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Blu-ray may have been made for Bond, but we’ll have to wait before we get some of his best adventures. The first wave of releases offers fans three Connery movies out of the six movies, but leaps over Goldfinger to include Thunderball, one of the weaker films in the franchise. The spy game is almost at an all time high here, but an overly ambitious storyline leaves much to be desired.
After taking a film off to let Auric Goldfinger rob Fort Knox, SPECTRE is back with a threat worthy of an agent like 007. The organization gets their hands on two atomic bombs and issue an extortion demand. Money will be paid, or the bombs will be used to attack an American or U.K. city. All double-oh agents are brought in to find the bombs, or else the ransom will have to be paid. Thankfully, due to some off-duty time spent at a weekend spa, James Bond already has a leg up on the person behind SPECTRE’s threat, Emilio Largo.
I’ll admit up front that Thunderball is probably one of my least favorite Bond flicks, particularly of the Connery era. The movie has an excellent story of espionage here, bringing back SPECTRE, the hint of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld, and a high stakes threat should Bond fail. So why don’t I find Thunderball a more enjoyable experience?
It’s not that the movie is a bit over the top. This isn’t me being cruel - even those involved with the movie admit the approach was larger than life. If you watch Thunderball now, you can’t help but notice how much of the story fed into Austin Powers series, including an eyepatched “Number 2,” the line up of evil agents (one of which fails the organization and winds up executed in front of the rest of them), and the use of frickin’ sharks (although no frickin’ laser beams on their heads, thankfully). Bond’s world is always larger than life though, and by the time you get to Thunderball watching the movie chronologically, you just sort of expect that sort of thing.
It isn’t that the story features moments of convenience, although those certainly are there. Bond practically stumbles onto the movies main plot, like he did in Dr. No. Thankfully there’s a bridge built across that gap of credibility as MI6 discovers the threat. Instead of Bond just discovering a world threat, he just happens to be the right agent in the right place to discover the whole story. That’s not the only moment of convenience though. You have the exposition delivered by the naïve leading lady under the pretense of “this isn’t important but I’ll tell you anyway.” You have Bond stuck several times in inescapable situations only to find rescue or have a jet pack miraculously appear out of nowhere. It’s annoying storytelling, but not a failure for the film.
Instead I think what makes Thunderball so frustrating a film is the amount of the movie filmed underwater, leading to confusing sequences and anti-climactic conflicts. The concept behind the underwater scenes definitely come from the larger than life, globe-trotting side of Bond that we want to see, but the technology of the time just couldn’t accomplish what director Terence Young set out to accomplish. As a result you have a variety of problems. Bond infiltrates part of Largo’s crew to find the bomb, but there’s no way to distinguish Bond from the rest of the men, for either Largo or the viewer. Later, one of the film’s climactic battles features a face off between the good guys and bad guys (dressed in separate colors to distinguish who is who), but Bond is absent from a lot of the battle. Instead you wind up watching ten minutes of random goons shooting each other with mini-harpoons. None of the characters are known, so the battle carries no gravitas. It’s just guys shooting each other with guns.
There are definitely parts of Thunderball to like, disappointing underwater sequences aside. Emilio Largo is probably the most threatening boss Bond has come face to face with, both physically and strategically. As the series has progressed, Bond’s enemies have gotten tougher, and it is only appropriate that this film would lead into the big reveal of Blofeld as the super-villain in You Only Live Twice (for my money, Largo comes across as more menacing than Blofeld in that movie, but that’s a conversation for another time). The water-laden locales may frustrate me as far as the action goes, but they do mean Bond’s female interests have excuses for less clothing, making this one of the more appealing Bond-babe movies.
Unlike Dr. No, which earns a special place due to being the first Bond movie, Thunderball really doesn’t bring anything to the Bond franchise to make up for a disappointing execution. It’s good conceptually, giving Bond the gadgets, exotic locales, and espionage storylines people desire, but the execution winds up falling short of expectations.
I’m not going to repeat my same disappointments with the Bond on Blu-ray line of films. Just look at my previous reviews if you want a recap. Thunderball brings more bonus material than the previous two films in the series, but it also has a new problem in this release - a lower quality transfer.
On Dr. No one of the bonus materials talked about the effort put into restoring the Bond movies, and how the operation was working from the original camera negatives, which contained significantly less dirt and debris. Apparently the people working on Thunderball were at the lower end of the quality control, or the whole operation was tired of Bond by the time they got to the fourth film, because I spotted several instances of dirt and video noise during the movie. This is especially noticeable on the high-definition transfer of the movie, where the crisp images of most of the movie make dirt especially noticeable, and one scene that has a grainy appearance is particularly bad - a problem I eventually accepted on nighttime scenes on DVD, but has no business on a Blu-ray release.
Thunderball has almost twice the number of bonus material as the previous Bond flicks, including two commentary tracks (both still piecemeal interviews) instead of the usual one. The disc is especially bulked up in the “Declassified MI6 Vault,” which is where the vintage material is stored. An almost hour-long special from NBC explores the world of Bond, while a Ford special shows how some of the stunt work is done. What’s particularly interesting about these featurettes is they manage to capture stuff the studio cameras didn’t, so the specials are then used in more comprehensive retrospective looks at the movie.
Three retrospective featurettes have been transferred into high definition, but another problem with the Bond Blu-rays are revealed in watching these - there’s only a finite amount of material dealing with some of Bond’s background and the making of these movies. I’ve heard some of the same interview clips and statements made on all three discs I’ve watched so far, and the redundancy is starting to wear a little thin.
Finally, a gallery of images from the movie, as well as various advertising campaigns flesh out the disc’s contents, much like the other releases in the set.
Thunderball was already one of my least favorite Bond flicks, and watching it again with an open mind didn’t help, particularly with the distraction of a lower quality transfer than I’d noticed on the other Bond Blu-ray discs. Completists buying these discs will want Thunderball anyway, but this is the first in this wave of Bond movies that actually serves as a good argument against picking these up.
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