"NEVER Say Never Again" provides Sean Connery with a triumphant opportunity to reclaim the role of James Bond. With all due respect and cordial wishes to Roger Moore, there hasn't been a more satisfying return engagement since Dolly Levi wowed the Harmonia Gardens.

There may be a natural tendency to overrate an entertainment as sensational as "Never Say Never Again" in the immediate afterglow of a first viewing. For the sake of judicious argument, let's imagine that repeated exposure will reveal it as merely one of the best James Bond adventure thrillers ever made instead of the very best.

That hedge shouldn't interfere with the pleasure awaiting moviegoers when "Never Say Never Again" arrives tomorrow at area theaters. This picture is likely to remain a cherished, savory example of commercial filmmaking at its most astute and accomplished.

Having spurned or avoided the Bond identity for the past 12 years, Connery reestablishes his prior claim on audience loyalties by a form of stellar natural right. He's never seemed more relaxed or appealing in the role.

There's a special emotional gratification attached to seeing Connery remain such a durable image of the original Bond, still fit and rugged in his middle fifties but facially weathered and mellowed in very attractive ways. The lines and creases in Connery's face have deepened expressively as well as literally over the course of time. The aging process has the flattering effect in his case of adding fresh and agreeable humorous wrinkles to a familiar heroic countenance. It's the greatest finesse act since Cary Grant kept mere chronology off guard in vehicles like "To Catch a Thief," "North By Northwest" and "Charade."

Directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., "Never Say Never Again" is the best acted Bond picture ever made, because it clearly surpasses any predecessors in the area of inventive and clever character delineation.

Each entrance of actress Barbara Carrera is a special comic event, and this form of attention culminates in a droll low angle vantage point from the foot of a staircase, sustaining the giddy flourish of her "sweeping" entrance all the way down a towering flight of stairs. These pictorial whimsies naturally deserve a terrific send-off, and the filmmakers don't fail Carrera in this respect either. They give her a brilliant showdown exit scene while she's holding Connery at gunpoint.

In addition to the glittering set of menaces portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer and Carrera, respectively No. 2 and No. 12 in the SPECTRE chain of command, "Never Say Never Again" breathes fresh life into series fixtures by casting Max von Sydow as SPECTRE No. 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Bernie Casey as CIA agent Felix Leiter, and by entrusting Edward Fox and Alec McCowen with splendidly cranky, rejuvenated embodiments of "M" and "Q."

Semple has also invented a wonderful new blundering bureaucrat called Nigel Small-Fawcett, Her Majesty's nervous station supervisor in the Bahamas. Rowan Atkinson makes Nigel's first appearance a great comic interlude, as he disposes of necessary exposition through clenched teeth while scanning the horizons for nonexistent eavesdroppers.

In fact, "Never Say Never Again" illustrates how much sheer entertainment value can accrue when seasoned, disciplined filmmakers are encouraged to use their accumulated experience and design a classy piece of escapism to the best of their abilities.

If the plot seems vaguely familiar, the familiarity may be more than general. "Never Say Never Again" is a cleverly updated, embellished and transformed remake of "Thunderball." Indeed, it's a sumptuous, invigorating improvement on "Thunderball" in most respects, but the project was only possible because the regular Bond unit never controlled that particular Ian Fleming novel.

It remained outside the control of producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli because Fleming had adapted the novel from a screen treatment written in collaboration with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham in 1959, a year before Broccoli approached him about a Bond series. This resulted in a legal dispute eventually settled in favor of McClory, an aspiring producer, and after failing to mount his own production, he struck a deal with Broccoli for co-producing "Thunderball" in 1964.

All the rights, including remake rights, were retained by McClory, but he agreed to refrain from dabbling in the Bond mythology for at least ten years. In 1975 he began trying to put together the project that has finally materialized as "Never Say Never Again," after being purchased and packaged by another producer, Jack Schwartzman. Broccoli sought an injunction against this rival Bond movie earlier this year in London but wasn't successful.

If he envisioned it as "unfair competition" at that time, the box-office reception likely to greet Connery's return engagement should induce a severe persecution complex, even though Connery isn't expected to revive the Bond role on a regular basis again. Not that many moviegoers will be complaining if he elects to reconsider once . . . or twice . . . or whatever. You can't look at "Never Say Never Again" without feeling that the role certainly belongs to Connery, anytime he cares to claim it.

Several characters are directly transposed from prototypes in "Thunderball," and the plot once again involves the theft of nuclear weapons by SPECTRE as a prelude to grandiose international extortion. The purloined bombs of 20 years ago have now become cruise missiles, and the search obliges Bond to globe-hop from England to the Bahamas to the Riviera to North Africa before he catches up with the missing objets de guerre. Brandauer's character, the multimillionaire collector Largo, again has a beautiful prote'ge' named Domino, who has enough sense to be seduced out of her dependency by Bond. The young actress cast as Domino, Kim Basinger, looks like a voluptuous sibling of Liv Ullmann and has a certain something.

There's one cavalier slip-up in this variation on the "Thunderball" premise. The missiles are separated, and while Bond and his associates track down the one in Largo's custody, the other remains at large, requiring a lame report that it's been disarmed a long way off-screen in America. It's possible that at one point a double rescue caper was envisioned, because an interesting new production history of the Bond films by Steven Jay Rubin mentions "a spectacular battle on the Statue of Liberty" as an element in an earlier draft of the screenplay.

Well, why not another remake of "Thunderball" in a few years, if that's what it takes to reunite the team responsible for "Never Say Never Again"? No team has ever done the Bond act better. "NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN"

Directed by Irvin Kershner; produced by Jack Schwartzman; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe, B.S.C.; music by Michel Legrand. Presented by Taliafilm Productions. Rated PG. THE CAST James Bond . . . Sean Connery Largo . . . Klaus Maria Brandauer Blofeld . . . Max von Sydow Fatima . . . Barbara Carrera Domino . . . Kim Basinger