This gentleman's a killer, Mister Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang!
Bond really began to hit the big-time with Thunderball, a hugely sprawling story of nuclear blackmail and the epic struggle of Bond vs. SPECTRE.
Though the budget of Thunderball may at $9 million seem a pittance to those of us used to modern cinematic monstrosities, it was nearly four times the $2.5 million budget of its predecessor, Goldfinger, and a clear indication of the vast, world-wide popularity of the James Bond franchise. The resulting film was definitely an action/adventure blockbuster of its day, with a plot that suffered from some excess of ambition, featured innovative and breathtaking underwater sequences on a massive scale, and displayed a large collection of alluring Bond ladies.
In considering Thunderball within the entire 007 library, it perhaps ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack. Emilio Largo certainly has the style and menace for a Bond villain, but he lacks the unique quirks that add spice and create a larger than life personality. His helpers are rather nondescript, with the blazing exception of Fiona Volpe, who lives up to the fiery, passionate stereotype of the redhead. She also is given the most precious line ever thrown in Bond's face by one of his lovers: "James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not *this* one!" It gives me a chuckle every time I think about it, as it is both an inside joke and a sharp jab at Bond's macho ego.
The other "Bond girls" are attractive, certainly, but are not as fully-featured as others, or as memorable, as none of them has the strength of character to serve as an equal foil for Bond. Domino (Claudine Auger) does a subtle job of conveying her seduction by Bond and further alienation from Largo, with a welcome dash of spunk at the very end of the film, but still she is lacking in depth. James Bond (Sean Connery), well, he is still at his prime here!
The story is perhaps not as fast-paced or thrilling as some of the other Bond films, given that such a large amount of the film (and action) takes place underwater. Even in the fight scenes, this can slow things down on screen. A number of Bond's decisions and actions are presented very simply, sometimes with only the briefest of explanations or opportunity to show an emotional context. As soon as the nuclear weapons are stolen, we know that there is a deadline looming, but the evident willingness of NATO to pay the ransom if necessary eliminates any strong sense of danger. We are fairly sure that no city is going to get seared by nuclear fire, so the final payoff is less potent.
Story? Somebody mentioned the story? Ah, yes…
We meet up with 007 somewhere in France, where he is sourly viewing the funeral of Col. Jacques Boitier, a talented killer in the pay of the terrorist organization SPECTRE. At first regretful that he was robbed of the opportunity to carry out his orders to eliminate his opposite number, Bond follows up on a slight clue with a deadly call upon Col. Boitier's household, causing further damage to SPECTRE, escaping in high-tech style right into the opening title sequence with Tom Jones crooning the title song.
The credits fade out to a street in Paris, as Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) arrives at the disguised SPECTRE headquarters just in time for the department heads to give their reports. A brief staff reorganization occurs before Largo briefs the assembled on his plan to extort $280 million (£100 million) from the NATO countries with a little nuclear blackmail. The preparations are in the hands of Count Lippe (Guy Doleman), who is using a health club near a NATO airbase in the U.K. as his base of operations. By chance, James Bond (Sean Connery) is using the same club to recuperate, and soon scents that something funny is going on with the enigmatic Count Lippe and a heavily bandaged patient next door.
SPECTRE's plan to steal the nuclear weapons it needs comes off without a hitch, as a doppleganger NATO officer (Paul Stassino) dispatches the crew of a bomber during a training flight and flies off with its nuclear prize to Emilio Largo's waiting aboard his yacht, the Disco Volanté. Meanwhile, 007 is really wondering what is going on when he discovers the now deceased, real NATO officer at the health club. When he returns to London for the announcement of the SPECTRE extortion threat, he connects the events at the health club with SPECTRE's plan. He convinces M (Bernard Lee) to send him to hunt for the evildoers in Nassau, where the dead officer's sister, Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) can be found.
Floating down to the warm and sunny Bahamas, 007 makes contact with the delectable Domino and turns on all the charm. She brushes him off, but they meet up later that night at the local casino when Bond and Largo bandy words and cards across a baccarat table. Bond's persistent inquiries about the Disco Volanté tip off Largo, so he is ready when Bond conducts some scuba reconnaissance the next day with the help of local agents Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick) and Pinder (Earl Cameron) as well as Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who is most annoyed at having to equip 007 in the field. Bond learns just enough to confirm his suspicions before Largo's thugs chase him off. When he strolls out of the surf, he is met by Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), a SPECTRE agent as beautiful as she is deadly. That night, at least, is merely an introduction, but you can bet things will get more personal later on!
