Digital Polyphony

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The Case for Never Say Never Again

Posted on July 23, 2014 at 1:00 AM

The Case for Never Say Never Again

Look at this:

That is a thing of beauty. My purchasing of this James Bond 50th Anniversay Blu-Ray Boxset was one of the best decisions I ever made. Sure, I had seen the movies before, but seeing them in HD I had yet to embark on, and in a lot of cases it was like watching them for the first time all over again. Rewatching them, yes even those ones, made me see things in a new way. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, perhaps it’s the new transfer on a bunch of them, but it’s likely because opinions simply change over time.

For example, I kind of like Moonraker now. Sure, it’s a little clunky at the end, but man…all the lead up to that before it jumps that shark and have a rather uninspired climax is pretty damn good. Timolthy Dalton is the most under appreciated James Bond, if only he was given more chances. Tomorrow Never Dies is bland to me now while The World is Not Enough felt more inspired (and has some amazing stunt work I feel like I’ve not noticed until now). I grew to like what Roger Moore brought rather than call him the “funny Bond.” Oh, and I now feel Thunderball is dull and tedious, keep that in mind.

Some views hadn't changed at all, though.. Die Another Day is still, by far, the worst one out of the series (mainly because it’s just a bad movie in general, even “bad” James Bond movies are still watchable). Connery is still the best Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is still the best story. From Russia with Love the best aged. Licence to Kill is still a movie that would be looked at better, and probably work better, if it didn’t have “James Bond” and was just a cheesy 80s action movie (which is why it’s not all that great). The Living Daylights still the most underrated...

…and Octopussy and, especially, A View to a Kill are still a movie with awesome ideas but an old Bond that can’t cut it.

Old Bond. Old Bond…wait a minute. Wasn’t there another Bond movie? Why yes, Q, there was. Only it simultaneously wasn’t.

I wonder if it's a 007 movie...

Dayum, That Guy's Old

I say “old Bond” because that’s what got me thinking about the movie Never Say Never again. I thought of it initially because I was watching Roger Moore in his later Bond films kind of do things that a man of his age probably wouldn’t be able to do. In fact, especially in his final film A View to a Kill, it did more disservice than anything. I suppose the suspension of disbelief can only go so far. Sure, they try to cover it up best they can, but you can just see it - that obvious cut where it’s obviously not Roger Moore and some stunt guy doing something a younger guy could actually do.

To me, it was obvious what the problem was: Roger Moore is old, and the script is written for a younger Bond. That’s because Bond has, always, been in that range of 30 - 40 years old in the movies. There was never an exact number, but it’s usually around there in terms of what he does and who he is.

So once I did my marathon of Bond watching from Dr. No to Skyfall, I thought I’d track down a copy of Never Say Never again. I kind of avoided it for years simply because I always heard bad things about it, how it wasn’t officially a Bond movie and how it’s a remake of Thunderball - my least favorite Connery Bond flick (and yes, that includes Diamonds are Forever).

Why was Thunderball my least favorite? Overlong shots of underwater stuff. I like underwater stuff, I just don’t like slow-paced underwater stuff when all it is basically saying is "dude, we got a camera that shoots underwater." Plus it was often a cluttered mess and I don't know who is who or what the hell is happening here.

So I got myself a copy and sat down to watch it. Despite the bad things I heard, I was still interested. For one, it is Connery returning to the role. We shouldn’t overlook that, because that’s a big factor here. The other is it’s directed by the great Irvin Kershner - and he’s a guy that knows what he’s doing.

Now I won’t detail what happens in Never Say Never again, if you know Thunderball you know the plot and the only thing I will say plot-wise is that it cuts down significantly on the underwater stuff, but I will tell you this: it’s a damn good movie. Hell, it’s a damn good James Bond movie.

Why? It comes back to my views of the later Roger Moore movies. “Man, he’s old” is a natural response.

In Never Say Never, you say that as well…but unlike the “legit” James Bond movies trying to pass of Roger Moore as a spry 40-something, here we have a movie actually written for the age of the actor. In other words, Never Say Never again isn’t a James Bond movie, it’s an old James Bond movie - as it’s written to where it doesn’t shy from his age and actually makes it a point in the film.

THAT’s what always bothered me about some of those later Moore flicks: his age was just ignored and they hoped we wouldn't notice. It tried to do say “look here, but don’t look too close” and it’s just something that was, overall, hard to buy. Sure, Moore still did his schtick as Bond and did it well, but he simply didn’t look like the age the character was written for.

