Aug 8, 2007

Movie Review: Lightning Bolt (1966)

Movie Review: Lightning Bolt (1966)

Lighting Bolt is one of those Eurospy movies that starts off looking really, really low budget (the spy headquarters is designated by nothing more than a sign on a door and a room with a conference table), then surprises viewers halfway through by revealing itself to be a much more lavish production than first imagined. This happens a lot in the genre, I suspect because the filmmakers felt pressure from the Bond movies they were copying to deliver a spectacular finale. No Eurospy finale I’ve seen comes close to the spectacle of Thunderball or You Only Live Twice, but they do often manage to provide some surprisingly big explosions and an opulent villain’s lair. Furthermore, by holding back so much on the first half of the film, it’s all the more surprising when this happens, and it makes the conclusion look even more expensive than it actually is. Lightning Bolt pulls this trick, and in a way that’s too bad, because the second half is so much more enjoyable than the first. If they’d had a little more money, perhaps they could have stretched the budget across the entire picture instead of packing it all in at the end. Oh well. Few directors had Mario Bava’s gift for making ten dollars’ worth of action look like a million, so despite its unimpressive start, Lightning Bolt turns out to be pretty enjoyable.

The hero, Harry Sennet (Anthony Eisley, one of the Eccentrics in Season 2 of The Wild Wild West) is, as usual in this genre, somewhat loathsome, but actually turns out to be more charming and less sleazy than a lot of his contemporaries once you get past his grating narration and barrage of corny jokes and bad puns. (Glancing at a sunbathing beauty, he utters "TAN-talizing!") Before we meet him, we’re told that he abhors violence and would rather write a check (drawn on taxpayers’ dollars) out of a bad situation than shoot his way out. He does write a lot of checks (and the joke doesn’t get any funnier the more times they do it), but he also turns out to be handy with a gun.

His boss is (and we’re supposed to be shocked by this) a woman. She may hold the rank of captain, but that doesn’t stop her from being designated "Agent 36-22-36." And despite the fact that we’re told she’s an expert at unarmed combat, Captain Patricia Flanagan doesn’t prove herself too useful on the assignment. Still, actress Diana Lorys is appealing... and drop-dead gorgeous. It’s a pity she disappears for a large chunk of the movie.

Lightning Bolt starts out as a spy comedy, more in the vein of Flint than Bond, with lots of jabs at the mainstream genre. But as it progresses, it starts to take itself more seriously, and it becomes easier for the audience to buy into the movie’s goofy spy world. Sennet, and agent of the FSIC (Federal Security Investigation Commission, I think), is holed up at a resort (populated entirely by spies) in Florida trying to discover who’s toppling American rockets. (It’s not Dr. No this time.) In the course of the investigation, he and Captain Flanagan get themselves stuck in a silo that fills up with water, setting the tone with a fairly lackluster setpiece. They escape when the villain for some reason decides to drain the silo at the last minute. Bit of luck, that.

Things start to pick up when Sennet’s clues lead him to the Cape Kennedy rocket base to witness a launch cobbled out of grainy stock footage. Here he exhibits an astounding propensity to crash every single vehicle he ever gets in, from car to jeep to forklift. In the course of crashing vehicles, he encounters a beer truck with a hidden toppling apparatus and a beautiful blonde assassin named Kary (Eurospy stalwart Wandisa Leigh). Kary gets the better of Harry and whisks him away to the baddie’s headquarters: a sprawling underwater facility amazingly prefigurative of Karl Stromberg’s Atlantis in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me!

