"Thunderball" is the fourth film starring Sean Connery as James Bond and was the highest grossing film in the series with Connery in the lead role. Connery would go on to star in just one more film before handing the reins over to George Lazenby and eventually Roger Moore. "Thunderball" is an entertaining film that acts as a transition film between the harder edged and more serious first three films and the cartoony and over-the-top films featuring Moore. The film may have grossed more money in box office receipts, but it lacks the stellar story and impact that "Dr. No," "From Russia With Love" or "Goldfinger" possessed and the picture feels less exciting and less focused than the previous efforts. "Thunderball" is still a quality picture, but it isn't nearly as classic as the first three films in the series.
This time around James Bond (Sean Connery) begins the film attending a funeral. He quickly realizes that the deceased is still very much alive and disguised as a widow in mourning. Bond disposes of the bad guy and then sets off in a fully functioning backpack and then speeds off in an Aston Martin after taking care of pursuing bad guys with a pair of water jets mounted in the trunk of the Aston Martin. This begins the strong reliance on gadgets that would provide the mainstay of James Bond action sequences during the Roger Moore years and while I was impressed that the backpack actually worked, I was less impressed with the water jets. Thankfully, Tom Jones provides the film's title song just after the water jets save the day. Who doesn't love Tom Jones?
After the film's initial sequence, Bond is sent to the Bahamas to a spa, where he can find plenty of attractive women to seduce and use his charms. When he is nearly killed on a machine nicknamed "The Rack," Bond springs to action and uncovers a murderous plot involving the pilot of a French Vulcan, which becomes stolen and crash landed in the ocean to hide its whereabouts. With the aircraft and its nuclear payload missing, Bond is called upon to return to England where it is realized that SPECTRE's number two agent Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is behind the plot. Bond asks M (Bernard Lee) to return to the Bahamas and seek out the sister of the dead body Bond found at the spa, Domino (Claudine Auger). It is revealed that Domino is staying with Largo on his boat the Disco Volante.
Bond and Largo begin to work against each other as Bond has Domino working undercover to discover if the nuclear weapons are on the Volante. Meanwhile, Largo sends out assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciano Paluzzi) to take out Bond, but she fails. Bond teams up with his longtime friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) as they try and uncover the plot as to what SPECTRE has in store for the bombs. Soon Bond finds himself scuba diving among sharks and trying to board the Volante in hopes of stopping Largo. Eventually, a large scale fight occurs underwater between Largo's men and the Coast Guard in what is one of the better choreographed underwater sequences in the history of cinema. The film then ends on one of the hokiest rescue sequences in the history of cinema.
I enjoy "Thunderball," but feel that the filmmakers and Connery were all on auto-pilot for this and the last Bond film starring Connery. The story takes forever to unfold and there are long stretches of time when the film just seemed to drag on. At this point Bond had played the spy three previous times and he does a convincing job as James Bond, but the one liners feel a little too easy and the great fight sequences that were part of the earlier films have been replaced with gadgetry and over-the-top action sequences. Connery had only played Bond for four years at the time of "Thunderball," but he seemed to have aged more over the course of this time and lacked the energy and excitement that was delivered during his earlier performances. With a plot that wasn't as tight and a lead actor beginning to decline, "Thunderball" seems long in the tooth.
There are three things I absolutely despise about this film that perhaps brings about some of my inability to love "Thunderball." The first thing is Rik Van Nutter as Felix Leiter. Jack Lord debuted the role in "Dr. No" and Cec Linder dropped the ball in "Goldfinger." However, Van Nutter just doesn't seem to fit the role and I've always been bothered with the actor as Felix Leiter. The second thing that complete agitates me in "Thunderball" is the climactic action sequence aboard the Disco Volante. Bond and Largo are fighting for control of the boat as it speeds at ridiculous speeds between rocks. If ever anything should get a digital cleanup, it is the rocks that the Volante speeds past, because this scene is horribly goofy. But it is not nearly as goofy as the sky hook rescue of Bond and Domino from a raft just outside of Miami. They were close enough to be picked up, but instead had a balloon and rescue from an aircraft. I have to roll my eyes every time I see this.
