How do you follow up one of the most critically acclaimed and wildly popular films ever made? It is perhaps an impossible and thankless task, but one that the Bond team found themselves in after the unimaginable success of Goldfinger. In their case they went bigger than ever before, with Thunderball featuring by far the biggest budget of any Bond film yet. That larger budget and scale would prove to be both a blessing and a curse for the film.
Thunderball is such a tricky one. It unquestionably is not Goldfinger. It doesn’t have any of the perfectly paced nature of that film. Nor does it have Goldfinger’s sterling cast of characters. Whereas that film had a fun charm to it, Thunderball is a far slower burn. Indeed at times it can feel downright plodding, yet somehow the movie keeps you (mostly) focused; a not insignificant feat for a movie that spends a quarter of its runtime underwater.
As a kid I really dug Thunderball. The way it delves more into the SPECTRE stuff. Its cartoonish villain in Largo. The way the movie functions less as a single focused story and more as just a two hour and ten minute experience where stuff just sort of happens. And of course, the film’s many many underwater sequences.
There’s nothing else really like Thunderball in Bond. Certainly I’ve always viewed it as the redheaded step-child of the Connery era. I mean for god’s sake a quarter of this film is wordless underwater scenes. There’s nothing that would ever exist like this today. And it’s also a film wrapped up in the incredible behind the scenes legal drama of the authorship of Thunderballs story.
I can’t really say Thunderball is too good. It’s unmistakably not great. But, I also don’t think it’s bad. I don’t know, there is something sort of charming in its middling goodness. Trevor hated the movie, which is totally fair. It’s a strange one, its larger then life nature seeping into every aspect of the movie in good and bad ways.
The movie falters and also is a delight, it never builds up any sustained momentum and will then explode in action. The pacing is awful for at least two-thirds of the thing, most glaring in the last act, yet I am almost never bored by this film. It helped to create the cinematic femme fatale in Volpe while at the same time featuring arguably the series’ most overt and offensive cases of sexism and harassment. Everywhere you look Thunderball is a Jackal and Hyde character. The one exception being Sean Connery’s performance which might be my least favorite of his original run with the character, veering too hard into an uncharming asshole at times.
And yet, despite all that , I don’t know if I think Thunderball is the worst of the first four Bond movies. I think it has lots of moving parts that work well and the central premise of the story is outlandish and rad in all the right ways: the first real global threat Bond has faced yet. Thunderball is all bombast and promise and grand ideas and then a 50/50 success rate on it.
I don’t know. To me it is a great lazy Sunday afternoon movie to have on. It’s not a top 10 Bond movie like at one point in my life, but it’s also not terrible. It sits firmly somewhere in the middle of Bond movies and that seems fitting.
That last act can be rough though.
Best Moments –
The opening of the movie with Bond attacking a SPECTRE operative dressed as a widow is always a great silly moment in the movie. After that it gets a little tricky. I personally like the scenes of Bond and Volpe together at the parade with Bond trying to escape Volpe and her crew. Some of the underwater scenes are really cool and neat, even if we have way too many of them. As a personal favorite I always liked the scene of all of the double 0’s gathered together even if it borders on absurd in its setting. On the whole though Thunderball at times struggles for truly stand out scenes.
The Villain –
I think Emilio Largo is rad. The number two man of SPECTRE is just such a classic looking baddie. The suave way he dresses with the iconic eye-patch. This is in many ways SPECTRE’s biggest moment and the peak behind the curtains we get of the organization has always been some of my favorite stuff in the film. Volpe is also great and such a prototypical femme fatale. Overall I like the baddies here. 8/10
Felix Watch –
Rik Van Nutter’s Felix Leiter is in the running for being my least favorite version of the character in the entire series. Bland, utterly forgettable, and delivering a listless performance it constantly is the “get up and grab a drink” section of the film. What makes it particularly bad is this is one of the movies in the series where Felix gets the most screen time and things to do.
It is just not good. 4/10
Hope you like water based gadgets!
First, the good. The rebreather is fantastic and looked so good that actual engineers asked how the film crew had created it (they hadn’t). Such a smart small gadget that would be perfect for an agent in the field.
The tracking pill is neat and allowed for a great back and forth between Bond and Q. Outside of that though…the gadgets are sort of fine. The book that records what happens in the room is interesting enough. The scuba gear that Q gives James really is just scuba gear that’s a little better. It’s largely fine. 7/10
The Music –
Tom Jones doing his best version of what Dame Shirely did in the last movie. It’s fine, I enjoy it. Doesn’t stick with you as much. 7.5/ 10
Final Ranking –
Thunderball is a tricky one. The movie is in many ways a mess. There are a few standout moments. It is just sort of operating at an ok to good level of quality. The pacing in particular can be a disaster at times. The first act drags on with very little happening and the less said of the last act’s pacing, the better. The underwater scenes are comically long.
Yet, I do like Thunderball. I don’t think it’s close to the best film in the series but I do think it is a fun movie. Maybe the first in the series to really hit the level of “not particularly good, but fun” marker. The cracks of the Connery era are starting to appear but Sean is still seeming to have fun just hanging on a beach for a movie. Largo is good. For me it’s a 7.5/10 and a toss-up with Dr.No for my least favorite of the first five movies.