Reel Rumbles #29: “Thunderball” vs. “Never Say Never Again”
You can go crazy sorting through the convoluted legal history behind this match-up, but suffice it to say that Never Say Never Again is a remake of Thunderball and that it was not made by the same production company as nearly every other James Bond movie (the other exception being 1967’s Casino Royale). It was released in 1983, just four months after Octopussy, the thirteenth “official” Bond movie. The question on everyone’s mind in 1983 was, “How does the remake compare?” It’s time for an answer. It’s time for Thunderball vs. Never Say Never Again.
Sean Connery walks through Thunderball, perhaps because he was disillusioned with the role by the time of production or maybe because it was such a large production that it was impossible to remain tethered to the notion that Bond is charged with locating two stolen nuclear bombs being used to blackmail the west. Here is a 007 who seems just as likely to blow off his investigation and chill at the resort as to save the world. By the time Connery returned to the role in Never Say Never Again, he was a veteran actor playing a veteran spy. What appeared to be a combination of indifference and inconvenience in 1966 now appears as self-confidence from years of experience in 1983. He may have had better lines in Thunderball (“I think he got the point”), but I’d feel better knowing that the James Bond of 1983 was out there on the job.
Adolfo Celi’s Largo in Thunderball is iconic for wearing an eyepatch, but he comes off as upper management rather than a villain himself, save one scene in which he tortures Domino with cigarettes and ice. Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo in Never Say Never Again is seething with instability; he’s obviously psychotic. Claudine Auger is alluring as Domino in Thunderball, but Kim Basinger is accessible (and is actually blonde, as is the literary Domino). And Rik van Nutter’s “Beach Boy” Felix Leiter is simply laughable; Bernie Casey’s Leiter doesn’t contribute much, but at least he seems to be an actual CIA agent. In a perfect world, younger Connery would have been as edgy as he had been in Dr. No and surrounded with the supporting cast from Never Say Never Again.
Advantage: Never Say Never Again
Terence Young directed the first two James Bond movies and returned for Thunderball. Between his work on From Russia with Love and Thunderball, Guy Hamilton had directed Goldfinger and the over-the-top bell couldn’t be unrung. Young, like Connery, doesn’t seem to have had his heart in the film. It’s at times lethargic and bloated; the stakes have never been higher in a Bond movie, and yet there is no sense of urgency to be found here. It’s hard to imagine what would remain if you were to trim the fat from this film. Even important scenes like the briefing with the entire 00 section feels perfunctory. Bernard Lee infuses his scenes with the kind of cool command one expects from “M,” but there’s just something about the way the conference room is shot—wide shots, meant to show off the scale of the set—prevents us from feeling any real tension even as discussions are had about not informing the public that they are at risk of being mass murdered.
Irvin Kershner’s pacing isn’t as taut as the subject material demands, but it doesn’t dwell on showing off the money spent on the production (likely because its budget was insufficient for a film of its ambitions). The story progresses fairly organically, even though Bond’s dalliance with “Lady in Bahamas” is entirely too self-indulgent. At least Kershner had the good sense to work in an attempted assassination of 007 into the brief affair. (It’s worth noting here that I hate the auteur theory and am loathe to give directors credit for things other people wrote or did, but in this case it’s pretty clear that Kershner was heavily involved in every aspect of production, from crafting the story to filming it and that there were many improvised elements.)
Advantage: Never Say Never Again
Bond movies, perhaps more than most, are incomplete without unique music. John Barry is as much a part of Bond as anyone else, and his score for Thunderball — while a bit less inspired than his work on From Russia with Love — is among the strongest in the entire Bond canon. His underwater motif is also nice; I just re-watched Never Say Never Again yesterday and found myself playing Barry’s music in my mind to accompany the underwater sequence in the end. It’s got more legs to stand on than Goldfinger drawing as it does from several strong pieces (“Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” underwater music, “James Bond Theme” and “007”). Conversely, Michel Legrand’s score for Never Say Never Again is largely incongruous with the film. Kershner is direct in his criticism of Legrand’s work in his Blu-ray commentary track, saying he had wanted James Horner for the film but was overruled by the producers and that he had to really work to find pieces of music that could service segments throughout the film. Legrand’s score, with the exception of “Tango to the Death,” is entirely forgettable. The title song, sung by Lani Hall, isn’t as awful as many seem to remember it, though it’s clearly weaker than Tom Jones’s powerful “Thunderball” performance.
Trivia: Herb Alpert contributed to the soundtracks to both of the non-Eon Bond movies, playing the trumpet on the main theme to both the 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again.
You can point to “the Bond formula” to help understand what separates a 007 outing from any other action or spy movie, but Never Say Never Again begs the question whether a movie can be a Bond movie without those things. That, In turn, invites us to scrutinize the extent to which Thunderball may enjoy a pass on its shortcomings by virtue of being a Bond movie. For sheer grandeur and sex appeal, it’s awfully tempting to go with Thunderball here. Both movies shot on location around the Bahamas but it was Thunderball that put the Bahamas on the map for movie-going audiences. I can’t articulate what changed between the two productions, but the islands feel more pedestrian in their 1983 appearance. Throw in the more exotic allure of the aforementioned Bond Girls, the greater emphasis on fantastic gadgets and it all adds up to one thing: it’s awfully hard to get away with being a Bond movie by being grounded in the ordinary. Thunderball delivers the goods here, but I think it underscores just how extraordinary the success of Never Say Never Again really is. Who could have predicted a movie where Sean Connery can be seen wearing denim bib overalls would still be recognizable as a Bond movie?
Advantage: Never Say Never Again
And the Winner Is…
Never Say Never Again, believe it or not! Thunderball may have been the apex of old school Bond-mania, but the test of time has revealed it to be a shade too bloated and lethargic. The renegade remake, despite its lower budget, legal handcuffs and inability to invoke the trademark elements of a Bond movie, manages to still engage our sense of adventure and convince us that when the fate of the world is on the line there’s one man we trust to save the day.
Bond. James Bond.
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