After Guy Hamilton’s turn in the director’s chair for Goldfinger, Terence Young returns to the position for Thunderball. Although Young’s previous James Bond films — indeed, the first two in the series — were both solid films, Thunderball proves to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s not a bad film; far from it. It’s just that the bar was raised considerably by Goldfinger, and Thunderball isn’t up to that level — nor, for that matter, to the level of Dr. No or From Russia With Love.
Turns out you can’t just fly over the bar.
The jetpack in the beginning isn’t a big deal, but it does bear mentioning. James Bond is certainly known for his gadgets, and it’s possible that in later entries in the series this would feel completely appropriate… but in this film, at this point in the series, it feels out of place, especially happening in the first few minutes of the film. The other gadgets shown are simple standard spy fare, such as a portable Geiger counter and a rebreather device. The jetpack is like sticking a bit of science fiction into it, and this is otherwise not a science fiction film. On the plus side when it comes to gadgets, it was nice to see Desmond Llewelyn’s Q out in the field; it seemed to make his snarky comments stand out a bit more.
In this film, Bond has to travel to the Bahamas in order to track down some stolen atomic bombs. This ought to be exciting. But although there are a few good set pieces, it never quite clicks. Part of this is because of a thinness of character in the supporting cast. Claudine Auger’s Domino is not a particularly interesting Bond girl; not that there’s been much in the way of characterization with them so far, but she’s fairly flat in personality until the tail end. Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona is more interesting — and provides the first instance of Bond’s fabled charm failing him — but she isn’t in it as much as Domino or Largo, the main villain. As for Largo (Adolfo Celi), he plots and schemes but most of the time he’s just chatting Bond up. The friendly-acting adversary is established as a staple of Bond movies as early as Dr. No, but Largo doesn’t quite work. He doesn’t have enough charm, and he doesn’t have enough menace. It’s not that any of these characters are bad characters… they just aren’t great ones either. They need a bit more development or polish or something.
Of course, thin characterization is easily forgiven in a James Bond film. The name of the game, after all, is action. Sadly Thunderball is a bit of a mixed bag in this regard as well. There are some good set pieces, particularly those built around the carnival in Nassau. But there’s a thematic element that keeps reoccurring here which doesn’t serve the film well, and that would be the numerous underwater scenes. Much of the action consists of Bond fighting foes underwater, and this poses a major problem for creating an exciting picture. Deep water is known for two significant effects on action: inhibiting visibility and inhibiting movement. The result is that the audience is watching James Bond duke it out with agents of SPECTRE in hazy blue slow motion. It is difficult to get excited about a fight when you can take a drink between the time it takes to start a punch and to finish it, especially if it’s hard to see.
If you want to imitate an Olympic sport in your action movie, try skeet shooting instead of synchronized swimming.
All that said, it is still a Bond movie, and it’s still moderately entertaining. The plot isn’t the strongest, but it’s serviceable. And there are enough moments of humor or quality action scattered throughout to keep it interesting. It’s just not one of the films in the upper tier of the series.