Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Never Say Never Again

Here we go again, on Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly ramble about a DVD or Blu-Ray I own.  It's time to dip my toe in the world of 007 once again with the unofficial James Bond film Never Say Never Again.  This is in my notes at December 7, 2014.

It's been a while since I did a James Bond movie.  In my Blu-Ray collection, I've got my favourite 2 of every Bond actor.  But as I was browsing the Cyber Monday deals, I saw that I had Never Say Never Again on my Amazon wish list forever, so I finally figured "Why not?"  In the James Bond canon, Never Say Never Again is a lovely oddity in that it's non-canon. 

"What?" you're asking.  "A non-canon James Bond film?  How did this come to be?"  Well, it's a long story.  Way back in the 1950s, when the original Bond novels started dominating bookstore shelves, Bond's creator Ian Flemming teamed up with a film producer named Kevin McClory to mount the first attempt at a James Bond movie.  Sadly, their attempt fizzled out, but Flemming liked the Bond screenplay they wrote and, not wanting to waste it, published it as the James Bond novel Thunderball.  Of course, McClory was pissed, and sued Flemming to get his fair share of the credit for Thunderball...and its profits.  As part of the settlement, McClory was granted the film rights to Thunderball.  In the 1970s, McClory sued again, this time pointing out that since Bond's arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his criminal organization SMERSH (renamed SPECTRE in the movies) first appeared in Thunderball, he owned the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE as well.  The courts sided with McClory, and the producers of the James Bond films could no longer use Bond's arch-enemy.  McClory threatened and attempted for years to launch a rival James Bond franchise using his ownership of Thunderball and Blofeld, and in the end, the only fruit of that labour was Never Say Never Again.

tl;dr:  The producers of the official James Bond movies didn't have the movie rights to Thunderball, so someone else made a Thunderball movie.

Reading up on the making of Never Say Never Again, it's neat to see how its producers tried to woo away some of the official James Bond films' talent to help make it, but most stayed away.  So, the producers raided Lucasfilm instead.  Directing the film was Irvin Kirshner, fresh from directing the most beloved Star Wars film The Empire Strkes Back, and the entire stunt crew was the same one that Lucas and Spielberg used for Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Their biggest coup, though, was getting Sean Connery to come back as James Bond...a role he hadn't played for 12 years.  When Connery finally hung it up after 1971's Diamonds are Forever, he swore he'd never play James Bond again.  But, Never Say Never Again's producers found that was problem easily solved with a ton of money.  In fact, it was Connery's famous boast about never playing James Bond again that inspired Connery's wife to suggest the film's title. 

I had another nostalgic reason for wanting to pick up Never Say Never Again.  it was the first James Bond movie I ever saw.  I think I told this tale in another ramble about a James Bond film.  When I was a kid, I caught the Roger Moore episode of the Muppet Show, and since it was chock full of James Bond spoofs and references, I walked away thinking that James Bond was the coolest thing ever.  That weekend, we were renting movies, and my brother and I really wanted to see a James Bond movie.  My mother wouldn't let us get the one with the guy from the Muppet Show (the infamously titled Octopussy), so we settled for Never Say Never Again

Watching it again tonight (and I'm pretty sure it's the first time I've seen it since I was 6 or 7 years old), and now being much more steeped in James Bond lore, I can't shake the feeling that this one feels a little off.  Because the producers couldn't use so many hallmarks of the James Bond film franchise, there's a completely different energy to it.  You become aware of that as soon as it starts.  There's no traditional gun barrel sequence.  Instead we're treated to a grid of "007"'s covering the screen.  Gone is the formula of pre-credit sequence to theme song to movie.  Now, we get the theme song playing out over the pre-credit sequence.  And since the pre-credit sequence is a classic James Bond action bit, and the theme song is a sappy love song, it completely ruins the energy of the action sequence. 

The plot was successfully used by, and spoofed by, Dr. Evil in the first Austin Powers movie:  "Let's just do what we always do.  Hijack a couple of nuclear warheads and hold the world hostage, k?"  After a poor performance in a training exercise, Bond is sent to a health spa to get in shape.  While there, he discovers some SPECTRE operatives recovering from a recent surgical procedure.  The procedure was required to allow SPECTRE in infiltrate a US air base and hijack said nuclear warheads.  With the warheads now in enemy hands, British Intelligence reactivates the 00-branch, and Bond is sent out to recover the warheads before SPECTRE can use them for their own nefarious purposes.

Yes, I said, the 00-branch is reactivated.  They do have some fun with the James Bond mythology in that sense.  The 00-branch had been shut down, a victim of government cutbacks.  The new M is portrayed as a bean counter, more concerned with numbers and budget dollars than actually saving the world.  At the start of the film, Bond is frustrated, because he spends more time in the classroom teaching new recruits than doing field work.  That leads into some great "Is Bond getting too old for this?" stuff, which was much more richly mined in the recent Skyfall.  When we meet Q, for Bond to get his gadgets, Q's lab now more resembles a mechanic's garage than the pristine labs of the official films, and rather than chide Bond for always damaging his equipment, Q seems eager that things are going to get back to the good ol' days.  In the requisite casino scene, rather than Bond and the villain squaring off over the baccarat tables, they do battle with a super-fancy holographic video game. 

There are some great supporting characters, of particular highlight is Barbara Carrera as SPECTRE assassin Fatima Blush who's sent to kill Bond.  She's just so delightfully insane, as she kills her victims with a smile on her face.  She kind of represents the main problem with the film, too.  Sometimes, she's just a little too insane, bordering on campy.  The film can't decide whether it wants to be the more serious Bonds of the Connery era, or the more lighthearted ones of the Moore era (which the official James Bond films were in the midst of at the time). 

Another bit of silliness is Mr. Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson, as Nigel Small-Fawcett, Bond's contact at the British consulate in the Bahamas.  He's trying so hard to be a spy, but winds up as comic relief. 

Watching it again, I was trying to remember what I remembered when I first saw it at the age of 6 or 7.  I remembered the opening scene.  I remembered Bond using his laser watch to escape from a jam.  I remembered the motorcycle chase.  And that was pretty much it.  Sadly, that has become the film's legacy.  When it came out back in 1983, it got pretty good reviews, mainly because everyone had massive nostalgia boners over Connery returning as Bond.  But, 30 years later, it's becoming remembered as a noble attempt, but simply one of the more average Bond films. 

And that's where I'd have to put it, too.  One of the more average Bond films.

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