So the Daniel Craig era is over. Some might suggest it took more than long enough to make a measly five movies. Connery managed it in less than a third of the time. Moore in just over half. And still Daniel looked glum and resolutely unsuave, indifferent to the unfeasible sums they kept paying him to keep on coming back and keep those massive man tits in tip-top condition. Who knows where the series goes from here, if the series goes from here (if anything goes from here). I dare say Eon would be more reluctant than most movie production companies to institute a radical shift in the lead’s casting, be it via race or gender. Certainly, much more so than the major studios. It is, after all, their only asset. But pressure can be brought to bear. I mean, they did just kill Bond off.
But this isn’t about Daniel. Well, not all about Daniel. There are nine – just about – other Bonds in this ranking, and most of them are more compelling than the most recent incumbent. While relatively few Bondmovies are truly great movies in their own right, almost all of them have some merit in part, either through performance or sequence(s) or general vibe (admittedly, the latter’s found mostly during the series’ first two decades). My previous Bond worst-to-best was completed with the previous movie’s release (surprising, huh?)* This update incorporates a couple of non-canon contributions to the mythos, along with some additional musings over what the series’ villainy amounts to in the greater scheme of things.
Casino Royale (Climax!)
(1954) It’s quite hard to rate this fairly. I mean, this first Casino Royale adaptation is by no means especially good, and Barry Nelson’s an outright abominable idea of a Bond, but it still has a few things in its favour. For one, it’s pretty short and snappy, something the official series quickly lost touch with in the belief that longer meant better (this was, of course, the key influencing factor on the modern blockbuster).
For two, it has Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. And even a past-his-prime Peter Lorre is worth watching – the way he says “Mr Bond” will only ever be equalled by Nick Nack – even if he doesn’t exactly conjure the spectre of Aleister Crowley, on whom Fleming was rumoured to have based the character’s sadomasochistic leanings. Michael Pate is a decent Clarence Leiter, the more so for having to endure “Jimmy” Bond explaining the rules of Baccarat to him, and Linda Christian makes a much better Bond girl than Barry does a Jimmy. Woody Allen makes a much better Jimmy Bond than Barry, for that matter.
Nelson’s probably better known now for The Shining, but his pudding-faced American 007, a member of the Combined Intelligence Agency (uh-huh), is closer to Dan Aykroyd than a believably lethal assassin. Where this live TV adaptation scores is recognising that Casino Royale should revolve around the casino, such that there are numerous deadly threats and altercations on site. The rickety quality is reminiscent of early as-live The Avengers, and either of that series initial leads would have been a far preferable 007 (albeit, they debuted a mere year before the official series began).
Villain stakes: Le Chiffre’s situation is much as it is in other adaptations, give or take, since he’s gambling with Soviet funds and stands to lose more than just them if Bond beats him. That this was made in 1954 is a reminder of how Fleming was servicing the Red Menace right off the post-Burgess and Maclean bat (the novel came out the previous year); it’s suggested his character was designed to redress the dim view the USA had of British Intelligence. Amusing then, that his first appearance should be as a superior American. The villain takes some pliers to Jimmy’s tootsies rather than his testi-icles, but I doubt Barry would have emoted convincingly either way.
Die Another Day
(2002) An inglorious fortieth birthday celebration for 007, as Pierce Brosnan’s last bow transforms into a death plunge of hideous CGI and wearisome action sequences. For all that, the first half is actually quite reasonable, with Bond captured, incarcerated and tortured pre-credits and during the titles (you know, for acting), an enjoyable jaunt to Cuba and a vigorously OTT sword fight with villain Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens).
The North Koreans are the bad guys, yet they aren’t even allowed unchaperoned villainy, led as they are by Stephens’ whitewashed, DNA-restructured and Anglicised Tan-Sun Moon. Unfortunately, the character and performance are ridiculous without also being fun. Halle Berry, meanwhile, is so lacking in presence (introductory scene aside) as Jinx Johnson (what?!), it’s mystifying a spin-off was ever seriously considered.
However, Rosamund Pike is actually pretty great (it would take her another decade to be duly celebrated, though). There’s also Madge on instantly dated song duties (and in an instantly ripe cameo) to contend with, and Lee Tamahori’s thunderously distracting direction. It’s fairly typical of the series that, when the producers finally recognise Bond needed a stylistic shot in the arm, they looked in completely the wrong direction. Cue jarringly awful slow motion and speed ramping. And the CGI. CGI planes, invisible CGI cars, CGI surfing of CGI waves, CGI satellites – are there any other kind? – spitting CGI death rays. All of it bad CGI! At least Moneypenny got herself a decent VR Bond, I guess.
