Combine that with a script that just has her dancing around and reacting to events the whole movie, and it's no wonder her role is often forgotten.

So what do we have here? An object lesson in what to do--and mostly what not to do--in making an "unofficial" Bond film. Because it's not beyond the realm of possibility that somehow, someday, there might be more "rival" Bonds, or that someone besides Eon will end up with the "official" series. And what lessons does NSNA provide to these hypothetical future producers?
  • Don't skimp on the action and stunts (and find someone who knows how to direct them)
  • Don't make Bond a beleaguered civil servant, don't belabor MI-6's money problems--it's supposed to be a fantasy, not realistic portrayal of an empire in decline
  • If you're going to do camp, get a writer and director who understand how to do it, and make sure the tone is consistent throughout
  • Speaking of which, make sure your director is enforcing the vision with the cast, and keep all of the actors on the same page about what kind of movie they're in...this isn't some small town repertory...
  • Don't date your movie by having Bond participating in something ultra-hip: the Ultra Missile Command sequence didn't work, and neither will what you're planning
  • Give your Bond a likable supporting cast, because you're not going to get Sean Connery to carry the load this time
  • For heaven's sake, get a freakin' decent theme song and score.
  • Don't remake Thunderball again.
I've ragged fairly hard on NSNA, and I'm sure I've been too harsh. It's not a completely terrible movie, and a decent way to pass two hours. But without Sean Connery to support it, it's not really a Bond movie at all, let alone a good Bond movie. It's a movie made by people who had been waiting for years to make a Bond movie, and when they finally got their chance, they didn't seem to know how to actually do it. As such, Never Say Never Again is an interesting footnote in Bond history, but nothing more.

SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:

**What's up with that Arab slave market? Were these guys extras from a remake of Lawrence of Arabia? Given the your plot involves the necessity of protecting the wealthy Middle Eastern oil fields, maybe you might want to portray at least some Middle Easterners as more advanced than the 1914 version we're given here.

What year is it??**This movie does a poor job of explaining why Bond does what he does. In Thunderball, Bond explains that he saw Derval alive when he was supposedly dead, and he deliberately follows that lead to Derval's sister. In NSNA, we get no explanation...Bond just shows up in the Bahamas. No trail of clues, no speculation, no nothing. Granted, Bond could have put together the clues he had, but wouldn't it have been nice to see some reasoning, instead of showing up in the Bahamas already suspecting Largo?

**Please, movie, can you give me some more dancing?

Once is happenstance...**Max Von Sydow is completely wasted here. There's not a single shot or inflection that wasn't done just as effectively by "hidden" Blofeld in Thunderball (Not to mention, he looks extraordinarily uncomfortable holding the cat). Why go to the effort of getting a famous actor to portray Blofeld is you're not actually going to do anything with him? (Plus, he keeps up the old "7 days" deadline, which we've discussed before as stupider than stupid)

Ming the Merciless!!**Hey, Felix Leiter! First time we've seen him in a decade (since Live and Let Die). Bernie Casey makes a nice, affable Leiter...but as usual, it's not of much consequence.

OK, now let's do Live And Let Die, sucka!**Please, film, share some more dancing with us!!

Twice is coincidence**So Bond is in room 623, and "Lady in Bahamas" is in room 728. They go to her room. Fatima Blush blows up Bond's room. So, given the explosion we see here:

The earth moved...Why is 623 on the complete opposite side of the hotel from 728? (Possible, I suppose, but not in any hotel layout I've ever seen). And why is 623 on a floor ABOVE 728? And how does Small-Fawcett track down Bond in HER room, anyway?

"Lady in Bahamas" is played by Valerie Leon, who also played the hotel clerk lusting after Bond in TSWLM. Glad to see she finally had her way with him...

**OK, is Bond's pretending to be Domino's masseuse at all creepy, or is it just me?

Licence to be a stalker??**Changing Count Lippe from a snobby aristocrat to a huge wrestler is one way to approach the story, I guess. But the Shrublands fight makes the Jaws mistake: it's not really fun to watch your hero battle futilely against an unstoppable superman, and then not have him win through wits or skill but a by a fluke (ie joke). Barbells bounce of his chest, boiling water thrown in his face didn't phase him, but Bond's urine sample stops him cold? Er, ha ha, I guess? Seriously, it's cartoon time again...

Plus, the fight lasts forever (more than 5 minutes), and the only payoff is yet another crack about how broke MI-6 is.

