A James Bond Retrospective

Watching every James Bond movie in order was more revelatory than I expected it to be.  I had seen all the films before (some many times), but I always treated them as a loosely connected body of work and never as a proper series.  Watching them in order, I gained a stronger sense of what it is to be a Bond movie, of what is distinctive about the rendering of each of the actors who played Bond, and of how each movie relates to the series as a whole.  I revised many of my judgments about the relative quality of the films, sometimes drastically.  I took this seriously, probably to a fault.  I even went back for yet another viewing of any movie where my opinion was shaky or where I wasn’t in the best mood the first time around.  And so I can say with great confidence that these are my actual judgments, no mistakes have been made.  Everyone will strongly disagree with one or more of my opinions.  That’s how it should be.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we all have the same taste in Bond movies.  Bond rankings are about as subjective as aesthetic judgments get.  I read through dozens of other peoples’ Bond lists and every single one contained at least one ranking that I found absurd.   And that’s part of why this is so fun.

Without further ado, every Eon Productions Bond movie, ranked.  I put more effort into some reviews than others.  This was more work than I meant to undertake.

1) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Whether or not Lazenby lives up to Connery’s standard is the wrong question.  He is right for this movie.   This is the dramatic masterpiece of the series—the emotional core of Bond as a character—and it reverberates up till the Craig reboot.  Lazenby is perfect for this film precisely in virtue of being indistinct.  With Bond’s charm and personality scaled back, his vulnerability can be taken seriously.  I couldn’t imagine either Connery or Moore as the lead here.  This works best as a sui generis entry.

Bond’s marriage is the most notable pre-Daniel Craig case where an event in a Bond film leaves a lasting mark on the character.  Watching all of the films in order I was struck by how absolutely central On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to the series as a whole.  In The Spy Who Loved Me, for instance, Agent XXX is showing off her opposition research by rattling off biographical facts about Bond and mentions that he has had many lady friends but was married only once, and that his wife was killed.  He interrupts her the instant she mentions his marriage.  “You’re sensitive, Mr. Bond?” “About certain things.”  And then in License to Kill there is a devastating scene where Bond catches the garter belt after Felix Leiter’s wedding.  The bride notices the agonized expression on Bond’s face and Leiter explains, “He was married once before, but that was a long time ago.”  And then there is the brilliant little moment in The World is Not Enough when Elektra King asks Bond whether he’s ever lost a loved one and we can see his face twist for a split second before he changes the subject.  (There’s also the opening of For Your Eyes Only, but I hate that scene.)

Prior to his marriage to Teresa, one might say that Bond was free and easy in his relations with women.  A zealous bachelor, as it were.  If not for OHMSS, one might think that he held this attitude simply, unproblematically, and continuously.  But OHMSS flips the narrative:  Bond’s promiscuity is thereafter rooted in heartbreak.  Without OHMSS, Bond would be an oversexed frat boy.  With it, he is a tragic figure.

Aside from the dramatic weight of OHMSS, I would draw attention to how batshit and wonderful the hypnosis scenes are.  They stand as some of the most imaginative and ambitious bits of film-making in the entire series.  The climax is simply mind-blowing.

2) From Russia With Love

Perfect in every way.  From Russia With Love is the essence of Bond.  It is the only entry completely devoid of camp.  It is the touchstone that the rest of the series stands in relation to.

3) Octopussy

A glorious extravaganza of Cold War paranoia, it’s the story of a neo-Amazonian circus company of international jewel smugglers, led by the elusive Octopussy, who are enlisted by the Soviets to (unknowingly) transport a nuclear device from East to West Germany.  If this brief plot description does not delight you, then we are not going to see eye-to-eye on Octopussy.

4) The Living Daylights

The best in the series qua spy movie.  It has the best plot of any Bond movie, and arguably the best direction.   It’s full of formalist visual compositions and dynamic camera work.  It’s a sharply serious turn, but not in a bad way.  It’s a hard as fuck Bond, but it’s still Bond.  It still has a sense of fun about it.  I love Timothy Dalton.  He’s intense for sure, but not in a way I find incongruous with the character.

5) You Only Live Twice

A very fun, lively Bond, with a great plot and some of the best action scenes of the Connery era.  The Little Nellie helicopter battle has aged like fine wine.  What I most love about You Only Live Twice is the unveiling of Blofeld.  Donald Pleasence absolutely kills it!  He is far and away the best villain in the series.   Every other portrayal of Blofeld is disappointing compared to him.  There is, unfortunately, lots of Orientalism in this movie.  None of it is mean-spirited or anything, but it’s cringe-worthy.  Alas, some cringes are the price we have to pay to see Bond in a kimono.