Villain stakes: There’s one conspiracy theory that has done the rounds pondering whether North Korea really exists. Not in terms of geography, but as a bona fide superpower, rather than a convenient catch-all marketing ploy for global villainy. If it is the latter, Bond took a while to catch on, and when he did, it was via a mash up of Goldeneye and The Man with the Golden Gun (deadly satellites, and solar-energy harnessing ones at that), a sprinkling of Diamonds are Forever, and a spot of the currently very popular, mystifyingly so, craze for gene therapy. People are lining up for it. Not just once, but twice, with top ups to follow. Graves is not only into altering his DNA, he’s also a prominent ecologist (Icarus will end famine and poverty), so he’s very much an “in vogue” Bond villain.
Never Say Never Again
(1983) Connery’s accountant couldn’t leave well alone, could he? Half a decade on from Never Say Never Again, and Sean would undergo a newly stoked “elder statesman” career resurgence like never before. 1983, however, found him with a couple of strong pointers (Time Bandits, Outland) to the way forward, but a whole lot of detritus suggesting he simply wasn’t all that any more (Cuba, Meteor). In a sense, then, this re-embarkation was a no-brainer, but like Pam Ayres’ mother’s flit gun, Never Say Never Again is devoid of charm.
I’m not the biggest fan of the bloat that is Thunderball, but it has being released during the peak point of initial Bondmania on its side. This reheat, courtesy of Kevin McClory’s Thunderball story rights, is all over the shop, highlighting how insufficient the essential story is. Irvin Kershner, who wowed uncharacteristically – as in, nothing else he did had the same depth, imagination, intelligence, style and scale – with The Empire Strikes Back, delivers rudimentary, undynamic bangs and crashes. The visuals are grey, drab and resolutely unexotic. There is silly ’80s action (a video game battle, a rocket bike). Rowan Atkinson sticks out like a sore thumb.
Connery, meanwhile, sports a wretched rug and terrible tailoring. He looks older than he does when he isn’t trying to cut a dash, and the sense of effortlessly getting back in the saddle is strikingly absent. Still, there are a few positives: Klaus Maria Brandauer is believably psychotic as Largo, Barbara Carrera pre-empts Onatop in Goldeneye as sadistic Fatima Blush, and Pamela Salem is an appealing Moneypenny; the main series wouldn’t have gone amiss there, nor with having her debut a decade earlier as a Bond girl in the Rigg mould. Safe to say, the winner of 1983’s Battle of the Bonds is a no contest.
Villain stakes: Essentially servicing the same SPECTRE nuke theft we earlier saw Thunderball (so see that entry). Perhaps the only salient point is an offhand one, that missile appropriator Largo’s yacht is called the Flying Saucer. So, as is customary, mythmaking flocks together.
You Only Live Twice
(1967) A sluggish, set-driven mess. Sean Connery would clearly rather be anywhere else and is ridiculously turned Japanese for his pains (if the results were remotely funny, as in self-mocking, that might be something, but there isn’t a shred of knowingness to be found).
Lewis Gilbert is all-at-sea, which suited him better tonally and geographically in The Spy Who Loved Me, as there’s scant humour to be mined. Only Donald Pleasance makes much impression among the guest cast (and even then, he’s more memorable in light of Dr Evil than for any particular wit). Bond looks like a very tired series with little life left in the tank at this point. It’s thus a very good thing change was in the air…
Villain stakes: The most famous incarnation of a Bond villain, and SPECTRE at their most grandiose, pursuing world domination. One might divine a certain Hegelian impulse in Fleming’s utilisation of the organisation, since their apparently contradictory behaviour is ultimately predicated on the furtherance of their own power base; they’ll happily support either side in the Cold War, or go against either, depending on the situation. On that level, notional antagonism is irrelevant; it’s whatever consolidates ultimate power, which is precisely how the Elite sees things (obviously, Hegelianism more generally reinforces the power of the state, which will finally become the global state).
