4.5 of 5 stars
Agent 007 faces off against SPECTRE No. 2 in one of the biggest and funnest films in the series. Released in 1965, Thunderball was Sean Connery’s fourth Bond film in as many years. Goldfinger had set the formula and tone of the series, but Thunderball is where it found its stride.
The film starts out with Bond recovering in a health clinic after getting beaten with a poker by a man in drag. Here he inadvertently stumbles onto a plot to hijack nuclear weapons and blow up an undisclosed city in the West unless the world pays a sum of £1 million!
The plot unfolds in a confident, unhurried pace. The bad guys, SPECTRE, led by a faceless man stroking a white cat, hire a man to get plastic surgery to look identical to a certain NATO pilot. He then murders everyone on board a test flight carrying nuclear weapons and flies the plane to the Bahamas so SPECTRE can steal the bombs.
Every double-oh agent in Britain is on the job. Bond has one lead—he happened to see the real NATO pilot dead at the health clinic where he had been recovering. The pilot’s sister, Domino, is currently in the Bahamas. Through some good ol’ fashioned stalking, Bond locates Domino and finds out her lover is none other than SPECTRE No. 2, Emilio Largo.
The moments between Connery and Sicilian actor Adolfo Celi (Largo) are when this movie is at its best. Connery and Celi were friends off set, and both seem to enjoy their roles. The scene where Bond and Largo are casually shooting at discs, showing off their skills while bantering, is pure fun. Bond tells Largo: ‘That gun. Looks more fit for a woman.’ Largo says, ‘Do you know much about guns, Mr Bond?’ Bond responds, ‘No. I know a little about women.’
Celi also brings some welcome elements of his own background to the role. When he first meets Bond, he says, ‘You wish to put the evil eye on me? We have a way to deal with that where I come from.’ He makes a threatening Sicilian gesture, which tells observant viewers a little bit about the character’s background without having to explain it.
The movie is elevated above the run-of-the-mill Bond film through subverting expectations. The iconic line “Bond, James Bond,” is not said by Connery, but by Luciana Paluzzi’s character, Fiona, during the obligatory love scene between Bond and the femme fatale. Bond also fails to convert Fiona to his side by sleeping with her, as he had previously with Tatiana in From Russia with Love and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. Paluzzi seems to be breaking the fourth wall as she explains Bond’s failure to him, breaking with formula.
Even though Fiona was the femme fatale, the audience comes to like her, just as we like Adolfo Celi as Largo. After her and her cronies pursue Bond through a loud, flamboyant Carnival parade into a dance club, she has Bond cornered. She and Bond dance while she orders him to come quietly with her. The music gets louder and louder as a drummer is banging on congas. A hand holding a gun points at Bond. He spots the gun and turns away just as a shot is fired. The music is suddenly quiet, but hasn’t stopped. No one seems to notice Fiona slump in Bond’s arms, blood seeping through his fingers. The bad guys, so bent on killing Bond a moment earlier, suddenly scatter. Bond leaves Fiona’s body on a chair by the dancefloor. Her death came so sudden, and the way she was immediately deserted feels so lonely. While many bad girls would be killed in the series, this is the only death that feels like it has weight.
But the movie also has some silly stuff audiences have come to expect from a Bond film and willingly forgive. In the scene where Bond and Fiona first meet, she picks him up from the side of the road, and he asks for a lift into town. She speeds down the dark, narrow road at 80 miles per hour, while Bond grows visibly nervous. There was no point to this reckless driving. We already knew Fiona was a villain, so it didn’t tell us anything about the character we didn’t already know.
In another inexplicable scene, Bond opens the door to his hotel room and a man greets him, “Well, hello—”
Bond punches him in the stomach.
A moment later, we learn the man was Bond’s best friend, CIA officer Felix Leiter, now played by Rik Van Nutter. Leiter says, “That’s a fine way to treat the CIA.”
Bond explains, ‘Sorry about that, Felix, but you were about to say 007.’
How did he know what Felix was about to say? Did he read the script?
Also, what was so bad about Felix saying 007? Is it because the bad guy was hiding in the room? He was still in the room when Bond told Felix, ‘You were about to say 007.’ The bad guy’s right there! He can still fucking hear you!
Some material in the movie feels especially dated today. While at the health clinic at the beginning, a nurse tells Bond to put his hands over his head while she examines him. He lowers his arms and forces a kiss on her. Later, she fears losing her job after leaving Bond on a machine that almost kills him (because SPECTRE’s man at the clinic messed with it). Bond tells her his silence could have a price, then leads her into a steam room where we see her naked back press up against the glass a moment later. Nowadays, we would call that simpler times rape.
Most of the movie is set in the Bahamas. The waters are supposed to be shark infested, and it appears a couple sharks were killed for the production. I realize folks in the ‘60s weren’t as environmentally conscious as we are today, but I still squirm when I see endangered animals killed for no reason.
However, the movie still has a timeless quality. The production is bolder and more colorful than action films of the past couple decades. Whereas Roger Moore’s films feel like they belong solely to the ‘70s and ‘80s, these early Bond films are still being discovered.
In a way, though, Thunderball is the film that ruined everything. Compared to the premise of From Russia with Love, Thunderball is overblown with huge stakes. The following films would fall into the trap of constantly raising the stakes to feel more exciting than the last, culminating with Bond going to space in 1979’s Moonraker. This was also the only movie in the series produced by Kevin McClory. McClory had co-written an early script for Thunderball with Jack Whittingham and Bond creator Ian Fleming. When the initial project had fallen through, Fleming adapted the script into a novel and didn’t credit Whittingham or McClory. McClory sued and got the rights to the story. He even remade Thunderball in 1983 as Never Say Never Again. He would later try to win the rights to the Bond character and the film franchise, which led to a six-year gap between License to Kill and GoldenEye. Somehow, I can’t forgive that. However, on its own, Thunderball is one of the most enjoyable films in the series.