Invited by Largo to the local Junkanoo festival (equivalent to Mardi Gras), 007 suddenly finds that things are starting to go sour when panicked CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) tells Bond that Largo's men have kidnapped Paula Caplan. 007 quickly puts together a stealthy infiltration of Largo's Palmyra estate, but is driven off with empty hands. Back in his hotel suite, he has a close encounter with a wet, naked Fiona Volpe, before she invites her SPECTRE friends to the party and spoils the fun by capturing him. He is not in their custody for long, thanks to a bottle of rum and a lighter, and eventually manages to elude their pursuit, though not without some very tense moments.
Bond begins to think about how to get aboard the Disco Volanté to defuse the bombs, enlisting the nervous assistance of Domino by convincing her that Largo killed her brother. With her help, 007 does his own doppleganger turn and secrets himself into Largo's scuba team as it transfers the nuclear bombs to the Disco Volanté on its way to eradicate Miami should the extortion demand not be paid on schedule. He is discovered during the transfer, leading to a spectacular underwater fight that he only just escapes.
Rescued by Felix Leiter just in the nick of time, Bond returns to the Disco Volanté at the head of a horde of allied scuba soldiers to do battle underwater with Largo's men while Navy ships fight the Disco Volanté above water. There is much bloody combat, and death lurks behind every rock for everyone including Domino, but as we expect, James Bond wins the day and keeps the world safe from harm. The End
While this is the best presentation of Thunderball that I have seen, the anamorphic transfer is not without its flaws. Color saturation is good for a movie of its age, but not quite as striking and vibrant as that in Goldfinger. In other respects, the video transfer passes muster, with minimal video noise, solid blacks, and accurate flesh tones, but I could wish for a greater degree of sharpness and more shadow detail in a few scenes. Thankfully, I did not notice any shimmering or aliasing from digital enhancement. The main flaw is the presence of a variety of blemishes and marks in the print which are distracting at times. Oddly enough, the enhanced resolution of this film makes certain scenes even more obvious as using insert shots or back projection and makes the daring nature of Domino's swimsuits fully evident.
The audio is apparently a 5.1 remix from the original mono soundtrack, and on balance it appears to be a significant improvement. There is some use of the channels, but this is still a very centered mix with the useful addition of the LFE channel for occasional bass punch for the explosions and mayhem. As one might expect, the sound is not very bright from the mid to high portions of the spectrum, and the lower portion is not as solid as we have come to expect from modern 5.1 mixes. Finally, while I did understand the dialogue throughout the movie, there were occasions where it seemed to be noticeably softer than the preceding or succeeding passages of the movie.
Extra content is quite good, as with all the Bond Special Edition discs. The first commentary track features Director Terence Young and others, while a second commentary track includes editor Peter Hunt, writer John Hopkins and others. The still gallery features "over 150 images" and is nicely organized into eleven categories, each with its own brief set of notes. The documentaries "The Thunderball Phenomenon" and "The Making of Thunderball" provide fascinating peeks into the genesis and aftermath of this Bond film, though in an interesting menu quirk the menu selections for these items are cross-wired (i.e. select one, you get the other!) Completing the collection is a promotional "Inside Thunderball" featurette (which points out some of the interesting differences amongst the theatrical versions of Thunderball), three trailers, five TV spots, ten radio spots, the ever-present Sony PlayStation game "Tomorrow Never Dies" trailer, a nice multi-page booklet, and another cool set of menus from 1K Studios featuring movie images, animation, and sound.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Alpha keepcase? Yeeeccchh!
A special edition is not only a disc that is loaded with features, but also one that sports top quality video and audio transfers. This is even more so when you bill the disc as being the "ultimate" special edition of the movie. While the video is quite acceptable for a movie that is nearly thirty five years old, as noted above it certainly does not live up to the billing given to it by MGM. The print flaws and blemishes are frequent enough to make me wonder if they simply struck a new master from the original elements, or if they did any restoration work on the film.
The most successful Bond entry in the 1960s, Thunderball is an entertaining movie, packed onto a disc with a very good collection of extra content that still is a good value for the money ($35). A must for any fan of the James Bond series!
For their heroic efforts for Queen and country (and DVD), the film and MGM are acquitted, though the Court wishes they would spend a little more effort to clean up the film elements of the older members of the Bond film family.
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• Audio Commentary by Director Terence Young
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