In a sense, SPECTRE might be the best illustration there is of Elite (yes) tentacles of power, since their activities range from the apparently petty to the world shaking. Ironically then, they’d been pretty much disbanded by the time they appeared in the You Only Live Twice novel. Here, they are overtly attempting to trigger war between the USA and USSR, a fairly prosaic ploy as fiendish movie plots go. But then, they’re doing this at the behest of *probably China* and in so doing introducing the threat of their particular brand of communism globally (which again, would equate SPECTRE with the Elite, looking to control whatever outcome is divined).
Also on display: the very zeitgeist-y space race – events are triggered when SPECTRE snatches a NASA craft – which means that, combined with a prospective nuclear assault of the USSR, You Only Live Twice finds the Bond series entrenching two of our most enduring paradigms (ie are either of these things what we’re commonly told they are, or are they simply part of the greater, abiding lie used to control us?) Why, there’s even a volcanic eruption thrown in. But no devastating tsunami.
Licence to Kill
(1989) As with For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill has its stalwart defenders, particularly since the ascendant dawn of Daniel Craig. It was “ahead of its time” (see Timothy Dalton generally). It’s readily evident why the comparisons are drawn, as Bond gets all grim, moody and vengeful when poor Felix Leiter has his leg chewed by a shark (forget about his raped and murdered wife; it’s Felix who matters).
Aside from an indisputably classic line “He disagreed with something that ate him” (a Fleming original), this is mostly a long-winded bust, one even Benicio Del Toro and Robert Davi’s spirited bad guy performances can’t alleviate (oh, and honourable mentions too for a ludicrously explosive Anthony Zerbe and an amusing Wayne Newton as a televangelist).
Bond undercover has potential but, as played out, Davi’s Sanchez is a blundering imbecile to even entertain him. The gritty drug cartel plotline, in tandem with Michael Kamen’s Die Hard-esque score, is an ill fit with John Glen’s leaden direction. Carey Lowell (she later agreed to marry hamster smuggler Richard Gere for some unfathomable reason), meanwhile, is sadly saddled with a ridiculous jealousy subplot that entirely undermines her character. Bond desperately needed a revitalising tonic, but it would be another six years before it got medicined.
Villain stakes: I suppose this was the tail-end of the “Just Say No” era. Which was the response many had to this most down-to-earth of Bond movies. The series’ third drugs-fixated villain (after Live and Let Die and The Living Daylights), and dutifully falling in line with the absurd notion that the intelligence services (of any nation) are somehow opposed to the drugs trade.
A View to A Kill
(1985) A watery-eyed, post-facelift Roger Moore, knocking sixty, doesn’t really seem to want to be here. Not so very surprising, since he’s obliged to share love scenes with the fearsome Grace Jones; Moore’s autobiography makes it clear the relationship was as uncomfortable offscreen as on. A View to a Kill goes down better during the first half, when Bond is idling around with John Steed (Patrick MacNee) and indulging a day at races, but even then, it isn’t up to much.
Christopher Walken might be perfect casting for a Bond villain, and he certainly exudes an air of the oddball as the genetically modified Max Zorin. Unfortunately, he’s dissipated by a surrounding movie fatally lacking zest and energy, with the more topical elements – Silicon Valley (to be flooded) and Duran Duran’s (very sprightly) theme song – dragged down with him.
The worst charge one can level at a Rog Bond entry is that it isn’t gloriously self-aware, and this one isn’t, Beach Boys-accompanied opening sequence or not. Bond on a blimp over the San Francisco Bridge? Only attempt set pieces if you can make them look vaguely convincing. And, while Rog’s chemistry with prior leading ladies was by no means a dead cert (Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only, for example), it looks positively electric when compared with Tanya Roberts’ Stacey.
Villain stakes: An attempt to recapture Moonraker’s topicality (I know, some insane people don’t rate it) as far as schemes go. Albeit, it’s closer in criteria to Goldfinger, as a specialist in a profitable area (gold or microchips) attempts to coerce a monopoly. Zorin’s also the product of a eugenics programme (but not a super soldier), always popular in Elite circles, even if it’s misdirection, and he’s keen on implanting microchips (only in horses, mind), and triggering “natural” disasters (setting off earthquakes). And yet, despite working in a field that would make a real-life criminal tech wizard famous, he comes across as rather less than formidable.
