Every James Bond fan has their own particular favorite film in the series. With over 20 movies so far (and counting) and a hugely diverse fan base from all around the world, you're likely to hear a wide range of answers to that question. Even 'Moonraker' has its defenders. For me, that favorite film is 'Thunderball'. Sean Connery's fourth go at the character was released at the height of the 007 phenomenon, and represents a refined and polished action adventure with all of the franchise's signature elements at their most effective.
Following the momentous success of 'Goldfinger', producers Harry Saltzman and "Cubby" Broccoli knew that Agent 007 had been elevated beyond his roots in the mystery and espionage genres. James Bond was now a bona fide action hero. 'Goldfinger' raised the stakes, and the pressure was building to make the next sequel even bigger, bolder, and more exciting. How do you top one of the most successful movies of all time?
In 'Thunderball', Bond faces off against the latest S.P.E.C.T.R.E. operative, an eye-patched European millionaire named Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) who has engineered a plot to hijack a N.A.T.O. training flight. The jet in question holds two nukes that Largo plans to ransom to the British government for a payout of £100 million. (Try saying that without a Dr. Evil sneer, I dare you.) In response, MI6 assigns the entire contingent of Double-0 agents to track down the bombs before the blackmail deadline. Naturally, our man Bond has the firmest lead. Following the trail to the Bahamas, Bond seduces his way into the good graces of Largo's "niece" (read: mistress) Domino to get close to the man and aboard his fabulous yacht, the Disco Volante, which the villain has been using as the nerve center of his operation. From there, 007 must fight off an army of baddies, secure the weapons, and foil the scheme.
After his absence from 'Goldfinger', original series director Terence Young returns for his third and final Bond film. Clearly designed for a larger scale than the previous adventures, 'Thunderball' is the first 007 movie photographed in full Panavision widescreen and showcases a noticeably larger budget. Broccoli and Saltzman pulled out all the stops to make each Bond picture even more larger-than-life than the last. Among the many iconic moments in this entry are Bond's fight with the "widow" of an enemy agent, the jet pack escape from hostile forces, the electrocution chair in the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. boardroom, the pool filled with sharks in Largo's villa, the Disco Volante transforming into a high-speed hydrofoil, and the epic underwater battle of color-coded frogmen armies. Gadgets supplied by Q branch include the high-pressure water jets in Bond's Aston Martin, the aforementioned jet pack, a Geiger counter watch, and a mini scuba rebreather tank that clearly violates the laws of physics.
Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter pops in to help, played by the third actor in as many appearances for the character. The primary Bond Girls this time out are portrayed by Claudine Auger as the delectable Domino and Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe, the evil henchwoman that even Bond's considerable lovemaking skills fail to turn back to the side of good. Tom Jones bellows the theme song with all his swagger. (Dionne Warwick had originally been commissioned before a last-minute change of plans.)
There are of course some moments that haven't aged so well. Bond's sexism and womanizing are particularly aggressive here; he basically rapes the spa masseuse early on. The scuba battle drags on a little long, though I personally have always found it a fascinating and unique action sequence. Some of the special effects look rather cheesy, especially the undercranked speeding boat footage during the climax. And the movie ends with a peculiar abruptness. Nevertheless, strengths outweigh the weaknesses. By this fourth picture, Sean Connery had well defined himself in the role, and the actor's charisma is in full flourish. The movie has a strong plot (far-fetched but not outrageously implausible), witty dialogue, the requisite exotic locations, and plenty of action. As far as I'm concerned, 'Thunderball' is the zenith of Connery's run in the franchise, the last great 007 movie before silliness started to overtake the series.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Thunderball' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) in a few packaging options. The movie is available singly in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover or in a Steelbook case exclusive to Best Buy stores. 'Thunderball' is also included as part of the 'James Bond Collection: Volume 2' box set with 'From Russia with Love' and 'For Your Eyes Only'.
Upon loading, the disc prompts a BD-Live network connection for no particular reason. There is no BD-Live content on the disc. The Blu-ray is Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone BD player. At the time of this writing, many standalone players are having problems loading the disc at all. Several manufacturers have released or announced impending firmware updates to resolve playback problems with this first wave of Bond titles. Fortunately, the Sony Playstation 3 and the Panasonic DMP-BD50 used for this review are unaffected; both play the disc without issue.
