Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Average James Bond Film, Thunderball Is Surprisingly Sloppy Moviemaking.

The Good: Decent pacing, Engaging enough plot, Most of the acting is fine
The Bad: Some real shit editing, Utter lack of character development, Casting of main female characters.
The Basics: Outside being impressed by all that moviemakers could get away with in a PG film back in the 1960s, Thunderball is unremarkable.

I recognize that before one can defy the conceits of a genre, the standards have to be established. Even so, the spy thriller genre, which frequently hinges on reversals, still had some early flops. In fact, I was shocked in listening to the audio commentary track to Thunderball that it was the highest budgeted and highest-grossing of the early James Bond movies. Understanding that the spy thriller genre is not known for having films that are deep character studies, at least back in the day, and that frequent reversals are the norm, Thunderball is still an unfortunately poorly-constructed film.

The fourth film in the official James Bond franchise, Thunderball is plagued by some awkward casting (so many of the females look similar to one another!), terrible editing (the first fight sequence should be taught in film schools as how not to piece together a fight!), and irksome directing (did Terence Young pioneer the shaky handheld camera move to connote frenetic activity in Thunderball?). While the stakes in Thunderball are exceptionally high – both in menace to the world and potential financial damage to the United States and Great Britain – the film does not feel important or big. Instead, it meanders through reversals, women and obvious bluescreen shots until its obvious resolution that restores the status quo.

Appearing publicly at the funeral of SPECTRE agent Jacques Bouvar, James Bond quickly exposes the “widow” of Bouvar as the secret agent himself. Killing the SPECTRE agent and escaping via jetpack, James Bond leaves for a vacation in a spa. Elsewhere in Paris, Largo and the council of SPECTRE meets where an embezzling officer is killed in front of the others. Largo plans to extort the Caribbean governments of over $200 million. Recuperating at the spa, James Bond thwarts an assassination attempt by Count Lippe and then discovers that a French pilot has been killed. The killer, the SPECTRE agent Angelo, was surgically altered to match the French pilot’s appearance and he uses that access to steal a NATO plane with two nuclear warheads.

With Angelo betrayed by Largo, SPECTRE takes possession of the nuclear warheads and sends the Prime Minister an extortion message, demanding 100,000,000 pounds, sterling. Following a lead from a photograph, Bond heads to Nassau where he makes contact with Largo’s niece, Domino. Aided by Felix, Q, and Paula, James Bond works to recover the warheads and thwart Largo and his thugs.

The best I can say about Thunderball is that the acting is competent. The film moves along at a fairly decent clip, regardless of whether the viewer actually cares about what is going on or not, and the performers in it handle their roles well. The only real notable exception to the general quality of the acting comes from Claudine Auger. Auger, who plays Domino, learns of her beloved brother’s death and her guardian’s culpability in his murder and reacts in a ridiculously understated fashion, mortgaging any emotional realism her character had. Director Terence Young cast Auger too closely in appearance to Luciana Paluzzi, Largo’s primary villainesses, and it seems like the main difference in the two is their hair color (but, rather annoyingly, not their acting style).

The primary villain of Thunderball is Largo, who is played by Adolfo Celi. Celi is fine as the somewhat monolithic villain who enjoys fishing and has a collection of dangerous sharks. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed that the method of getting James Bond into the villain’s lair is remarkably simple in Thunderball; he walks up to the front gate and the servant lets him in for a veiled conversation between the hero and the villain that involves no violence between them, just a verbal chess match. Celi sells the feeling of menace in that scene without ever seeming over-the-top.

Sean Connery, who plays James Bond in Thunderball is stiflingly average in the movie. Some of his best lines, the ones laced with subtle humor, innuendo, or irony, are delivered stiffly or barely captured as the camera is moving off him. There is no time to savor his wit or appreciate that the guy is actually cool. Many of his lines are technobabble to service the plot.

What Thunderball truly lacks is any sense of reflection. James Bond is entirely devoted to his work. In fact, one of the women he has sex with he claims to have done only in the service of his work and derived no pleasure from it. As it is, he has no chemistry - either as a character or as an actor – with any of the women in this movie, making it a much less engaging film to watch for the delightful ‘60’s softcore feel of some of the other Bond flicks.

On DVD, Thunderball comes with two informative and entertaining commentary tracks. They describe the moviemaking experience in a compelling depth of detail and relate elements of the actor’s bios that are intriguing. The historical archives of the commentary tracks, though, are not enough to forgive the sloppy filmmaking and lack of genuine character development throughout most of the movie, though. Thunderball is easy to pass by.

For other James Bond films, please check out my reviews of:
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum Of Solace


Check out how this movie stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the film reviews are organized from best to worst movie!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Despite your claim of understanding not all spy thrillers are character studies, you do emphasize that absence here.

    We see things rather differently. I saw the beginning fight scene to be a major highlight. I admit some of the fight scenes in the early Bond films don't work for me, but I felt this one as an exception. I also didn't think Domino's reaction to her brother's death was that ridiculously understated.

    Funny you found Claudine and Luciana too similar. I found them rather separate. A lot of fans nominate Auger as the most beautiful of Bond girls. Still, Paluzzi should get her respects as a groundbreaking Bond villainess. She can do the dirty work and she doesn't change sides because of Bond's sexual magnetism (a point she brings up in the film).

    Either Connery is carrying on with his 'Bond is a bastard' characterization (hence his lack of empathy and his comment that bedding the baddie was just work) or he's starting to get bored with the Bond series (He decides to quit after the next one). At any rate, this film cements the 'big budget' Bond films, which leads to entries where devices and sci-fi tropes take priority over realism and characterization (with exceptions like ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) before Craig took over.

    And what, no mention of John Barry's score? His music in the series is a major highlight not to ignore.

    Again, we see things rather differently. Perhaps you should compare this film with the remake NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (a non-offical Bond film that was Connery's last Bond).

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      The editing in the first fight sequence is absolutely terrible. It is so choppy and it lacks flow as a result. It looks like it was cut together using a lawnmower.

      Character is ALWAYS important and the lack of any character development in "Thunderball" is disappointing.

      I am going through the Bond movies slowly but certainly, so expect more in the coming weeks!

      Thanks for reading!