For Your Eyes Only
(1981) Much celebrated as Roger Moore’s Bond getting back to basics, after going far too far on his Lewis Gilbert jaunts. Essentially, the same kind of approach that spawned the likes of Licence to Kill and Casino Royale, evidencing the basic cyclic nature of the series. However, For Your Eyes Only only really succeeds in casting Moore adrift from his moorings, foisting an unaccustomed and uncomfortably ruthless persona on his 00-quipster.
Bereft of grand set pieces, the best is – ironically – a comedic jaunt in a 2CV along a Corfu mountain road(s). Elsewhere, Moore must play the prudish uncle to a waif ice skater (a particularly irksome subplot) and exhibit negligible rapport with co-star Carole Bouquet. For Your Eyes Only is pedestrian, rather than gritty, and even the much-vaunted scene where Bond pushes a villain’s car off a cliff (Sir Rog was reluctant) is lacking when compared to the for-laughs rooftop henchman holding onto his tie for dear life in The Spy Who Loved Me.
The Sheena Easton tune is quite nice, and Topol is good value, but Julian Glover makes a so-so villain and the chortlesome final scene, At Home with the Thatchers, is a shark-jumping series nadir to which the previous whacky, anything-goes Moore era antics would never have stooped.
If the plotline with Lynn-Holly Johnson is a rare case of Bond drawing the line where Roman Polanski wouldn’t, there are also other unlikely artefacts to be exhumed warmly by later, more agenda-driven ages, most notably in the form of transgender Caroline Cossey as a Bond girl extra. Moore’s Bond would no doubt have taken the news in his stride. In much the same way Des Lynam likely did.
Villain stakes: The attempt to rein in the excesses of the last couple of Moore Bonds also applied to the scheming. Kristatos (Glover) steals the “ATAC” device for the KGB. So yeah, we’re back in nuke territory – it’s used to communicate with and coordinate the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines – but “real”, you know. But with nukes. As McGuffins go, it’s pretty sketchy, an underwhelming one for an underwhelming movie, but it serves nicely to reinforce that the good old Cold War is still in full swing, guys.
The World is Not Enough
(1999) Good ideas, muddled execution. The World is Not Enough is the closest Brosnan got to a “serious” Bond movie, what with 007 running around injured and ruthlessly shooting a woman at point blank range. But it’s a thoroughly conflicted trifle too. On the one hand, there’s the Patty Hearst-esque Stockholm Syndrome-suffering Electra King (a good, but fatally unsympathetic Sophie Marceau) and a deceptively tricky plot in which Bond spends most of the first half unwittingly doing exactly what the villains want.
On the other, 007 is paired with the silliest Bond girl this side of… well, perhaps ever, in Denise Richard’s Christmas Jones, shamelessly named to set up James’ final smutty line of the twentieth century. There’s a sadly bog-standard heavy in Robert Carlyle’s Renard. And the plucked-from-the-headlines premise concerns oil pipelines undone by a nonsense plan to gain maximum wealth through blowing up a nuclear submarine.
The biggest problem in all this, though, is director Michael Apted. He has zero aptitude for action and leaves whacking great joins in the production; there’s scant evidence of coordination between the first and second unit.
The biggest positive in this rather broken-backed enterprise is Robbie Coltrane’s returning Valentine Zukovsky, who turns out to be a decent kind of rascal, making it the more glaring that Bond is such a pig to him throughout. Oh, and Desmond Llewellyn waves a rather touching farewell (Brosnan’s Bond always had great chemistry with Q), replaced (briefly) by the lazily cast John Cleese.
Villain stakes: Monopoly-mad megalomaniacs unite. Following in the footsteps of Max Zorin, and especially Auric Goldfinger, Electra King plans to use the ever-handy nuke threat as a means to gain control of the petroleum market. Obviously, such a scheme would never fit in with the glorious transhumanist carbon credit future already planned out, so performing stooge 007 is called upon to sort things out. Nothing very world-shattering, and positively discreet next to other nuke plots (Stromberg).
Quantum of Solace
(2008) There has been a burgeoning reappraisal of Quantum of Solace in some quarters; an unfairly maligned entry in the series, it carried the impossible burden of following the universally-lauded Casino Royale. Viewed with hindsight, it’s actually a perfectly serviceable Bond revenger.
