If we haven’t hammered into you enough already, this year is James Bond’s 50th cinematic birthday. The world’s favorite secret agent burst onto the silver screen in 1962 and the franchise has since racked up a whopping 23 films, as well as two unofficial ones. The only other popular character that comes to mind who has managed a similar feat is Godzilla*. A lot can happen in five decades. As the world has changed, so too has James Bond. For better or worse, the producers have always tried to give the people what they think they want. Many times they have succeeded. Others? Not so much. Regardless of the varying results, the series has an assured place in cinematic history.
Sean Connery made a hell of an impression when he burst onto the screen in Dr. No (1962). The film itself is a great debut for the franchise. Given the smaller nature of its story and production, however, it tends to get lost in the shuffle when the franchise is discussed. While the series was still in its infancy when it comes to many of the “expected” elements, Bond is still just as cold-blooded and rapey as ever here. Ursula Andress is a sight to behold, Jack Lord remains one of the best Felix Leiters to date, and Joseph Wiseman’s titular villain is rightfully placed alongside the series’ best. While not one of the best the franchise has to offer, you could do a lot worse if you’re looking for a starting point.
From Russia With Love (1963) is still considered by many (including myself) to be the best of the bunch. While introduced in the previous entry, the machinations of the archetypal evil organization SPECTRE are in full sway here, with the enigmatic Ernst Stavro Blofeld making his first faceless appearance. On top of an excellent straight-forward story and some of the best directed action sequences of the franchise, you have an excellent cast: Robert Shaw, Pedro Armendez, Lotte Lenya, the beautiful Daniela Bianchi, etc. If you are ever looking to loosely sample the Bond films, make absolutely sure that this one is on your list.
As successful as the first two were, Goldfinger (1964) was the one to really put the franchise on the map and it’s not hard to see why. All of the series hallmarks are on display: a globe-trotting adventure, the classic tricked-out car, a megalomaniacal villain, the mostly-silent henchman, a sassy female lead, etc. Those who don’t view the previous film as the best usually single out this one in its place and its hard to argue against that. This film is considered a classic for a reason, folks.
Connery’s fourth outing, Thunderball (1965), has a shaky reputation these days. While few declare it a bad film, it doesn’t seem to be held in as high esteem as it once was. Regardless, it is still the highest-grossing film of the series when adjusted for inflation and it’s unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon. If Goldfinger was the crippling blow to ‘60s audiences, Thunderball was the finisher. The film is full of all kinds of adventure in the form of rocket packs, underwater battles, fun gadgets, fiendish villains, lovely ladies, assassinations, revenge, etc. It’s no wonder the film went over well upon release. Judging it from afar the film comes off as a bit too bloated for its own good, but still a great time to those who are fans of the Connery era. It also contains what I think is Sir Sean’s best performance in the role.
After a two year gap, You Only Live Twice (1967) graced screens. Between installments year after year, as well as a spoof adaptation of Casino Royale also hitting in ’67, franchise fatigue was starting to set in. Still, in terms of sheer pop-culture iconography, You Only Live Twice has it all. While elements were taken from the earlier films as well, it is YOLT that was most lovingly lampooned in the Austin Powers films. A good deal more over-the-top than the previous four, the film is fun romp from start to finish, despite being hindered a bit by a lead that was clearly starting to become a little bored with the role. After making five films in six years, it’s no wonder that Connery announced to the press during production that this would be his last. What a way to go out though, at least initially. Ninjas, aerial battles, hollowed-out volcanos, space grand theft auto, Blofeld revealed, Bond turning Japanese, etc. There’s a lot to like here.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) still bears a slight stigma of being “bad” by virtue of being the first non-Connery entry. It was George Lazenby’s sole 007 romp and his first true acting gig. I’m not going to praise his performance in the role, but I won’t lambast it either. Lazenby was serviceable in his debut and likely could have become a great Bond had he stuck with it. Like the saying goes, however, “were ifs and buts, candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas”. If you are going to only do one Bond film though, at least make sure it’s a good one and this absolutely is. Despite an amateurish lead, this is one of the best entries the franchise has to offer. It has a great villain (Blofeld again), one of the best female leads of the series, an excellent story, and a tragic ending. It’s also one of the more down-to-earth installments and all the better for it. The puns and gadgets have their place, but it’s nice to see things go back to the basics now and again.