There are some things that the film does exceptionally well. Claudine Auger is wonderful as Dominique Derval and the voice dubbing by Nikki van der Zyl is smoothly mixed into the film. Up until this point in the Bond annals, Auger is perhaps my favorite Bond girl. Ursula Andress looked amazing, but I liked the playful energy that Derval brought to the role. Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell are always welcome in their roles respectively as M, Q and Miss Moneypenny. They were the classic actors in these roles and I've always enjoyed seeing them as Bond's colleagues. The underwater fight sequence that ends the film has some logistical errors in it, but watching a large battle with knives and spear guns is always a blast.
I can sit down and watch "Thunderball" now and then when I have nothing better to do. I don't find it nearly as compelling as the first three entries and it simply does not feel as classic. The scope of the film is far more epic and ambitious and this picture is the beginning of the evolution of the series, but I've always been partial to the tighter films starring Connery before "Thunderball." Those films I can sit and watch attentively, but this picture doesn't quite hold my interest after having watched it a couple times in my life. It's good, but just not great. The film certainly has its fun moments and some of Bond's quips are a hoot, but "Thunderball" cannot compare to the earlier entries. While Connery was the best Bond, "Thunderball" is not the best film starring Connery as Bond.
"Thunderball" widens the view a bit and is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen video. This is a change from the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of "Dr. No" and "From Russia With Love." The film is mastered with AVC MPEG-4 compression and is clean and detailed. I don't find the film to be as visually stunning as the earlier entries, but it still looks quite good considering it is over forty years old. The level of detail with "Thunderball" is quite good, but the underwater sequences look nearly identical to the DVD releases. I would assume this is due to the photography used to film these moments. One interesting thing about "Thunderball" on Blu-ray is that the level of detail has gotten high enough that it is easy to spot some of Connery's tattoos under the makeup. The coloring of the film is quite good as well and skin tones are generally very natural looking. The print is clean and I cannot recall any major flaws in the transfer. This Blu-ray release is slightly hindered by the source materials, but is quite good considering the age of the film.
English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio is the familiar audio track for "Thunderball" and thankfully, the English Original Audio Mono track is also included. One problem I've noticed with the Blu-ray releases is the volume level of vocals and this was most noticeable during the early goings when Largo and Bond are in discussion over a card game. I had to turn up the volume to hear what was said and the volume was then too high to hear Tom Jones. I ended up turning over to the Mono mix to watch most of the film and found that to be far more enjoyable volume wise. This DTS mix did have a stronger usage of sound and provided a more potent experience, but it wasn't major enough for me to not want to watch this Blu-ray title in mono. The sound improvement is there, but it cannot make up for the problems with the vocals. Spanish Mono and French 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround are also included.
There are two commentaries under "MI6 Commentary." The first Commentary by Director Terence Young and others has Ian Fleming Foundation personality John Cork providing commentary and introducing interview segments pertinent to the film and individual scenes. While these segments are vintage, Cork does an excellent job of tying everything together for a good listening experience. The second Commentary by Editor Peter Hunt, Screenwriter John Hopkins and Others again finds John Cork serving as host and providing insight into the film as he introduces the interviews and asks questions regarding to the film. There are some scene specific information contained in the commentary and the alternate title song by Dionne Warwick titled "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a nice little inclusion to be found early in the commentary track. This is another very informative commentary that should thrill 007 fans.
