In the long history of James Bond films, we’ve never seen anything like never Say Never Again. It’s one of three Bond productions that didn’t fall under the banner of producer Albert L. Broccoli and his heirs: a non-canonical appendage rather than an “official” Bond film. (The other two were early versions of Casino Royale: one a flat-out farce and the other a largely discarded episode of American Playhouse.) It should have been forgotten as a weird fluke, only something happened on the way to irrelevance. Sean Connery – the first and still the most definitive Bond – signed on, giving the project not only a huge shot of legitimacy but slyly upending a lot of our previously held notions about the character.
In that sense, it works in a manner similar to the 2006 Casino Royale and its follow-up Skyfall. The Daniel Craig films, however, emphasized the grim realities of post-Millennial Bond. This one took the opposite route, positing an aging secret agent with a grin and a knowing wink. Connery was the only choice to pull that off: showing his age, but still hale and hardy, and flashing a twinkle in his eye that reminded us not to take it all so seriously.
That’s a good thing, because the plot feels very cut and dried: a re-hash of Thunderball with a little updating and a few old-guy jokes thrown in for good measure. The story of how it got to the screen is fascinating in and of itself. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, collaborated with producer Kevin McClory to write a Bond film in 1961, well before Dr. No. The project was abandoned, but Fleming used the structure to write his novel Thunderball… without crediting McClory for its co-creation. McClory sued and won (the strain of the suit likely contributed to Fleming’s fatal heart attack in 1964) which scored him producer’s credit on the Thunderball movie. Plus, he still had the rights, and in 1983 dusted them off for a new version, complete with a title riffing on Connery’s previous claim that he would “never” play James Bond again.
So suddenly, against all apparent odds, this thing shows up. Connery’s arch Bond faces down a new gaggle of SPECTRE baddies, led by the ubiquitous Ernst Blofeld (Max von Sydow) and his sinister underling Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Barndauer). It’s pretty standard stuff, with a dated video game wrinkle added in keeping with the times. A decent pair of Bond girls (Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera) are along for the ride, the threats arrive right on cue, and our hero responds with a healthy mixture of wit and Q gadgets to carry the day. Same old, same old.
They’re very clear here that Bond is over the hill: not tough enough to withstand the rigors of the field and not apt to get any better as time goes on. Indeed, the whole first section involves his arrival at a health spa for rest and rejuvenation, reflecting his status as an official old geezer. Like Star Trek II, Never Say Never turns its star’s gray hair into a narrative asset, playing with the notion of being over the hill rather than trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. (The Roger Moore films weren’t quite so knowing, which eventually bit the “official” franchise in the ass.)
That knowingness translates into a wonderful sense of fun: retro-kitsch without losing the action and excitement that one expects from 007’s exploits. Director Irvin Kershner displays a resolutely light touch with the material, aided by Connery having as grand a time as one could possibly imagine. Without that all-important element, Never Say Never Again might have been an embarrassment. With it, it becomes something a more. If push came to shove, I’d probably prefer Octopussy. But neither would I deny this film the chance to let its start exit with a flouirsh. Connery is to Bond what Bela Lugosi is to Dracula or Christopher Reeve is to Superman. Others may play the role and play it well, but it remains his for the taking. His curtain call here makes a fitting farewell to 007’s most enduring embodiment: as much a playful send-up as a loving final embrace.