Where do you possibly go after Goldfinger? After nailing its formula and sealing it solid with concrete, steel and other tough compounds to further illustrate my metaphor, the Bond franchise adapted a tactic that is wildly overused today but still must have seemed quite novel back in 1965: take what works and times it by 10.
Unfortunately, the problems inherent in that reasoning were as systemic then as they are now and Thunderball, while containing many memorable signature moments, upends the delicate balance Goldfinger obtained with the more outlandish aspects of its story and ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
After dispatching an enemy agent who has taken the trouble to fake his death but then unwisely turns up for his funeral disguised as his own widow (distractingly illogical, although it does gift us the novel sight of Connery hammering seven bells of villainous shite out of a dude who’s being forced to fight to the death wearing lippy and high heels), James Bond is sent to a health clinic to heal from his wounds. However, taking valuable time away from him relentlessly sexually harassing the female staff is the fact he has stumbled on a typically convoluted SPECTRE plot to steal nukes from NATO in order to hold the world to ransom. Dodging an attempt on his life utilising a therapeutic back stretching machine that apparently can be turned all the way up to “fatal” while making it look like James is on the receiving end of some particularly violent anal (turnaround is fair play, huh James?), 007 is eventually put on the tail of eye patch sporting Emilio Largo, a high ranking SPECTRE agent in charge of the caper.
Finding an in by seducing Largo’s mistress Domino (whose brother was murdered by Largo during the missile heist) Bond attempts thwart the organization’s plans while simultaneously getting his end away the with various various women in his orbit.
Thunderball’s main problem is that it’s a movie trying to embrace and expand upon the comic absurdities of it’s predecessor while still trying to be a credible spy movie – why else would it expect us to believe that an undercover secret agent would bust out a fucking jetpack to escape from police. Does MI5 really have the budget to shell out for an experimental, wearable strap on rocket that barely travels 30 feet for all of their secret agents?
And yet when Thunderball actually scores, it’s pretty sweet. Tom Jones’ vocal chord warping Bond theme is suitably bombastic and in the wake of Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, the film manages to create probably one of the most interesting female characters in Connery’s entire run in henchwoman Fiona Volpe, a woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and whose villainous ways are impressively immune to a direct assault by Bond’s wolf-like charm and his famously wandering pee pee. She’s almost James’ dark, gender swapped double and one of the few women in Bond’s early days that draws his mutual respect and a cruelly awesome demise (“Could you look after my friend, she’s just dead.” is one of 007’s more memorably callous kiss off lines).
However, the main draw of Thunderball is it’s frankly jaw dropping underwater photography and while you feel it’s frequently overused (even the title sequence is overwhelmingly aquatic themed) the epic climatic underwater battle between the forces of good and evil is worth the price of addition alone. The sheer scale of the scene (all done for bloody real, too) is stunning as scores of stuntman wrestle each other to the watery death and Bond darts around the bubble strewn killing field, picking off bad guys with harpoons and knives like a psychotic porpoise. Yes, the limitations of such a scene with the necessity of it being actually filmed underwater, makes it…. very…. very…. slow…. yet the languid pace helps you follow the fight easily and is utterly breathtaking.
Is just a shame that for all it’s attempts to be unforgettable, Thunderball turns out to be fairly ordinary and feels far longer than its two hour run time.
Every Bond movie – from the best of the best to the worst the series has to offer – has indelible moments that are impossible to shake from your memory, but apart from the occasional, oddly illogical jetpack, spine stretching rape machine or a trademark battle scene totally submerged in salty H²0, Thunderball frequently treads water.
Top grossing Bond film when adjusted for inflation. It was icing on the Goldfinger cake. Only Skyfall would exceed Thunderball years later. Catapulted Sir Sean to the top of the movie game. Too bad the rest of the series didn’t match up to the 60’s Bond films.