THE THIRD ACT TWIST
In an astonishing late-career revival, Sean Connery returned to blockbusters just before he turned 60, making a string of iconic spectaculars
THE LEAGUE OF Extraordinary Gentlemen will forever be known as the film that drove Sean Connery into retirement. (It also drove its director, Stephen Norrington, to quit the film business, which is quite something.) And it’s not a good film, let’s make that clear. It isn’t entirely without merit, but it is a nonsensical, flabby mishmash of a dozen different genres.
But at least it let Connery go out on top. On his own terms. He was the man now, dog. Along with Eastwood and Redford, Connery was that rarest of things: a septuagenarian who wasn’t just a leading man, but capable of anchoring massive blockbusters and selling them to worldwide audiences. And his decision to retire meant that we never got to watch him diminish on screen, both as a person undergoing the ravages of time, and as a star. We never got to see him ending up in thin supporting roles, his days as a trail-blazing leading man long behind him.
It also brought to an end the third phase of Connery’s career, a 17-year stint which included Highlander, The Untouchables, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, The Hunt For Red October, The Rock and even Entrapment, and which saw him become one of the biggest names in the business once again.
Because it wasn’t always like that. The late ’70s and early ’80s were something of a fallow period for Connery. Perhaps the material being offered to him wasn’t of the quality it once had been, which might explain movies like Meteor and Five Days One Summer. And perhaps it was because of this that Connery decided never to say never again, playing Bond one more time in that unofficial Thunderball remake.
It would be easy to trace Connery’s subsequent resurgence back to that film, which was his biggest hit in years (even if it did wind up second in the two-007 race of 1983, a few million behind Octopussy). Perhaps too easy. If there was a Bond bump, it wasn’t provided by that fairly flat, bewigged spy drama. Instead, it was provided by the original Bond movies, with a whole new generation of fans discovering them as they started to become a staple of the TV schedules.
So, by the time Connery showed up in Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, in a flamboyant supporting role as an immortal Egyptian who had clearly spent his gap century in Edinburgh, he was no longer that “hey-didn’-the-used-to-be-bond?” guy, but the “of-course-conneryalways-was-the-best-bond” guy, adopted by a wave of
newly minted fans. Audience affection and recognition rekindled, the Connery renaissance — the reconnaissance, if you will — was on.
IF HIGHLANDER — WHICH, ironically, is a nonsensical, flabby mishmash of a dozen different genres — put Connery back on the board, it was his next movie that really cemented his status as a player. In The Untouchables, he once again plays an ageing, wise mentor to the film’s vaguely bland central character, but to even greater effect. When Connery isn’t on screen, wrapping his tongue around choice David Mamet lines as an Irish beat cop who clearly whiled away many holidays wandering up and down Arthur’s Seat, Brian De Palma’s all-time great is slightly less untouchable. That’s the Connery way, and that’s how you get an Oscar. Big Tam was back on top.
Within a year, Connery was toplining the likes of The Presidio, a fairly forgettable reunion with Peter Hyams, but which nevertheless cast a bloke nearing his 60th birthday as a man of action, as a force of nature, something to be reckoned with, at one point taking down a hulking adversary using only his right thumb. Connery’s virility and vitality were always major components of his screen persona, which is perhaps one of the reasons why his next big blockbuster, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, tried to bury those qualities. And didn’t entirely succeed. “He had huge sexual charisma,” laughs Alison Doody, his co-star in that movie, whose character Elsa ended up being romantically linked to Connery’s because of a throwaway quip. “He was the one that came up with the famous line, ‘She talks in her sleep.’ He was just this solid, strong man, that was very confident in his own skin, and hugely attractive. He had this presence. He was blessed with that. He exuded it.”
To play Professor Henry Jones, father of Indiana, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas reasoned that the only person who could conceivably keep Indy in check was James
Bond, their chief inspiration for the character in the first place. Connery responded with arguably his best performance, wry yet warm, professorial but with flashes of knowing humour. And his chemistry with Ford, 12 years his junior, is pure lightning in a bottle, imbuing what could otherwise have been a fairly workmanlike retread of Raiders Of The Lost
Ark with spirit and a soul.
With a worldwide gross of $474 million, it remains Connery’s biggest hit. Yet as the third (and then final) instalment of one of the biggest franchises in history, it was still hard to gauge how much of that was down to Connery’s impact. How big a draw was he at the box office?
