As promised/threatened, I am presenting my ranking of the James Bond films below.
But first I must remind you that the TARGET LANCER book tour is just beginning; check the places, times and dates above. The BAM! Davenport date has been postponed due to lack of books, and a new date will be posted soon.
Speaking of TARGET LANCER, nice notices continue to roll in, like this terrific one from Jeff Pierce at the Rap Sheet.
Before I present my ranking of the Bonds, let me warn you that this is the definitive listing. No other list is necessary, or in any way official. What makes me the final word on James Bond? Well, I thought you’d never ask.
I began reading the Fleming Bond novels in junior high, when I ran out of Mickey Spillane books. In fact, that’s how James Bond was marketed by NAL, Spillane’s own publisher – Fleming as the British Spillane, Bond as the British Hammer. In such early novels as Casino Royale and Live and Let Die, the influence is undeniable.
When the film DR. NO came out, I convinced my parents (on a school night) to drive me thirty miles to the nearest screening. I wanted to see it opening day. None of my classmates had any idea who Bond was. That would change. I consider the moment when Connery first uttered, “Bond, James Bond” as the most memorable one of my long and storied moviegoing experience.
I went on to read the new books as they came out (starting with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE – in hardcover). By high school, Bond was a craze, and some young males even wore 007 after shave. You would have to tie me in a chair and beat me about the genitals to reveal whether I was one. I will admit freely that I, like most of my friends, carried a briefcase to school, because of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Several of us carried starter pistols in our briefcases. Today we’d go to reform school for that. Do they still have reform school?
The years passed, and I married my own Bond girl, Barbara Mull (not Bach – though Ringo and I are both lucky guys). In those pre-VCR days, Barb and I would sit through any new Bond film twice (starting, fittingly, with YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE). The Bond films were frequently recirculated as double features. I saw them again and again in movie theaters.
Barb, who as you may have noticed is very smart, has a slightly different view than mine regarding the individual Bond actors. She feels each was right for his decade, and that none of them (save for Connery) was likely to have worked in any other decade. That’s a theory worth considering, even discussing.
However…any of you with lesser credentials than mine as listed above need not criticize or argue with my listings. Keep in mind that you might be secretly sitting on an ejector seat right now.
1. GOLDFINGER – the gold standard. Great villain and hatchet man, strong women, wonderful score featuring Shirley Bassey’s dizzying rendition of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Briccuse/John Barry title song. Best lines in any Bond film, particularly: “Do you want me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond – I want you to die!” Heaven.
2. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE – faithful Fleming, with a Hitchcock feel. Best romance and best fight (with Robert Shaw in a train compartment). Lotte Lenya the greatest “henchman,” and an effective introduction of uber-villain Blofeld (who was better before we actually saw him).
3. DR. NO – defining moment. Connery immediately inhabits the Bond role so thoroughly, fifty years later it’s still his. Everything flows from the colorful template established here, and Bond’s Mike Hammer-like ruthlessness changed action movies. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.”
4. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE – overblown fun. Roald Dahl – in for Richard Maibum (who scripted or co-scripted 13 Bonds!) – seems to be putting Bond through the paces somewhat mechanically, but the setting and set-pieces (particularly the attack on the villan’s lair) are stunning, the size of it all staggering. Most of AUSTIN POWERS flows from here.
5. THUNDERBALL – the series at its popular, Beatlemania-esque peak, but self-parody (jet pack anyone?) is creeping in, and the underwater sequences are interminable. So-so villain in a dubbed Aldolfo Celi as Largo, but the women are fine (particularly cheerfully evil Luciana Paluzzi), and Connery’s cool as Bond is at its pinnacle. Wonderfully over-the-top Tom Jones title song.
6. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS – return to Fleming-style Bond. No one seems to like Timothy Dalton but me, but of course I’m correct in considering him the second-best Bond. The film is very much a FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE-style spy film, with a convincing romance and incredible stunts. Dalton was able to return to Connery’s ruthlessness while bringing a more human quality to the character. A pity there weren’t a half dozen Dalton Bonds.
7. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE – placeholder masterpiece. Lazenby might have grown in the role if the producers and directors had worked with him; instead, their contempt for the departing Connery was visited upon his replacement, who balked. Nonetheless, OHMSS rivals FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE in its Fleming faithfulness, and is a stunt-heavy, lavish production with some genuine emotional impact. Telly Savalas as Blofeld is hurt by his latterday Kojak fame, but Diana Rigg offers a timeless, tender Tracy.
8. LICENSE TO KILL – more nasty Fleming-style Bond. In part an adaptation of Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die (the alligator attack on Felix Leiter), LICENSE is a gritty crime/espionage caper with more great stunts and another strong Dalton performance. A genuinely menacing villain in Robert Davi, who bonds with Bond.
9. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – real Bond if not quite glittering. Connery is back, seeming a little out of place in the ‘70s, but still the genuine article; a fine John Barry score includes a Shirley Bassey title-song vocal. The film is occasionally Cubic Zurconia, however, leaning rather too hard on the Vegas setting, subjecting us to Jimmy Dean as a Howard Hughes type, with a shipboard villain’s lair attack sequence that is among the most boring. Good Blofeld in ROCKY HORROR’s Charles Gray, whose gay henchmen (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) are memorable, and die “flaming.”
10. CASINO ROYALE – gritty, satisfying reboot. Craig’s self-confident, rather brutish arrogance overcomes what initially seems like miscasting in a surprisingly faithful updating of the first Fleming novel. A strong romance helps make this a “real” story, and mind-boggling stunts take the series up a notch. Craig is easily the best Bond after Connery and Dalton.
11. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN – the real Bond in a strong remake. Probably more entertaining than the film it reworks (THUNDERBALL), NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN presents a slightly tongue-in-cheek Connery having a better time than in his previous several Bond appearances. Wonderful Bond women (not girls) in Barbara Carrera and Kim Bassinger, and a better Largo in Klaus Maria Brandeur. HALL OF SHAME: lackluster Michel Legrand score. With a John Barry score (and the James Bond theme), this would be much more popular among fans.
12. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH – Brosnan’s best. A tricky plot reveals that Brosnan, like Dalton, has the capacity for both ruthlessness and genuine emotion. The film, which features an I, THE JURY-esque showdown between Bond and a femme fatale, is usually dismissed because Denise Richards plays a nuclear scientist. Right – Bond films frequently have female roles and female casting choices that make a lot of sense….
13. GOLDENEYE – Brosnan makes a strong debut, splitting the Connery/Moore difference, a killer who can quip. A big, stunt-flung production, GOLDENEYE has several memorable performances, including Sean Bean (prefiguring the rogue double-o agent in the current SKYFALL), Judi Dench as M, Famke Jannsen as a femme fatale/henchman, and Alan Cumming as an irritating computer programmer, whose death is extremely satisfying.
14. TOMORROW NEVER DIES – Brosnan hitting his stride. Again, stunts take centerstage, in part because of the Hong Kong action influence represented by Michelle Yeoh, who is one of Bond’s strongest female counterparts. The media mogul villain seems well cast in Jonathan Pryce but the result is surprisingly flat, as is an attempt at emotion by way of old flame, Teri Hatcher. This marks the first of David Arnold’s wonderful Barry-esque scores.
15. SKYFALL – Daniel Craig hitting his stride. While it doesn’t entirely cohere, director Sam Mendes’ Bond film is visually stunning and always compelling, walking a fine line between nodding/winking at the 50th anniversary of Bond and dragging the franchise screaming and kicking into the 21st century. But Bond fails at everything he sets out to do in this one, which ultimately is odd.
