After the legendary success of Goldfinger , expectations were understandably astronomical for the next Bond installment, with 007 producers determined to consistently push the envelope, delivering a "bigger and better Bond" than ever before. Unfortunately, this determination proved to be both the strength and weakness of Thunderball, the resulting sequel. On the whole, the film is by no means a failure, but the producers' determination to cash in on elements which made Goldfinger such a success led to overkill excesses which sink Thunderball's overall quality.
The plot is even more outlandish than Goldfinger's radiation of the fort Knox gold reserve, pushing the threat to a more global context with the destruction of major world cities by atomic weapons. As well as being a particularly poignant plot device at the time, in the midst of the Cold War, the gist of Thunderball may seem quite familiar to those who frequent more modern political action thrillers, such as The Sum of All Fears. Despite the larger than life premise, Thunderball remains far more grounded in reality than several later Bond exploits (including You Only Live Twice and Moonraker) which tended to drift into being overly silly and ludicrous. Thunderball still takes itself relatively seriously, with several surprisingly dark moments, which help counterbalance the slightly comical yet still thrilling sight of of seeing Connery in a jet pack, and dramatically aid the overall quality of the film.
However, Thunderball's significantly larger budget is mostly misused through underwater photography sequences, which, although interesting to look at (and were likely moreso back in the 1960s, where such a sight was very seldom visible to the public eye) for the most part fail to further the plot in any way, and drag on excruciatingly long. However, the film does boast some strong cinematography (and some stunning locations), the action sequences (including a tense chase sequence through a Mardi Gras parade) are solid, and an unreasonably catchy Tom Jones title track surprisingly helps not hinders the film.
Unfortunately, for however many of the film's previous strengths, the film descends into utter chaos during the film's final quarter with a painfully repetitive and indecipherable underwater battle (it is increasingly difficult to tell which underwater army is which, who is winning, or why it should even retain our interest) a boat chase flaunting special effects which have dated decidedly unfavourably, and laughably inexplicable character motivations seemingly thrown in to finally tie up the increasingly unravelling mess. It is a disappointment indeed to see what started out with such promise sink into such a banal conclusion.
The character of Bond himself is surprisingly reduced to far less screen time than is usual for a 007 film, which is unfortunate, as Connery gives arguably one of his strongest performances as Bond, oozing self assurance and panache, yet an unprecedented darkness amidst the one liners. ("I think he got the point" being the most classic) This time around Bond not only gets hurt, but is not afraid to hurt, unflinchingly bestowing surprisingly vicious physical punishment against his adversaries
The supporting cast proves to be a very hit and miss affair. While former model Claudine Augere certainly looks the part of a sixties Bond girl, but unfortunately for the most part retains the static lack of emoting also associated with them. Adolfo Celi's eye-patched frown makes a visually iconic Bond villain, and is suitably menacing, but as the film progresses, he loses his threat element more and more, eventually degrading to a flimsy carbon copy of an adversary by the final act. Luciana Paluzzi steals the show from all but Connery, making one of the most chilling Bond femme fatale figures in the franchise. Paluzzi, despite the potential to coast by on her sensual looks, refuses to play the part on autopilot, and exudes laudable charisma and threat throughout. The unfortunately named Rik Van Nutter makes the most generic and forgettable CIA agent Felix Leiter of the Bond series, but Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn are on top form as the ever endearing M and Q.
As overlong and let down by some unfortunate overuse of budget and dated special effects as the film may be, Thunderball is nonetheless a noteworthy and suitably engaging early Bond effort. Connery himself, in one of his most charismatic renditions of the role is enough to merit watching, and the film for the most part runs along at a brisk enough pace to retain audience interest. While the film is less likely to enthrall those who are not already Bond purists, fans of the character or series should easily be able to extract moments of enjoyment from Thunderball