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Never Say Never Again at 40

Forty years ago, a group of people moved heaven and earth to make their own James Bond movie, starring Sean Connery (!). The only problem was....they apparently thought James Bond was really stupid.

I watched Never Say Never Again on Max (formerly HBO Max). I had not seen it complete in years, and was curious.

I’m sure I’m only conveying the widely accepted consensus here…but this is an utterly maddening movie.

Connery is, of course, the best Bond, and he looks way better here than in Diamonds Are Forever. For him alone, the movie is worth watching. (Trivia I saw on IMDB: This was his last clean-shaven movie.)

But while Connery is as good as ever, unfortunately the character is not—more on that below.

The rest of the cast is classy: Klaus Maria Brandauer is fun to watch as the villain, if not as threatening as one would want. Kim Basinger is stunning. Barbara Carrera is campy but enjoyable. Max von Sydow as Blofeld? No complaints. Bernie Casey as Felix—yeah, cool!

There is (debatably) a sense of verisimilitude that I would attribute to director Irvin Kershner—who was key to the best Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.

And yet…what the hell was wrong with these people?!?

The movie seems like it was made by a bunch of old farts who thought James Bond was a big old joke. Quite possibly, if not likely, Connery was one of them.

So it’s like they all got together, were drunk on three martinis from lunch, and decided, “You know what would be funny? If all the characters were idiots!”

It’s just death.

After writing the above, I was curious and found this making-of documentary:

So maybe I was being harsh…but the short version: the production was a total shitshow—constant legal problems, an inexperienced producer, unfinished script, multiple power centers, reshoots, etc.

Sorry, Kersh! You always seem like a good man, and I believe you were a great director. Lord knows, your scenework and humanist sensibilities made The Empire Strikes Back into the masterpiece it is.

But I think a lot of the tonal problems come down to the uncredited rewrites that Kersh speaks so highly of, by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais—who seemed to delight in mocking the British establishment.

I have no problem, in theory, with Kersh’s concept of the “old, retired Bond”—although, at 52, Connery was a baby compared to today’s 80-year-old Harrison Ford, and 61-year-old Tom Cruise.

I just remember, even as a kid, what a betrayal it felt like when all of the British supporting cast are played for laughs: M, Q, whoever Rowan Atkinson is supposed to be.

That alone is just a fatally wrong-headed choice.

They also have the single-best James Bond actor in history—in his final appearance—and it’s just painful what they do to him. Making the character vulnerable is one thing. If done carefully, it increases the suspense and thus the drama and emotion.

But they seem to delight in making him pathetic and befuddled.

In the above documentary, Kersh points out—with a little bit of contempt—that Bond fans want all the “fighting and screwing,” and that with an older Bond, that wasn’t going to work.

I disagree, especially considering that the finished film is loaded with sex and action—very little of which is sexy, or exciting.

Yes, it’s true, fans are annoying with their base appetites.

But what we really want in a Bond film (a classic one, at least) is that sense of simplicity—good vs. evil—that grounds the fantasy.

That’s what gives us the sense of childlike awe and transports us to a simpler time.

Then when there’s a double entendre, or a clever bit of action—it’s the icing on the cake. It’s a way, as grown-ups, to appreciate the charm of our juvenile imagination.

In Never Say Never Again, the only way I can put it is that they decided to make it all icing—but the icing is made out of gravel?

The film just disappoints, and it always has.

Even as a kid, watching this on videotape in the mid-1980s, within 15 minutes I realized, “What the hell? This is just Thunderball.”

So that sucks, having to compare it to one of the 1960s classics (albeit possibly my least favorite of them).

And yeah, the ending is a slog and a bore, but in a way, so was the underwater finale of Thunderball—underwater fighting sounds exotic, but is inevitably slow and repetitive.

But here...there’s just no excuse for mocking your own creation.

It’s such a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject matter…well, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead.

It reminds me in a way of the making of Airplane!—which the studio completely did not understand. They wanted Jimmie Walker to be in it—that was their idea of humor. That’s why Jimmie Walker has the cameo with the airplane engine, which is the only not-funny bit in the film.

Lloyd Bridges did not get the Airplane! humor at all. He asked why a joke was funny, and Robert Stack, who also didn’t understand the humor at first, but eventually came around, explained: “Lloyd, we are the joke.”

Leslie Nielsen, got bless him, totally got it—and got a second life as an improbable comedian.

If you want to see how unfunny Airplane! could have been—just watch The Big Bus. (I did, when we released the soundtrack album.)

So it’s like Never Say Never Again was made by all the people who would have ruined Airplane!

And last but not least, in terms of its destructive impact…this is one of the most disastrous film scores in history.

I am a big Michel Legrand fan—and I quite like this score in the abstract, apart from the film—but it kills the movie, DEAD. It’s like a sad trombone going “wah-wah-wah-WAAAAAHHH” the whole time.

And the one good cue in the film—the horse chase through the castle—is not on the CD. Why?!?!

IMDB also says (take this with a grain of salt): “Producer Jack Schwartzman wanted James Horner to score this movie. Sir Sean Connery objected, and Michel Legrand was brought in after accidentally meeting Connery in a studio corridor.”

A James Bond/Horner score the same year as Uncommon Valor, Gorky Park and Krull? That would have been fascinating—and, I’ll bet, really, really good.

There was, incidentally, a different “Never Say Never Again” title song, written by Stephen Forsyth and Jim Ryan and sung by Phyllis Hyman. But Legrand asserted his contractual right to pen the title song and so the other song went unused—but, like everything, it lives on YouTube:

While it’s interesting to hear, it doesn’t strike me as some forgotten masterpiece, but rather a passable version of the “easy listening/adult contemporary” style of Bond song that came in the wake of “Nobody Does It Better”—until “A View to a Kill” brought in a upbeat, poppier approach.

Sorry if I sound harsh. I guess I hold a grunge when I can remember, even as a ten-year-old, hating how much filmmakers could ruin something awesome!

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