17 April 2009

Dr. No versus Never Say Never Again

Not Much Changed between Dr. No and Never Say Never Again.
By Kristin Battestella
I’m not a serious, die-hard Bond aficionado, but I know what you’re thinking: Surely she knows Never Say Never Again is a remake of Thunderball! Indeed the return of Sean Connery in the illegitimate 1983 Never takes its roots from Thunderball, but my recent viewing of the first EON release Dr. No had me thinking about how little the franchise changed between the original Bond’s first and last appearances.
MI6 agent 007 James Bond (Connery) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of fellow British Intelligence operative John Strangways and quickly falls into foreign intrigue and local superstition. CIA Agent Felix Lieter (Jack Lord) and local fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) have both heard ill news about Dr. No and his dragon on nearby Crab Key. Bond sets off for the island and must infiltrate Dr. No’s forces before the SPECTRE (that’s SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) agent can disrupt an American space launch.
Twelve years after his last mission, 007 (Connery again) isn’t ready to leave MI6 just yet, despite changes in the program orchestrated by the new M (Edward Fox). M doesn’t feel Bond has what it takes to be a secret agent in this day and age, but after the theft of two nuclear warheads by SPECTRE agent Maximillian Lago, Bond is back in the game.
Naturally I should begin with the technically not first but still definitive Bond Girl Ursula Andress (What’s New Pussycat, Clash of the Titans) in comparison with unofficially official Bond Girl Kim Basinger. Dr. No’s Honey Rider is truly little more than eye candy. She doesn’t appear until the latter third of the film, and Andress’ voice was dubbed over, further proving it was not her acting delivery that the production wanted. Despite quiet moments explaining Honey’s sad back-story, one has to wonder what she could possibly be there for if not her Swiss good looks. An exceptional woman scavenging for sea shells who just happens to get mixed up in Bond’s plot to take down Dr. No? Sure, it’s why many guys like Bond flicks-heck, its part of why I like them! Unfortunately, the tongue in cheek treatment of women in early features is another nail in the dated coffin. Recent Bond pictures have to have intelligent, independent women worth more than just a subservient romp.
You would think Oscar winner Basinger (L.A. Confidential) would have some of those progressive eighties working women vibes, but she is also the picture of a girl under a man’s thumb. I would say Basinger is very un-Italian looking for such a character, but my father’s family is full of tall, fair Northern Italians. Still, there’s no vocal inkling of exotic Italy, either. We meet Domino Petachi while she’s dancing in her eighties leotards and follow her vengeance against former lover Lago through her barely there slips and towels. Again, it’s not a matter of if she’ll be used and bedded by Bond, but when. Never Say Never Again departs from the norm by suggesting Bond retires with Domino, but can we really see a lasting relationship here? I think not.
Despite a twenty year difference in production, Dr. No and Never Say Never Again look somewhat the same. One might say Dr. No was on the ball and high tech for the sixties, but Never Say Never Again looks very dated with poor underwater sequences, dated computers, and ill shipboard equipment. We take Dr. No for what it is, because, well, it’s old, but neither film has stood the test of time in action, costumes, and technology. For me that is part of the Bond films’ charm-they are dated and over the top with British innuendo and don’t always look the best. With each new film, we fluff Bond up with villains, women, and the latest gadgets, but these are temporary delights. Isn’t it really all about the man’s man Bond as he always wins and looks suave doing it?
What I find more amazing about Connery’s first and last appearances is his continuing ability to bag the bad guy’s henchwomen. Always stereotypically exotic and fast moving, Never Say Never Again’s Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera, Dallas) slightly improves upon Dr. No’s turncoat Miss Taro (Zena Marshall). Fatima’s hard-on for Bond in addition to her work with Lago makes her hot and violent. In some ways, it’s a step up on Lago, more dangerous somehow. In other ways, it’s a step down-a woman whose downfall is in thinking with her legs open. How typical. Miss Taro, along with all the other white women made up to look Asian in Dr. No., again fills a weakling, subservient role. The clothes, beehives, and insulting speech do nothing but set up another slick scene for Bond. So far, not much has changed from 1962 to 1983.
In the decade between Dr. No and Never Say Never Again, not much has changed on the villainous front, either. Oft spoofed, Bond villains always have a special crutch or hang up. Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is clich├ęd as the not really Asian looking Asian with fake hands and a SPECTRE complex. In the mid 20th Century, I supposed we could fear wealthy and eccentric boys with toys bent on world domination, but today, eh, not so much. Klaus Maria Brandauer does a little more with the updated Lago, making him somewhat charming and vulnerable, but again his ridiculous plans and cruise ship headquarters are too dated and unbelievable. As with the ladies, we know Bond will complete his mission. Today we like to think we favor multi dimensional complex men of evil, but these pictures are never about the villain. That’s part of why we like them. It’s about how bad ass Bond is going to be and how he can top himself.
