Monday, 4 September 2017

BOND v BOND: Thunderball & Never Say Never Again

Why do two reviews when they're basically the same movie? Here's a rambling review of the 1965 Bondbuster Thunderball and its 1983 remake Never Say Never Again!

Thunderball (1965)
Released in 1965, Thunderball came out hot on the heels of Goldfinger, which had been a global phenomenon the previous year (due to the nature of movie distribution at the time, Goldfinger was literally pulled off screens to make way for the new Bond epic). For nearly sixty years, Thunderball remained the financial highpoint of the franchise.

Those nefarious brains at SPECTRE have come up with a diabolical new scheme: they have stolen a pair of nuclear bombs and are holding the world ransom. It now falls to James Bond (Sean Connery) to locate the bombs before the deadline.

This movie marks the point where the scripts for James Bond movies turned from stories with beginnings, middles and ends into a list of boxes to get ticked off. If you compare the first three movies with this one, there is no comparison. Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger are all constructed as traditional narratives. They don't really follow a set template, and they don't include all of the ingredients we have come to recognise as part of the 'Bond' formula.

Thunderball is the first time that the Bond formula really crystalizes: a pre-credit action sequence (tangentially linked to the main plot); a nefarious, scarred villain with an eccentric henchman (or woman, in this case); gadgets and a car; two Bond girls, one bad who must die, the other good; a loose plot connecting a bunch of impressive set pieces; and a large-scale finale involving Bond killing a crap ton of henchmen.

While this is not necessarily a problem (You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me have fun with these tropes), in Thunderball it rarely feels like these scenes are building toward something - the whole opening Shrublands section exists solely to explain that the pilot of the plane carrying the bombs has been replaced with a doppelgänger who has undergone plastic surgery. This set-up is already too complicated (in the book all SPECTRE has to do is bribe the pilot), and it just pads out the movie.

Once the action moves to Jamaica, the pace falls off a cliff. At the time, the underwater sequences were eye-boggling. With the novelty stripped away, they stop the movie dead. The filmmakers do their best to make the scenes exciting but they all suffer from being too slow and going on just a bit too long. The final battle avoids this problem for the most part, because there is a lot of action to follow. This gives veteran editor Peter R. Hunt plenty of material for his signature style, slicing and dicing the battle into a frenzied, visceral bloodbath. But even on land, the movie is in trouble.

The whole movie feels padded out. Even sequences with some kind of narrative thread feel like they go on too long. The scene where Bond uses a recording gadget to figure out that someone has searched his room is a cool idea - except that instead of a brief demonstration, we get an extended  sequence of the camera moving through the room accompanied by the recording of the intruder. Another sequence which stands out is the scene where Fiona picks up Bond and drives to his hotel. With intense cross-cutting and overwrought score, the filmmakers try to make this scene feel like it is heading toward some kind confrontation - it ends in a joke (she just drops him off) but it adds nothing to the movie. You could have Bond get back to the hotel by himself and it would mean exactly the same thing.

Unlike the previous Bond movies, which move at a good clip, in Thunderball the tension flags, and for a good portion of the middle act, the movie lacks a real sense of stakes. But compared with later stinkers like A View To A Kill, Thunderball is far from the worst movie in the series. And there are many aspects of the movie which elevate it above middle-of-the-pack mediocrity.

While the plot is ridiculous, Thunderball does boast a pair of great villains. Aldofo Celi (and voice actor Robert Rietty) is fantastic as Largo. He has more machismo and swagger than most Bond villains, and is one of the few villains who seems capable of going head-to-head with Bond. While he is great, he is overshadowed by his muscle: Fiona Volpe, played by Luciana Paluzzi.

The inspiration for later femme fatales like Fatima Blush (Never Say Never Again), May Day (A View To A Kill) and Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye), Volpe is a great counterpoint to Connery's Bond. One wishes she had more to do in the movie - although her death scene is terrific.

The other elements in Thunderball's favour are the tropical settings and the wonderful score by John Barry. It may be the key ingredient which keeps the movie involving. Even if what is going on onscreen makes no sense, Barry goes all-in to give the scene as much atmosphere and drama as he can. The score underplaying the final battle, from the slow-build as divers parachute into the water, to the furious fight aboard Largo's boat, is one of the best in the series.

While it can be a hard sit, if you are in the right mood, Thunderball is a great chill out movie. It is perfect for the digital age - you can put it on and go get a drink or clean the house, and miss out on some of the dead patches.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
Released in 1983, Never Say Never Again marked the return of Sean Connery to the role that made him famous. It also pitched Connery's Bond against that of his successor, Roger Moore - Moore's sixth film, Octopussy, was released the same year. This 'Battle of the Bonds' was massively hyped at the time, and brought the series back to the headlines in a way it had not been in years. However, while Connery's rogue Bond won over critics, in the end Octopussy made more money at the box office.

Those nefarious brains at SPECTRE have come up with a diabolical new scheme: they have stolen a pair of nuclear bombs and are holding the world ransom. It now falls to James Bond (Sean Connery) to locate the bombs before the deadline.

Never Say Never Again is one of those strange pop culture one-offs where the backstory is more interesting than the film itself. This film's origins date back to the late fifties, when a young film producer, Kevin McClory, paired up with Ian Fleming to come up with an original film treatment for James Bond that was not based on the books. Among the concepts they came up with were the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE.

The project, co-written by the duo with Jack Whittingham, never came to pass. In need of a new book, Fleming took this material and converted it into his next novel, Thunderball. This bit of nefariousness brought down the legal gods and inaugurated a fifty-year legal battle that had profound impacts on the future of the series.