6) Goldfinger

Some may see it as a slight to rank Goldfinger this low.  It is widely considered the best entry in the series.  But, watching it again, it does drag a little after the iconic scene where Jill Masterson is killed via gold paint.  More importantly, this is the first movie where the adversary is not Spectre, and when I watched the movies in order I found that this doesn’t work in the movie’s favor.  Goldfinger is a great villain, but he is motivated by mundane greed.  Spectre’s methods and purposes are shadowy and surreal.  Blofeld is at once sophisticated and deranged.  He aims at global anarchy not out of tawdry self-interest, but out of grandeur.  Look, Goldfinger is a masterpiece.  But I don’t think it’s the best Bond movie.

7) Dr. No

The first film in the series is iconic and thoroughly wonderful, though less fully realized than its immediate successor.

8) A View to a Kill

I could listen to the Duran Duran song all day on repeat.  Christopher Walken as villain Max Zorin is every bit as delightful as one would expect him to be.  Grace Jones’ non-binary May Day is at once henchman and Bond girl.  Leader of Zorin’s all-female paramilitary outfit, she can lift a man above her head with one hand, but she is also deployed on missions of seduction.  The plot involves causing a literal flood in Silicon Valley while stockpiling a vast supply of microchips.  It couldn’t be more 80’s, and I mean that entirely in a good way.

9) The World is Not Enough

A really solid, classic Bond movie.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle are sublime.  The scene where she demonstrates the seductive power she wields over him even despite his total sensory numbness is a high water mark for femme fatales in the series.  This movie flew under the radar when it came out, but it has aged very well, and now stands out as the best Bond movie of the last 25 years.

10) License to Kill

Dalton brings so much raw intensity to this movie.  Here we find Bond for the first time ever going totally rogue and seeking personal revenge, to hell with queen and country.  It’s a dark, violent Bond and I dig it.

11) The Spy Who Loved Me

I love the set design for Atlantis and the opening ski jump is awesome and Stromberg is a great villain (feeding a disloyal employee to the sharks to the soundtrack of “Air on the G String”!) and Jaws is a fantastic henchman but I find Barbara Bach to be totally flat as Agent XXX.  She always sounds as though she is reading out her lines in rehearsal.  She never gets around to acting.   I could easily forgive this if she were a peripheral character, but she is absolutely central.  Alas, the movie still rocks.

12) Spectre

Ambitious Day of the Dead parade tracking shot to a fistfight aboard an unpiloted helicopter? Now that’s how you open a Bond movie.   More than any other Daniel Craig entry, Spectre has the structure of a proper Bond movie.  Bond’s strategy? Walk right into the middle of the criminal mastermind’s lair like he owns the place, get captured, then figure it out from there.  Classic!  Lea Seydoux is Bond girl par excellence.  SPOILER ALERT (I know some people still haven’t seen this one): The return of Blofeld, tying everything into the original Bond universe, is very satisfying, and makes some progress towards undoing the undue bastardizations of the Craig reboot.  Spectre is great.  But….worst opening song ever?

13) Moonraker

A companion piece to The Spy Who Loved Me.  Both feature classical music-loving megalomaniacs who dream of wiping out the human race and starting anew (except this time the survivor’s colony is meant to be in space instead of underwater) and both feature scenes where an amphibious vehicle exits the water in a crowded public place with the result that a European onlooker does a double take at the bottle of wine he is drinking as if to wonder whether it is making him hallucinate (except this time Bond is driving a gondola/hovercraft onto St. Mark’s Square instead of a Lotus Esprit/submarine onto the beach).  I love the scene where we meet Drax, who of course is in the middle of playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in D flat Major.  The pew-pew lazerfight finale is delightful.  Dr. Holly Goodhead is an excellent Bond girl.  For a minute I even thought I liked Moonraker better than The Spy Who Loved Me, but I watched both of them again and realized that it just doesn’t have the panache of the earlier entry.

