Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thunderball


What the hell is a Thunderball?  According to the always lyrically helpful Tom Jones, it is a way in which you can strike.  As in, "he strikes like Thunderball."  Is that innuendo?  Could the mysterious term be replaced with Hurricanejunk or Tornadocock?  I have to admit, I've always been puzzled by that.  In the context of the film Thunderball, it is the code name of MI6's plan to thwart the evil plans of SPECTRE --- the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, extortion and awesome acronymsE.  It's been a while since I have reviewed a James Bond film --- over five months! --- which means that I have accidentally been depriving myself of the best super-spy in the business for almost half a year.  That ends today.
"So, it's your SPECTRE against mine."  I've never seen someone so pleased with a "subtle" jab.

The always ingenious SPECTRE organization has struck again!  But instead of manipulating other nations (From Russia With Love) or messing with the space program (Dr. No), SPECTRE has decided to grow a pair and straight-out threaten the world.  In a ridiculously complicated plot, which involves plastic surgery and an evil spa, the organization manages to steal some nuclear weapons and they (quite logically, I think) opt to ransom the Western world for £100 million in diamonds.  Huh.  I forgot that Doctor Evil joke was actually accurate.  As luck would have it, agent 007, James Bond (Sean Connery) happened to be convalescing at the same spa where SPECTRE people were preparing for the nuke snatch.
That is one unsettling smirk
This is immediately following Bond killing SPECTRE operative Number 6.  What are the odds that he would foil one SPECTRE operation and stumble into another?  If you immediately thought "one in 007," smack yourself, please.  How can Bond possibly try to avert this very serious, no-fooling nuclear catastrophe?  By befriending the mistress of SPECTRE operative Number 2, Largo (Adolpho Celi), and more or less baiting the supervillain.
The problem with Bond villains: Largo handing James a gun

More than any other Bond film, Thunderball is truly the blueprint for the series.  Dr. No was too small-time, From Russia With Love was too espionage-heavy, and Goldfinger was just a one-off run at awesomeness.  This is the first Bond movie that dared to dream big and wasn't afraid to be completely ridiculous in the process. 
"I have no idea what you are referring to"
Thunderball really has all the Bond benchmarks.  Gadgets from Q (Desmond Llewelyn)?  Check.  Over the top villains?  I think a shark-loving, baccarat-playing, one-eyed henchman fits the bill.  Big stakes?  It doesn't get much bigger than nuclear terrorism.  Ridiculous action sequences?  There is a jet pack scene, a swimming pool filled with sharks, and a car equipped with weaponized and pressurized water.  Bond girls?  This movie has three.  One-liners?  Oh, my, yes.  In so many ways, Thunderball is the quintessential Bond movie.

This was the fourth James Bond film, and the fourth time Sean Connery played the character.  Connery's Bond is the most interesting to watch because he changes his style subtly with each outing.  While this may be his fourth time playing Bond, this Bond is a lot cockier than before (which is saying a lot) and he's a bit of a prick.  I'm totally fine with that choice, but it does lead to some of the more ridiculous (and awesome) moments in the movie.  Adolpho Celi doesn't really stand a a chance against such a confident and competent secret agent.  Celi isn't bad, but his character's main talent is ruthlessness, which is negated in every scene where he doesn't shoot Bond in the face.  Aside from that gaping plot hole, Celi is fine, but nowhere near as engaging as any of the Bond villains up to this point, mostly thanks to his stupid character.  I mean, he's supposed to be representing a super-secret villainous organization, right?  Look at this picture: 
He's wearing his damn SPECTRE class ring!  What is it about "super-secret organization" that he doesn't get?  Bah!