Here we come to the moment in many a Eurospy picture where the heretofore unseen mastermind swings around in his Evil Chair, and his face is revealed to be that of a character we’ve already met. There’s usually a fairly limited number of characters to begin with, and once the inevitable bodies start piling up, we’re left with even fewer to pick from. Therefore, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out who’s going to turn out to be the bad guy. Lightning Bolt contains a glorious villain reveal, and I have to admit it tricked me. I never guessed whose face it would be, yet the movie did play fair, and didn’t reveal someone we’d never seen before like some do. I’m almost tempted to spoil it, since the movie is so rare and hard to see, but I can’t countenance ruining its best moment for those who do manage to track it down. The villain is pretty good, though, and looks like a combination of Goldfinger and Oddjob! He and his base thoroughly enliven the second half of the movie.

The evil plot turns out to be far more complicated than simply toppling rockets (hint: it involves world domination and a laser on the moon), and thrown in for good measure on top of this scheme is a lab full of cryogenically frozen people, reminiscent of Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. This lab is even better than that one, though, because it’s run by ninjas, as is the entire facility. In my experience, it’s fairly rare to see ninjas performing such mundane tasks as pulling levers and monitoring heat levels, and that rarity makes it a priceless sight.

I feel that I’m spoiling nothing to the seasoned spy aficionado when I reveal that it isn’t long before this impressive underwater lair is explosively self-destructing, its hallways overrun by the lava(!) that it’s powered by, its monorails run amuck, and the path to its escape submarines irritatingly blocked by ninjas. Sennett fights his way through all this (after having caused it, natch), and the sequence is so exciting and engaging that the weak forced comedy of the first act is forgotten and forgiven by the time you’re leaving the theater. (Or ejecting the bootleg DVD.) Seasoned director Antonio Margheriti, who cranked out quite a few taut thrillers in his day, under his own name and the nom de guerre of Anthony Dawson (no relation to Professor Dent), may stumble a little with the comedy, but he comes through in a clinch, providing a captivating climax.

Lightning Bolt is a silly, incredibly fun little Eurospy flick, and if you ever have the opportunity to watch it I recommend you seize it. I had bought the fantastic German poster (which takes gun phallic imagery to whole new levels) a few years ago, but never seen the movie until last week, when I had the chance to see it in the theater on a 35mm IB Techniclor print. Amazingly, it lived up to the poster!

ADDENDUM: Since this review was written, Lightning Bolt has actually (amazingly) materialized on several DVD releases of dubious legality, but unquestionably the one to get is the most official and best-looking version, a pretty beautiful widescreen transfer included in Code Red's Rareflix Triple Feature Volume 4 box set. And even though it's a box set, it's still cheaper than most single-disc DVD releases. And best of all, the three movies included are each in their own individual cases, so you can easily discard the other two if you don't like them and just hang onto your Eurospy treasure!

SECOND ADDENDUM: And even more surprisingly, Code Red later released it on Blu-ray as well! At quite a reasonable price through DiabolikDVD. It's amazing how the Eurospy availability landscape has changed in the decade plus since I wrote this review!


Rogue Spy 007 said...

This sounds pretty cool.I've never seen nor heard of this film. I think I would like it from your review though. Not sure that I'll ever get a chance, but if I ever come across it then I'll be sure to get hold of it. Great blog.

Anonymous said...

This sounds fabulous and I really want to see it! I love Margheriti's horror films but I've never seen him do anything else.

Tanner said...

It's definitely worth seeing some of Margheriti's other work! He did some great horror movies (and some not-so-great ones), but he actually covered quite a few genres in his career. His barbarian/sci-fi hybrid Yor, The Hunter From the Future (from the Eighties) is a favorite guilty pleasure of mine! He did at least one more Eurospy movie that I know of, Killers Are Challenged, but I've never seen that.

My favorite film he was involved in is actually a Hammer movie he wrote (his only one for that studio, I'm pretty sure) called The Snorkel! I'd thought he directed it too, but the imdb informs me otherwise. It's a fantastic little black and white thriller though, with a particularly ingenius murder method. (Hint: it involves a snorkel!)

Anonymous said...

Looks like lots of fun. Thanks for the link toget my own... you don't know how much that was appreciated! - plotter

Anonymous said...

This movie is on DVD and you can get it through netflix.