Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Brandon Peters dissects the 007 series part 04: Thunderball

With Skyfall dropping in theaters in just a few months, along with the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, a close friend and fellow film nerd, Brandon Peters, has generously offered to do a comprehensive review of the entire 007 film franchise. Today is the fourth entry, of course dissecting the most financially successful entry of all time (adjusted for inflation, natch), Thunderball. I hope you enjoy what is a pretty massive feature leading up the November 9th release of Skyfall. I'll do my best to leave my two-cents out of it, give or take a few items I have up my sleeve (including a guest review from my wife as she sings the praises of her favorite 007 film, you won't believe what it is). But just because I'm stepping aside doesn't mean you should, as I can only hope for robust discussions in the comments section. Without further ado...

Director: Terrence Young
Starring: Sean Connery, Adolfo Celi, Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi
Rated PG

Try to be a little less than your frivolous self, 007

Kills: 17 (might not be accurate, end battle was confusing)
Bond Girls: Domino Derval, Fiona Volpe, Patricia Fearing
Car: Aston Martin DB5 (same as Goldfinger)
Locale: Paris, Bahamas
Odd Villain Trait: Largo wears an eye patch
Song: “Thunderball” performed by Tom Jones

Thunderball finally makes it to the big screen for the fouth James Bond adventure. The film builds upon the successes and acknowledges some missteps in the beloved Goldfinger. While being the most successful Bond film of all time, the legal troubles behind the scenes would be its most lasting legacy.

SPECTRE returns with a power play to officially announce their existence to the world. #1 (still not referred to as Blofed) commissions they patch-eyed Emilio Largo (SPECTRE Agent #2, played by Adolfo Celi), with stealing 2 nuclear warheads and holding them ransom. SPECTRE’s ultimate endgame is to set them off on an unknown location in the US or UK unless they receive £100,000,000. All double-0 and CIA agents are dispatched following leads from intel, but 007 scraps his based on a hunch, pitting him face to face with Largo.

Thunderball opens with a fun opening teaser in which Bond attends the funeral for SPECTRE Agent #6. It’s a quick little detective story where 007 correctly deduces the widow at the funeral as the supposedly dead agent in drag. Bond kills the man following him home and escapes by jet-pack from the remaining henchmen. While the jet-pack seems kind of silly and dated sci-fi, it was actually a real device. The scene fades into an excellent opening credits sequence featuring the silhouettes of naked women swimming with harpoon guns. Definitely taking what Goldfinger started to the next level. The same cannot be said for the title song, “Thunderball”, a quite horrible number. I do find the song in the “so bad its good” category, thanks to Tom Jones belting out and selling the hell out of this embarrassment. He’s on record questioning what the hell “strikes like thunderball” even means. He was met from all the people in the studio with “I don’t know”. A fun personal aside for a moment, I have a friend whom I used to make sing this song during a karaoke nights in our early 20s and it was quite the hit with the crowd.

007’s fourth mission asks a bit more of the viewer than the previous three films, but it’s quite worth the acceptance. As these films are a spy fantasy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at times. Right off the bat, we have to accept that James Bond just happens to be rehabbing a back injury sustained in the teaser at the same spa facility which he stumbles upon the reveal that it is playing home base to stage one of SPECTRE’s operation. We also have to give the film that Bond is able to change his assignment based on a small lusty hunch that turns out to be right. Then there are incredibly stupid henchmen- “I think we hit him with the propeller, let’s got back and tell Largo!” Finally, its also a bit crazy to think that Emilio Largo- SPECTRE’s #2 operative, the right hand man, right under Blofeld has no clue what James Bond looks like and is not completely familiar with who he is, considering their previous plot entailed exacting revenge on 007 for killing Dr. No.

Sean Connery feels more like he’s “back” in his performance here. He’s still not up to par with the first 2 films, but he’s much that same Bond. Terrence Young returns to the director chair and must be what brings out the best in Connery’s portrayal of Bond. He’s far more committed and you get a sense he’s having some fun, even though he has to sit in a water tank for a lot of this shoot. Maybe he was just happy to be doing dry on-land scenes.  A huge plus for Thunderball involves the fact that 007 actually does genuine detective work and some stealth reconnaissance multiple times. The mix of suspense and action is successfully mixed this time around. There is a real sense of danger this time around similar to that of From Russia with Love. Whether you think Bond is going to get caught snooping or are set in wonder of “how is he going to escape this” Thunderball keeps you latched on to this adventure at all time. It almost feels as if Terrence Young is trying to one-up Guy Hamilton (and succeeding) by doing all the things he did well in Goldfinger but with a less campy vibe.