After Lazenby walked, Connery returned for one last “official” go as 007. The result was Diamonds Are Forever (1971), a wildly divisive entry. Fans seem to love it or hate it and none land in-between. I used to land on the latter side of the fence, but have defected in recent years. The humor has been pumped up to higher levels than previously, but it’s witty and effective. Bond crashing a fake moon landing shoot? Sausage king Jimmy Dean as a Howard Hughes-type? Charles Gray’s odd turn as Blofeld? Infamous henchmen “partners” Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd? Connery making out with himself? Femme fatales named Bambi & Thumper? None of it should work, but pretty much all of it does. You can thank screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz for that. His script was a definite factor in Connery deciding to return and you can actually see that twinkle in Sean’s eye as he steps back into the role. Screw the haters, this one is a keeper.
Moore, Roger Moore. The former Saint took on the role with Live And Let Die (1973) and never looked back, kicking off what is still the longest run any actor has had as Bond to date. He did so with a more laid back adventure with a heavy dose of Blaxploitation (and a little Hicksploitation for flavor), bringing us yet another divisive entry. Where I had to come around on DAF, I’ve always loved Live And Let Die. While not one of the best installments in the franchise, it is a solid debut for Roger Moore and Yaphet Kotto makes for an excellent heavy.
The following year, Moore matched wits and rounds with Christopher Lee in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). A lesser entry for sure, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had: Lee’s third nipple, Nick-Nack, Maud Adams, a flying car, Bond at a karate school, J.W. Pepper returns, Sumo wrestling, Bond ripping off a little kid, etc. And it’s now on TCM!
Moore finally found his footing on his third go ‘round with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). The best of his era, in my opinion, see Roger running through a pseudo-update of YOLT and paired with a female Russian agent. While our leading lady isn’t one of the best, the rest of the film is aces from the Lotus Esprit to Jaws to the villain’s fantastic lair. This is one of the best and if you want a taste of ole Roger at his peak, then give it a whirl.
And that brings us to the producers cashing in on the success of Star Wars with 1979’s Moonraker. This unfairly-maligned entry holds one of the franchise’s best villains, wonderful sets, and a fantastic over-the-top ending. While some of the moments more than earn their derision, this is another keeper for me and among Moore’s best. If you are ever in the mood for fun camp action, this is your Bond.
For Your Eyes Only (1981) brought things back down to Earth, both figuratively and literally. Moore’s most Fleming-esque romp features a high-stakes Cold War race between our British hero, our villain, and the Russians to obtain a prized piece of spy tech. Like many of the Moore films, it has its problems, but this is still one of the better Bond films and features some great characters.
Octopussy (1983). Finished laughing at the title yet? Like Dr. No, this one seems to fall between the cracks when discussion on the series occurs. Not one of his best, nor among his worst, this is a solid Moore outing. The India setting is refreshing, Louis Jordan is great as always, and the train sequence during the climax is a blast. If Roger had any sense, he would have bowed out after this one.
A View To A Kill (1985), despite having one of the best songs and a great score, is one of the worst of the bunch. Moore is blatantly too old for the part, Tanya Roberts is a terrible leading lady, and the direction is uninspired. Why EON hired director John Glen for an additional two films after this is beyond me. Still there is some fun to be had: Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, Dolph Lundgren cameo, and the climax on the Golden Gate Bridge. For fans only.
Timothy Dalton’s first, The Living Daylights (1987), is a massive breath of fresh air. If EON is consistent in any area above all others, it’s in getting Bond debuts right. Dalton predates Craig’s hard-edged take on the role and it’s a shame that the audiences at the time didn’t take to it very well. I think they would have accepted Timothy over time, but that was not meant to be. This is the best of his duo and features a fun plot that takes us all over Russia, the Mediterranean, and Afghanistan! Sorry Rambo, Bond beat you to helping the Afghani rebels by a few years.
Once again shifting with the times, Licence To Kill (1989) is the Cannon films/Lethal Weapon-esque entry in the on-going saga of 007. While admittedly not one of the best, it’s also been a personal favorite. Sue me, but there is a lot to love here, from Robert Davi & Benecio Del Toro to Bond going rogue to avenge a friend to Wayne Newton!?! It’s a shame that Dalton’s era ends here, but things could be worse.