14) Casino Royale

I have been a big fan of Casino Royale since its release, but watching it in the context of the whole series didn’t help it for me.  Why didn’t it begin with the amazing foot chase???  It instead begins with a very short black and white snippet, totally without context or relation to the rest of the film.  Then we go to the titles (which are weird in a bad way), then we have an establishing scene from the villain’s perspective, and THEN the chase scene.  That’s not how it’s supposed to go!  There was absolutely no reason to break with convention and it really stands out in a bad way when watched in the context of the series.  On the plus side: Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite contemporary actors and he is superb as Le Chiffre.  The action scenes are phenomenal.  They are among the best in the entire series.  But more on the negative side: Casino Royale is a reboot.  Bond is young, he’s just been made a double-0.  He hasn’t been previously married, and Felix Leiter (who died in License to Kill) is still alive.  The character is different in many ways from previous renderings.  It’s too much at once.  In The Living Daylights, I really appreciated the abrupt turn from silliness to intensity.  Here, though, the seriousness is excessive.   The movie loses a lot of the sense of fun that all previous Bond movies have.  Its only silliness is found in the poker scenes, which are absurd to the point of distraction if you know anything about poker.  Craig’s Bond is missing a sense of humor, and he drinks the wrong drink.  And Vesper Lynd is certainly no Teresa Bond.

15) The Man with the Golden Gun

The weirdest Bond movie.  Francisco Scaramanga, played by the great Christopher Lee, is a Western archetype: the last honorable man, who wants nothing more than to face his only worthy adversary in a duel for its own sake.  The movie takes the classic Western theme in a Lynchian direction, with Knick Knack’s taunts echoing over a surreal Lazer Tag course of a set.  On the negative side, there was no need to bring back Sheriff J.W. Pepper.

16) Live and Let Die

Mixed feelings here.  On one hand, the idea of a Blaxploitation entry in the Bond franchise is titillating, Mr. Big is an extremely impressive villain, and Solitaire is an exceptional Bond girl.  But there’s just no denying that the movie cheaply trades on racial anxieties about the Black Panthers, etc., and that the way the voodoo cult imagery is deployed is aggressively offensive.  Also, Sheriff J.W. Pepper is so overwrought that he’s impossible to take.  The chase with him alone keeps this out of the upper tier of Moore movies.

17) For Your Eyes Only

The inimitable Carol Bouquet as Melina Havelock is the best thing about For Your Eyes Only.  “I don’t expect you to understand, you’re English.  But I’m half Greek and Greek women, like Elektra, always avenge their loved ones.”

Overall, though, it’s not one of my favorites.  It’s more of a stripped down Moore entry, still campy, but not as imaginative. The opening with pseudo-Blofeld is awful, and there are plenty of other stupid moments spread throughout.  But it’s definitely not a bad movie.  The underwater scenes are far better than the ones in Thunderball.  The bobsled track ski race and (remarkably violent) coral reef boat dragging scene are high points.   I love the final scene where Margaret Thatcher calls to thank Bond and the lines get crossed and a parrot (as in a talking bird) starts flirting with her and she mistakes it for Bond.

18) Die Another Die

Unfairly maligned!  Die Another Day combines elements of License to Kill (Bond goes rogue for the first half of the movie to pursue a personal vendetta) with the campy fun of Moonraker.  The movie has significant flaws.  In particular the direction and editing of the action scenes is awkward, unclear, and generally sloppy.  The use of slow motion is bizarre and gives the action scenes a low-budget television feel.  But Die Another Day also has many merits.  It stands apart from the other post-Roger Moore Bond movies in its gleeful ridiculousness.  There is a glorious moment when Bond jerry-rigs a kitesurfing setup and narrowly escapes as a giant satellite focuses the energy of the sun into a powerful beam that is being used to sever the large chunk of ice that he is perched on over a cliff.   There is a car chase *inside* a rapidly melting ice palace.  This is the kind of imaginative camp that has characterized the series since the Connery days, and Die Another Day is a welcome retro moment.  Also, there’s a trans-racial villain and a fencing match that devolves into a duel with broadswords.

19) Goldeneye

I’m as surprised as you are that I’m ranking Goldeneye so low, but I swear: this is my sincere judgment, I’m not trying to be provocative.   For me, it’s the most nostalgic Bond movie.  I grew up with Goldeneye.  Unfortunately, revisiting it in the context of the series was disappointing.  It has many excellent qualities.  Famke Jansen’s Xenia Onnatop is one of the most memorable Bond femme fatales.   She brings herself to orgasm by squeezing her opponent to death between her thighs.   She almost reminds me of Beatrice Dalle in Trouble Every Day, which is high praise.  The gender problems in Bond are brought to the surface assuredly by Dame Judi Dench, who isn’t fucking having any of Bond’s misogynistic shit.  But, on the down side the other Bond girl (Natalya) is a dud and Alan Cummings is nails-on-a-chalkboard unbearable.