Emilio Largo is not as fun a villain as Auric Goldfinger, but he’s not here to play around with 007. The mission must go as planned with this guy. You really feel he will do ‘whatever it takes’ to finish the job whether he lives or dies. There is a nice sense of menace with him. He is also the first villain in the series to play high stakes baccarat with Bond. Largo is our 2nd villain in a row with a dubbed voice (Goldfinger was as well). And his scenes kind of made me feel like I was watching an old Giallo horror film at times.  Also appearing with a dubbed performance is our Bond girl (making three out of the four dubbed. Wouldn’t it just be cheaper to find someone who didn’t have such a thick accent than to pay two people for one performance?). Leading Bond on his hunch to the Bahamas is our featured Bond girl, Domino (the absolutely stunning Claudine Auger). Domino is a more or less a glorified Honey Rider. But hey, at least she has something to do with the plot and actually is given things to do (including killing Largo) in the course of the film. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely gorgeous and we are treated to her in some wonderful swimwear for the majority of her scenes.

The more interesting femme fatale in Thunderball is Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). This character is quite the step up from Pussy Galore. A hired assassin working for Largo, Volpe takes pride and enjoyment in her quest to deceive and kill 007. She even sleeps with him to keep him at bay. Is she turned by the man with the golden junk? Does she immediately go to MI:6 and CIA and reveal the location of the nukes? No. She still wants to kill Bond. Is she a lesbian? Is that how she is able to resist the charm? Nope, she’s straight. She even makes mention of all this, which comes off as a straight “up yours, Pussy Galore” message to Goldfinger. We also get to see her commit a couple of criminal tasks and shoot down a car on her sweet motorcycle. She’s a very cool character and much more compelling than Goldfinger’s Oddjob. It would have been a great idea not to kill her, but to have her pop up from time to time working for different villains in different Bond films (sort of like a Nina Myers/Jack Bauer mold). Connery and Paluzzi share some great chemistry and rivalry.

Bond works with a team in the Bahamas this time. Felix Leiter returns more like his Dr. No/Terrence Young interpretation (and looking like a young Clint Eastwood). This probably the most useless Felix we’ve had so far, there’s really nothing worth mentioning about him other than the actor’s subpar performance. The rest of his team consists of 2 nameless black guys hanging in their headquarters. Nevertheless I’ll give it that this team is surprisingly diverse. It’s rounded out by female correspondent Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick). This is a woman that Bond actually makes no moves on and does not try to bed. Apparently he can actually have a working relationship with a woman. She is pretty capable in here own right, although she ends up getting captured and takes her own life via the ‘ol cyanide pill trick. Hawaiian shirted Q does stop by to help 007 out with a few gadgets in a scene played for a few laughs.

The weakest part of Thunderball, sadly, comes in the climax. In attempt to set off the warheads in Miami, SPECTRE is met underwater by MI:6 and CIA scuba agents. The underwater battle is pretty cool spectacle and there are some nifty harpoon deaths. It does get a bit confusing trying to figure out where Bond is during this battle. It felt he was in the battle to start, then it cut after a while to 007 and Felix and he’d yet to even jump in the water! I seriously thought he was about 3 or 4 different guys during the struggle. Also Largo’s stunt double having some really golden blonde hair kept taking me out of the moment. A lot of the shots are really long and the battle feels repetitive. For a movie that has already spent a lot of time underwater, this feels a bit excessive. It takes a long time to get to 007 and Largo’s battle on the Disco Volante. The sequence, while cool and somewhat entertaining, definitely suffers by not being edited and told a bit quicker.

I compared a lot of Thunderball to Goldfinger in this article with reason. This film deserves all the praising Goldfinger gets. Thunderball is a more competently directed picture. Goldfinger is a nice escape in the “popcorn film” juncture as a Bond film with some great moments, but Thunderball is probably the overall better film. It also bested Goldfinger at the box office. It has some stretches of hokum here and there (but, hey, didn’t Goldfinger’s henchman all wear matching uniforms that had gold sashes?), but it's worth the effort. In the least, it extends and improves upon the standard set by its predecessors. It brings back the suspense and intensity From Russia with Love excelled in and adds in some bigger scale locale and action. The characters are given more care and its part of what helps suck you in. Bond plays a stealthy spy and a worthy hero in this adventure.

Brandon Peters will return in… fade out before the credits finish?

The film originally ended with “James Bond will be back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Due to location scheduling conflicts, this film had to be put on hold and You Only Live Twice was the next adventure instead. Saltzman went back after and simply cut off the credits from a lot of the prints to rectify the mistake and apparently the master print used today for home video is one of those.

Brandon Peters will return in You Only Live Twice

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