Thunderball (1965)

2012 #87a
Terence Young | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

ThunderballThere is, I think, a degree of consensus amongst Bond fans (both serious and casual) about a great number of things. Everyone has their personal favourites and dislikes that go against the norm, of course, but there are few things that are genuinely divisive on a large scale. It’s largely accepted that Goldfinger is the distillation of The Bond Formula, for instance; or that any new Bond is judged against the yardstick of Connery; that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the better films, but long-maligned for its re-cast/miscast lead; that Moore was too old by the end; that GoldenEye was a great re-invention of the franchise; that Casino Royale was the same for a decade later; that Moonraker and Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace are rubbish; and so on. But nonetheless, a couple of things do generate a split of opinion — how good (or not) were Timothy Dalton and his films, for example. This is where I’d place Thunderball.

Adjusted for inflation, Thunderball is still the highest grossing Bond film of all time. It’s where the Bond phenomenon really kicked in. Popularity and success had built across the previous three films, reaching an unexpected fervour during the release of Goldfinger (just look at some of the footage of crowds at premieres on the DVD/Blu-ray), but Thunderball was something else again. Here the series gets big in every way, and obviously so: on screen, it’s in luscious 2.35:1, as opposed to the more TV-ish 1.66:1 of the previous films; Everything's better down where it's wetterthere’s an awful lot of grand, expensive-looking underwater stunt work; and it’s relatively long too, the first Bond to pass two hours (and, even in the nicest possible way, it feels it). Accompanying it was an array of merchandising that, at least as I understand it, wouldn’t be seen again for years (these days it’s par for the course, kicked off by Star Wars, but could Lucas’ insistence on retaining and exploiting those rights have been inspired by earlier stuff such as this? I’ve no idea; some Star Wars fan might). The legacy of this is that some people absolutely adore Thunderball, especially if they’re of the generation who saw it on release.

Over time, this reputation has dwindled. This is all anecdotal, but it seems to appear less often at the top of lists, retrospective review scores seem to be lower, and so on. Personally, I’ve never liked it. My draft review from last time I watched it (around 2006) notes the “numerous faults: Bond ridiculously stumbles upon the plot while on holiday, the sped-up fight sequences, a fair bit of pointless running around, villains not nearly as menacing as those encountered before… There’s also something slightly undefinable that’s suddenly missing — it doesn’t have that same (for want of a better word) magic that the films before and after it do.” There’s also the never-ending climactic underwater battle, which I can’t believe I didn’t mention.

Well, to cut to the chase, and much to my surprise, this time I actually enjoyed Thunderball rather a lot. I still think it’s the weakest Bond to date, and I could add even more flaws to the above list — its bloated running time, partly the fault of a meandering story in need of tightening and streamlining, and so on — Domino's costumebut if you just accept a few of those, allow them to wash over you as it were, then it’s quite good fun. For all its flaws, it’s also packed with brilliant moments: the scene at the Kiss Kiss Club is arguably the best-directed bit in the series to date, and remains one of my favourite moments from any Bond; then there’s the jet pack, indeed the whole opening titles; almost any scene between Bond and one of the numerous females; “I think he got the point”; Domino’s (first) swimming costume… Um, where was I?

Thunderball is never going to be my favourite Bond, or even my favourite of the Connerys; but rather than battling with Diamonds are Forever for which is his worst, it’s now contending with Dr. No for which is highest in the middle. That is, from my point of view, a pretty big shift.

4 out of 5

Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.

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