Martin Rayburn thinks that the fight is worth it all...
After the phenomenal success of Goldfinger expectations were understandably astronomical for the next Bond installment. The producers approached the series with a determination to consistently push the envelope, always delivering a "bigger and better Bond" than ever before. Unfortunately, this determination proved to be both the strength and weakness of Thunderball. On the whole, Bond's fourth cinematic outing is by no means a failure, but by attempting to out-Goldfinger Goldfinger it leads to excessive overkill, which ultimately affects Thunderball's overall quality.
Thunderball was at one time lined up to be the first James Bond film, but was at the centre of legal disputes which began in 1961 (and ran in one form or another right up until 2006). Former Ian Fleming collaborators Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham sued Fleming shortly after the publication of the Thunderball novel, claiming he based it upon the screenplay the trio had earlier written for a failed cinematic translation of James Bond. This original lawsuit was settled out of court in 1964, with McClory retaining certain screen rights to the novel's story, plot, and characters. By then the James Bond franchise was a huge box office success, and series producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman feared McClory making a rival film. So they agreed to McClory's producer's credit of a cinematic version of Thunderball, with Saltzman and Broccoli named as executive producers
The "bigger" plot, takes Goldfinger's radiation of the Fort Knox gold reserve and amps up the threat to a more global context, so now we have the destruction of major world cities by atomic weapons. This is one element which serves Thunderball very well. Not only is it a particularly poignant plot device for the day (1966 - in the midst of the Cold War), it also helps the movie stand the test of time quite well, because its overall gist has been used many times in recent years by modern political action thrillers.
Thunderball also remains far more grounded in reality than many of the later Bond exploits, and takes itself relatively seriously. There are several surprisingly dark moments, which help counterbalance the slightly comical yet still thrilling sight of of seeing Connery in a jet pack, and dramatically aid the overall quality of the film.
Thunderball boasts some strong cinematography, helped by some stunning
locations. The action sequences, including a particularly tense chase
through a Mardi Gras parade, are solid, and a catchy Tom Jones title
track surprisingly helps not hinders the film.
However, Thunderball's $9 million budget (triple that of Goldfinger's) is mostly (mis)spent through underwater photography sequences, which, although interesting to look at (and were likely moreso back in the 1960s, where such a sight was very seldom visible to the public eye) for the most part fail to further the plot in any way whatsoever. And they do drag on excruciatingly long.
Thunderball descends into utter chaos during the film's final quarter. During the repetitive and indecipherable underwater battle it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which underwater army is which, and who is winning. We also have a boat chase which flaunts special effects that have dated decidedly unfavourably. Finally, we have some inexplicable character motivations seemingly thrown in to tie-up the increasingly unravelling mess. It's a disappointment indeed to see what started out with such promise sink into such a banal conclusion.
The character of Bond himself has surprisingly less screen time than is usual for any 007 film. This is unfortunate as Sean Connery gives one of his strongest performances. He oozes self assurance and panache, the kind only delivered by someone truly at the top of their game. This time around he delivers his one liners with something of a dark twinge, with "I think he got the point" being the most classic. Also, Bond not only gets hurt, but (and this is something I feel should be present in every Bond film but is sorely missing in many) is not afraid to hurt. He unflinchingly bestows vicious physical punishment against his adversaries. It's his job, and he does it well once again.
The supporting cast proves to be a very hit and miss affair. While former model Claudine Augere certainly looks the part of a sixties Bond girl, she unfortunately, for the most part, retains the static lack of emoting also associated with them. Adolfo Celi's eye-patched Largo makes a visually iconic Bond villain. He is suitably menacing, but as the film progresses he loses his threat element more and more, eventually degrading into a flimsy carbon copy of an adversary by the final act. Luciana Paluzzi steals the show from all but Connery, making one of the most chilling Bond femme fatale figures the franchise has ever seen. Paluzzi, despite the potential to coast by on her sensual looks, refuses to play the part on autopilot, and exudes laudable charisma and threat throughout. The unfortunately named Rik Van Nutter makes the most generic and forgettable CIA agent Felix Leiter of the Bond series, but Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn are on top form as the ever endearing M and Q.
Despite being let down by the last quarter, Thunderball is nonetheless a noteworthy and suitably engaging Bond movie. Although it moves along at a brisk enough pace so as to hold most people's interest, this is not likely the movie you'd want to show first to someone who has never seen a Bond film, there's not enough (or moreso time has not been kind enough to Thunderball) to enthrall those who are not already Bond purists.
It's really all about Connery himself here. It's one of his most charismatic renditions of the role and that's enough for me to merit repeated watching.
(And I made it through without mentioning Never Say Never Agai.....D'oh!)
By day, an ordinary bloke in a dull 9 to 5. By night, a tired ordinary
bloke. Martin still hasn't worked out what he wants to do when he grows
up. He is currently 46.
James Bond will return next Thursday...