Thunderball ★★★★

After Goldfinger laid out the plans for future installments of the Bond franchise, Thunderball dives into this format with no reservations, culminating in such a spectacular mess of an action film it's a wonder it manages to stay together as long as it does. Yet, despite the lumbering, hulking size of the production, Thunderball mostly works, providing 007 with, if not his best adventure thus far, then at least the one with the most "Holy Shit!" moments, plus the most deaths by harpoon gun.

Director Terrence Young returns after skipping the previous installment, and his erratic grasp of staging action scenes becomes immediately apparent. The opening fight is a horrific jumble of terrible editing, shaky stuntwork, and nonsensical speeding up of the film. The only thing that saves it is the shocking hilarity of Bond punching a grieving widow in the face. Sure, the widow is really some villainous henchman of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., but the unexpected humor in the situation immediately informs us this Bond movie is gonna be a little more unhinged than previous entries. And, boy, is it.

First off, we get the return of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and the prerequisite creative dispatching of a high-up goon for unsatisfactory performance. We get Largo, another great 007 villain, played by Adolfo Celi (although his lines were dubbed by Robert Rietty to cover up Celi's heavy Italian accent.) We get a plethora of Bond girls, yet we also see Bond at his creepiest, harassing the hell out of the staff of a health spa. And we get the final enormous battle royale, complete with mini-subs, sharks, nuclear bombs, and, yes, harpoon gun warfare.

The film looks spectacular, capturing the vibrancy and vividness of the Bahamas, all pastels and bright, beautiful scenery and well-manicured hotels. It makes for one hell of a promotional video, even if the islands seem full of black-turtlenecked evil minions doting behind an eyepatch-wearing supervillain with a penchant for keeping sharks in his swimming pools. (Bad idea, that.)

The underwater scenes are particularly inspired, save for the painfully fake use of a miniature Avro Vulcan bomber jet (thanks, Wikipedia!) Tales of woe from filming a movie in the sea are legendary, so the complexity of some of these sequences leaves you surprised at how well they come off, especially Largo's A-bomb heist, and, of course, the closing epic undersea clash between U.S. Coast Guard divers and hordes of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. aquatic douches. The latter is out-and-out flabbergasting, both in its sprawl and its lunacy. I know I've said the gypsy camp fracas from From Russia With Love was a challenger for best Bond sequence ever, but the finale of Thunderball may claim the belt. It's as gonzo an action sequence as you'll find, made all the more ludicrous by the fact the whole thing was filmed with an imminent drowning threat to all involved.

The performances are hit-or-miss. Most of Bond's gal pals are pretty wooden faces bereft of the slightest iota of acting talent, but at least Fiona Volpe, played by Luciana Paluzzi, makes for an interesting femme fatale turn. Rik van Nutter is horrendous as Felix Leiter, continuing the proud tradition of subpar actors taking over the role of Bond's CIA buddy. But we get another wonderful, if brief, Q appearance by Desmond Llewelyn. And Connery is on a smarmy, cocksure autopilot, even if he gets a tad rapey during his time at the spa.

Thunderball feels like a changing of the guard for the Bond films, a defining point where the plots become less and less attached to any real-world sensibility, and head off into showy supervillain preposterousness. It signals a clear turn towards the high-concept craziness that comes during the Roger Moore era, and that the reach of the films may soon vastly exceed their grasp. But it also makes for an arguable high-water mark for Connery's term as 007, at least as far as grandeur goes, and you can't doubt its desire to go for the gusto. If only things weren't about to go so off the rails in You Only Live Twice.

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