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Thunderball Retro Review: Great Balls of Something

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BY July 28, 2020
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And once again we are back. It’s time for another edition of our James Bond Retro Reviews. What’s a Retro Review, you say? Why, it’s a chance for us to turn our critical gaze on stuff we missed or stuff we’d like to reevaluate. Right now, as you might have guessed, I’m in the middle of a 007 watch. I knew almost nothing about James Bond before going in, besides the stuff that everyone knows. And now? Now I’ve made it to the fourth movie, so here’s my Thunderball Retro Review.

(As always, you should start from the beginning with Dr. No if you’re new to the franchise. There is also From Russia with Love and Goldfinger.)

What is a Thunderball, Exactly, and What’s This Movie About?

thunderball retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

Well, to answer the easiest question first, the term thunderball supposedly refers to a nuclear mushroom cloud. I say “supposedly” because I was unable to find any sources beyond “Some Guy on the Internet.” In any case, it’s an appropriate term, because the plot this time goes nuclear.

Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), a SPECTRE operative–SPECTRE Number Two–orchestrates a daring plan. It starts when another SPECTRE operative infiltrates a NATO training exercise. He takes control of the plane and more importantly, the two A-bombs it’s carrying. (No, I do not know why they brought nukes along on a play-pretend flight.)

Now that SPECTRE has the bombs, they demand £100 million paid in full within one week. If they don’t get it, then they’ll just destroy a city in the US or the UK at random–whichever, they’re not picky. Obviously, this cannot happen.

So MI-6 calls in all the double-oh agents to work. Bond requests assignment in The Bahamas and they’re all like, “This is no time to bang ladies on the beach, James.” And he’s like, “Well, you make time, and also, that’s where Derval’s sister is.” Derval, by the way, is the late French Air Force pilot François Derval. SPECTRE operatives killed him to assume his identity for the NATO training.

So he heads down to Nassau and quickly meets Domino Derval (Claudine Auger), who’s also, by the way, Largo’s mistress. Largo is also there, as he has a massive estate–Palmyra–in The Bahamas. James quickly surmises that the bombs must be there, too, so he gets to work finding out. And no secret spycraft for him–he spots Largo at a casino and plays chemin de fer with him. Then he takes Domino off to dance. Classic Bond.

And speaking of classic Bond, after that, it’s only a matter of finding the bombs and foiling Largo by any means necessary. Also, there are sharks.

A Movie Four Years in the Making

The story behind Thunderball is that it was supposed to be the first James Bond movie. However, legal issues prevented that from happening. Ian Fleming apparently based the story on a script he’d written with writers Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. They sued him after the book release and the whole thing was a legal mess until *checks notes* almost the 21st century.

As part of his initial settlement with Eon Films, though, McClory had certain screen rights that he could exercise after a period of 10 years. And that he did, making his own version of the Thunderball story in 1983. Sean Connery, who said he’d never play Bond again, played him one last time in that movie, cheekily titled Never Say Never Again. And I’ll tackle that one, too, once we get up to 1983 in the Bond series (with Octopussy).

Bondology: The Expanding Canon of James Bond

If you haven’t been here before, then you should know that this is where is I explore elements that will become canon in the world of James Bond.

This includes SPECTRE. The mostly apolitical terrorist organization has, of course, appeared in prior movies, but Thunderball is the first to feature a meeting at headquarters. HQ is in Paris, by the way, and it’s hidden in a business purported to be the location of the International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons.

At the meeting, we get another look at the mysterious head of SPECTRE, Number One. We won’t meet him or even see his face until the next movie, but he’s still an imposing presence. The scene where he electrocutes an embezzling member is iconic. Once again, Austin Powers couldn’t resist.

Technological Wonders and Groovy Tunes

Q takes his first field trip, meeting James in The Bahamas to supply his gadgets. Unfortunately, though, none of the little trinkets excited me as much as past films. In fact, the most interesting gizmo was one James used at the beginning of the movie, before we even saw Q. That was the Bell Rocket Belt, a literal jetpack James uses to escape after he assassinates a SPECTRE operative. Admittedly, it doesn’t look cool.

thunderball retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

As for Q, the devices he supplies in this movie include a watch and a camera that are both Geiger counters. He also gives Bond a tiny rebreather. The pen-size instrument reportedly impressed the British military so much that they asked how it was made. Again, this is Some Guy on the Internet territory, but it is a fun story.

And as for the music, once again, they pick a big name: Tom Jones. Jones was already a star at that point, having released the Carlton Banks anthem “It’s Not Usual” the year before. The same year he sang the Thunderball theme, he also sang the title theme for What’s New Pussycat? Bangers, all of them.

Well, “Thunderball” is really more just okay. Like Shirley Bassey’s theme for Goldfinger, I can most charitably describe it as loud. As an outlaw, I would have preferred the Johnny Cash attempt, although truthfully it doesn’t fit the James Bond vibe.

Thunderball Retro Review

thunderball retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

It’s unfortunate after all that build-up that I have to say that I didn’t love Thunderball. It wasn’t a bad movie overall, but it just wasn’t my cup of British tea. For one thing, there’s the length. Advertised as “the Biggest Bond of All,” the movie is the first Bond film to cross the two-hour mark and boy, does it feel like it.

Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the tedium if it weren’t for a few key issues. Number one is Number Two, Largo. It would be hard enough to follow Auric Goldfinger, but regrettably for Adolfo Celi, he’s starting from even further behind than that. That’s because I already knew him from the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode featuring the movie Diabolik. After you’ve heard Crow T. Robot (Bill Corbett) describe a man as having a “pillow top face,” it’s hard to take the man seriously as a heavy.

And my issues with the cast just spiraled from there. I ended up being ambivalent about Domino, for example. She started off strong, then just went limp. I think she appeals to the same people who dig From Russia with Love‘s Tatiana Romanova, though, so it’s no surprise that I’m medium on both. And I also didn’t care for this movie’s Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter).

They keep switching up the actors for some reason, but I loved Cec Linder in Goldfinger. (I understand that this may be an unpopular opinion.) I wish he could have stuck around. Speaking of, I also liked Martine Beswick as Bond’s first female associate, Paula Caplan, and wished she had more to do. And I loved SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who incinerates Bond with this meta moment:

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue.

The Thunderball Review in Summary

Beyond all that, there’s the action. While remembered as the James Bond movie with the sharks, there’s actually precious little of them and they don’t even bother to attach frickin’ laser beams to their heads. Instead, there are multiple scenes of James Bond fighting other humans underwater.

thunderball retro review composite of some guys, idk, made with an image via Eon Productions and United Artists

Not only is it not exciting at all to watch people tussle in the ocean, but it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of who’s doing what or who’s fighting whom. Ultimately, it’s just a bunch of basically interchangeable fellows in scuba gear and a solid B minus overall. The Junkanoo scenes were fun, though.

Now that we’re on the subject, though, medium yikes to the fact that every POC we see (outside of Junkanoo) is a servant. And full-on yikes to the scene where James blackmails a woman into sleeping with him. I think the literal roll in the hay scene in Goldfinger is debatable, but this one is not. James, wtf.

So what do y’all think about Thunderball? Let us know on social media or tell us in the comments.

featured image via Eon Productions and United Artists

MoviesReviewsjames bondmoviesRetro ReviewThunderball

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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