There are many different methods for evaluating the James Bond franchise. Today it is likely that most people who have seen as many as two dozen James Bond films have not read a single Bond book or Bond story by the man who created the character or by those who have tried to maintain that legacy. So whether their first James Bond was Sean Connery or George Lazenby, or Roger Moore, or Timothy Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig, it is more likely that their notion of the conceptual “Bond”, the Bond identity as it were, began with that first film interpretation and not with Fleming’s original character.
I’m just at the right age where I read all the James Bond novels and stories before I saw my first Bond film. The literary Bond was, as Fleming himself described him, an unemotive blank—“a blunt instrument”. Even his name was “the dullest name I ever heard,” admitted the author. Bond was based on a variety of agents Fleming knew in Naval Intelligence or the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and his tastes in clothes, food, drink, music, games, cars, etc. were those of Fleming himself. He was described more than once as looking not unlike another Scot, pianist and singer Hoagy Carmichael, most famous as the composer of the legendary standard “Stardust” as well as “Georgia On My Mind”. Not much was depicted of Bond’s origins in the books, but we do learn that his father was Scottish and his mother Swiss. They both died in a mountain-climbing catastrophe that left Bond orphaned as a boy. Skyfall has a little bit of the origin story in its script. Bond always struck me as very sophisticated, more than a little cruel, and not especially fond of women. Though President Kennedy, who met Fleming, famously put From Russia With Love on his short list of favorite books, it was the film series with Sean Connery that launched the super spy into iconic status across the globe.
Though my preference has always been for the Sean Connery portrayals (though the pancake-type hair weaves and toupees could have garnered a little more attention), I suspect Timothy Dalton looked a little more like the character created by Fleming than the rest of Bond’s players. Daniel Craig doesn’t resemble the Fleming Bond much at all, but he may be the best at conveying the “blunt instrument” described by Fleming. There was great resentment about Craig’s ascension to the role, but it is hard to say he has not become the second most popular Bond, with all three of his films making it into the Top Ten Box Office totals for Bond films (grosses adjusted for inflation) and Skyfall topping the list. Connery has four appearances, and they don’t include Dr. No and From Russia With Love! Roger Moore has the other three entries in the Top Ten. Below is the title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me by the master Maurice Binder.
So which Bond films are the best? Which are worthy of Fleming and which are cartoon versions of Bond that focus more on gadgets and hijinks than espionage and cold war brutality? One can’t really depend on the IMDB viewers for valuable critical insight, in that there is only a one-point difference in their assessment of Goldfinger (arguably the greatest Bond film) (7.8) and Live and Let Die (arguably the worst) (6.8). Rotten Tomatoes does a better job of separating the Bond wheat (96%) from the Bond chaff (65%), but the verdict is so subjective that all one can do is make his or her case and hope it is a compelling one. For me, the majority of Bond films fall into a middle category. They are reasonably well acted and reasonably suspenseful with a few interesting moments and only a few moments that make me wince and mutter the word “stupid” under my breath. Those that rise above that are sublime or very good. Those that fall below are execrable or boring or both. Below is my list (a tentative one to be sure). I have listed both great moments and “stupid” ones and divided them into categories. One should certainly screen all of them, but the top two categories are mandatory viewing. I have not included the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale with David Niven, Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Woody Allen because it is a Bond film in name only, not in spirit. Those who loved Skyfall will relish the news that Sam Mendes has been signed on for one or even two more Bond films, probably completing Daniel Craig’s tenure as the suave agent with a licence to kill-007.
Above: Sean Connery's Bond. Many famous lines. Some iconic. THE PANTHEON 1. Goldfinger (1964) Just about perfect. Great Villain. Great henchman. Pussy Galore. Great moments include a sizzling bathtub, a painted lady, an Aston Martin, a memorable round of golf, a close shave with a laser, and a nuclear countdown. Amazing John Barry score. Legendary Shirley Bassey title tune. Air squadron over Fort Knox. Nothing cheap or stupid from start to finish. The paragon. The non-pareil. 2. Dr. No (1962) The first Bond film. Exotic locale: Jamaica. Exotic Beauty: Ursula Andress. Great villain, the mysterious Dr. No., a Brainiac-type of criminal mastermind. Serious drama with a flair for local color. Monty Norman’s iconic riff. 3. Skyfall (2012) Best ensemble of great actors includes Dench, Fiennes, Bardem, Whishaw, Finney. Magnificent cinematography in Istanbul, Macau, (which includes a breathtaking skyscraper fight), and Scotland. Memorable Age of Terrorism villain with Freudian overtones. Surprise ending. Enjoyable homage to 50 years of Bond films throughout with origin story included. Decent Adele title song. Only quibble would be a far-fetched opening survival. 4. From Russia With Love (1963) Terrific opening. Q-Branch treats. Exotic locales: First appearance of Istanbul. Plus Trieste and Venice. KGB and Cold War paranoia. Kinky Rosa Klebb played by Lotte Lenya. Excellent villain portrayed by Robert Shaw. Sober and deadly action. No stupidity. Below: Title sequence for Goldfinger.
