Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lightning Bolt

Just about every Eurospy film that got made during the craze that began right after the death of peplum and right before the rise of spaghetti westerns got made because of the success of the James Bond films, and most of the Eurospy movies aren't shy about wearing their influences on their sleeve. For some, it was by way of casting one of the many European actors who played a villain or a love interest in a Bond film. Thunderball's Adolfo Celli appeared in several Eurospy productions, as did Bond girls like From Russia With Love's Daniela Bianchi. Bernard "M" Lee and Lois "Miss Moneypenny" Maxwell actually both starred as characters very similar to their Bond characters in a Eurospy film starring Sean Connery's younger brother, Neil, who was passed off as 007's brother in a way vague enough to avoid being sued by the producers of the Bond films. For most, however, it was simply a case of repeating the formula and mimicking the ad campaigns.

Lightning Bolt is particularly obvious about its intentions to compare itself to Thunderball, which came out in the same year, right down to the tagline, "Lightning Bolt -- He Strikes Like a Ball of Thunder!" Which makes even less sense than just the word "thunderball," which already doesn't make any sense. What the hell is a thunderball? But hey -- that was just for American audiences, right? It's like when shifty distributors insisted on forcing Bruce Lee's name into the title of every kungfu movie ever made during the 1970s. You can't blame the filmmakers for that, right? Sure, except that the original Italian title for the movie makes the Bond exploitation even more obvious. The main villain is straight out of Goldfinger with a dash of the Matt Helm film The Ambushers, of all things, thrown in. The original Italian title, in fact, works as hard to recall Goldfinger as the American one does to recall Thunderball. Unless you think Operacione Goldman is a coincidence.

The plot -- in which a nefarious arch villain is using laser waves to misguide and blow up moon rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, is actually quite similar to the plot of the Nick Carter novel, Operation Moon Rocket, which was published in 1968. Although it seems unlikely that an obscure Italian spy movie would have been an influence on the Nick Carter novels, it's certainly still a possibility. The Nick Carter stable of authors was varied, after all, and they were drawing ideas from everywhere. So here we go. NASA is in trouble. Every moon rocket they've tested has exploded into a great, fiery ball, though whether or not it's a thunderball remains debatable. The scientists are convinced that computers and technology behind the rockets are sound, so the only answer must be sabotage.

Lt. Harry Sennet (American actor Anthony Eisley) is called in to get to the bottom of things. His cover, naturally, is that of a rich, womanizing playboy looking for good times and big boobs along Florida' coast, which has been visited by just about every 1960s spy from James Bond to Matt Helm. Assisting Sennet on his mission is bombshell Captain Patricia Flanagan, another genre stalwart who had appeared in everything from The Awful Dr. Orloff to Superargo and the Faceless Giants. In between gratuitous but welcome scenes of Sennet cruising around the bikini-clad babes lounging about the hotel swimming pool area and frequent grainy stock footage of rockets from NASA, our tale of intrigue is woven, and it leads to a powerful, um, beer brewer (thus the Matt Helm movie similarity).

But this is a Eurospy film, and one of the wackier ones at that, so this particular evil brewmeister (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe), has a laser he uses to blow up rockets from his -- get this -- space age underwater lair where he keeps his biggest enemies frozen in a state of suspended animation so he can thaw them out from time to time, taunt them, and get them up to speed on the success of his mad, evil schemes.

Although the production is cheap and the plot is outlandish, this is actually a pretty fun little adventure. Anthony Eisley looks tough and handsome, and he's probably one of the few spies in any of these movies who begins his mission by trying to buy off the bad guys -- with a check! Imagine Sean Connery asking Robert Shaw how much money he'd need not to kill Bond, then saying, "OK, mind if I write you a check?" The women surrounding Eisley are ridiculously gorgeous, which is one of the things even the cheapest of Eurospy films could get right. The set designs are actually pretty impressive considering the budget and have a swanky 1960s pop art feel to them. There's plenty of fist fights, lots of clumsy sexual innuendo, shoot outs, sea plane flying, and then the whole finale in the undersea fortress.

Eurospy films are like any other continental knock-off of a popular American or British genre. Some are very good and lavish, managing to rise above small budgets to deliver a slick looking little thriller full of beautiful women, sets, and locations. Others are threadbare pieces of junk that will bore you to tears. And some are utterly bizarre and incompetent in the most wonderfully enjoyable of fashions. Lightning Bolt falls closer to the last description. A lot of the film's energy undoubtedly comes from director Antonio Margheriti, possibly the most prolific of all Italian action and thriller directors. Margheriti, who was often renamed "Anthony Dawson" when his films were exported to America, directed his fair share of clunkers, but the bulk of his career is filled with perfectly acceptable genre films, and a few genuine classics. Lightning Bolt, like most Eurospy films, is completely ludicrous, but it's not as if anyone involved with the film doesn't seem aware of that. There's a playful sense of fun, almost tongue in cheek, that makes the film a great deal more entertaining than it might otherwise be.

MVT: The set design. For a movie that had a tiny budget, they get the most out of matte paintings and cardboard when they designed the villain’s underground lair. And even the worst Eurospy productions were usually full of cool suits and bikini models.

Make or Break: The hero attempting to end all this intrigue by offering to buy the villain off with a check. If you can’t roll with that concept, this movie will try your patience.

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