Such talk is nothing if not charitable. Not only is Marc Forster’s ADHD direction – actually more the editing, since it’s occasionally possible to glimpse decent framing and staging amidst the frenetic cutting – an impediment to finding the action remotely thrilling, but the plot, what there is of it (Bond trundles around after the villain, who wants to control Bolivia’s water supply), is as slim as the running time.
Olga Kurylenko’s Camille makes for a regressively rescuable Bond girl, equipped with ultra-clichéd motivation, while Mathieu Almaric’s Dominic Greene is a desperately unremarkable villain, particularly when he resorts to beating on Bond will a handy piece of piping (somewhere, there’s a Moore era movie where Polanski played a similarly weasely bad guy, but more effectively). Either absurdly, or masochistically, Greene keeps Camille around throughout, despite her blatant attempts to sabotage his scheme at every turn.
Judi Dench’s M is an intrusive chore to watch by this point, an active barrier to plot development hauled into frame at regular intervals as a nagging mother hen, and designated, like so many characters here, to bolster Bond’s futile quest for depth (poor Giancarlo Giannini is even called upon to impart dying wisdom – “Forgive her. Forgive yourself” – and tell us, no really, Vesper did mean an awful lot to 007).
A rare bright spot is Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields. But, alas, she only shows up for a couple of scenes (there’s more chemistry between Craig and Arterton than he had with Eva Green, and Arterton’s way more fun too. Check out her tripping up Greene’s henchman on a flight of stairs: “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry”). Jeffrey Wright yet again proves the Craig era focused on the wrong secret agent, since across a few scenes (contrasted with a particularly boorish David Harbour), he proves himself far more engaging, interesting and complex than the current 007. And Jesper Christensen is even better here as Mr White than in Casino Royale (“Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone” he remarks drily as other Quantum members make themselves scarce from the opera).
The entire escapade is frenetic without being pacy or punchy and, for the shortest Bond film to date, it often seems to take an age. This may be the For Your Eyes Only of Craig movies (that one too has its advocates, but it’s weak sauce that, on occasion, nevertheless seems marginally better than I recalled). Quantum of Solace only falls apart completely during the last half hour. Unfortunately, unlike most bloated Bond spectacles, that’s almost a third of the movie. Once Mathis is dead, Bond gets into a dogfight, jumps out of a plane, strolls through the desert and is subjected to several interminable pep talks from M. There are numerous CGI-assisted explosions at Greene’s underwhelming desert hotel. Jack White’s theme song accurately reflects the movie itself: a raucous mess.
Villain stakes: The villain’s scheme is worth noting. Greene is an altruistic billionaire with plans “to rejuvenate a world on the verge of the collapse”. Since, like most altruistic billionaires, especially those wearing the mask of environmentalism or promoting global health, he is nothing of the sort; he’s merely a puppet of hidden masters pulling the strings. In Greene’s case, the masquerade disguises his intent to “control as much… as we can” of “the world’s most precious resource” (water). Gaining control of entire countries by posing as an environmentalist (instead of carbon credits, water is Greene’s leverage)? Greta would be furious at such a suggestion.
(1967) A wild, unwieldy bodge of a movie, and one it’s almost impossible to watch in one sitting without one’s attention drifting off this way and that. Mostly because any semblance of a coherent structure drifts off this way and that. “Salvaged” by Val Guest – as one of five credited directors – after star Peter Sellers was given the boot, Casino Royale is best approached as a movie of intermittently enjoyable vignettes.
So, on the plus side, David Niven is an absolute delight as the dusted-off Sir James Bond (brought in to bookend the picture and attempt to make some sense of it). And as nephew Jimmy Bond, Woody Allen ensures his scenes – perhaps not a popular view in terms of his current status with the public – are among the very best here. They’re certainly the only ones that could claim success with the spoof/parody remit by being genuinely funny and actually eliciting laughs.
There’s fun to be had too from Orson Welles’ magic tricks as Le Chiffre. Joanna Pettet is very game as Mata Bond, and Barbara Bouchet makes the movies’ most alluring Moneypenny (Bond would never have gone on any missions, had she been canonical). There’s also an array of cameos/ supporting turns by reliable British thesps (Bernard Cribbins, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Wattis, Derek Nimmo).
On the debit side, Sellers, the cause of all this mess, is a dud, lost without a character to get a grip on and lacking charm and focus. Ursula Andress is also rather empty as Vesper Lynd. Since they share a number of scenes, there’s a bit of a black hole here.