THE VERY GOOD (Updated) 5. Casino Royale (2006) Exciting reboot of Bond. First double-0 mission. Exotic locales: Prague, Uganda, Madagascar, Montenegro, London, Nassau, Venice, Lake Como. Powerful chemistry between Bond and Vesper. Tense opening. Tense scene with “free runners”. Good airport action sequence. Baccarat or Chemin-de-Fer sadly replaced by Texas Hold ‘Em, but it’s a sign of the times. Unbelievable but powerful torture scene which confirms Bond’s grace under pressure! Eva Green great as Vesper. Mads Mikkelsen okay as Le Chiffre. 6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) First without Connery and more than holds its own. Unknown George Lazenby in a one-off. Exotic locales: Portugal, Switzerland. Diana Rigg, just off her legendary gig as Mrs. Peel on The Avengers, plays Tracy, the only girl Bond weds. Blofeld back as villain, but played broadly by Telly Savalas. Plot with beautiful girls transporting deadly viruses is a bit of a stretch. Hard to control avalanches too. Bobsled battle adequate at best. Stunning ending. 7. You Only Live Twice (1967) Roald Dahl screenplay. Exotic locales: Hong Kong, Japan. Wonderful John Barry score--one of his best. Donald Pleasence makes a wonderful Blofeld. Bond disguised as Japanese smacks today as politically incorrect, but much of the last 50 years has specialized in political incorrectness! Excellent (for its time) volcano sets. Connery quits (the first time) after this film.
8. Spectre (2015)
Surprising reprise by Sam Mendes following staggering success of Skyfall. Subject of much rumor-mongering about the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld--this time assayed by Christoph Waltz. Breath-taking tracking shot (sort of) in Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Other visits to London and Rome. Aston Martin DB10 makes an appearance. Conclusion leads many to believe this is Daniel Craig's final Bond. Solid action film with some wonderful set pieces but not especially memorable.
Below: Roger Moore
THE GOOD 9. Thunderball (1965) SPECTRE strikes again, led by Adolfo Celi’s evil Largo—a memorable villain. One of many nuclear threats in Bond films; this time its extortion for stolen nukes. Much of the film is shot underwater--film copped a special effects Oscar. Exotic locales: Nassau. Silly-looking (today) jetpack sequence but silly AND cool back in the day. Fast motion hydrofoil footage at the end still looks bad. Some debate on this one, but I think the underwater explorations and battles are thrilling. Some fans find them sleep-inducing. Quality Barry score. Opening credits getting more elaborate. 10. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) The best of the Roger Moore Bonds. Spectacular pre-credit sequence, so beautifully finished that I’ll forgive Bond shooting while skiing backwards! One of the best title sequences and a wonderful Marvin Hamlisch score. Strong villain in Curt Jurgens’ Stromberg, a Captain Nemo clone. Second-best henchman in Jaws, really terrifying in train scenes. Beautiful women with the stunning Barbara Bach, the temptress Caroline Munro, and more. One of the best title songs. Exotic locales: Austria, Cairo, Sardinia. Negatives: Some of the sets look cheap. Spy is too often searching unnecessarily for laughs that diminish the effort: Lawrence of Arabia theme plays as Bond and Amasova walk through the desert; Bond puts an Out-of-Order sign on a dead guy, Bond tosses out a fish from his undersea-adaptable Lotus, etc. 11. Licence to Kill (1989) Both of the Timothy Dalton movies were about the same quality. Intelligent, subtler than the Moore predecessors, and not all that indistinguishable from their contemporary action films—a world populated by drug cartels, automatic weapons, and overactors. If I prefer this by one degree over The Living Daylights it’s for the revenge aspect, as Bond nearly loses Felix Leiter, his loyal CIA companion, and for the supporting cast, which includes Anthony Zerbe, Benicio del Toro, Robert Davi, and Wayne Newton! Exotic locales: Florida Keys, Bahamas, Bimini. Excellent sets and location shooting. This was the least financially successful Bond film and the end of Dalton’s run. It offers nothing great, but it has no false notes either. Dalton was just a lot better than his material. He would likely have made a great Bond. 12. The Living Daylights (1987) See above. Decent action-adventurer. Exotic locales: Bratislava, Tangier, Vienna, Afghanistan. Cold War tensions. Jeroen Krabbe plays a charismatic foe, Maryam d’Abo a fetching Bond girl. Brief homage to The Third Man. Some stupidity with the car chase and a house on an icy lake. Monumental stupidity with Bond and Kara Milovy sledding away from pursuers while toting her Stradivarius cello! 13. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) By far the best of the Brosnan Bonds. Largely due to a great cast, including Dame Judi, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Ricky Jay, Geoffrey Palmer, etc. Pryce is the best of all the Brosnan villains—a William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch gone madder type. Yeoh is the best female partner any Bond has ever had. Teri Hatcher looks great as a former Bond lover, now married to his enemy. Wonderful Bond car sequence and motorcycle sequence, though both strain credulity a little too much. Crackling dialogue between Bond and the hitman hired to kill him. Exotic locales: Russia, London, Hamburg, South China Sea. Negatives: Lacks a great pre-title sequence. Weak song sung by Sheryl Crow. Joe Don Baker returns again. 14. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) Slow-moving vehicle for the return of Sean Connery. Two lovely Bond girls in Jill St. John and Lana Wood, but hard to warm to either of them. Weird secondary villains who were considered deviant in 1971 because they were gay. Exotic locales: South Africa, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. Fun dune buggy sequence; conventional police chase. Charles Gray an uninspiring Blofeld. Connery is too long in the tooth for this sort of thriller, but it was still nice to have him back.
Above: Timothy Dalton-Bond # 4
THE ALSO-RANS 15. Never Say Never Again (1983) Not an official Bond franchise entry, but it has James Bond. Exotic locales: North Africa, Nassau, Britain, France. Sorely missing Bond musical motifs. Connery ready to cash Social-Security checks. But a great cast with Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max von Sydow, Alec McCowen, Edward Fox, and others. Great Bond girls with Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera. Not a little rip-off of Thunderball, but it has its moments. 16. For Your Eyes Only (1981) Could have been a great pre-title sequence, but the “delicatessen” line just makes it stupid. Sheena Easton does a nice job with the title song. Exotic locales: Albania, Madrid, London, Cortina, Greece. Preposterous car chase made worse by lame jokes. Preposterous ski/bobsled chase made worse by lame gestures. Beautiful location cinematography. The whole Bond franchise has never made process shots look convincing though. The supermodel beauty of Carole Bouquet helps this film a lot. Lame subplot to take advantage of popular ice skater Lynn Holly Johnson. Typical Moore effort. 17. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) Not critically well-received upon release, it doesn’t seem so bad today. Christopher Lee makes a great villain always, and his Scaramanga is first rate. The Herve Villachaize Nick-Nack character is weird, but you get two stunning Bond girls in Maud Adams and Britt Ekland. Moore has never looked better, and in his safari-style couture he certainly presents himself as Commander Bond. Exotic locales: Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok. Strange but deadly funhouse scenario has been done before (TV’s The Avengers for one), but John Barry’s music makes these scenes tense. Comic relief is the return of the idiotic J.W. Pepper character from Live and Let Die. Truly moronic. 18. Die Another Day (2002) This film usually gets a lot of grief, but it has a few redeeming features. North Korea resonates appropriately as part of an evil Axis. The lengthy pre-credit sequence leads shockingly into the disturbing titles, accompanied by one of the better Bond title songs. Exotic locales: North Korea, London, Cuba. Classically trained Toby Stephens (Dame Maggie’s boy) is an egotistical foil (literally) for Brosnan’s Bond. John Cleese appears as Q. And Halle Berry invokes the memory of Ursula Andress. Pretty standard fare but the notion of seeing Bond imprisoned and tortured for 14 months presages the Craig reboot. Brosnan’s biggest financial success. Almost nothing stupid. Almost nothing memorable.