When Eon Productions began work on their series of Bond films, they made use of SPECTRE repeatedly. Even when the legal battle between Fleming and McClory heated up, they were able to broker a compromise to produce Thunderball as the fourth film in the series. They gave McClory a producer credit and McClory got the rights to the Thunderball story, with the stipulation that he could make his own version of the film after ten years (I've collapsed a very complex case into a paragraph - for the full story I recommend reading the great book The Battle for Bond). McClory's court battles tied up the rights to SPECTRE, which is why he disappeared from the franchise after 1971's Diamonds are Forever.

From 1976 on, there were sporadic reports that McClory's Bond project was in the works, with Sean Connery in the mix as either a screenwriter or as the star. By the time the movie was released in 1983, it was seen as an overdue return to 'classic' Bond. By contrast, at this time the official series was seen as a bit of a joke. Roger Moore, three years Connery's senior, was visibly showing his age, and the tone of his movies (while successful) turned off critics and fans who missed the sixties.

Was it worth it?

I watched this movie a fair bit when I was younger. At the time, I did not put together that the movie was different from the others. Sure there was no gun barrel, the supporting cast were different, and there was no card at the end saying 'James Bond Will Return', but I did not know or care. It was James Bond, using gadgets, fighting bad guys and making out with beautiful femme fatales who get blown up by fountain pens.

Watching it now, Never Say Never Again is a weird beast. The lack of a gun barrel and the other Eon trademarks do irk, but the presence of Connery is ample compensation - at least for a while. My issue with Never Say Never Again is not that it lacks the signifiers of the Eon movies - it just does not hold up as a action adventure movie in its own right. it never comes up with any ideas or visual touches that can help it out stand out on its own.

The movie did suffer from production difficulties. The budget ran out midway through filming, Connery had to take on producing duties to keep the production on track and the release date had to be delayed from summer to October.

The film has its fans, and their favourite elements are the same as mine: the villains.

He does not have a deformity and he is not particularly over-the-top, but Klaus Maria Brandauer's Max Largo is one of the great Bond villains. Whatever the faults of the movie around him, Brandauer never puts a foot wrong. Where other Bond villain performers go big, Brandauer offers a masterclass in underplayed menace. His performance offers a strange example of meta-textual suspense - as viewers we are watching an actor in a part that we have seen many times before, playing the same kinds of scenes we have seen before, against a star we are familiar with. At every turn, Brandauer does not go for the expected choice, lending his scenes a sense of excitement and danger that the rest of the movie lacks.

And now to his lackey, the unstoppable Fatima Blush, played by Barbara Carrera.

When I was younger, Fatima Blush was one of my favourite movie crushes. I don't know what that says about me, but there is something diabolical about Carrera's vibe in this movie, in the most Bondian sense of the word. When you think of a Bond femme fatale, Fatima Blush is the perfect example of the type. Where Brandauer is operating off the grid, Carrera is so on the grid she melts it. While her role is roughly analogous to Thunderball's Fiona Volpe, Carrera's performance elevates Fatima to the level of cartoon - she is Jessica Rabbit if she was a completely one-dimensional psychopath.  

Every time she smirks, or explodes with rage, or kisses her pet python, or dances down stairs (see below), or cackles as she literally blows up, the movie goes to another level. She is just awesome. If she was in the official series, she would get more love.

The performances from the rest of the cast are decent. Connery is having fun, but he does not get anything interesting to do (granted, it is a remake). Kim Basinger's performance is not as bad as Britt Ekland or Denise Richards in the official series, but she comes off as cold and lifeless. It does not help that she is operating against Connery, Brandauer and Carrera. On a good note, Bernie Casey is a lot of fun as Felix Leiter -  although he gets little screen time in which to operate. 

Edward Fox makes for a terrifically brusque M, and - in one of the movie's few attempts to tweak the formula - Alec McCowen offers a delightfully batty reading of Q. The flip side of Desmond Llewelyn's version, McCowen hero-worships Bond and complains about his lack of resources. Like the villains, it is too bad he was not a part of the official series. I would have enjoyed a few more scenes with him pottering around his shoddy workshop, daydreaming about working in the CIA or pestering Bond about his latest escapades. 

Q (Alec McCowen).
The direction by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) is fine. A few of the set pieces are fun (the fight with Pat Roach; Bond's final confrontation with Fatima Blush) but overall the movie lacks a sense of pace and (more importantly) purpose. About half an hour in the movie just falls apart. We get a mission and a sense of the villain's plan, but then the movie just kind of wanders around for around forty (?) minutes, and by the time the plot begins to click into focus, the movie is almost over and it is hard to get invested. It's hard to even figure out the ending -- I've watched the movie several times and I can never remember how the movie ends.
The other big problem with the movie is the music. Even when compared with the nadir of Eric Serra's GoldenEye score, Never Say Never Again is terrible. Not only does the music by Michel Legrand lack the familiar theme, it lacks any character of its own. It just pops in and out of the movie, never building any sense of drama or tension. The theme song has a memorable chorus, but it comes off as a bit too contemporary to stand with the official series.

In the end, Never Say Never Again rides on the back of its star, and the nostalgia of his previous movies. It has a few elements to recommend it, but it does not get across the finish line on its own merits.

Final thoughts
I'm not a fan of either of these movies. I don't hate them, but they fall in the same middle road as Tomorrow Never Dies and The Spy Who Loved Me where they tick all of the boxes, but they are a bit too predictable to re-watch them that often. They are watchable, and fun, but they do not rank with the series' best.

As a compare and contrast they make for an interesting case study. As the last 'rogue' Bond, Never Say Never Again is worth a look just because, with the death of Kevin McClory and the reversion of all Bond-related rights to Eon Productions, we are unlikely to see its like again.

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