Smarter than expected were the films of Sean Connery in the role of James Bond, a series that would eventually give way to the camp antics of Roger Moore. Still, its steamrolling under the wheels of Hollywood in its modern iterations makes that period of Moore a light delight. What Connery achieved was the production of a solid base for others to leap from. From Lazenby to Brosnan, each iteration that followed the Scottish-born pioneer felt like some pastiche of the role Connery had crafted. A line of dialogue here regurgitated thirty years down the line, a passing reference to the strong works that had come from his early days in the 007 role. Whatever the case, nobody mentions Thunderball all that much.
There is good reason why it isn’t mentioned. The dark horse of the Connery Bond features does not include a masterful villain as Dr. No did or lasting imagery that Goldfinger carved out. Instead, it manages to find an early example of what the Bond films would soon turn into. A deluge of sharp one-liners, sharper suits and forgettable villains all blur together to make for an enjoyable bit of action. Connery would mark those out again with Diamonds are Forever and You Only Live Twice, but his work on the underwater-themed Thunderball is the strongest example of his sheer entertainment value, especially when the narrative is all but removed. Whatever goes on in Thunderball is far less memorable than From Russia with Love, but the entertainment value of the action series remains and is largely unscathed.
Keeping that action-clad firepower unharmed is the hardest task director Terence Young has in replicating the Connery charms. Criminal organisations, nuclear bombs and ransom notes all feel very old hat in the dying light of the contemporary days but Thunderball is just as light and fun. Despite its threats of nuclear warfare and desire to spend most of its time under the sea, Connery is, naturally, on top form alongside a slew of iconic characters. Thunderball is too big for its boots, setting out everything the future films would rely on so frequently, from SPECTRE to the continuing depth of Felix Leiter (Rick Van Nutter). There is such grand incorporation of what had made the Connery films so good, and what would make the rest of the series so fun, found in Thunderball.
It is far from the perfect Bond feature, and to pick it apart for its lack of villainous presence and comical opening fight would be an easy task. Crucial it is that those moments are fun. There is a lot of fun to be had with Thunderball, a feature that continually strives to expand the world Bond and company are planted in without rocking the boat too much. They must have rocked the boat somewhat, though, the amount of time Young spends directing characters through underwater waves, riding turtles and firing harpoons at each other. It makes a nice change of pace from the earlier entries in the series. Sometimes fun can be had with some skewered, cracked replications of the entertaining values of the films that came before. Thunderball does that. It does it well.