Sean Connery was purportedly sought for this first big-screen adaptation of the first Bond novel, but producer Charles K Feldman baulked at his asking price (and I wonder how his defecting would have gone down at Eon, assuming this is true). It was after this that Feldman decided the parody route was the only real option, rather than competing for thrills with the real deal.
That the parody is often lame says enough about the core flaw in his decision, but this might have worked, had it dispensed with Sellers and concentrated on Niven and Allen. Even what we have, however, is frequently the most “60s” of any Bond movie (it’s certainly the closest one comes to Austin Powers), and it rides high on a Burt Bacharach score that reliably powers up just when you’re giving up the will. It tells you a lot about the quality of the official Eon entry that this is the winner of 1967’s Battle of the Bonds.
Villain stakes: Maintaining the rough (very rough) core of the novel, whereby Le Chiffre is attempting to recover SMERSH funds at baccarat, it also finds him attempting to auction incriminating photos of various superpowers’ military and political leaders. Additionally, he tortures Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) in an attempt to recover the money lost at baccarat (so beating On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the brainwashing plot device), before being shot by Dr Noah/Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). Perhaps the most telling element here is making the SMERSH head honcho Bond’s relative (his nephew), so pre-empting Spectre’s absurdly straight-faced take on the same dualistic family dynamic five decades later. And those requesting Bond become a woman… Well, Casino Royale got there more than fifty years ago.
(1965) The first time the franchise falls serious victim to the more-is-more (and in the latter-70s, more is more is Moore) approach. I don’t think Eon got the message. A series of set pieces (some tiresomely elongated; see the sleep-inducing underwater climax) in search of an involving plot, Thunderball is frequently very nice to look at but very little else. That said, the first half isn’t bad at all (something true of a number of Bond failures), and there are welcome distractions in the form of Claudine Auger’s Domino and particularly Luciana Paluzzi as SPECTRE employee Fiona Volpe; she’d have been much better positioned as the main villain, rather than Adolpho Celi’s Largo.
There are memorable turns too from Philip Locke (Vargas) and Guy Doleman (Count Lippe: Doleman being best known as Harry Palmer’s concurrent boss Colonel Ross). The end result, though, is as loud and empty as Tom Jones’ title song. Still, Thunderball was a massive hit, second only to Skyfall (in inflation-adjusted terms), and so inevitably dictated the approach of most future instalments. It also gave Kevin McClory a protractedly disputed stake in Bond.
Villain stakes: The most famous, or infamous, depending on one’s perspective, of villainous goals, as SPECTRE is revealed to be in it for… the money? The movies don’t tend to elaborate very much on their greater motivation (see You Only Live Twice above), and admittedly, it doesn’t appear they are really thinking on a global power base scale here, stealing nukes and demanding a ransom(s) not to set them off (that this has never actually happened, even with proliferation, is reason enough to entertain the notion of some degree of nuke hoax).
GBP100m is a tad more than Austin Powers’ piss take, but still peanuts. The problem with announcing their plans is that the manipulation side inevitably falls away, and we’re left with the kind of thing Mike Myers rightly called out for its cartoonishness. It’s why Fleming had rather written the writing on their wall by the time of You Only Live Twice, since logically, they would have difficulty in functioning successfully. SPECTRE as invented by Fleming – who hobnobbed with the elites, yet reputedly believe the Cold War would end soon-ish, hence his own nefarious invention – is a rather unexceptional outfit, given their prestige in 007 lore, and it’s only with the ’70s movies that true villainous vision will be glimpsed; the You Only Live Twice plan is by no means characteristic.
(2012) Perhaps, after the adulation and phenomenal success of Skyfall, its reputation was destined to crumb-oh. I didn’t quite get the raves in the first place, to be honest; as a denialist of Judi Dench’s increasingly omni-present M, this movie, The Bond and M Show, or Stop! Or My M Will Make Dreadful Jokes About the Ejector Seat, is much too indebted to her misplaced importance in the series. Consequently, “daringly” bisexual villain Silva (Javier Bardem) is granted only a couple of scenes of preening/mincing before being reduced to standard-issue villainy – the ex-agent out for revenge against the institution/country that betrayed him was already the crutch of Goldeneye – with a scheme heavily influenced by The World is Not Enough (the villain’s prior relationship with M, with a mind to making her pay for past sins).