We know the stories about how Sean Connery (Highlander, First Knight) came to be the first official James Bond. Cary Grant was too old, and runner up Roger Moore would get his chance to play Bond ten years later. As quintessential as many find Connery’s debut in Dr. No, some of his style and delivery is uneven at best. Yes, some of the key quotes and martinis here lay the foundation for all subsequent Bond actors, but Connery’s mixed accent wavers his suave. Is his Bond meant to look and sound like Cary Grant or does this Bond have a decidedly Scottish spin? It seems as if Connery and director Terrence Young (helmer of the next Bond flick From Russia with Love and 1965’s Thunderball, ironically) can’t decide on the right sound.
Likewise, Sean Connery doesn’t have a complete hold on his return to James Bond in Never Say Never Again. Again, the story is a familiar one. After a twelve year absence since the less than shiny Diamonds Are Forever, Connery returned to the role in this rival showing against EON Productions sanctioned Roger Moore and his Octopussy. Never Say Never Again is unique in that it acknowledges this Bond as old and not necessarily up to snuff while at the same time ignoring all his previous encounters with juicy SPECTRE agents. Connery plays the part tongue and cheek as usual, but it doesn’t seem as if this is Bond as we know it. Connery doesn’t have the decided Bond edge anymore. He does seem out of practice and not up to being Bond. Having said that, I’d still rather see the admittance of an aging spy rather than the current hottie reboot coughCasinoRoyalecough.
Truly though, I’m somewhat indifferent to most of the Connery as Bond pictures, but I’m also seriously spilt on most of Moore’s tenure. By God, I hate Moonraker: but I really like The Spy Who Loved Me. However, this ‘Battle of the Bonds,’ as the media dubbed it back in the day, didn’t interest me at the time. Both the actors seemed too out of touch, and I was much more excited in the up to date portrayal of 007 from Timothy Dalton. I think it says a lot about us as viewers and as a society that Bond has gotten younger over the decades. Dr. No began 007 as a veteran of the spy game, older and able to handle a woman. This archetype was borne out of our cloistered patriarchal good old days. In the Me eighties where men were still mostly on top, we could believe in an old Bond for Never Say Never Again.
Look at the television of the day: Magnum P.I., Hunter, The Equalizer- it was perfectly acceptable to see an in charge middle aged man being vital and kicking ass. With Dalton, Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig; we’ve remade Bond each time into a younger, more physical, pc, and tech savvy man that will no more stand the test of time as ‘Old Man’ Bond does now. This franchise remains popular because it is in the bizarre position of upholding our dated past standards while continuing to keep up with modern trends. I liked the series without the Blonde Bond reboot. The current producers have built themselves into a corner, for as long as they keep trying to change with the times; they grow further from Bond as Fleming originally envisioned him. No speedo wearing, Blackberry carrying pretty boy can be a model of mid fifties macho and Cold War espionage. Dr. No and Never Say Never Again are time capsules for how little was changed for Bond between the sixties and eighties and how much is changed for the character today. Is this good or bad? Bond fans young and old, veteran and new are up to the debate.
New fans may not want to jump into the hefty DVD sets or pay more for forthcoming Blu-Ray releases; but rental options, individual discs, and on demand viewing makes finding your part and parcel Bond favorite easy. Though time has made them imperfect, Dr. No and Never Say Never Again share unique milestones in the James Bond franchise-and they still aren’t half-bad. Connery’s iconic debut and his last hurrah are essentials for obsessive Bond fans, and both are worth another gander from action fans young and old.


Robert Appleton said...

That was entirely too Bond-savvy of you, Kristin. Come to think of it, Never Say Never Again is the only one I'd never see ever again. Oh and maybe Man With the Golden Gun--that lame hick sheriff completely ruined it for me.

The early Connery films are pretty great, though. Very close to Fleming. As is Daniel Craig's Casino Royale. I mean Eva Green's Casino Royale. She hot.

Kristin Battestella said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robert! Yes, I put too much thought into Bond, I can't help myself. Some gems and some really clunkers yet they all follow the same basic pattern. In theory, if you like one, you should like them all. I love the marathons on tv where I can just put it on and take a look when I hear the theme-meaning something good is going on!