Outside of the commentary tracks are a number of supplements set up identical to other Bond Blu-ray releases. The "Declassified: MI6 Vault" includes seven featurettes. The Incredible World of James Bond – Original 1965 NBC Television Special (50:54) looks quite dated but provides entertainment in both content and the vintage presentation of this special. This covers the entire bond franchise up to the point of the NBC special and is not based on "Thunderball," but makes for a solid hour of entertainment. The oddly titled A Child's Guide to Blowing Up A Motor Car – 1965 Ford Promotional Film (17:09) won't send young boys on a mission to destroy a car, but this is another intriguing vintage feature added to the disc. On Location with Ken Adam (13:06) finds the "Thunderball" production designer going showing and discussing vintage film that from location scouting and shooting on set for the film.
The remaining four items under "Declassified: MI6 Vault" are not quite as informative, but still worth taking a gander at. Bill Suitor: The Rocket Man Movies (3:54) finds a former Bell engineer discussing actual jet packs for an Army contract that worked on the backpack technology used in the film. I was impressed the jet pack actually worked. Suitor wore the jetpack in the film. The Thunderball Boat Show Reel (2:51) has producer Michael Wilson show some promotional footage used from a boat show in 1965 from the film's underwater battle. Some of this footage was alternate takes to those used in the final film. The Selling Bonds – Original 1965 Television Commercials (2:05) shows three commercials. One is for a raincoat, the other is for slacks and a third are for toys; all sold through a company called Burton. Credits are also included for the Blu-ray production.
The "007 Mission Control" contains the same seven categories as those I witnessed on both the "Dr. No" and "From Russia With Love" Blu-ray titles. Most of the items contained under this menu simply jump you to points in the film. I haven't yet come up with a concrete reason as to why one would spend a lot of time here, but two items that are not scene jumps and can be found here. The first, Opening Titles – Textless (2:58) removes the text from the sequences so that you may enjoy the opening sequence as a musical video and enjoy listening to Tom Jones without having to read. Exotic Locations (3:20) has Maude Adams return once again to discuss the Bahamas and other locations used for the fourth Bond film.
"Mission Dossier" is the next submenu of special features and contains three items. The Making of Thunderball (27:34) is a relatively recent feature that looks back at the making of the film by T.W.I.N.E. Entertainment and is narrated by Patrick Macnee. It combines solid footage from the film and is shown in high definition. This is a good little historical look at the film and the franchise up until the fourth film. The Thunderball Phenomenon (31:04) finds Macnee continuing the conversation started during the making of feature and this spends more time looking at the Bond phenomenon and the success of the 1965 release of Thunderball. This is a good second half to the first feature and both are shown in 1080i resolution. The third and final item under "Mission Dossier" is The Secret History of Thunderball (3:56) and has Macnee talk about some unusual facts about the most popular of the early Bond films. This contains a look at different versions of the film were released to theaters without explaining why.
The "Ministry of Propaganda" and an "Image Database" conclude the submenus. The "Theatrical Archive" contains theatrical trailers Get to the Point (3:06), What an Operator (2:57) and Two Biggest Bonds (2:21) which markets both "Thunderball" and "You Only Live Twice." I really must research into why Bond films were advertised in tandem. The TV Broadcasts (3:31) contains five television advertisements for the James Bond films. They can be viewed individually or collectively via a "Play All" menu selection. The theatrical trailers may be viewed in the same manner as can be the ten Radio Communication (5:03) supplements that begins with a nice Introduction by John Cork. These radio spots aired in the United States and Canada. The Image Database provide many photographs from 1965 that relate to "Thunderball."
"Thunderball" is perhaps my least favorite of all the original Sean Connery films where the Scottish actor made a name for himself portraying James Bond. The film has a decent story, but it feels overly slow and long, Connery is on auto-pilot for his performance and the action sequences are impressive, but not entirely captivating. It isn't a bad film and I would still consider "Thunderball" to be a good picture, but it just doesn't feel as classic as the first three Bond films starring Connery. The video is good, but there isn't much that high definition can do with the underwater sequences. The sound is hindered with a volume problem. Regardless of the shortcomings of the sound and video, the supplements culled from the Ultimate DVD releases are very good and some are ported over to high definition. This is still a must-own title for Bond fans and a fairly good Blu-ray release.