With director Sam Mendes on board, it seemed at the time, finally, as if Eon were willing to employ name directors (nothing against Martin Campbell, who is probably the best the series has seen). However, while he may have an Oscar, he’s hardly a maestro, even helped along by cinematographer Roger Deakins; individual shots may support the idea that is the best-looking Bond movie, but Mendes’ craft is very much one of imitation, rather than genuine flair or intuitive sensibility. He isn’t a natural. There’s no elegance or symmetry to his compositions, however functionally effective they may be, and the consequence is a movie without internal tension. His idea of auteurishness is a one-shot movie, but Brian De Palma he is not.
Which means he can’t disguise how lumpen Skyfall is. It struggles to find its feet, navigating a host of back-in-action devices to get Bond up and running once more. The mid-section is pretty good, however, from Silva’s introduction on an Inception-influenced derelict shore, to his The Silence of the Lambs-influenced imprisonment, to Bond heading off with M. But the last act is desperately ineffectual, Straw Dogs on a mega-budget with grandma and grandad, or mom and pops (it seems Connery didn’t even get a chance to nix playing Kincade, and fine as Finney is, his is a nothing role that was clearly designed for coasting on charisma/nostalgia for a renowned face).
The embrace of Bond iconography, after two movies staunchly resisting such lures, is only a partial success, with the new Q and M both well-conceived. But, for a picture attempting to be self-aware and progressive, it’s curiously in thrall to reactionary thematic sexism (Bond shagging a sex slave, Moneypenny consigned to a desk job, ’cos fieldwork’s too tough for a silly woman); Goldeneye (again) earlier blundered all over the park attempting to address such series tropes, but at least Judi Dench was a fresh face (well, relatively) back then.
Indeed, in its attempts to unfurl a banner anniversary outing, it’s notable how much Skyfall hearkens back to the oft-denigrated Brosnan era. No one learned anything from the failures of a battered, bruised Bond out of the running (The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day), it seems, and so they are once again stuck pursuing the vain idea that depth could actually be plastered over the wafer-thing spy. As for Bond’s bi-curious “admission”, well of course he is. We’re talking the British Secret Services! Craig seems to have aged a decade since Casino Royale, and his Bond has become no more charming or relatable in the interim, even if he strikes up a visible rapport with the likes of Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw. If you’re a fan of Dench’s M, though, this is the one for you.
Villain stakes: After flirting with Quantum (retconned as Spectre) for a couple of movies, the series now dalliances with the post 9/11 – or 7/7 – world, and attempts to address 007’s place in this latest manufactured global threat. M informs us that the enemies now “are not nations. They’re individuals”, which nevertheless nurtures the fantasy of the legitimate foe, rather than the reality of the expressly fashioned one. In a sense, Skyfall IS sampling this idea, since the plot is about the security services’ own inducing the globe’s hazards. This time, then, disgruntled ex-agent Silva is threatening to release details of every NATO agent in fabled terrorist organisations; it thus feeds the War on Terror script, since it would certainly never broach just how many of organisations are devised by those who nominally combat them.
(2015) Cu-ckoo! The first ninety minutes of Spectre represent the best Bond fare since Casino Royale. True, M-Dench makes her presence known from beyond the grave like some kind of espionage version of Jigsaw, and there are intimations of unnecessary backstory, but the movie mostly zips along from set piece to set piece, and it seems like it might at least pay lip service to some of the uncomfortable truths of the surveillance state.
Mendes can’t quite pull off the Mexico opener, but there’s a potent encounter with Monica Bellucci, who is fantastic (and age appropriate), and yet another example of the era getting its main Bond girls all wrong in terms of crucial chemistry. Then there’s meeting Mr White in Austria, visiting his daughter at an Alpine clinic, eluding Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) and later, not so much eluding him in a bruising, terrific fight on a train. Bond even talks to a rat, after threatening Q’s cat (“Who sent you? Who are you working for?”)
But then… the author of all James’ pain takes centre stage. Christoph Waltz’s amused performance is a complete washout; he’s a derivative choice for a Bond villain and simply not very interesting, less still threatening, even when he’s drilling holes in 007’s head. There’s no swallowing the retconned “sibling” connection either; it only ever seems as if it’s been stitched on after the fact, yet another failed attempt to instil depth in a main character who’s having none of it (to be fair to Craig, he’s so stiff in this, nothing seems to rub off on him in terms of revelations). Neither seems like they’ve met before. Understandably, this Blofeld is a franchise killer for some on the level of Luke’s green titty milk or Star Trek Into Darkness’… well, everything.
