Sean Connery as James Bond 007 in Ian Fleming’s “Thunderball”

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Thunderball starts with a funeral. The coffin is labeled “JB” but this is a cheap fakeout that is  immediately abandoned. Bond is in attendance, and he is lamenting that he did not have the opportunity to kill the deceased himself.

It turns out that he is in luck, because the shrouded widow is the deceased, and is in fact, no lady at all. “I don’t think you should have opened that car door yourself,” Bond smugly suggests after punching the would-be corpse in the face. Bond beats the shit out of the man in drag before strangling him to death with a fireplace poker. He then makes his exit via jetpack.

It’s a baffling start. It’s too weird to take seriously, but too brutal to take lightly. Someone seemed really excited about the prospect of Bond beating a transvestite to death. I am not on board.

After the credits is a  meeting of the heads of SPECTRE, back after an absence in Goldfinger (unless maybe Goldfinger worked for SPECTRE?) As in From Russia With Love, the leader of the group’s face is obscured, but he is identifiable by the cat he strokes. After an obligatory killing of one of the board members reminds us that SPECTRE is villainous, the current #2 agent, an eypatched sophisticate named Largo begins to explain their plan, but the film cuts away to Bond before any actual plot advancement can occur.

Bond is at a spa, on vacation.  But intrigue follows him on vacation, and he recognizes a gang tattoo on a dude and starts snooping. Apparently, this fella is a member of a Chinese criminal tong.

After a bit of nosing around, Bond sexually assaults a nurse. She pushes him off of her and straps him to some sort of massage device. Once he’s strapped in, she quips “First time I’ve felt safe all day!” which is her hilarious joke about the fact that Bond has been aggressively pressuring her to sleep with him since his arrival. Ha.

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Having secured him to this weird spa machine, she leaves, promising to return in fifteen minutes. After she leaves, an unseen assailant sneaks in and turns the massage crank to full-bore. Bond is nearly, ah, massaged to death. The nurse returns and saves Bond, who expresses his gratitude by threatening to report her to her manager if she does not sleep with him.  She succumbs to his blackmail.

In the first two films, every woman who meets Bond wants to sleep with him.  In the next two, the world had gotten more complicated.  Suddenly there are women who don’t want to sleep with him.  Bond’s solution is literally to rape them until they change their mind.

This son of a bitch is the single most contemptible protagonist I think I have ever seen on film. He is a monster in a film made by people who cannot distinguish between sexual assault and being cute.   I hate this multiple rapist “hero” and would like to see him meet a violent end. Instead, I’m going to end up watching 19 more movies starring him living a charmed life.

Uhg. At any rate, after Bond rapes that girl, there is a very elaborate bit of business involving doublecrosses, murder, body doubles, scuba diving, a femme fatale with very large breasts, and some mediocre film editing. It’s an elaborate bit of SPECTRE skullduggery, both complicated and dull, that results in the theft of two atomic missiles.

By what appears to be total coincidence, part of this scheme just so happens to take place in the spa that Bond is visiting. Bond stumbles upon this plot by accident. He finds a dead body, and ends up fighting some SPECTRE agents without understanding who they are or what they are.

Everything that has happened in this movie so far could be cut. Everything the hero has done has made me hate him. Everything the villains have done have either been unrelated to the actions of the protagonist, or revolved around a really thin coincidence. And none of it has forwarded the plot more than could be accomplished with a line or two of exposition. That’s thirty-nine minutes that the film would be better off without.

Instead, it is almost forty minutes into the film when Bond gets around to flirting with Moneypenny in the office. Now, Bond’s thing in the earlier films has been to toss his hat onto the coat rack as he enters the office. In Thunderball, Bond goes to do this, but the coat rack has been moved, throwing him off balance. Later, when he goes to leave, there is no hat on the rack, which he comments upon before leaving, hatless.

This hat business is weird. I reckon by 1965 it was becoming unfashionable for Bond to wear a hat, but why did the filmmakers feel that they had to write themselves out of the coat rack tradition that they had created?  Why not just stop doing it?  Even this early in, these movies were becoming tied to their weirdly specific formulas.

In the midst of all this haberdashery, Bond gets called into a meeting so serious that all nine Double 0 agents attend, although we do not see the faces of the other eight. In the briefing, Bond learns that SPECTRE has stolen atomic bombs from a NATO plane and intends to blow up either a U.S. or British city if they are not given one hundred million pounds.

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Bond recognizes the pilot of the hijacked plane as being the corpse from his shenanigans the previous night, so Bond heads to Nassau to seduce this pilot’s sister. This nearly makes a sort of sense, as far as James Bond plans go.

Once in the Bahamas, Bond uses his spy training to meet the sister, Domino. She likes him, but has to go join her “guardian,” who turns out to be our eyepatched villain, Largo. That’s right, the sister of the dead guy that Bond found by complete accident turns out to be mistress of the guy who is holding the free world ransom. This is an odd movie. And by “odd” I mean terrible.

