Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Thunderball

I can't be the only hardcore MST3K fan who occasionally enjoys undertaking side-by-side comparisons of MST-ed features with the decent and/or popular mainstream films they're trying to be like.

MST-ed FeatureDecent and/or Popular Mainstream Film It's Trying to Be Like
Warrior of the Lost WorldMad Max
Time of the ApesPlanet of the Apes
Cave DwellersConan the Barbarian
Deathstalker and the Warriors from HellConan the Barbarian
Outlaw of GorConan the Barbarian
Space TravelersMarooned

Operation Double 007 (a.k.a. OK Connery, a.k.a. Operation Kid Brother) isn't the only MST experiment from the '60s that tries to cash in on the Bond franchise, but it is the most directly comparable, and Thunderball is the specific Bond outing it's most directly comparable to—because both films have the same actor, Adolfo Celi, playing the villain. Double 007 also features Bernard Lee (the original M) and Lois Maxwell (the original Moneypenny), playing vague versions of their Bond franchise characters who recruit Neil Connery, playing the brother of their "top agent." (Yeah, it's weird.)

I bring all this up because watching Thunderball for the first time in decades filled me with conflicting reactions. On the one hand, you can perceive all the specific plot and thematic elements that Operation Double 007 tried and failed to imitate—the villain's elaborate lifestyle, the small army that shows up at key moments to help the hero, the out-of-place musical interludes, the nautical feel—and it's fun to refamiliarize yourself with the successful version of all that.

Yet at the same time, I couldn't help but compare Thunderball with both its predecessors and successors in the franchise—and I came away feeling like this is really the movie where the Bond gimmicks begin to take over. The setting for much of the film (Nassau) is hammered in a bit overzealously; one of Largo's henchman has a Distinguishing Characteristic (though in fairness it's not half as gimmicky as Oddjob was); and the pacing is often indulgent, as if to show off the budget (like in the cool but too-long plane-sinking sequence).

Not that there isn't a lot of the classic Bond magic on display here. Connery's performance—sorry, let me be clear: SEAN Connery's performance—is possibly the best of his Bond films. His particular style of wry humor, conveyed largely through the eyes, is more visible here than in any of his other Bonds; I was reminded of Henry Jones Sr. in some ways. (He does look a little embarrassed to be wearing the jetpack, though.) It's the mid-Sixties, so Bond definitely commits one or two "wacky" sexual assaults, but at least he also has some truly funny moments too. The Binder credit sequence is simple but effective, the Tom Jones theme is probably tied with "The World Is Not Enough" as my favorite Bond theme of all time, and the Bond girls' acting is not too offensively bad.

However, the acting limitations of Celi (Largo) are as much on display here as they were in Operation Double 007, though at least here his voice seems to be his own. Largo works for the international supervillainy conglomerate SPECTRE, and while they are scary (partly because they've got Grady from The Shining), Largo really isn't.

And then there's that bizarre ending. Another lengthy underwater sequence provides our climactic battle, which is well-shot and occasionally effective at exploiting the dynamics of three-dimensional combat; then, Largo tries to escape in the speedboat we all suspected was concealed inside the Disco Volante (a maneuver he would reuse in Operation Double 007). Bond gets onto the speedboat, and a fistfight ensues wherein the film is accelerated Benny Hill-style. Then Bond wins, and it just kind of ends…and the suspicion we've had through the whole film of clunky pacing is confirmed completely. I knocked off half a star for this ending, and I hate to say it, but Double 007 ended much more satisfyingly.

As for the two-pronged Bond rubric I developed in my Skyfall review? Thunderball wouldn't qualify as "one of the good ones," but barely. The jetpack definitely qualifies as "stupid shit," but some of the other gadgets (like the little undersea vehicles) more or less hit the sweet spot between cool and ridiculous. As for going "above and beyond," nothing in Thunderball really resonates at all, and by the end it all feels just like the most rote of the later, lesser Bonds.

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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