That was answered, fairly resoundingly, in John Mctiernan’s The Hunt For Red October, which he made the following year. Connery’s clout can be calculated thus: even though the movie is a Jack Ryan adventure, Alec Baldwin is nowhere to be seen on the movie’s poster. Instead, we have Connery’s giant, red, bearded face, leaving nobody in any doubt who was carrying this movie on their shoulders. Rightly so, for as good as Baldwin is as Ryan, the movie ultimately belongs to Connery, so redoubtable as Marko Ramius, a Soviet nuclear sub commander who clearly spent his summers walking up and down the Royal Mile. Ramius is a guy who knows his own mind, and that was very much a Connery trait.
“He scared the hell out of most people,” Mctiernan told Empire in 2014. “I found him like somebody out of my family, so I didn’t have difficulty with him. I knew I was doing alright because at the end of the third day he said, ‘Alright, boy, see you tomorrow.’ Because he’d called me ‘boy’, I knew it was alright. But he was fun. Very much like my mother’s family. Stern old son-of-a-bitch.”
The Hunt For Red October found lots of green. And with that, suddenly Connery was able to get smaller movies made, in amongst his blockbuster dalliances. This one-for-me/ one-for-them period saw him flit between the likes of low-key thrillers like The Russia House and Just Cause, and bigger movies like Highlander II: The Quickening, Rising Sun, and First Knight. Sandwiched somewhere in-between the two was Mctiernan’s Medicine Man, a notable attempt to make an ecologically minded thriller, but which got somewhat chewed up and spat out in the summer of 1992.
This alternating approach was something Connery adhered to until his retirement. Finding Forrester and Playing By Heart were sandwiched between The Rock, Entrapment, The Avengers and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He still had an eye for the commercial, for the high
concept, for roles that played on his unique concoction of characteristics.
Take The Rock, Michael Bay’s best film, and certainly the only one of his that even deserves to be part of the Criterion Collection conversation (sorry, Armageddon, we don’t make the rules). It has a great high concept (breaking into the world’s most hostile prison), and Nic Cage and Ed Harris giving it their all, but it’s Connery who puts it over the top with a performance that blatantly, nakedly riffs on his Bondian past. The result was a huge hit, the second-biggest of Connery’s career, and one that Jerry Bruckheimer tried to sequelise for a fair while thereafter. In many ways, though, it was the beginning of the end.
THE STORY GOES that Connery only did The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman because he’d been offered both The Lord Of The Rings
(in which he would have played Gandalf ) and The Matrix (it’s never been clear which role, but most likely Morpheus), and turned them down because he didn’t understand them; and even though he didn’t understand The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen either, he was damned if he was going to let another sure thing slip through his fingers.
It does seem strange that the guy who willingly signed on for Zardoz wouldn’t be able to get his head around wizards and giant eagles and Andy Serkis in a leotard. But whatever Connery’s reasons for declining to visit Middleearth and the Matrix, those decisions are the biggest Sliding Doors moments of his career by far. Had he taken the red pill and agreed to do The Matrix, would we have been spared
The Avengers, a rare blockbuster which utterly wastes Connery, floundering to little effect as the film’s bad guy? Had he done The Lord Of
The Rings, it’s almost certain that he wouldn’t have felt compelled to play Allan Quartermain in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen; wouldn’t have got caught up in a shoot in flood-hit Prague that was seemingly without end; possibly even wouldn’t have retired. He may even have carried on, into his eighties, racked up a few more crackers along the way. Could there have been a place for him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Might he have made a great Dumbledore (with no disrespect, of course, to Richard Harris and Michael Gambon)? It’s hard not to wonder what Edgar Wright, who has a habit of casting ex-bonds, might have done with Connery.
It’s impossible to know. It’s impossible to say. We’ll never know the movies he would have made over the last 17 years, had he not called it a day. And perhaps we shouldn’t even speculate. Instead, let’s celebrate the glorious period in which a dinosaur ruled the earth, in which a former milkman from Edinburgh, who should have been taking full advantage of a bus pass, in fact racked up billions of dollars and more at the global box office, up there with Cruise and Smith and other stars half his age. If we’re going to focus on anything, let’s focus on that, and the achievements of a truly extraordinary gentleman.