Above: Pierce Brosnan
THE TIRED 19. Goldeneye (1995) The opening moments may be the best of any Bond film, but it’s pretty standard fare from that point on. Too bad. This was the first Bond for Pierce Brosnan, a criminally underrated actor behind the pretty-boy façade. He never got the good scripts though. Still another story about hijacked nukes and death rays. No memorable villains or Bond girls (as much as I like Famke Janssen, this isn’t a showpiece for her). Exotic locales: St. Petersburg, Monaco, Cuba. Weak song and score. Too many lame puns. Forgettable effort by all. 20. Quantum of Solace (2008) Craig’s second effort and a misfire. Unless you watched Casino Royale moments before you saw this film, you probably had no idea what was going on. Exotic locales: Siena, Haiti, Austria, Bolivia, Russia. Olga Kurylenko is the Bond girl. Not much else to say. 21. The World is Not Enough (1999) This picture starts well enough with an exciting boat chase on the Thames followed by a balloon ascent that leaves Pierce Brosnan hanging. A preview of Skyfall’s attack on MI6 headquarters. Robert Carlyle is just a nondescript villain. The lovely Sophie Marceau plays Elektra King, who needs protection…or does she? Exotic locales: Bilbao, London, Scotland, Baku, Istanbul. Denise Edwards plays the scantily-clad nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones. She’s mostly annoying. Often voted the worst Bond girl. Nothing much to say about this film. It’s dull.
Below: Daniel Craig in the sublime Skyfall
THE UGLY 22. Octopussy (1983) Another conventional Moore effort with a fake Faberge egg. Exotic locales: East/West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Latin America. Pre-title sequence goes for the cheap laugh at its climax. Two villains: Louis Jourdan looks like he forgot to take his afternoon nap and Steven Berkoff, playing a psycho-boy Soviet general with a nuke fetish, chews the scenery. Return of Maud Adams is a plus, but Bond dressed as a circus clown, Bond in a gorilla suit, and Bond driving a Mercedes sans tires on railroad tracks (Who knew?) all help Octopussy spiral out of control. 23. Moonraker (1979) James Bond in space. Do I need to say more? Bond girl Lois Chiles plays Dr. Holly Goodhead. Fantastic, almost unbelievable, opening sequence in freefall, but its magnificence is sullied for a cheap joke. They should be ashamed. Extremely fake-looking process shots during the action sequences. Completely moronic speedboat/gondola chase in Venice. A cartoon Bond. Exotic locales: The Yukon, California, Venice, Rio, Outer Space! Just bad. 24. A View to a Kill (1985) This film starts badly by ruining a great skiing chase with Bond escaping on a virtual surfboard to the strains of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”! Bond then gets involved in a car chase that soon becomes half-a-car chase. That’s right, he drives the front half of a car! He lands in a boat, ruining a wedding party. Doesn’t muss his hair. Moore doesn’t attempt to act like any recognizable James Bond. He tosses off lame double-entendres and ignores the requests for discretion by his superiors. It goes schizoid from here, first turning into a mystery with Bond saving a damsel in distress and then returning, like, an hour later (it’s waaayyy too long) to the psychotic plan hatched by a depraved Christopher Walken who phoned in his performance. Did I mention that Bond steals a firetruck (in the midst of the fire) and goes swinging around on the extended ladder like it’s a silent comedy? Another cartoon version of Bond. Exotic locales: Siberia, Epsom, Paris, San Francisco. 25. Live and Let Die (1973) I saw this four times in the theatre. Fortunately I never had to pay. The highlight, of course, is the title song, the second best after only “Goldfinger”. Exotic locales: the fictional Caribbean nation of San Monique, New Orleans, New York City. It’s a story of voodoo, heroin distribution, and exploding villains! This would have been a mediocre film if it had not been for the J.W. Pepper character. There's a twelve-minute stretch that might very well have been taken from Smokey and the Bandit! Don’t want to forget Roger Moore escaping death by walking on the tops of crocodiles! That’s what they did to the James Bond franchise! Painfully bad. See the top half of the list unless you're a completist. I clearly am. Enjoy this wonderful creation. And read the books!
Update: Following multiple shelvings, the newest Bond Film-No Time to Die opens in October. They were able to convince Daniel Craig to come back one more time. But for the last three years there has been a debate about who should play the next Bond. Some think it's time for a Black Bond and have been promoting Idris Elba (Age 49)or others. Some think it's time for a female Bond. After seeing his performance in The Night Manager, I'd pick Tom Hiddleston, but he's already turned 40, so he wouldn't have time to do more than a couple. Below is the trailer for the film to be released October 8. Billie Eilish sings the title song. Don't want to be a downer, but the trailer looks tired. Lots of repeated stunts from earlier Bonds and very heavy use of CGI. Plus Craig was 50 when he made this. Time for a younger guy.