**More dancing? Why, thank you, film!!

Three times is enemy action**So Max is running his little soiree as a fundraiser for orphans...and the big draw is a room full of video arcade consoles (mostly Centipede)? I guess those orphans had better hope that those rich folks had an awful lot of quarters...

**No, that's NOT Timothy Dalton there...

Just two more movies, baby...than I'm in like Flynn!**Maybe it's just me, but it seems that if S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has access the President's retinal pattern, which has to be one of the more secure things in the world, they'd also have access to a lot of other important shit, and wouldn't have to waste time on time-consuming and complicated nuclear blackmail plans.

**On the other hand, kudos to Largo...unlike Thunderball, he had the good sense to move the two nukes far, far away from his home base.

**Was Largo on a suicide mission? After he enters the final cavern, he blows up the entrance behind him. He didn't have any cronies waiting to pull him up through the well...and it's not at all clear he could have gotten up there unaided. Was this always the plan, was he despondent over Domino, or did he have no other choice with Bond so close on his tail? Or did he have some secret way out (and the time to get there before the bomb blew)?

**Bond Score: 4. Patricia Fearing, Fatima, Lady in Bahamas, and Domino (sadly, all of whose counterparts in Thunderball are more alluring). Not bad for an old man, James. It doesn't seem as if he gets a chance to get involved with poor doomed Nicole. No cumulative score here, as this is an alternate universe.

And, as always:

It pays to be married to a producer...Yo, Adrian!!!

Next week, join as us they scrape the bottom of the Fleming barrel, and somehow manage to make a movie called Octopussy.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent blog.

    I wish you'd have the time to punch-up more thoughts re: the James Bond universe.

    I also thought you were going to do an interesting post comparing Sean's Bond to Roger's?

    Keep up the entertaining reviews.

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  2. Actually, Anon, that exact post is coming this weekend...

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  3. Geez. I've always liked NSNA, but now maybe I won't. I can't really refute anything you say about it, except to note that the flaws you point out never bug me all that much. Weird.

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  4. It probably does have the worst score of any Bond movie. Further, as you pointed out, they play romantic music during the action scenes and action music during the romantic scenes.

    Has anyone noticed The Incredibles lifted a lot of John Barry?

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  5. Holy moly, Jaq, don't let me talk you out of liking the film...just different tastes! And, as I admitted in the post, I was probably too harsh on the flick...

    Stephe, I prefer to think of it as an "homage" rather than a lift...it's funny, but in many ways that movie was almost as much a Bond film parody as a superhero parody...but the reviewers mostly missed it...

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  6. In my comment on your AVTAK review I wrote about how if it wasn't for TWINE I would consider AVTAK the worst Bond film. That's because as always I forgot this one existed.

    All of us have a traumatic first viewing experience of NSNA when the gun-barrel fails to show up on scren. And it gets worse.

    NSNA is a James Bond film written by 12-year old Bond fans. The dialogue is beyond lame and Connery, unlike Roger Moore, is unable to make these horrible puns he is given at least worthy of a smile. Fatima Blush is a 12-year old's Bond villainess, all with snakes and kinky nurse outfits. But like you said, she is fun and does carry the entire film on her shoulders and not very smart to kill her off so early. Though he lacks Adolfo Celi's physical presence, Klaus Maria Brandeur delivers one of the best villanous performances on a Bond film. Such a shame he had to do it here though.

    Bland, uninspiring, it has a flat music score, lack of any memorable setpieces save for the motorcycle chase. And please note this is from the director of The Empire Strikes Back.

    Have you ever read the detailed summary for James Bond of the Secret Service, but 1970s Thunderball remake script McClory wanted to use instead? As insane as it was, it would have been far more interesting than this mess.

    (*)

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  7. This is a SUPERB rundown of the film. Love all the extra observations at the end. Well done.

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  8. You didn't understand the movie.

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  9. In the wikipedia entry for Thunderball: "David Robinson of The Financial Times criticised the appearance of Connery and his effectiveness to play Bond in the film remarking: "It's not just that Sean Connery looks a lot more haggard and less heroic than he did two or three years ago; but there is much less effort to establish him as connoisseur playboy. Apart from the off-handed order for Beluga, there is little of that comic display of bon viveur-manship that was one of the charms of Connery's almost-a-gentleman 007." "

    One of the things I do like very much about this movie is Connery's performance as Bond: in this remake of Thunderball he really is more of a gentleman / gentle man.

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