Not Moore's fault, mind you. He wanted out but, like Michael Corleone, he got pulled back in.

Enter Never Say Never, and it has an entire scene of a doctor warning our elderly James Bond getting a check up and, he being Bond, the first thing he does is hit on the nurses. “Oh, I’m old and unwell? Bet I can still get this 20-something nurse in bed.” In a way, that’s how he keeps young.

And let’s not forget those awesome quips. The one-liners are something that no other Bond has been able to quite get right, and Connery slides so effortlessly into the role that it puts to shame Moore or Dalton or even Brosnan (who’s the only one that’s come close to delivering those little jabs). And you know what else? They are either a) and old Bond completely unaware of his age and still acting like he’s 30 with a tongue-in-cheek wink and self-reference or they're b) Pointing out how unaware Bond is that his age has caught up to him.

The result? Comedy! And damn good comedy.

"Good to see you Mr. Bond. Things've been awfully dull 'round here. I hope we're going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one."

Quips to the End

Perhaps it was the stronger notion that it's a comedy is what turned people away. Maybe Moore and his "lighter" take on Bond's persona made people tire of any comedy elements whatsoever. But Bond has always been a little funny. Sure, some movies are much more serious than others (From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Living Daylights) but Bond still had those little clever quips and humorous persona moments.

Never Say Never Again has those as well, and I'd argue they have some of the best. Just look at some of these quotes and tell me they aren’t funny.

M: They're toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread and too many dry martinis!

James Bond: Then I shall cut out the white bread, sir.

Nurse: Mr. Bond, I need a urine sample. If you could fill this beaker for me?

James Bond: From here?

Largo: Do you lose as gracefully as you win?

James Bond: I don't know, I've never lost.

Fatima Blush: Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.

James Bond: Yes, but my martini is still dry.

And even better, is these paint a world around this older Bond. You buy it. You laugh along with it while still (and this is the most important thing) become invested in this Bond and enjoying some damn good action and stunt work as with all Bond movies. In the opening scene, we get a nice dose of that, and at the same time that opening scene shows who this Bond is and what’s happening. (Spoiler - he fails his “war-games” test in the opening).

Of course, the film isn’t perfect, and I would venture to think that the reason why people overlook it or just don’t like it is because this Bond, our older out-of-touch Bond, is a bit aloof - not just comedic with a line or a wink to the camera (ungh...hated that) but he's kind of bumbling at times.

Of course, it wouldn't be the first time and the original Casino Royale was way too comedic that it's more or less a parody.

This Bond kind of just stumbles upon things that are happening and just looks to investigate it further rather than having a mission and there being risks for Queen and Country. It’s not a mission for him - his mission is to get in shape and get back in the saddle (which he does by going on this aloof adventure). So when he just “happens” to see things and ask questions, it feels a little…I don’t know…contrived.

That’s not the word. FILM CRIT HULK feels it’s “soulless” but that’s not the word either. It has too much charm and self-aware wry grins for that. I suppose “trying too hard” might be the right turn of phrase. While much of what happens feels natural and organic because Bond is written to be older, he tends to just stumble along until something interesting happens, then happily appear with a martini…ah, you know what? I know the word…

It’s goofy in tone, making it all feel a little shallow. And if there’s one thing Bond isn’t, even in his most absurd adventures, is goofy (shallow is debatable). He often has no clue what’s happening and seems to just play it all by ear, which is a bit unlike Bond. Sure, he’s always been improvisational, but when you appear on Largo’s boat in a bathrobe and sipping a martini as you smile and wave at all the crew members that want to kill you, it feels as though there’s just not enough sincerity happening. That there’s no risk. No stakes to lose. If there’s one thing Neve Say Never Again does poorly is give you the sense that something bad might just happen.

The Best Bond of the 1980s?

Well no, that would be The Living Daylights, the most underrated Bond movie out there, but you know what? This holds up. This is still good. Better than the Moore offerings and that other Dalton movie that shall not be named. The reason, I feel, is that it has an identity and it knows exactly what it wants to do, something that the later Moore movies didn’t have. It’s fun thanks to a clever script and a Connery happy to get back in the role.

But it’s also an action movie, and the action is damn good, like this scene:

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Spoilers, folks, Spoilers. And people blowing up.