16. QUANTUM OF SOLACE – underrated ROYALE sequel. The opening car chase is a mess, and a lot of the action sequences suffer from frenetic editing. But mostly this one gets an undeserved bad rap, though admittedly it works much better when watched a day or so after CASINO ROYALE, as the Part Two it intends to be. Despite rumors that a writer’s strike left the screenplay unfinished, the vengeance theme is well explored, probably better than the similar FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Craig is working out just fine.
17. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME – the best Roger Moore, hands down. Surprisingly, Moore is mostly not at fault for the campy, smirky nature of some of these films – he usually plays it straight, while the producers lay on the dumb humor. Here, in a return to bombastic YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE lavish production values, with a strong romance by way of rival Russian agent Barbara Bach, Moore acquits himself respectably, as does the film, with a decent Dr. No clone of a villain in Curd Jurgens, and a superior villain’s-liar attack sequence.
18. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY – the second-best Moore. The opening, in which an unnamed Blofeld is killed off, is offensively jokey, particularly considering that it begins with a reference to Bond’s late wife, Tracy. But the rest of this vengeance-driven tale finds Moore playing straight with the plot actually mattering. And for once, the underwater stuff is effective, not snooze-worthy.
19. DIE ANOTHER DAY – Brosnan left stranded on the ice. And it’s a pity, because the film begins well, with an outlandish action sequence that leads to Bond’s imprisonment and a rogue-agent set-up that promises to be the best of the Brosnans. Not the case – the horrendous third act includes an invisible car and a poorly executed ice-surfing sequence (at least the producers didn’t dub a Beach Boys song over it), and a villain who is about as threatening as a hall monitor. HALL OF SHAME: participation of Madonna, whose title song is almost as bad as her stiff cameo as an improbable fencing mistress.
20. LIVE AND LET DIE – terrific Saint movie. Too bad Roger Moore is supposed to be playing James Bond. Blaxploitation aspects have dated the film, but remain a part of its unique appeal. Jane Seymour is an appealing Bond girl, the voodoo stuff is fun, and McCartney’s title song is no-contest the best non-John Barry music in the series.
21. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN – good villains, weak everything else. Christopher Lee as hitman Scaramanga and his little henchman Herve Villechaize are memorable to say the least, but the rest of the enterprise represents a tired retread of Moore’s debut film. Brit Ekland makes a surprisingly irritating, ineffective Bond girl, and the chop-socky stuff isn’t nearly as well-integrated as the similar material in TOMORROW NEVER DIES. HALL OF SHAME: return of hick Southern Sheriff J.W. Pepper (taking nothing away from Clifton James’ classic portrayal of corrupt Lt. Quint on CITY OF ANGELS). An example of how the Bond producers pander to audiences.
22. A VIEW TO A KILL – slightly underrated if over-long Moore finale. Christopher Walken makes a nicely menacing, psychotic villain, and his “henchman” Grace Jones is similarly memorable. Tanya Roberts (one of numerous Bond girls who are also Mike Hammer dolls) is fine in a role she’s often criticized over – you were expecting maybe Meryl Streep? The film is surprisingly violent (Moore dislikes it for that reason). HALL OF SHAME: a Beach Boys song, “California Girls,” plays over an otherwise straight ski chase…not even the real song, but a sound-alike cover version.
23. MOONRAKER – outer space nonsense, as the Bond producers keep pandering. A really wretched film, in which the previous entry’s memorable evil henchman (Jaws) is turned into a good-hearted comic relief character, and the villain is a buffoon with a ridiculous goal absurd even for a Moore film. Blatant product licensing. The pits. Well, almost the pits….
24. OCTOPUSSY – Bond as a literal clown. Worst villain in a puffy-looking, bored Louis Jourdan. Stiff acting from Maud Adams as the title character. The producers dub the “Tarzan” yell over an otherwise straight action sequence. The vault copy of this one should be cut up into guitar picks. This was released the same year as NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (the movies essentially tied at the box office) and demonstrated, as if anyone needed any further evidence, that Connery was Bond and Moore was the Saint. Or maybe Beau Maverick.