British secret agent James Bond is sent to a health spa to recuperate after a difficult mission. There he encounters a suspicious character named Count Lippe, with whom he engages in a deadly game of one-upmanship. While this is going on, a NATO pilot is replaced by a surgically-altered agent of the terrorist organization SPECTRE. The doppelganger then crashes a Vulcan bomber carrying two nuclear bombs into the ocean, where they are recovered by more members of the sinister cabal. Bond is summoned to an emergency meeting of government agents and military officials, where he learns that SPECTRE is attempting to use the bombs to extort a fortune from the free nations of the world. Following a lead he inadvertently stumbled onto during his stay at the clinic, 007 is dispatched to Nassau to find and recover the missing warheads before they can be detonated, killing millions of people.
There are a lot of adjectives one could use to describe THUNDERBALL, but none more appropriate than "big". After the phenomenal success of GOLDFINGER, the world couldn´t wait for the next thrilling James Bond adventure. The hype surrounding the production was unprecedented in film history, leaving producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli no choice but to deliver a Bond that was positively grandiose in scale. The complex plot certainly delivers, 007 facing some of his deadliest enemies and taking part in some truly breathtaking underwater battles in his first real, face-to-face tussle with SPECTRE. When our hero escapes from the roof of a building with a jetpack in the now-obligatory pre-credit sequence, we know we´re in for a wild ride. When the villainous agent plunges a multi-million dollar jet aircraft into the ocean, there is no doubt that this Bond film will set a new standard for screen spectacle.
Another apt description of THUNDERBALL is "cool". Sean Connery had become so comfortable in the part by this time that he moves through his scenes like a jungle cat prowling its lair, assured that he´s the king of his domain but always poised to strike at any enemy or conquer any prospective mate who might cross his path. 007 antagonizes villain Emilio Largo in a card game with the challenge, "Your specter against mine." Femme fatale Fiona Volpe tells Bond that he must be in the wrong room when he walks in on her naked in the bathtub, to which he replies, "Not from where I´m standing." When she asks him to give her something to put on, he obligingly hands her a pair of slippers. Heroine Domino Derval remarks that Bond has "sharp little eyes" after he mentions a birthmark on her inner thigh. His reply? "Wait ´til you get to my teeth." Both character and actor are at their virile, swaggering best here.
THUNDERBALL could also be described as "sexy", as it features two of the most alluring women ever to grace the silver screen in Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi. Auger is a former Miss France who was cast in the role of Domino after Raquel Welch was released from her contract to film FANTASTIC VOYAGE for 20th Century Fox. With due respect to Miss Welch, the notion of the curvaceous and exotic Auger being anyone´s second choice for anything seems absurd to this day, and speaks to the level of glamour and opulence the franchise had reached by 1965. Buxom redhead Paluzzi wrings every last drop of wanton sex appeal and cold ruthlessness out of her role as the deadly Volpe, a rapacious villainess who, unlike Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER, is not won over to the side of virtue after a spirited night with the protagonist. Despite the claims of many a Bond actress since, Volpe is as close to 007´s equal in every respect as the series has ever come. As if these two beauties weren´t sufficient, blonde Patricia Fears plays a nurse won over by Bond´s charms in the first act and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE veteran Martine Beswick appears as an ill-fated ally.
One adjective some critics and fans have rather unfairly saddled the film with is "slow". Because the movie spends considerable time building to the revelation of the extortion plot, and because much of the last act is devoted to lengthy underwater fight sequences, the pace is rather deliberate in comparison to other Bond films, particularly those of recent years. But THUNDERBALL is an exceptionally engaging and well-written tale, realized with some of the most elaborate and beautiful underwater cinematography ever achieved, and punctuated with an absolutely brilliant John Barry score. Its grand narrative twists and turns along at just the right clip, ramping up the tension higher and higher until a fabulous payoff in which Bond and Largo duke it out aboard a boat hurtling out of control toward a jagged rock formation. Though perhaps a bit unorthodox and measured by subsequent Bond standards, the film is certainly never dull.
Of course, "successful" is the best way to sum up this, the first true event movie. Audiences around the globe lined up to see the colossal spectacle promised by the unprecedented ad blitz, and few were disappointed with what they witnessed on the screen. To this day, THUNDERBALL remains the highest-grossing James Bond movie of all after adjusting for inflation, having sold more than 140 million tickets worldwide. Long before JAWS and STAR WARS and BATMAN and TITANIC, there was THUNDERBALL, a sweeping, suave, sexy blockbuster that is just as impressive today as it was forty-two years ago.