Review: Thunderball

Welcome to my review of Thunderball, the fourth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my previous review, Goldfinger, here. Spoilers follow.

(dir. Terence Young, 1965)

Thunderball trailerI fell asleep while watching Thunderball, which can’t be a good sign. It might just signify that I was tired, but then again I was a bit knackered while watching Goldfinger and I still managed to stay awake. During Thunderball, however, one minute Bond was defeated and trapped alone in a remote cave and the next there was an undersea battle going on near the coast of Miami involving at least forty CIA and SPECTRE agents. It was very confusing. When I rewound the film, it turned out I’d missed 15 crucial minutes.

Thunderball is by no means a bad film. It starts strong; the pre-credits sequence is the best yet, with Bond fighting a man in a dress—a SPECTRE agent, it turns out, who had faked his own death. Bond uses a jetpack to get to the Aston Martin, which has a brief but fun cameo before the credits start. Tom Jones’ intro song is suitably awesome, and the return of Blofeld (his face still obscured) and the SPECTRE hierarchy brings us straight back into the madcap world of super spies and maniacal evil plotting.

We see a meeting between M (who, criminally, I haven’t really mentioned in my reviews: Bernard Lee brings a highly developed efficiency to the role) and the other double-O agents; this is the first time we’ve had mention of Bond’s peers, and while we don’t see them in action it’s nice to know they exist. SPECTRE have stolen two nuclear warheads from a test flight and are holding the British and US governments to ransom to the tune of £100 million. There’s some lovely underwater footage while SPECTRE strips out the warheads from a downed Vulcan bomber—at the time, the cameras used for these undersea shots must have been relatively new and pretty expensive.

Which, I would guess, is why so much of the film is shot underwater.

I don’t dislike the underwater bits, such as where Bond is following SPECTRE or during the massive brawl at the climax of the film, but there’s so damn many of them. The problem with being underwater is that everything moves so languidly: fight scenes unfold at a snail’s pace compared to the lightning antics of the previous films. And how many ways can you show someone being shot with a harpoon gun or having their oxygen pipe cut? Eventually, Bond gets a cool underwater jet pack, but he takes it off long before it’s stopped being interesting.

The bad guy—Largo (Adolfo Celi), SPECTRE’s Number Two—is memorable enough to have formed the visual basis of Dr Evil’s Number Two in Austin Powers, but I was never quite convinced of his and Bond’s relationship. Did Largo recognise Bond at the start, when Bond is making lots of clear SPECTRE references during their card game? If so, why does he invite Bond round for a cosy lunch and a friendly chat?

By far the better villain of the piece is Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi), who is the first properly evil Bond girl to remain unswayed by Bond’s magic penis (it’s possible that Miss Taro in Dr No would have been the first had it not for her immediate post-coital arrest). Meanwhile, the ‘good’ Bond girl, Domino (Claudine Auger), is more effective than most and much less annoying than some. Bond’s sexual politics reach new lows: he blackmails a nurse into sex at the start of the film for something that wasn’t actually her fault, and he waits until literally moments after doing the deed with Domino before revealing her brother is dead. Way to stay classy, 007.

The plot of the film doesn’t hang together particularly well; Bond gets an early lead on the bad guys before the warheads are even stolen by simply being in the same hospital as the guy who steals them. There are a couple of leaps of faith made by Bond regarding SPECTRE rather than the more authentic detective work from the very early films, and I wasn’t over-keen on the introduction of the CIA agents, who seemed pretty ineffective when compared to Bond and the SPECTRE agents; most of them seem to die before Bond even shows up, and I suspect they were shoehorned into the plot so that American audiences could feel appropriately heroic.

On its own, Thunderball is not a bad film, but it’s the weakest in the series so far. After watching the litany of iconic moments throughout Goldfinger, this sequel feels much less memorable.

Title song: Shirley Bassey nearly returned, but in the end her song (Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) only features as an instrumental in the Kiss Kiss club. Instead, Tom Jones belted out Thunderball with such enthusiasm that he allegedly fainted on the final note. Great song.

Greatest moment: Honourable mentions to the jetpack and the sacking of the Vulcan bomber, but my personal favourite is when Largo ‘teaches’ Bond how to shoot clay pigeons. Bond remarks that “it looks very difficult”, before firing his gun blindly from the hip and hitting the target. “Why no,” he says, “It isn’t!”. Classic Bond moment.

Worst moment: Bond escapes from Fiona and her thugs and one of the thugs shoots Bond in the ankle. Bond gets a barely noticeable limp, and after tying what looks like a handkerchief around the wound even that disappears.

Best gadget: The jetpack. It comes out of nowhere and after use is calmly packed into the boot of the DB5 with barely a comment. Conversely, most of the gadgets handed to Bond by Q later seem a bit tame in comparison.

Best quote:
Miss Moneypenny: In the conference room—something pretty big; every double-O man in Europe has been rushed in. And the Home Secretary, too!
James Bond: His wife probably lost her dog.

Most obvious product placement: The product placement in Thunderball is surprisingly (and unusually) subtle, at least by the standards of the rest of the franchise. Aston Martin aside, probably the most obvious is for Breitling: James Bond keeps checking his Breitling Top Time watch (which has a built-in Geiger counter).

Verdict: According to IMDB, this is the highest grossing Bond film to date (allowing for inflation). Unfortunately, my league table has nothing to do with the earnings of the films; it’s about which ones I found most enjoyable. On this criteria, Thunderball is my least favourite out of the four films so far in the series, and so sits in a slightly damp fourth place.

  1. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
  2. Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
  3. Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
  4. Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)

I’ll be back soon with the next film in the franchise: You Only Live Twice. Ciao!