Bond’s first move is to hit on the bad guy’s girlfriend. His second move is to introduce himself to the bad guy in such a way that makes absolutely clear to the bad guy who Bond is and what Bond knows. He basically says “Hi, I’m James Bond. I know you work for SPECTRE and I plan on sleeping with your girlfriend.” only he does it through the language of baccarat innuendo. His third move is to hit on Domino some more.

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The movie then goes through the spy movie motions. A third Felix Leiter is on hand, this one the coolest so far (admittedly a low bar), coming off as an American version of Bond. I still don’t know why this guy keeps showing up because they never do anything interesting with him. Q is also begrudgingly in the field, giving Bond some gadgets, but they are largely straightforward ones.

Throughout, Largo tries to stay interesting but since he has already executed his plan, he has little to do but fume.  He feeds a henchman to a shark, which helps a little, but not much.

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Bond does some scuba stuff in a hideous orange-red wetsuit and some white short shorts. He looks less cool then he did when he had a duck strapped to his head in the previous film. There is a lot of underwater scenes in this film, and they are all so boring.

When Bond isn’t swimming he is sneaking and double talking and kidnapping and scouting and fighting and maybe this stuff was compelling fifty years ago, but that was a long time ago and today it isn’t very exciting or dramatic. Still, at at least things are happening and Bond isn’t raping anybody.

There is a remarkable moment during a bit where Bond is sneaking out of Largo’s compound. He climbs onto a roof… and he slips on the incline, and drops his gun. There is no real plot reason for this to happen, it is just a brief instance of fallibility from a character who doesn’t normally do fallible.   It’s neat but completely incongruous with the rest of this film.

Maintaining his strategy of not having to do any work whatsoever to find plot points, Bond randomly stumbles upon large-breasted SPECTRE assassin, Fiona Volpe on the side of the road. Volpe is cool. She doesn’t take shit from Largo or anyone else and she has fun toying with Bond.

Eventually, Volpe sleeps with Bond, who has spotted Volpe’s ring, which identifies her as a member of SPECTRE. They probably shouldn’t wear these rings. I’m not sure what she meant to gain by sleeping with him, because she pulls a gun on him shortly thereafter.  Maybe she was just curious about what all the fuss was about.  Whatever her reason, the carnal act does not endear Bond to her.  She mocks him, “But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue, but not this one!” Her point seems to be that the plot of Goldfinger was bullshit.

Soon after, Bond makes a break for it, and Volpe and several of her agents chase him through a wild nighttime parade. In a movie that has been largely worthless so far, it’s a pretty cool sequence. Bond gets shot – grazed? – in the leg, leaving a blood trail for his pursuers to follow as they search for him amongst the wild festivities. It is tense and cool.

Except… the scene culminates with Bond and Volpe dancing with one another as several goons draw closer. One of them takes his shot, but Bond uses Volpe as a human shield. All of which is fine and good, but the bad guys just leave after that. They’ve got him cornered, and he just got their boss killed. Why not take a second shot? It makes no sense.

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Tragically, there is more scuba. Scuba is so dull. Scuba means no dialogue, slow movement, and just not a lot happening. In theory, you can build a lot of tension in an underwater scene, but they never seem to work for me. Certainly not in this film.

As this film winds toward its conclusion, Bond gets around to informing Domino that her boyfriend murdered her brother.  He then sends her onto Largo’s yacht, the Disco Volante to search for the bombs. She pretty much immediately gets caught by Largo, who ties her up her with the intent to torture her.

But before he can get to the torture, Bond and the Coast Guard attack Largo’s scuba goons in an underwater battle royal, which by virtue of its underwaterness, may be the dullest battle royal of all time. However, what it lacks in excitement, it makes up for by being very long.

The conflict ends with the Disco Volante’s saucer section separating, as the front of the ship splits off from the rear, becoming a hydrofoil, escaping from the Coast Guard with one of the bombs. Bond is on this section of the ship, as is Domino. She is freed from her bonds by what I believe is a previously unseen member of Largo’s crew, who has had a change of heart apparently.  He informs her that he has disabled the atom bomb, so no worries on that point.

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Bond fights Largo on the foil but loses! Largo is about to kill Bond but Domino kills Largo instead!  Good for her, but it makes Bond a bit useless as a protagonist.  Bond asks Domino who the Deus Ex is. She replies “I don’t know, but he helped me.”

Bond and Domino and Other Guy jump off of the ship just as it explodes. Bond and Domino find a life raft. I don’t know what happens to Other Guy. It looks like Bond and Domino are going to fuck in the life raft, but in a surprise twist, they are air-evacuated by a sky hook. The end.

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I haven’t loved any of the Bond movies so far, but this is the first one that has been outright terrible. Dull, confusing and unsatisfying, this movie presents a string of bizarre coincidences that pull a monster rapist protagonist from one end of the movie to the other with a lot of scuba diving along the way. I cannot understand why anyone would enjoy this movie on its face. It is so distorted and strange that it almost works as a dark satire of action movies as a genre. Almost.

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