Remember all the hype surrounding Harrison Ford's return as Indiana Jones. Remember the ridiculous amount of press and pre-release frothing that occurred. Mentions were made of the actor's age, the years between his last appearance as the fedora-wearing archeological hero, and how numerous behind the scenes issues (script, subject matter) threatened the favored franchise's equity. Now jump back two decades, change the title character, and realize how hyperactive fans got when it was announced that Sean Connery was coming back as 007, James Bond, in a new film. In his mid '50s, and only a dozen years removed from his last turn as the character (1971's Diamonds are Forever), the proclamation indeed garnered the kind of hoopla reserved for visiting royalty and the imminent invasion of visitors from another world. Of course, if it weren't for the continuing efforts of certain studios to revisit every film or cinematic series that ever made it money, this all would seem unusual. But some 26 years later, Never Say Never Again looks like the beginning of a bad trend in Tinsel Town retreading.
After he does poorly on a field test, M believes that superspy James Bond needs a little spa-based R&R. Sending him off to an upscale resort, he hopes the aging agent will get his "free radicals" in line and rediscover his license to kill groove. Instead, Bond stumbles upon a plot by SPECTRE to steal nuclear warheads. With said weapons of mass destruction, they will blackmail the entire world. Helping out are multi-millionaire Max Largo and said tycoon's deadly associate, the exotic Fatima Blush. SPECTRE leader Blofeld is convinced his plan will work, as long as no one interferes. Our reinstated hero travels to the Bahamas to follow up on his leads. There, he runs into bumbling British field agent Nigel Small-Fawcett and Largo's lady love, Domino. It is her brother, a heroin addicted pilot, who aided in pilfering the nukes in the first place. She will also be the pawn Bond plays to get to Largo, Blofeld, and the rest of SPECTRE's awful evildoers.
Never Say Never Again has not aged well. It is by far one of the best Bond films of the '80s, but that's not saying very much (the era did give us For Your Eyes Only, Octopyussy, A View to A Kill, The Living Daylights, and License to Kill), and for all its "Connery is back" hyperbole, there is just too much Commodore 64 style technology to look contemporary. What the film does have going for it is smart direction (by Empire Strikes Back helmer Irvin Kershner), a superb supporting cast including seminal baddie Klaus Maria Brandauer, and a down to Earth tone that foretells the future direction the entire franchise would take come Casino Royale. And, of course, there's Sean. For all he's done to undermine his mythos as of late, there is no denying his power and presence as James Bond. Not just because he originated the role, or represents the entire '60s obsession with spy games and espionage. No, this is an actor who understands the character implicitly, who molds 007's personality into a masterful mirror image of his own. Even at 53, and under some obvious age defying make-up, he's timeless.
The plot, which had to stay strictly to the literary letter (or at least, the clear intention) of Ian Fleming's novel Thunderball (based on a court case between competing studio interests) was rather timely - considering the '80s attention to nuclear proliferation and approaching Armageddon, and unlike recent versions of the superagent, this is one Bond who gets to enjoy the "spoils" of the still simmering Cold War. Sure, the sequences with M and Q are slightly surreal, not quite right within the other overwhelming Bond universe, and we do miss the modern action-oriented tone the newer films favor. Still, for those who wonder what Fleming's famous hero would look like in a Reagan era pose, Never Say Never Again provides the answer. Even better, this movie addresses the fan fiction like notion of what Bond would look like playing a lame video game as part of a stand off with a villain who clearly believes Colecovision will conquer the world. Yes, the Atari meets atrocity sequence of analog Risk is rather silly, but it does give Never a novelty that few of the Moore made efforts could match.
Of course, the big debate among Bond purists is the purpose in all this revision. Some note that the only reason the movie was made was so that Connery could get paid and the producer holding the rights to Thunderball could maintain a kind of equitable advantage over the big bad Broccoli dynasty. There are those who even go so far as to refer to it as the Corman's Fantastic Four of James Bond movies (Google the reference if you need to know). On the other side, there are supporters for whom a long lost prayer was finally answered with this movie - a decade or so and a few wrinkles too late, but a deferred dream quelled none the less. For those not among the 007 obsessives, this is a fun if superfluous romp, a chance to see a great star taking on his greatest role once again. This is not the final word on the franchise (albeit indirectly), nor is it the total waste of espionage space many would make it out to be. Somewhere in between satisfying and silly, definitive and derivative lies Connery's return to the cash cow fray. Depending on how you feel about the character and the franchise overall, Never Say Never Again is a welcome return to form, or a worthless bit of legal maneuvering. Too bad the movie itself gets lost in such a shuffle.
Offered up in a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Never Say Never Again doesn't look like a newly remastered or revisited title. Instead, the colors are soft without being completely sharp and there's a tele-visual quality to the cinematography that's typical of '80s movies in general. This is a film clearly crafted with the eventual home video market in mind, and the passable print reflects this.
On the sound side, things are a tad better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround surpasses the similarly styled 2.0 mix, with lots of back speaker splash during the action. Dialogue is clear and easily understandable. Some may balk at the lack of a classic Bond soundtrack, but the music by Michel Legrand is decent, if not definitive.
As he did for The Empire Strike Back, Kershner is on hand to suck all the life out of the commentary for Never Say Never Again. As much as Bond "expert" Jay Rubin tries to enliven the critical conversation, the old school director just gives us the facts - and the blatantly obvious ones at that. "Sean was older here," he offers. "We filled this in the Bahamas," he explains. We need to get him on Mastermind with Sybil Fawlty right away. Elsewhere, we gain more insight into the production from the featurettes "The Big Gamble" and "Sean in Back". For those interested in the femme fatale aspect of the series, "The Girls of Never Say Never Again" offers up some EPK-lite delights. While far from the concrete "Collector's Edition" the packaging promises, this is a fine digital presentation.
It bears repeating - the best way to judge Never Say Never Again is to weigh your devotion to Sean Connery, his portrayal of James Bond, and how best you would like to remember him - suave and debonair circa 1962 to 1971, or cashing a paycheck while looking fit circa 1983. The answer will definitely guide your critical appreciation (or lack thereof). In the grand scheme of things, this is still lesser Bond, but as an overall entertainment, Kershner and company make a serviceable thriller. This latest DVD incarnation of the title earns a weak Recommended rating, if only for the true lack of reference quality tech specs. Oddly enough, when Lucas and Company were announcing the return of Indiana Jones, Connery's name was batted around as well. The reason? As Indiana Jones' fabled father Henry, creators were hoping for his return to the series. Apparently, at 77, it was easier to say "No" to a favored franchise than it was two decades before. While the title aphorism is almost always true, there are those who wish Connery had continued with his "never again" mandate. Like Indy IV, this return was initially welcome, if eventually unexceptional.