And now, the listicle.
Having watched pretty much* the whole damn canon of Bond in film, of course there’s gotta be a list made. Thing is, it seems to be fairly predictable, but in the end it wasn’t too hard a list to make, save for maybe tenth spot, which I decided should go to Dr. No just for kicking off the whole shebang. Which means Sean Connery gets three appearances (for the first three films), Moore and Craig two each, and the other three making up the numbers with one each. I get the feeling that this is fairly close to the consensus, although I haven’t really checked.
*Casino Royale (1967) excepted
That isn’t through some lazy tokenism considering Lazenby and Dalton; the films I picked deserved it because I genuinely enjoyed those films. My surprise to myself was that Brosnan only gets the one mention, but after GoldenEye I was hard pressed to let any of his following three in, at least on this pass. Having said that, I think I found something to like about all the films, bar perhaps Diamonds Are Forever where I was just getting sick of Connery’s Bond, and apparently so was Sean. (Ironically, I enjoyed Never Say Never Again as a diversion, even though the plot dies in the arse just like Thunderball did.)
And of course, as the title says, this is an opinion. I haven’t even bothered checking my own grades from the recaps, as the goalposts have inevitably moved. Likewise, if I had to write the list from scratch I might change the order, or swap films in or out of the shortlist.
1. Casino Royale
Daniel Craig’s introduction into the role is hard as nails – keeping in line with the dark gritty reboot – but with rights to the first Fleming novel back in the fold, why not go carte blanche? When we see Bond return, he’s practically a junkyard dog, and cunning. After we’re properly introduced, the plot sets in as he is sent to try and bankrupt Le Chiffre in a card tournament, with Vesper Lynd providing the cash. At this point the tourney might’ve killed the pace stone-dead, but instead it’s punctuated with thrills of the cerebral and visceral varieties. And, yep, the ending.
2. From Russia With Love
The second 007 film steps things up with a proper spycraft plot, the first (partial) appearance of Blofeld and a glimpse into the inner workings of SPECTRE (basically they’re a bunch of psychopaths). The gypsy bit is problematic, at least until the mass fight scene kicks off when it’s all good find, but the whole film barrels along marvellously, enabled by a colourful cast of characters and perilous situations.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
However you feel about his extended run in the role, for mine The Spy Who Loved Me is the definitive Roger Moore 007 flick – kicking the series into top gear excellently paced with some iconic set-pieces, starting from the classic parachute opening. A truly scary henchman in Jaws (before he kind of goes soft), a strong sidekick who at times outspies Bond, the second most iconic Bond car in the Lotus Esprit, and a script tailored for Moore’s characterisation.
Pierce Brosnan’s long-awaited arrival delivers, retooling the character for the post-Cold War world. I think that perhaps his later films got a little too overblown, but the first one breaks the hiatus in fine style. Sean Bean is pretty gnarly as the turncoat 00-agent, the action scenes ratchet things up a notch above anything seen before, and the introduction of Judi Dench and Robbie Coltrane mean Brosnan doesn’t have to be sole providor of the film’s charisma.
This might well possibly the most stylish of the lot, with each sequence having its own vivid look, and the substance is pretty solid as well, as Bond struggles against an adversary smarter than himself, who has it in for M. Javier Bardem’s Silva could well be the scariest Bond villain. Of course Q and Moneypenny return, reimagined and perhaps shaking off some of the baggage that the latter character had in the classic run. It’s maybe not quite the most spectacular action-wise, and when it happens, it takes on quite a unique tone for the series, the last act seems much like a Western, set in the North.
Connery’s third film is probably when the camp starts creeping into the series, but at this point, all of that is within tolerable limits. Auric Goldfinger gets some of the best villian lines (even if they were dubbed), Oddjob is arguably the first iconic henchman, and Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore marks the first Strong Female Character With A Problematic Name. US settings outside Miami don’t really work well for Bond, but the depiction of Fort Knox as a cathedral of gold makes up for it.
7. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
George Lazenby has copped a fair bit of flak over the years, but every time I watch this, his performance grows on me. It’s also a pivotal film in terms of actually how Bond manages to get himself married – however briefly. Diana Rigg is feisty yet adorbs as the ill-fated Tracy, and Telly Savalas brings what might be the most rounded portrayal of Blofeld. Accompanied by Barry’s distinctive OHMSS theme, the alpine scenes establish a particular iconic trope that will be returned to again and again, usually to good effect.
