Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Never Say Never Again

The essence of the famous non-Eon Bond film Never Say Never Again is that, in attempting to justify its existence, it tries to out-Bond the real Bond movies in several respects, and fails resoundingly at each of them. It tries to be sexier, but ends up more juvenile, prurient, and icky. It tries to be funnier, but ends up stupid. It tries to be more action-packed, but ends up jumbled, implausible, and often confusing. It tries to use cooler gadgets, but ends up sad and laughable. (Bond plays a video game in this movie. And I thought it was undignified when he dressed as a clown.) It tries to be more epic in scope, but ends up plodding.

That last one's the real stake through the heart. I'm pretty sure I've never been as bored by any Bond movie, and I saw Quantum of Solaceand the '60s Casino Royale. And that boredom's not just due to this movie being a remake of Thunderball. Yes, much of the story is the same, but most scenes have no direct analog in the original, and some entire plot developments are new. It's all just…so dull. The main reason I didn't give up on this movie at the hour-thirty mark was just in case I'd miss another scene as batshit as the video game. (Also, it was directed by Irvin Kershner—director of The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars film. Didn't help.)

I will answer your franchise-apostasy questions below, so that idle curiosity does not compel you to waste two-plus hours on this.

Q: Are any regular franchise actors in this besides Sean Connery?

A: Not one.

Q: Why did Connery even agree to do this?

A: Oh, he's clearly paycheckin' it. Remember, this is during his Outland phase.

Q: How's his performance?

A: I wouldn't call it lazy—Kershner seems to have learned some tricks when it comes to wringing passable performances out of star actors reluctantly returning to franchises. But Connery's Bond is definitely at his most weak and embarrassing here. He manages not one moment of characteristic Connery charm, and the things this script forces him to do… Let's just say he winks at the camera at the end.

Q: Is there a Moneypenny?

A: Yes, and she sucks.

Q: How about an M?

A: Yes, and he's a shrill, effeminate bureaucrat. Like I said, this movie just doesn't know when to stop getting stuff wrong.

Q: Q?

A: Nope. There's a scene in "Q branch," but the guy Bond interacts with is "Algernon."

Q: So I'm guessing it doesn't have the traditional Maurice Binder opening credits sequence?

A: Indeed it does not; instead, Never Say Never Again opens directly on Bond storming some Central American druglord compound or something, shooting lots of guys with a machine gun, while the movie's soft-adult-contemporary theme song plays with the credits. The tonal effect is like if you were to put "All Time High" to scenes from Commando: so jarring as to seem a parody.

Sadly, neither screenwriter and chief blame-earner Kevin McClory nor director Kerschner had the courage to go all-out with the parody. Late in the film, when Bond finally gets around to visiting Q branch, he's asked "Will there be lots of gratuitous sex and violence?" Movie, you're not allowed to make winking references to sad aspects of contemporary cinema when you wallow in them for the rest of your running-time. (Oh, and what does Bond say in reply? "I sure hope so!" WHAT THE HELL.)

Q: Okay, so explain the video game scene, because otherwise I might watch it.

A: In brief, villain Largo has a casino or something where he's got a whole back room filled wall-to-wall with arcade games, mainly Centipede, and when he and Bond have their obligatory gambling scene, it involves neither cards nor roulette, but this table-sized holographic Risk clone that Largo calls "Domination"—oh, and when you're losing, it gives you a slowly-building electric shock, just to slather on another layer of stupid.

And they play this game LIKE FIVE TIMES. I'm sure they thought the visual effect was exciting and marketable—it was 1983 and all—but you ever try watching other people play video games? Yeah. Well, maybe they didn't know that yet in 1983.

If they wanted to heap even more shame on the Bond character, yet still capture that early-'80s zeitgeist, maybe it should have been a deadly game of Dungeons & Dragons. At least that would've given the actors an opportunity to interact. ("You seem to be capable of nothing but critical fumbles tonight, Mister Bond.")

Q: Did you like anything about this movie?

A: Its only saving grace is some pretty good—at times merely amusing—casting and performances. Felix Leiter is played by Bernie Casey, who played the history teacher in the first Bill & Ted movie, and whom DS9 fans will remember as Cal Hudson; he isn't given a lot to do, but seems invested. Kim Basinger (as Domino) is definitely among the top tier of Bond-girl actresses. Likewise, the "bad Bond girl," Fiona Volpe Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) is nutty but interesting, right up until the frankly distressing way Bond defeats her. Max Von Sydow is Blofeld—his few scenes are obligatory and almost completely disposable, and he looks a little wasted. Also, there's a scene with the government old guy from A Clockwork Orange.

But the two most notable cast members are the dude who plays Largo this time—Klaus Maria Brandauer, a far better actor than Adolfo Celi and in a much more complex, well-developed version of the character—and Rowan Atkinson as the Foreign Office contact in Jamaica, who has the puerile name Nigel Small-Fawcett. The film's only funny scene is Atkinson's, and it's not funny because of the dialogue, but because it's Rowan Atkinson doing a scene as a dopey dweeb with the original James Bond, in-character.

In fact, the script is one of the film's most glaringly weak points. There's not a clever bit of dialogue to be found here—my eyes didn't even roll, like they often do during weaker real-Bond outings. Entire segments of conversations seem to be missing, and not because of anything the editor did. And the story just kind of lurches along from one development to the next—when the villain attempts to escape with a nuke after Bond chases him out of his desert fortress, he takes the nuke to an underwater cavern that I guess is his secondary lair, only to leave right away, with no explanation of why he came here in the first place. It's the sort of dumb plotting that those '60s Italian spy-movie knockoffs were guilty of; we don't have to know WHY characters are going to these places, because in these types of movies, there are simply supposed to be scenes like this.

I really can't decide whether this movie was better than A View to a Kill (my go-to example of The Bond That Should Not Be). If I gained no other benefit from watching Never Say Never Again, it's an appreciation for the artistry involved in even the mediocre Eon Bonds. It's as if this movie is one of those Disney mockbusters, like The Jungle King, except they paid Tinker Bell just enough to get her to do a flyover at the beginning.

In short: don't waste your time.

Q: Hey, what about that Bond movie evaluation system of yours?

A: Oh, right. Um:

Above and Beyond

Most of Largo's characterization and portrayal. It's nice when they attempt the "smiling, friendly villain" thing and it really works, as it did with the Grubers in the first and third Die Hards.

Stupid Shit

Everything else. Also, Largo's creepy "I'm watching you Jazzercise" thing. Oh yeah, did I fail to mention there's Jazzercise?

Star Score: 1.5 out of 5

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