The disc's overly-elaborate and confusing animated menus are designed in the same obnoxious style as MGM's other 007 Blu-ray titles.
For the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD set, MGM contracted Lowry Digital Images to restore all of the James Bond films by scanning the original negatives and digitally repairing as much damage as possible. The results are now making their way to Blu-ray. The early entries 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia with Love' look particularly stunning in High Definition. Unfortunately, the 'Thunderball' restoration is nowhere near the same league as those prior movies. The Blu-ray is a mixed bag overall.
'Thunderball' was the first Bond picture photographed in Panavision anamorphic widescreen. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is presented in the original scope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, though the opening titles are a little narrower, measuring closer to 2.20:1 with some pillarboxing on the sides (the entire movie has consistent top and bottom frame lines). I expect that the titles montage was likely shot and composited on 65mm stock, which would account for that ratio.
The first major problem with the disc is that the source elements for 'Thunderball' have an extensive amount of film damage that Lowry wasn't able to repair. Many of the aerial and underwater scenes have vertical streaks running down the frame. It looks like some stock footage was probably used in those scenes, but the problem is not limited to that stock footage. It also happens in shots with Connery randomly throughout the film. The movie is over 40 years-old, so I suppose it's not fair to expect frame-by-frame perfection in this regard, but the 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia' transfers set the bar very high, and this disc just isn't up to that level.
The overall look of the transfer is a little drab. Colors rarely have the vibrancy or punch of the earlier movies, and that seems like a crime considering the visual design and tropical settings in the film. Digital Noise Reduction has been much more heavily applied as well. There is next to no film grain left in the image, and flesh tones are often mushy. Some shots have exceptional detail, while many others are quite poor. Shadow detail is usually murky. Edge ringing is another recurring problem. The disc just looks overly "processed."
On the other hand, the beautiful underwater photography in the climax looks pretty terrific. There are moments when 'Thunderball' reminds me how impressed I was with 'Dr. No' and 'Russia'. It's not a terrible transfer, but it is wildly inconsistent in appearance, and that's a huge disappointment coming after the gorgeous restorations of those earlier movies.
As with the other 007 Blu-rays, MGM provides the movie's soundtrack in either its original mono (encoded in lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 format), or a new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. On both 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia with Love', I preferred the original mono over the gimmicky and artificial remixes. However, 'Thunderball' is a grand production with a much larger scale, and it has never felt right to me in mono. In this case, I greatly preferred the 5.1 track.
Contributing significantly to my choice, John Barry's score sounds like it was remastered from the original stereo recording stems, as opposed to the earlier films which were processed into a fake stereo simulation. If that isn't the case, the work done on this title is convincing enough to have fooled my ears. The score is bold and brassy, with an excellent stereo presence. The soundtrack otherwise hasn't been meddled with too much. There's some directional panning, but it's not too gimmicky. Dialogue and most sound effects are appropriately centered. The track is clean and has pretty good auditory detail.
As for negatives, the Tom Jones theme song is disappointingly weak, especially his vocals. I checked the mono track, and it's a little better there, but still sounds off. There must be a problem with the source. Sound effects in the 5.1 remix are frequently too loud relative to the rest of the track, and the ADR dubbing is distractingly obvious (that's also a problem in mono, but stands out more here). Nonetheless, the audio on the disc is satisfying overall for a movie of this era.
All of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 have been carried over to the Blu-ray. Many of them date back to MGM's Deluxe Collector's Edition Laserdisc box set released in 1995, which is not a bad thing by any means, considering the volume of worthwhile content included.
'Thunderball' remains my favorite James Bond adventure, even though I'm disappointed by the video quality of this High-Def edition, which doesn't nearly match the fine restoration performed on earlier franchise entries. However, the Blu-ray is still an improvement over the DVD, and contains a lot of worthwhile bonus features. I have to recommend the disc, just not as highly as I had hoped.