It's been a long time since I've seen Never Say Never Again, the 1983 James Bond film that marked the return of Sean Connery, but was not part of the actual Bond franchise that had started back in 1962 with Dr. No. That same year saw the release of Octopussy starring Roger Moore, which represented, at least at the time, the worst of the Albert Broccoli produced Bond films. Octopussy was so bad that when Never Say Never Again was released a few months later, it seemed brilliant. The best Bond movie ever. But twenty-six years later, released as a "special edition" DVD to coincide with the release of Quantum of Solace, and without the stench of Ocotpussy making it smell like a bed of roses, it seemed like a good time to revisit Never Say Never Again.
The byproduct of a lawsuit that gave producer Kevin McClory the rights to remake Thunderball (which had been Connery's fourth outing as Bond), Never Say Never Again is pretty much the same movie as Thunderball. Connery was 53 years old when the film was released (as opposed to Moore who was 56 when Octopussy came out), and the film wisely plays off the fact that this is an older Bond. Taking its cue from the recently relaunched literary Bond, who was an aging relic in John Gardner's follow up to Ian Fleming's original series, Never Say Never Again earns bonus points for letting Bond grow old. This time around, as with Thunderball, he finds himself racing against time to find two nuclear warheads stolen by the sinister terrorist organization known as SPECTRE. While searching for the bombs, 007 has a run in with Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), a sadistic assassin who tries to feed Bond to some sharks after humping him on a boat. Blush works for Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the SPECTRE operative and megalomaniacal tycoon in possession of the bombs. Blush's failed attempts to kill Bond brings him one step closer to saving the day. It also brings the British agent one step closer to scoring with Domino (Kim Basinger), Largo's main squeeze. With the help of his CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey)--and this should come as no surprise--Bond is able to foil the nefarious plans of the bad guys.
The history of Never Say Never Again begins with a story written by Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory for a film that was never produced. Fleming reworked the story and turned it into the novel Thunderball, which then became the film of the same name. Because of a complex set of legal issues, McClory had the right to make a movie based on the book Thunderball, but had to be careful not to steal from the movie. The result was this film, which was released amidst a significant amount of publicity, due almost exclusively to the fact that it featured Connery as Bond after a twelve-year hiatus. The hype and anticipation surrounding Connery's return as Bond, not to mention the unmitigated crapitude of Octopussy, made Never Say Never Again seem much better than it actually was.
Not a terrible Bond film, Never Say Never Again certainly ranks above Connery's Diamonds Are Forever, as well as at least three of Moore's films, and Timothy Dalton's License to Kill. It is, by Bond standards, an okay film, but many aspects have not aged well. First and foremost is the soundtrack, which in 1983 seemed pretty bad, but now, decades later, borders on unbearable. This is hands down the worst score to ever accompany a Bond film, with a title song that outshines even Moonraker in being pure shit.
Once you get past the music--and honestly, there's no getting past it--the other problems with the film are a bit more difficult to nail down. Brandauer is a fine actor, but as far as Bond villains go, he suffers from the same lack of diabolical charisma that plagued every antagonist from the mid 1970s all the way through the 80s. Brandauer's Largo is largely unremarkable and equally forgettable. The same is true for Basinger's Domino, who is pretty bland. Making matters worse is that this is one of Basinger's earlier films, when her talents as an actress were suspect at best. Neither Basinger nor Brandauer can hold their own opposite Connery, which makes their characters terribly overshadowed by Bond. Only Carrera and Casey seem to be up to the task of being on screen with Connery.
The key problem with the film is the script, which tends to meander at a pace that is often a bit too casual, before finally arriving at an uninspiring climax that looks as if the production had run out of money and was forced to cut corners. This isn't to say that the script is terrible, but it isn't classic Bond either. It comes across like some sort of pale imitation of a Bond movie, and by default so too does the movie itself. You never feel like you're watching a James Bond movie so much as a homage to a Bond movie, with Connery paying some sort of tribute to himself.
All of that said, the one reason, and for the most part the only reason to watch Never Say Never Again is Sean Connery. Effortless is the best way to describe his performance, and in some ways he almost seems to be apologizing for Diamonds Are Forever, which was most definitely his swansong as 007. Connery makes the film more entertaining and watchable than it deserves to be in what amounts to a cinematic miracle. In fact, there's really no reason to watch the film other than for Connery. The direction by Irvin Kershner, having come straight off of Empire Strikes Back, is bordering on pedestrian, to the point that even the action sequences aren't that exciting. And the film's pace is such that it never seems to fully get going. Still, it is great to see Connery do his thing, and appear to be having fun while doing it.