1983’s Never Say Never Again is one of two non-EON Bond pictures, the other being 1967’s Casino Royale, and the only one that challenged EON toe-to-toe. Their secret weapon: Sean Connery, who returned to the role after a 14 year break. Connery had had a bitter falling out with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and although Saltzman had departed EON, Connery still bore a grudge against EON. He wound up starring in Never as a shot across the bow towards Broccoli, even remarking on that publicly whilst promoting Never.
Never Say Never Again did not produce as much at the box office than its opposite EON number, Octupussy, largely because Never suffered delays in post-production which meant it was released in autumn rather than summer, and summer is better for film.
Never Say Never Again came out of the Kevin McClory controversy; McClory legally had rights to Thunderball, and was legally entitled to remake it, no one disputes that. However, he had certain limitations, some legal, some not, when it came to making the film; he couldn’t use the gun barrel sequence (it was copyrighted by EON), and he had to avoid other elements which would have given them just cause to either pursue legal action, or give them ammunition to charge he was using their gimmicks to make his film successful.
Let’s get a few things straight out of the bat: Never Say Never Again is not a terrible film, it’s not even a bad Bond film. It just lacks the polish that EON put on its Bond film by that point, and is more reminiscent of Dr. No than the original Thunderball. The villains are great, but they just lack overall menace; Blofeld is mishandled, he is just an old man sitting on a chair; Largo varies between a slightly threatening guy and a immature teenage boy; the femme fatale is too vain; finally the plot is, well, a bit much. It’s easily a recycling of Thunderball, but the additional touches (the horse off of the building, some aspects of the Felix Leiter character) are either not necessary, or just added for flash purposes.
However, some things work. Connery gives a great performance as an aging Bond (in contrast to the character’s ageless nature in the EON films), and it’s nice to see him wait for consent before going after a woman; Kim Bassenger is brilliant as Domino; the Q character is well-handled, and has the best line of the film (“I hope there’s a lot of gratuitous sex and violence” to which Bond replies “I hope so too.”); and the M character, although not perfect, is given a nice treatment. Finally, the direction is good; it was directed by Irvin Kershner, who had directed The Empire Strikes Back a few years prior, who works with the material to the best of his ability.
The lack of classic Bond elements sticks out, though, to someone like me, who has seen all of them and likes all of them; the gun barrel sequence, or lack of it, is a vital part of the opening; the theme song is too nice, it’s not romantic, it’s not dramatic, it’s just… there; even Bond’s gadgets are a bit far fetched, and I for one do not like the image of Bond on a motorcycle.
On the whole, the film is more of a must-see for any Bond fan than a must-own, and there is a stark difference. Octupussy and its follow-up, A View to a Kill, both are part of a greater Bond tradition, and thus you can’t own one without the other, or any of the other EON films. Never Say Never Again, like Casino Royale (1967), stands on an island, largely left alone. Even though EON now owns both films, and Never was released on Blu-Ray not too long ago, albeit not part of the big anniversary set, it has fallen into the realm of the “fanatic,” the Bond guy who wants to own everything Bond-related. Many fans, like myself, are probably not that crazy. The lack of a follow-up (the 1990’s attempt was called Warhead 2000 for you trivia fans), coupled with McClory’s ultimate fate, left Never truly in a no man’s land for many years.
As for McClory, after Never Say Never Again, he would ultimately lose his rights after a lifetime of legal wrangling, despite nearly forging a partnership with Columbia Pictures, which up to that point had held the film rights to Casino Royale. His efforts, though, were in vain: Columbia abandoned him and settled with MGM, handing over Casino Royale, and other related rights; EON with that settlement, owned every Bond film, official or otherwise, ever made at that point; McClory’s last gasp was claiming he had invented the cinematic Bond, but all his claims were dismissed; he passed away in 2006.
As for Cubby Broccoli, he passed away in 1996. Prior to this, Sean Connery and him reconciled, something that probably eased his final months. Connery does not do many interviews regarding his Bond days, including the tell-all documentary Everything or Nothing, to commemorate the 50th anniversary, I suspect his lack of interest in participating in a ceremony ended the idea of a grand tribute at the 2013 Oscars; he retired from acting in the mid-2000s.