Review: Thunderball

James Bond (Sean Connery) squares off against the criminal organisation SPECTRE after one of their agents hijacks a British bomber and acquires a couple of nukes as well with a big arse ransom demand or else they’ll bomb a city in both the UK and US. Bond’s vacation…er…investigation leads to the Bahamas and eye-patch sporting criminal bigwig Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). Largo sends femme fatale assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) to take care of 007. Bond, for his part takes to getting involved with Largo’s mistress Domino (Claudine Auger). Molly Peters (who died early in 2017) plays a nurse who attempts to resist Bond’s chauvinistic charms, Martine Beswicke plays Bond’s assistant Paula, and Guy Doleman plays SPECTRE employee Count Lippe.

Proof that not all things Connery and Bond are worthwhile, this 1965 Terence Young (“Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love”) 007 spy-adventure is a middling Bond film only slightly above the flabby and fatuous “Diamonds are Forever” and the awkward outlier “Never Say Never Again” (A film which is essentially the same story as “Thunderball”, but made by mostly other people. Consult Dr. Google for the tedious lawsuit information on that one).

We start with some guitar on the gun barrel ident, which usually pleases me but it sounds a bit tinny. The opening scene is a fun bit of rough and tumble with 007 and a bloke in a skirt, followed by Bond flying off in his jet pack which is one of the more awesome gadgets in any Bond film. I used to loathe Tom Jones’ nonsensical title song, but in fairness it’s probably a middle-of-the-pack song on reflection. He’s the perfect male equivalent of Shirley Bassey, but the lyrics are so abysmal that the poor fella has to overcompensate with his singing to the point of legit passing out right after recording it. He’s great, the song is a bit dopey. Maurice Binder meanwhile, does some of his best work with the titles design, with a chicks & water theme. That’s sadly indicative of the film though, dubbed by some ‘The underwater one’ (with a too large helping of ‘Bond on Vacation’). As scripted by Richard Maibaum (co-scribe of most of your favourite 007 films from “Dr. No” through to the 80s) and John Hopkins (“Murder By Decree”, the terrific Sean Connery film “The Offence”) this one has hot chicks and underwater footage and that’s about it.

Take for instance the film’s villain Emilio Largo, an agent of criminal organisation SPECTRE. He’s a somewhat interesting character (despite claiming his passion to be fishing…yeah, that’s cool grandpa) rendered far less interesting by the dreadfully boring and unthreatening Adolfo Celi. Dull (and dubbed), Celi lets his eyepatch do most of the acting and his sharks are the only threat he brings. He’s also one of the less eccentric Bond villains you’ll come across. I’ll admit the baccarat scene with Largo has some amusingly tense dialogue with Bond name-dropping SPECTRE throughout. Otherwise, Klaus Maria Brandauer was much better in the role in “Never Say Never Again”. Hell, NZ-born Guy Doleman fares better in the villain stakes in a much smaller part here.

Like I said, this one’s all scuba-diving all the time, I’m guessing it must’ve been the rage at the time. That’ll be great for some of you, and it’s well-shot, but it’s not my thing and there’s simply too much of it in a film rife with pacing issues. Besides, the only interesting stuff going on down there is at the climax, which is too late. I had pretty much tuned out. It’s an incredibly slow-moving and overstuffed film, and whilst I appreciate the talents of John Le Mesurier and Roland Culver just fine, the only reason they’re in the mission briefing scene here is to provide a visual to mirror the briefing from the SPECTRE end of things. I should also point out that the mission brief scene only appears after 39 very slow minutes. The film truly doesn’t kick into gear until around the hour mark. That’s far too late in the piece, resulting in an overlong film.

As for Sean Connery, I’ve heard that “You Only Live Twice” was the least committed performance he gave in the series according to critics. Funnily enough I felt it was one of his best (and one of the series’ best films), whereas I think he’s barely committed at all here. Meanwhile, the Connery Bond films will always rub some people the wrong way due to the sexism and misogyny, and this film (along with the subsequent “You Only Live Twice”) are probably the worst offenders in that regard.

Adolfo Celi’s a brick wall with an eye-patch and Connery looks to have checked out earlier than I did, so the film definitely has some big problems. It does however have some things in its favour that keep it off the bottom of the barrel. For one thing, although my three favourite Bond girls continue to be Ursula Andress, Dame Diana Rigg, and Michelle Yeoh, this film definitely boasts the best-looking array of Bond girls (“The Spy Who Loved Me” gives it a run for its money too). In terms of performance they fair pretty well, too. Claudine Auger is definitely a better Domino than the mousy Kim Basinger in “Never Say Never Again”, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Martine Beswicke here playing Bond’s aide Paula, the second character she has played in the franchise. It’s a shame she gets rubbed out so quickly, but for the sake of length and pacing perhaps I should be thankful. Still, you never forget Martine Beswicke once seen. Hell, even Molly Peters is a helluva looker. The real impressive one here however, is the simply ravishing Luciana Paluzzi as the bona fide femme fatale of all femme fatales Fiona Vulpe. The character was re-named Fatima Blush and played in vampy campy fashion by the astoundingly hot Barbara Carrera in “Never Say Never Again”, but Paluzzi unquestionably steals this film as its strongest villainous presence (Blofeld is only partially seen and rather ineffectual, another rare thing “Never Say Never Again” slightly improved on). If there’s a reason to see the film beyond completism, it’s Paluzzi who isn’t just hot, she gives the most memorable performance.

Smaller things of note include Bond’s sleek silver Aston-Martin (one of the series’ best cars), a solid John Barry score if a tad heavy on brass instruments, and we get one of Desmond Llewelyn’s most memorable and archetypal scenes in what was the first of 007’s more gadget-heavy adventures on screen. On the downswing, SPECTRE comes across as turning criminality into a boring business board meeting and Rik Van Nutter is a tedious and forgettable Felix Leiter (I prefer Jack Lord in “Dr. No” and Bernie Casey in “Never Say Never Again”).

To be honest, the only significant thing this really has over its virtual remake “Never Say Never Again” is that it came out first. Otherwise this is a middling 007 adventure that doesn’t feature a terribly compelling Sean Connery performance, nor has it been edited tightly enough. A little too leisurely paced and the villain’s a bust, but the women and the scenery are truly gorgeous.

Rating: C+


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