On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
'Thunderball' was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008. Portions of this article first appeared in our original review of that disc. However, the audio and video technical sections have been freshly updated.
"Do you like wild things, Mr. Bond, James Bond?"
Every James Bond fan has a particular favorite film in the series. With over twenty 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, his jet pack escape, 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's transformation into a high-speed hydrofoil, and an epic underwater battle of color-coded frogmen divers. 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 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 plenty of swagger. (Dionne Warwick had originally been commissioned before a last-minute change of plans.)
Of course, some moments 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. The movie also ends with a peculiar abruptness. Nevertheless, its 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 that's perhaps 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, and the last great 007 movie before silliness started to overtake the series.
Aside from the physical labeling and artwork, the copy of 'Thunderball' in the 'Bond 50' box set is identical to the Blu-ray released in 2008. It has the same menus, the same audio and subtitle options, etc. For fans who don't care to (or aren't able to) purchase the whole box set, MGM Home Entertainment has also released a standalone reissue of this movie in its own separate keepcase.
When I previously reviewed the 'Thunderball' Blu-ray back in 2008, I was very critical of the disc's video quality, which seemed like a big step down from other Bond titles such as 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia with Love'. Revisiting the disc now, I feel that I may have been a little too hard on it the first time around. Although most of the issues with the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that I originally noted are still visible, I was less bothered by some of them. Perhaps I simply went into this viewing with lower expectations, or perhaps the flaws in 'Thunderball' seem tame in comparison to an even more problematic disc like 'GoldenEye'. Whatever the reason, I've chosen to use my discretion to bump the video score up by a modest half-star.
Like the other Connery pictures, 'Thunderball' was remastered from a 4k scan by Lowry Digital for the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD. Unfortunately, the film elements for this one were in noticeably poorer shape than the other entries. Many scenes in the movie suffer vertical streaks and fine scratches that run down the frame and are frequently distracting. Colors also seem too understated and lack the vibrancy expected from the visual design and tropical settings in the film. Digital Noise Reduction has been heavily applied, which often eradicates the natural texture of film grain and leaves flesh tones with a mushy appearance. Shadow detail is also murky. The disc just looks "processed" to a more heavy-handed degree than the other Bond titles.
On the other hand, I found myself appreciating fine detail in the image more than I remembered from my last viewing. The fabric textures of Bond's wardrobe are often impressively discernible. In fact, some shots have downright exceptional clarity of detail. The problem is that, on the whole, the disc's picture quality is quite erratic and inconsistent, which is a disappointment after the gorgeous restorations of the earlier Connery movies.
'Thunderball' was the first Bond picture photographed in Panavision anamorphic widescreen. The disc is presented in its original scope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, except for the opening titles, which have been needlessly squeezed into a narrower 2.20:1 ratio with some pillarboxing on the sides. (Some of the other Bond Blu-rays have this problem as well.)
As with the other 007 Blu-rays, the 'Thunderball' disc defaults to a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that has been remixed into 5.1 surround. MGM has also provided the original mono sound mix for those who'd prefer it, but that one is unfortunately encoded only in lossy Dolby Digital format. On the earlier Connery titles, I found that 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 prefer the 5.1 track.
Aside from the Tom Jones theme song (which sounds disappointingly weak), John Barry's musical score sounds like it was remastered from original stereo recording stems, rather than just processed into a fake stereo simulation. Even if that isn't the case, the work 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. The directional panning isn't overly gimmicky. Dialogue and most sound effects are appropriately centered. The track is clean and has pretty good auditory detail.
Some sound effects in the 5.1 remix are too loud relative to the rest of the track, and 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 date back to MGM's Deluxe Collector's Edition Laserdisc box set from 1995, which is not necessarily a bad thing, considering the volume of worthwhile content included.
The 22-film 'Bond 50' box set is an outstanding collection of one of cinema's most enduringly popular franchises. Even though 'Thunderball' is a simple reissue of a disc first released in 2008, and even though its video transfer is somewhat problematic, the Blu-ray still rates a solid recommendation whether you purchase it on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package.
James Bond will return.