The rest of the cast is more sensible.  The requisite Bond girls are all halfway decent.  Claudine Auger played the primary Bond lady, Domino, and she probably had the meatiest role of any Bond girl to date.  She didn't deserve any awards or anything, but she stands out amongst her peers here. 
Auger, trying to unravel Van Morrison's "Domino" lyrics.  Probably.
Bond also seduced Fiona, a SPECTRE agent, played by Luciana Paluzzi; she had good crazy eyes, but the best thnig about her performance was simply being on the receiving end of Bond saying he got sexy with her "for Queen and Country."  My favorite Bond girl in this movie was definitely Bond's physical therapist (Molly Peters) from both an attractiveness standpoint as well as an amusing one.  This is the character that Bond blackmails into having sex, overreacts to his bizarre mink lecture, and then gets completely blown off by Bond when he leaves.  I wouldn't call her a role model for little girls, but she definitely plays into the irresistible mystique of Bond.  The usual suspects also make their typical brief appearances, like Desmond Llewelyn as Q, Bernard Lee as M, and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny.  Rik Van Nutter won the annual sweepstakes to make a one-off appearance as Felix Leiter, although his filmography implies that his selection just may have been at random.

Interesting James Bond fact: most of the early Bond girls had their dialogue dubbed over by Nikki Van der Zyl.  Apparently, the foreign models used in these movies had thick accents and/or limited acting ability (**gasp!**), so Nikki did the voices for most of the sexy women in nine (!) of the first eleven Bond films, including Domino.  Sadly, she is not named in any of the credits of these films.  I just stumbled across this knowledge, and it astounded me that there could be such a huge Bond contributor that I had absolutely no knowledge of.

This is the third and final James Bond film directed by Terence Young.  While Thunderball lacks the spy intrigue of his earlier work, Young definitely left his mark on the franchise.  The underwater scenes in this film are what stand out the most.  To this day, the underwater cinematography in this film is some of the best ever done, and it is probably on the largest scale, too.  Aside from the underwater scenes, Young appears to have relaxed a little, and it shows in how nasty and smart-assed Connery is allowed to be.  I don't think that's a good or bad thing; it's just noticeable.
This is framed in my home.  Fact.

Unfortunately, Young's strongest point is also Thunderball's weakest.  The underwater scenes, while pretty, are dreadfully dull.  They are long, the otherwise awesome score becomes irritatingly repetitive during them, and it is very difficult to identify characters when they are in full-body wetsuits with masks on.  Oh, and everything happens slowly underwater.  This was the biggest Bond movie to date, and yet you can tell that the filmmakers were struggling with ways to top themselves.  This was also the most tongue-in-cheek Bond movie to date.  When you combine an increased tendency for one-liners with extended periods free of dialogue (the underwater scenes, duh), you wind up with a poorly paced film.  Of course, the plot is also one of the stupider plots in the history of Bond plots, where believability is usually not a priority.  Why do Largo and Bond maintain a polite rivalry?  There is no need for it, whatsoever; they're not fooling each other, so I don't get the point.  I could deal with the water scenes if there was more espionage in the rest of the film.  Despite all of that, Thunderball truly is the best example of a James Bond 007 film.  It doesn't have a great story and it is definitely flawed thanks to its signature action sequence, but it is charming and cool.  It is silly and stupid, but nowhere near as hammy or dumb as the later Roger Moore films.  It's not perfect by any means, but it is definitely definitive Bond.
Fun fact: Johnny Cash submitted a song he wrote for this soundtrack.  It's not half bad, but it sure isn't a Bond theme.

2 comments:

  1. Oh man! I love Thunderball!

    Nice writeup, I enjoyed it.

    On the underwater stuff... I think.... it needs to be acknowledged that theyre way too long now, they could use an edit for the modern audience. but I still think theyre awesome! A huge speargun shoot out between like 50 parachuting frogmen? Thats incredible. Of course, it does go on for 5 1/2 hours...

    Regardless, this movie is one of my favorite Bonds ever. Its one of the crown jewels in the Connery collection. Love it.

    Nice post Brian!!

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  2. Thunderball is definitely classic Bond, for all the good and bad that implies. I saw this relatively late in my James Bond education, so it doesn't have nostalgia to soften the whole 5 1/2 hours of underwater fight scenes, but it is definitely in the top third of all Bond movies.

    I just thought of another reason the underwater scenes suck. The fighters only have one spear for their spear guns. They fire it once, and that's all. After that, they just wrestle each other until somebody's scuba mask gets pulled off. LAME.

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