Like I said above, EON always gets the debuts right and Goldeneye (1995) is Pierce Brosnan’s best overall. This film revitalized the franchise and catapulted it back into the public eye after a six-year-long absence. Brosnan is great, the villain is an all-timer (Sean Bean!), Serra’s underrated score is fantastic, the song is great, the lead females are great, Dench is great, etc. Do we see a pattern forming yet? This was my first Bond movie and while nostalgia does factor in, it hasn’t colored my glasses that much. Goldeneye is a top-notch 007 outing and still deserving of every bit of praise to this day.
For better or worse, Brosnan’s era is a straight line of diminishing returns. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) is an extremely solid entry in the franchise and sees Pierce a little more comfortable in the role. Probably the most action-packed of his four, there are some wonderful set pieces here from the opener to the parking garage chase. Jonathan Pryce provides an interesting villain and Yeoh is a perfect fit. Only Hatcher really disappoints, but that’s a given.
The World Is Not Enough (1999) is where things start going wrong during Pierce’s run. While still a decent entry, it feels like the producers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to fully go in a serious direction or not. Because of this, there are jarring sequences and elements that just do not fit the rest of the film. Chief among these are Denise Richards and the awful sequence at the caviar factory. It’s not a terrible film, but it certainly falls within the bottom rung.
Despite being his biggest hit, Brosnan hit rock bottom with Die Another Day (2002). Oddly enough, it features what is probably his best turn in the role. No matter how hard he tried though, he couldn’t save it. This is the absolute worst entry in the franchise. Things start strong, but once Halle Berry struts on screen things slowly go downhill until they finally flatline at the ice palace. It’s a tragedy that Pierce’s run had to end on such a sour note.
Now this is more like it. Director Martin Campbell is two-for-two when it comes to introducing new Bonds to the world. Casino Royale (2006) is not only one of the best Bond films, but also one of the best films of the past decade in my eyes. Craig is the best in the role since Connery and his supporting cast is equally great. I could sit here and list everything this one gets right, but I don’t want to keep you here for two hours reading only that. If you haven’t caught this one yet (what is WRONG with you?!?), then do so immediately. For fans and non-fans alike. Even my mother loved this one!
Quantum of Solace (2008) is a lesser Bond film that had the unfortunate luck to follow a masterpiece, thus making it pale that much more in comparison. There is a lot to like within, but enough is wrong (particularly the awful editing) that keeps it from reaching the heights of its predecessor. The cast, especially Craig, do their best to elevate this Strike film, but they can only manage so much. Given the financial problems that MGM faced after its release, many were afraid that Daniel Craig would end up like Dalton before him. Two entries only, with a somewhat disappoint second among them. Thankfully EON decided to push on with Craig as Bond, bringing us not only the upcoming Skyfall (read Tim’s review here), but an additional two beyond planned beyond it. While we will inevitably see a new Bond grace the screen by the end of this decade, it’s good to know that Daniel’s tenure won’t be as short-lived as Timothy or George.
The Bond franchise began 22 years before I was born and could very well still be running when I shuffle the mortal coil. Such a thought is both a happy one and a depressing one. If you think I find it depressing because the series might still be running by then (blah blah sequels suck blah blah), you are dead wrong and obviously haven’t been paying attention the past few weeks. That’s right, I find it depressing that there will likely be Bond films I will never see. Such is life though. James Bond is not a part of our history. We are a part of his. See you at the cinema this Friday! The final piece will follow shortly after. Until then, here’s my Bond “list”. Be sure to post your own in the forums or the comments section below!
My Personal Ranking
1. From Russia With Love
3. Casino Royale
5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
6. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. The Living Daylights
8. For Your Eyes Only
9. You Only Live Twice
10. Diamonds Are Forever
12. Live And Let Die
13. Tomorrow Never Dies
15. Dr. No
17. Licence To Kill
18. Quantum of Solace
19. The Man With The Golden Gun
20. The World Is Not Enough
21. A View To A Kill
22. Die Another Day
* – The Big G has been around since 1954 (and getting his own anniversary film in 2014) and has appeared in 28 films to date, as well as various spin-offs. Take THAT, James Bond!