Irvin Kershner knows how to direct some action. Like, really good in the sense I'd say he's criminally underrated (as if the Skywalker/Vader incredibly paced showdown in Empire wasn't enough proof). In fact, I think this movie has some of the best action sequences of a lot of Bond flicks, especially from the 1980s offerings - there's just more polish to the ones found in Never Say Never Again. Kershner shows fantastic patience in upping the suspense and tension, letting the action unfold with purpose, something I never felt Thunderball had which hurt the story in the long run. They hit at the right time with right amount of fun, wit and stakes at hand. Sure, Bond may be aloof, but he can get serious when the time is right.

I would argue the biggest flaws in the film are simply the same flaws a lot of James Bond movies have, so whether or not those flaws outweigh the good for you depends on your view of James Bond as a whole. The flaws? Probably how the film treats women. In a lot of Bond flicks, they’re disposable. Memorable, perhaps, but rarely are they actually well-rounded characters. Our Never Say Never has two main ones, the murderous Fatima Blush, played by Barbara Carrera, and the beautiful Domino, played by a young Kim Basinger.

Talk about photogenic, Blush is always wearing something stunning. Though the parachute pants are...questionable.

First off, Blush is hard to forget. She’s pretty much nuts, and goes toe-to-toe with Bond nicely. That being said, she also is one-dimensional and the "I'm crazy" thing can only carry it so far. Domino,...well, Domino is just so bland and uninteresting. Thats not due to Basinger, mind you, she's completely serviceable in the role. Domino's problem is all on paper: she just has nothing interesting to say or do. In a movie where everyone is kind of playing it up big (Carrera, Connery and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo who also delivers a great performance), it doesn’t fit well with what’s happening around her. She’s just lost in the shuffle. Gorgeous? Yes. But that’s about it, and unlike some past Bond girls the chemistry just isn’t really there between her and Connery.

Oh, and though I love Max Von Sydow, we have yet another forgettable Blofeld. Nobody can match Pleasance and he really doesn't bring anything to the role. I do, however, really like this Felix (right). Like, a lot as he has a personality and feels involved, though the movie conveniently finds reason to have him not be around.

Now I know what you're probably thinking. "Wait, just because this might be better than those other 80s bond movies, sans Living Daylights, doesn't mean it's good. That's a shitty way to go about critiquing a film." You're right, but I only do that to showcase how dull those movies are and how, here, we have something living and breathing. Something that's fun to watch and having a good time even when it's utterly stupid.

So no, I don't need to compare it to the others of the decade to say this is a good movie. Nor do I need to compare it to say it's kind of dumb and silly. I certainly don't need to compare it to say it's way too long for what it's trying to do. It's all those: dumb, silly, fun, problematic. It doesn't take a genius.

But it manages to get something out of me as a viewer: I'm having a good time with James Bond. I'm enjoying this "take" on James Bond. I'm...entertained. Hell, as much as I love The Living Daylights, I can't deny it's a bit dull and plodding at times. Here we have a slick, fun, well paced (though, again, overlong) adventure with an old, literally old, friend. Come on...I'm so game.

No Bond really sports the Tux like Connery. Even old Connery.

The Good Outweighing the Bad

In the end, the movie has a stigma it far from deserves (which is odd because the movie was well-received and a BO hit back in 1983). It’s fun, well directed and well written. Perhaps people just don’t like the idea of “old James Bond” to where it’s written as such. I can see that. Hell, I would agree. It’s hard to see how Bond has a bad back and runs out of breath and can’t throw as good a punch as he used to. We want our Bond young and viral and doing judo-chops.

But that’s simultaneously why I like (not love, mind you) it, because he’s, in a way, going out with a hurrah and not pretending to be some young buck. It's one last adventure for a superhero. Yes, he’s old, but he’s still kicking ass in an old school way (and Never Say Never Again is very old school in a lot of ways). He’s from a lost generation planted into one 20 years later. He’s decommissioned. He’s out of touch. He thinks a good diet is hardboiled eggs and dry martinis. He’s almost a parody of himself, but if you look at what Connery’s Bond was in the 60s, and it's easy to believe that this is exactly how he would probably end up by 1983: a man out of time.

When going to watch Never Say Never again, just have the right mindset. It's not as strong as some (ok most) of the "legit" James Bond movies, but it still holds up as a fun adventure about a hero's last chance to show he's still go it. And he does, and I was just appreciative how "game" everyone was to deliever us that last adventure to us, especially during a good run from the late 70s through the 1980s when Bond just seemd to lack a clear idenity and tone. Sometimes you need that old guy to come back to show you how it's done.

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