The most disappointing thing about Goldeneye is that it marks an unfortunate transition in the franchise.  From this point on, the series adopts a distinctly American sensibility.   Until this point, the series is British as hell.  Brosnan’s Bond is a British character in an American movie.  He calls himself the “uptight Brit.”  You can say a lot of things about previous manifestations of James Bond, but “uptight” isn’t one of them.  It’s as though in Goldeneye he’s uptight just in virtue of being British, because we are seeing him from an American perspective.  Moreover, by comparison with his predecessors, Brosnan’s performance is just flat.  He lacks his own equivalent to Connery’s charisma, Moore’s panache, and Dalton’s intensity.  He’s just a generic handsome British guy.  The movie does abide faithfully to most aspects of the Bond formula, which I appreciate, and the action scenes have a Moore-esque ridiculousness to them that is a lot of fun.

20) Thunderball

I’m sad to say I found it dated.  The problem is the endless underwater scuba scenes.  They are just so slow and so dull.  They ruin what might otherwise be a decent Connery effort.

21) Skyfall

Love the Adele song.  Bardem is fantastic.  But the movie is such a downer.   Skyfall often gets talked about as being somehow elevated by the fact that it was directed by Oscar Winner Sam Mendes.  Well, Mendes is one of *many* people who have won Academy Awards for profoundly shitty movies.  Mendes sucks.  I was worried about him as the director of Skyfall, but everyone promised me before I saw it that he didn’t Mendes it too badly.  I disagree.  His grubby little Mendes paw marks are all over this thing.  I will admit that the visual look of the movie is elegant.  But the hamfisted psychoanalytic crap is unmistakable Mendes shittiness.  I don’t mind Q as a young hacker, but why go out of your way to throw it in our face that there aren’t going to be any cool gadgets?  When he gives Bond a radio and a gun and says “what did you expect, an exploding pen?” I said out loud, “yeah, how about a fucking exploding pen?”  The mistake is corrected in Spectre, when Q supplies Bond with an exploding watch, but that doesn’t do anything to help Skyfall.  There seem to be a breed of Bond fans who look on anything silly or outlandish in Bond as a defect, and always prefer the more serious, realistic aspects of the films.  I say that these people just don’t like James Bond.  They like spy movies.   They like the James Bond movies that are less distinctly Bond-esque.   Also I hate Skyfall’s over-literal Freudian ending.  Hate, hate, hate it.  What’s up with only one Bond girl?  Trying to pawn Moneypenny off as the second Bond girl?  NFW.  And why is there sex slavery?  That’s like three straight Bond movies that are a little too icky-rapey.
But Bardem is great.  (And Mendes did redeem himself with Spectre.  He mostly kept his Mendes-ness to himself and made a real Bond movie.)

22) Diamonds Are Forever

This movie shouldn’t exist.  It’s a stain on Connery’s legacy.    He comes across like a shadow of his former self swinging by for an easy paycheck.  Everything is phoned in.

The Plenty O’Toole interlude (starring Natalie Wood’s younger sister!) is the single most annoying thing in the entire series.  The whole movie is lazy and sloppy.  The action scenes are stupid and dull (moon buggy chase?).  The scorpion-wielding duo of gay assassins is the most imaginative and interesting touch in the movie, but unfortunately that element is too often played for homophobic laughs.

23) Tomorrow Never Dies

The only high points are the always delightful Ricky Jay as a henchman and Vincent Schiavelli as a professor of forensic science/assassin.

Terri Hatcher is a totally flat bond girl.  Probably the single worst one.  The romantic storyline is contrived and not sold well.  Her dialogue is wretched, and her performance doesn’t even live up to it.  Michelle Yeoh is underutilized.

Elliot Carver, played by The High Sparrow, is the worst Bond Villain.  He’s sniveling and annoying.  The premise is supposed to be “a 21st century villain who wields not an enormous lazerbeam but rather the power of the press.”  But isn’t this exactly backwards?  Wasn’t this a major theme of Citizen Kane?  Isn’t the press the weapon of the 20th century and the lazerbeam the weapon of the 21st century?

24) Quantum of Solace

A travesty.  It’s a sequel to Casino Royale, which was a terrible idea to begin with.   At 1 hour, 45 minutes it is the shortest Bond movie.  This is a major fault: it feels as though the essence was cut out.  It’s barely a Bond movie.  It is a generic action movie directed by a hack (Marc Forster, of Monster’s Ball fame) in the style of a shitty Tony Scott imitation.  The action scenes are incomprehensible, and are punctuated with arrogant stylistic flourishes that persistently invite the question, “who does this asshole think he is, Tony Scott?”

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