By Norman Wilner
Rating the Spy Game
A couple of years ago, during a particularly vicious winter, my wife and I challenged ourselves to watch all the James Bond movies in chronological order. Not much of a challenge, really, since there were only 20 of them at the time and Casino Royale was just a twinkle in producer Barbara Broccoli’s eye.
Well, the joke was on us. It took us nearly a full year to get through them, thanks to the franchise fatigue that set in after five or six pictures, and the general decline in quality that came with the Roger Moore years. (Hell, it took something like two months for us to recover from Moonraker alone.)
But get through them we did, which puts me in the fortunate position of being able to rank them with relatively fresh eyes. In celebration of MGM’s newly released James Bond Ultimate Collector’s Set, here’s a rundown of 007’s adventures, from best to worst.
Note: The 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale and the 1983 Never Say Never Again, which were produced by other companies and exist outside the “official” continuity, are excluded from this list, just as they’re absent from MGM’s megabox. But take my word for it; they’re both pretty awful.
1. From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963)
Before the gadgets took over, before the plots and villains became so preposterously outsized, before anyone even thought of nuclear blackmail, 007 got on a train with a hot Russian defectress in order to smuggle her back to the West, and James Bond had his best movie ever. Sean Connery perfects the balance of confidence and malice he’d been developing in Dr. No; Daniela Bianchi is perfectly believable as his Soviet love object, and Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw are most competent adversaries. Straightforward, uncomplicated, and a great deal of fun.
2. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
Perhaps aware that Bond is best when he’s matching wits with a mastermind instead of fending off his flunkies, Cubby Broccoli followed From Russia with Love by pitting the cocksure Connery against Gert Froebe’s preening super-genius, who sees our hero as little more than a persistent irritation, like a rash. Goldfinger’s obvious disdain for 007 gives the film a little jolt of humor whenever they’re together – which is fairly often – and adds a layer of humanity to the whole nuking-Fort-Knox thing. Plus, this is the one with the Aston Martin.
3. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond is the best entry in the series in more than forty years, thanks to a thorough overhaul of the franchise that brings it back to its roots in credible action, steering it away from the science-fiction trappings of the Brosnan years. (They’re the ones with stealth boats and invisible cars, remember?) Yes, it gets the classic Bond structure backwards – all the action is in the first hour, followed by the tux-and-casino material – but it works anyway, with a sharp supporting cast (here’s hoping we see Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter again) and Eva Green as a Bond girl who seems as important to the story as Bond himself.
4. Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)
Pierce Brosnan’s four outings as 007 were a decidedly mixed bag, but this one – which casts Michelle Yeoh as Bond’s Chinese counterpart and pits them against an unbalanced media tycoon out to start World War III – is the most satisfying, letting Brosnan have a little fun in the role and properly introducing the awesome Yeoh to Western audiences. The martial-arts scenes are terrific, and Jonathan Pryce has a great deal of fun as the grinning baddie, who appears to have eaten the hearts of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates on the way to the set.
5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)
George Lazenby may not be one of the best Bonds – he really just stepped in while Connery was negotiating a bigger payday for Diamonds are Forever – but he starred in one of the best Bond movies, a slick adventure that finds 007 going undercover at a Swiss allergy clinic – seriously! – to stop his arch-nemesis Blofeld from wiping out most of humanity. Along the way, he falls in love with a suicidal socialite (Diana Rigg) and even marries her, but the honeymoon sucks.
6. For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981)
Produced after the shameful Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only was an attempt to bring the series back to basics, with Roger Moore’s Bond tackling rather more earthbound intrigue in the search for a lost encryption device that could tilt the balance of power in the Cold War. Moore dials down his usual smirk to take the role seriously – even killing a defeated thug in cold blood at one point – and though the movie loses points for a vaguely icky subplot in which Ice Castles starlet Lynn-Holly Johnson gets the hots for our bewattled hero, this is the one Moore film that seems to reach back to Connery’s heyday.
7. Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965)
Four films into the series, bloat became an issue, as Bond’s latest mission finds him chasing after two stolen nuclear warheads that the evil geniuses of SPECTRE are using to blackmail the world. The investigation leads to Sean Connery doing a lot of scuba diving, but at least he gets to do it in the company of the sultry Claudine Auger. The travelogue nature of the Bond films starts to weigh heavily on the series in this film, which spends almost as much time sighing at the exotic locations as it does on the characters. And points off for the overlong climax, which features dozens of scuba divers punching each other in silence for what seems like an eternity.
8. The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)
The downside to Timothy Dalton’s replacing Roger Moore in the Bond films was that he inherited Moore’s movies; The Living Daylights is very much a Moore project, with jokey action sequences and cartoonish villains designed to distract viewers from the reality that Moore’s Bond wasn’t up to much running and jumping. Dalton, of course, was more than capable of stunts and chases, and did whatever he could; he also looks a lot more appealing opposite Maryam D’Abo than Moore would have. But this is Late Eighties Bond all the way: The shadow of AIDS curtails our hero’s notorious promiscuity, and the politics are intensely creepy when Bond ends up riding into battle alongside the mujahedeen of Afghanistan – from whose ranks Osama bin Laden and the Taliban eventually arose. (For what it’s worth, Rambo made the same mistake.)
9. GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995)
The first new Bond film in six years introduced Pierce Brosnan as 007, much to the delight of audiences who’d have apparently been delighted to see Roger Moore carry on the role until he was just a head in a jar. Which isn’t to say that Brosnan was bad or anything, but he never really seemed to put his own stamp on the part – sure, he wore the clothes and said the lines, but you always had the feeling he was looking forward to hitting the craft-service table as soon as someone called “cut”. Fortunately, Famke Janssen provided us with a marvelous distraction as the delightfully flexible – and entirely insane – Russian assassin Xenia Onatopp. Pity she didn’t survive for a sequel.
10. The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974)
With Blofeld dispatched so unequivocally at the end of the Connery era (spoiler alert: Bond wins!), the writers and producers struggled to find a worthy adversary for Moore’s 007. The closest they ever came was Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, an assassin-for-hire who’s just as good at his job – and just as vain about it – as our hero. The chemistry between Moore and Lee makes for some very entertaining encounters.
11. The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
Having gained a taste for impregnable fortresses and elaborate world-domination plots in the Sixties, the franchise went entirely overboard with this glitzy, casually ridiculous entry in which Moore’s Bond is teamed with a Russian super-agent called Triple X (Barbara Bach, managing to keep her dignity) and sent after an aquatic madman who’s threatening the balance of power with his submarine-eating supertanker. And in an apparent sop to American audiences, the screenwriters introduce Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed enforcer Jaws, as well as a few actual sharks, because sharks were really big that year.
12. Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)
The first Bond film made for a bumpy translation from book to film; nothing much happens for the first 80 minutes, the villain’s scheme is annoyingly vague, and Bond acts more like a clumsy detective than a spy. But it does offer the shockingly fresh-faced Connery a dozen moments to imprint his personal magnetism onto the character; by the end of the picture, an enduring screen icon has come into focus.
13. Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1973)
Roger Moore’s first Bond movie is a strange beast, with some perfect 007 scenes (like the deadpan opening sequence, which is one of the series’ best, or the thing with the alligators) bumping up against much broader material, like the speedboat chase over land or Mr. Big’s explosive exit. Moore does his best to make the role his own, but the movie works against him, stacking the (tarot) deck with unplayable scenes in which überhonky Bond negotiates 1970s New Orleans like a native. It’s either quaintly naïve or distressingly racist, and every year it tilts a little further towards the latter.
14. Octopussy (John Glen, 1983)
Remember that attempt to bring Bond back to basics in For Your Eyes Only? It didn’t take. Octopussy goes back to the big, silly adventures in which Moore seemed happiest, with exotic harems, characters with ridiculous names, and pointless celebrity cameos – in this case, it’s tennis pro Vijay Amritraj, who turns up as an Indian agent. The whole thing ends with 007 running around Eastern Europe in a clown suit to defuse a nuke, and I can’t think of a better image to sum up the state of the franchise at the time.
15. Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)
After an opening reel that finds 007 disavowed and disgraced after two years in a North Korean prison – teasing us with the notion that we’re in for a different kind of Bond adventure – Brosnan’s last outing quickly slips back to the usual super-espionage stuff, and everything’s bigger and dumber than usual: This one has an ice hotel, an invisible car, an orbital death ray and a DNA resequencing gimmick. The only thing missing is the moment where sidekick Halle Berry is exposed as a super-advanced fembot, which would at least explain her performance.
16. Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971)
After sitting out On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Connery bagged a cool million to pick up his license to kill one more time; sadly, the movie for which he did it was kind of a mess, with Bond thwarting a smuggling scheme that puts him face to face with Blofeld once again. And if you thought Live and Let Die was a little insensitive, wait until you see Putter Smith and Bruce Glover as the fey contract killers Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, whose effeminate dialogue is the very definition of the era’s condescending attitude towards gay characters.
17. You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
When an unknown force starts hijacking space capsules in orbit, Bond is sent to the Far East to investigate ... and the series delivers its first really lame entry, with a crankier than usual Connery forced to disguise himself as a married Japanese fisherman in a holdover from Ian Fleming’s novel that makes absolutely no sense here – though one gets the sense screenwriter Roald Dahl didn’t particularly care. The action sequences are thin, the plot is kind of dopey and Donald Pleasance doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as the series’ first, and creepiest, Blofeld. Meh.
18. Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)
Apparently under the impression that The Spy Who Loved Me hadn’t push the series far enough into ludicrous self-parody, the producers decided to get themselves a little of that Star Wars green ... and launched Bond into space in one of the dumbest films in the series. Disco-influenced costumes, orbital bimbos, a climax that basically requires Bond to play Asteroids on a grant scale ... yeah, this one just flat-out sucks. Michel Lonsdale hits precisely the right note of contempt as the villainous Hugo Drax, but one suspects it’s just because he’s figured out how bad the movie will ultimately be.
19. The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted 1999)
I had occasion to interview Michael Apted shortly after he was announced as the director of Brosnan’s third Bond adventure, and he said he was looking forward to bringing a little more complexity to this one; trouble is, complexity isn’t exactly what the movie needed. Yes, the characters are wrestling with emotional problems – Robert Carlyle’s brain-damaged Russian terrorist spends the whole film pining for his lost sense of touch; Bond has fallen for a woman who turns out to be the movie’s real villain, and Denise Richards struggles to keep her breasts aligned in her Lara Croft-inspired getup – but Bond movies aren’t made for psychological depth. And the finale is even lamer than Moonraker’s.
20. Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)
Let’s just say it: Timothy Dalton got a raw deal. The actor who could have been the definitive 007 – at least until Craig came on the scene, anyway – had the bad luck to inherit the role just as the series was at its weakest, struggling to cope with its general creative decline and the end of the Cold War. This film promised to reinvent Bond once again by stripping him of his spy credentials and sending him after drug lord Robert Davi on a mission of vengeance, but the screenwriters are so welded to their structure that they can’t help but turn it into a carbon copy of every other Bond film in the last 20 years, right down to Carey Lowell’s helpful CIA operative, the appearance of a moonlighting Q and a climactic sequence at a massive cocaine refinery. And the fashions are just atrocious.
21. A View to a Kill (John Glen, 1985)
The absolute nadir of the James Bond series finds a visibly aged Roger Moore struggling to act like his younger self – or at least fake it long enough until the stunt guys can take over in the next shot – in a lazy plot involving a Nazi-era genetic experiment (played by Christopher Walken with exactly the wrong sense of self-mockery for the role) intent on destroying Silicon Valley. The romantic interlude between a smirking Moore and the steely Grace Jones is just about the most disturbing thing ever filmed. This was just referenced on the new TV spy series Chuck, so people might try to reassess it from an ironic standpoint; they have my deep, deep sympathy.
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