Unlike 007, Agent Christopher Kulik strikes like blunderball.
"Ahh, I see…it's your spectre against mine!"—James Bond
As we all know, Ian Fleming's creation has become a worldwide phenomenon thanks to the Saltzman-Broccoli collaboration and, of course, Sean Connery's signature swagger. We also know that MGM has been releasing these films on the home video market multiple times over the past 30 years. In the late '90s, the DVD special editions were models for others to follow, offering more commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, and other 007-themed goodies than most popular studio films. Double-dipping was inevitable. In 2006, MGM decided to re-release all the Bond films, this time boasting a digital frame-by-frame restoration and all-new DTS 5.1 surround tracks as compensation. Those who purchased those impressive "ultimate editions" will no doubt get upset at MGM for now giving 007 the high-def treatment, but do they really live up to their tagline, "Blu-ray was made for Bond"? We shall see.
Facts of the Case
The terrorist organization SPECTRE is up to its old tricks, this time recruiting Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi, Von Ryan's Express) to get his dirty hands on some nuclear warheads. Bond (Sean Connery, Marnie) sniffs out the plan while attending a health spa, and soon travels down to Nassau to begin a cat-and-mouse game with the criminal mastermind. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Largo's niece, the alluring Domino (former Miss France, Claudine Auger).
I'm probably in the minority when I say my favorite Connery outings as 007 are Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever. Don't get me wrong, the first three films in the series (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger) are genuinely entertaining spy thrillers in their own right and should be credited as the sparks which ignited the flame of the franchise. Goldfinger may be responsible for making Fleming's creation a cinematic sensation, but Thunderball made a bigger boom at the box office, and it's the only Bond film to win an Academy Award (Best Special Effects). Indeed, this film solidified the superspy's stature, and continued the successful formula for the Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan films to follow.
There are several things people remember when they think of Thunderball: the jet-pack opening sequence, the Tom Jones title song, the physical/sexual shenanigans at the health spa, the gorgeous Bahamian cinematography, the supreme hotness of Domino, and the exciting—if endless—underwater sequences. As a spy thriller, Thunderball strikes as the title implies, and rarely ever lets up in terms of action, intrigue, and fun. Plus, it's always a plus when we have Connery as Bond, and here he seems to be at his most relaxed and engaging. Some of his reactions and dialogue are priceless; his meeting with Fiona (Largo's wife) and a gadget-brief with Q among the many examples.
Since Thunderball has already been reviewed to death by the Verdict, I shall only concentrate on a few ingredients which tips the film into my absolute 007 favorites. The women have always been drawing cards in the series, but I must confess to having a genuine weakness for redheads (see where Diamonds Are Forever comes into the picture?). Luciani Paluzzi (The Green Slime) has one of the more juicy roles as the evil femme fatale Fiona, this time with fiery hair and a deadly ambition. The filmmakers don't hesitate to utilize Paluzzi's sexiness to the hilt, as her love scene with Bond ranks as one of the most sensual and still seems rather daring for 1965. However, Auger (a last-minute replacement for Raquel Welch) remains a fan favorite and rightly so. Her little rendezvous with Bond in the lagoon is fondly remembered. Too bad the climax, which featured Domino's bikini rising to the surface after she and Bond disappear behind a rock, was censored.
While Largo is never considered one of the great villains in the canon, I think his quiet menace is rather overlooked. Poke fun at the pirate-style eye patch all you want, but Celi doesn't have the hammy hokiness of Gert Frobe's Goldfinger, or the extreme campiness of Donald Pleasance's Blofeld (You Only Live Twice). Largo is a villain with class as well as menace, and there are many scenes where he shines with Bond in terms of witty banter ("They [his sharks] know when it's time to be fed!"). Largo and Fiona are so good that the secondary villains (i.e. Vargas) don't quite measure up, which is kind of a shame. But Rik Van Nutter makes a hip Felix Leiter, my vote for the best one, until Jeffrey Wright took over the role in Casino Royale.
Despite Thunderball's hefty budget, the Bahamas is really the only worldwide locale which Bond visits. I find this a refreshing change of pace from the usual globe-hopping exploits which marks the series. Nassau proves to be an exotic location full of local color and cinematographer Ted Moore (Oscar winner for A Man For All Seasons) vividly brings it to life on the screen. Moore also deserves kudos for the underwater sequences which are admittedly not as eye-popping as they were at time of film's release, but still well-filmed and executed.
Now, the big question. Is the Blu-ray treatment crystal clear or water-logged? The opening sequence seemed to be on a par with the Ultimate Edition restoration, until the richly colorful title credits exploded in 1080p and Sir Tom Jones' powerful ballad literally shook my speakers. For what it's worth, Thunderball Blu does indeed eclipse the Ultimate Edition in more ways than one. Picture sharpness and clarity are as spectacular as you could imagine, with the 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen print as fantastic and fresh as you would expect. John Barry's score explodes in the DTS 5.1 Master Lossless soundtrack, with the sound effects and dialogue given equal attention. For 007 purists, MGM has graciously included the original mono track as well as a Spanish mono track. Subtitles are provided in English, French, and Spanish, with closed captioning also provided.
Predictably, the special features are all ported over from the Ultimate version. Many should be given at least one whirl, and while some are less substantial than others, they're all interesting for fans and non-fans. The two audio commentaries remain full of information for Bond geeks, with the production designer's featurette (featuring Ken Adam) and three making-of documentaries complimenting the ocean of detail. The rest are of the vintage variety, with commercials, a promotional film, trailers, TV spots, and an original NBC special rounding things out. With Connery now retired, I don't understand why he won't consent to doing any commentaries, as it would be great to hear from another Bond besides Sir Roger Moore.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some Bond fans have been critical of Thunderball for understandable reasons. The underwater sequences extend longer than one would like, the dubbing is adequate-enough but obvious, and the final showdown isn't as satisfying (or riveting) as it should be. In fact, many of the complaints brought forward triggered producer Kevin McClorey's remake Never Say Never Again, which brought an aging Connery back to the iconic role. Arguably, Thunderball is vastly superior. The only thing about the film which makes me cringe is the blatant mistake of Bond wearing blue goggles after they got ripped off and replaced by a pair of black ones—same as the ones worn by Largo's men!
The Blu-ray treatment is everything you'd expect and more, but some of you may experience as much difficulty as I did when loading the disc. My Sony player seemed to take an inordinately long time to load (about fifteen minutes) and, following the FBI warning/MGM disclaimers, the menu doesn't come up for another ten minutes. I have experienced this problem before and it only seems to happen with Fox releases. The other one I tested in my collection was Batman: The Movie (Blu-ray). Still, after playing around with it, the movie would eventually play with an occasional snag in frozen pop-up menus and such.
If you are a die-hard fan who not only has the money but also patience, then you don't need me to recommend the Blu-ray versions. Aside from the loading hiccups, the video/audio quality is out of this world. Certainly shaken, if not stirred.
Not guilty. Now have some of my clam chowder!
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