8. The Living Daylights
The first of Timothy Dalton’s brace of 007 films the better – perhaps it’s not a world away from what Moore was doing, but a considerably younger Bond was able to do more of the action and thusly make it more believable. Dalton manages to be both harder and softer, bringing emotional complexity and a sense of moral ambiguity back to the character. Maybe things got a little toooo hard-boiled next time around, but this one thumps along, and the last mass fight really does bring back some of the organised confusion Terence Young brought to the likes of FRWL.
Arguably, this still has the most ludicrous premise of all 007 films – despite the best efforts of Die Another Day, and yet… it’s as well paced as its predecessor, with arguably a better lead villian in Drax (goatee helps with that) and still thoroughly entertaining. The main issue is maybe the plot echoes its predecessor too well, even with the post-Star Wars “lets do a space film” thing. Also, Jaws sells out, but he does it for love and to spite the master race, so it’s all good.
10. Dr. No
Largely making my list as it is the first film, and being successful enough to lay the foundation for all the others could follow. Although somewhat of a risk at the time, these days the budget seems miniscule compared to Spectre and it shows. The pacing is a little ponderous, really only taking off in the last act when Bond finally turns up at No’s island. But it’s still eminently watchable thanks largely to Sean Connery and his interactions with Julius No, as well as Syd Cane and Ken Adam’s design becoming the state-of-the-art.
Let’s be clear, too, I’ve left out films that have had some of my favourite villains (Scaramanga, Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld), or songs, or henchmen, or Bond girls. Are there any stinkers? Well, they’re all fairly entertaining to some degree, but there are some that didn’t shine so brightly. The worst? Well, I had 2 or 3 in mind, and I really have trouble splitting them. Let’s just say, the last films tend to be a problem, although Craig broke that pattern because he’d done Quantum of Solace and at least Spectre was better than that.
The Best Bond
The Best Bond? Nah, I’m not playing that game, I’m going to sit on the fence and say I like them all for various reasons. Wait, I did say it was Daniel Craig in the last wrap, didn’t I? Yeah, he’s my current favourite. Taciturn. A gut fighter. Not stupid.
Connery is the classic. You start with him, he made the role come alive on the screen, still hard-edged but maybe tones down the bitterness in Fleming’s character, while keeping the outrageous wish fulfilment (and misogyny), which after all, is what these stupid movies are all about.
George Lazenby is the oddball, no doubt, but like I said, OHMSS is legit – action, suspense, romance, and most shockingly, character development – and he’s an integral part of it. On the excellent doco Everything or Nothing which comes on the bonus disc of the enormobox I got, Lazenby sits down and tells his whole story; how he bluffed his way into the gig, and then how he threw it all away. Hilarious, but kind of sad.
Roger Moore’s 007 was more a lover than a fighter, and looking back at his films, you totally get the absolute self-awareness Moore had about the role. While Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun are a little off the pace (hell, Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga is the only reason to watch Golden Gun – well, OK, Nick Nack was cool too) Moore at least looks energetic in those. And then he does The Spy Who Loved Me. BAM. Around about the time of For Your Eyes Only he’s getting a bit long in the tooth, and he knows it, but finding a replacement is hard.
I like Timothy Dalton’s more phlegmatic style which drew more from the source, I would’ve liked to see him take a couple more films but after License To Kill – yeah, that might still be the weirdest of the films (although tough competition with Die Another Day.) and probably did dampen the mojo a bit. Pierce Brosnan, also very good – not quite as angry, though a little more clinical, but also not afraid of the one-liners. But what I think happened is that the movies became more a series of events than stories.
To plant the splinters further into my bum, I’ll say my favourite Bond is the one I’m watching at the time. It’ll be a hard act to follow, but the beauty of the role is, whoever has taken it on has had to nail some general criteria, but they didn’t follow. Whoever takes on the role makes it their own. That’s what I’ll expect from whoever is next.
What’s also important is the material they have to work with – there are a lot of names that come up; firstly the producers, starting with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzmann, with the legacy passed on to Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. We go onto the directors, names like Terence Young, Lewis Gilbert, John Glen, Martin Campbell, Sam Mendes. The scriptwriters, starting with Richard Maibaum through to the Purvis/Wade and Haggis combination of more recent films. The designers, starting with Ken Adam and Syd Cain, establishing a style that endures, given a timely tweak or two. I’m a bit of a fiend for the soundtracks, although there have been a few duds, and later films have shown you don’t necessarily have to flog the Monty Norman riff (probably written by the great John Barry) to make it sound Bond. The stunts and special effects, of course, very important, some of the things Chris Corbould and his crew have pulled off in recent films has been nuts – the car tumble in Casino Royale, the tank chase in GoldenEye, the explosion in Spectre big enough to make Michael Bay wince.
And, hey, they only have to make a few more films to catch up with Carry On.