Mostly, Spectre is a bust from this point on, failing to come up with an interesting meet cute in the Sahara. The cinematography from Hoyte von Hoytema seems devoted to ensuring none of the exotic locations pop, such that they’re all filmed on oppressively overcast days (nice on a foggy Austrian lake, but that’s about it) and truly bottoming out back in London. It doesn’t help any that there’s zero chemistry with Bond’s new great love Lea Seydoux (see Bellucci comments above), so his driving off with her elicits a shrug at best. It’s really a toss-up between this and Skyfall for this position in the ranking, but a Dench-free outing – finally! – pushes it ahead. Even with the worst Bond theme ever.
As for harbingers… Spectre plays fast and loose with its establishment leanings to the extent that, instead of Bond going rogue each movie, now all of MI6 does (this is either risible or hilarious, depending on your take). Possibly a nod to the idea that Britain should remain independent of global machinations (as absurd as the idea that a sinister, global organisation with tentacles everywhere should even need to be foiled; it has won already).
Andrew Scott, as phenomenally irritating as he was in Sherlock, is promoting the NWO on behalf of the Elite Spectre (“In three days, there’s a security conference in Tokyo to decide the new world order; It’s time for the securities services of the world to unite”). The Global Surveillance Initiative finds the conceit of the War on Terror reaching its apotheosis, since 9-Eyes means less likelihood of terrorist attack. To this extent, Spectre is remarkably close to the mark, albeit playing the game that there’s actually any choice in the matter, and we aren’t already there. A bit like Brexit. Oh, and Bond is suffused with smart blood: cutting-edge nanotechnology microchips in your bloodstream. Let’s hope they don’t cause him lots of little blood clots, eh?
Villain stakes: Blofeld is fatally undermined by being more than a bit crap, and yet the early stages of the film emphasise an almost occult dread at what is to come (complete with death masks, even worn by Bond). His grand plan involves realising “George Orwell’s worst nightmare” by which, “at midnight Spectre will have control of everything”. He invokes NASA-authorised space (a meteorite fragment), and has minions who blanche at his methods (“But this. Women? Children?”)
To wit, we are told at the Spectre meeting that the organisation achieved success undermining the Council Against Human Trafficking. Evidently, some nominally adversarial lines need to be drawn, however, since “we are facing challenges from the WHO in their campaign against out counterfeit pharmaceuticals” (Spectre control seventy percent of antimalarial vaccines, 34 percent of HIV and forty percent of all oncological drugs across sub-Saharan Africa). Of course, even Spectre is likely to experience pushback from Big Pharma when getting its teeth into Rockefeller allopathic medicine. Not to worry, though, as they expect success by targeting individuals ripe for blackmail.
No Time to Die
(2021) It’s no quirk that the final three Craig outings are all nudging each other in this ranking, since they’re very similar in many respects: strong individual passages but failing to satisfy as a whole on account of suffering from progressive bloat, Purvis and Wade plotting and tiresome third acts. No Time to Die is the best directed of the three, even if Cary Fukunaga is ultimately unable – and this is crucial and not necessarily down to a technically proficient helmer, which he clearly is – to make this feel like a complete movie, rather than a string of set pieces and competing themes, characters and devices. He does pretty well for the first ninety minutes – although that was true of Spectre too – before the baggage of the previous outing and Craig’s ongoing quest to inject dimension into a character impervious to it causes the proceedings to collapse in on themselves.
Blofeld and Swann are as big a bust as they were last time. In the former’s case, his involvement is mercifully brief. In the latter’s, the unflattering, fixed gaze exposes just how empty of spark Bond’s true great love is, compounded by a munchkin impelling him towards an autopilot self-sacrifice. If you didn’t think it was possible to kill off a movie hero with desperate functionality – presumably you never saw Star Trek: Generations – this is the place to look. Meanwhile, Rami Malek may suffer a severe breakage, but he turns out to be neither Dr No nor Mr Shatterhand (as had been rumoured). After an impressive prologue, Lyutsifer Safin descends into forgettably bland villainy with a hint of Thanos (at least, I presume that’s what they’re struggling for, since the series is ever attached to other movies for guiding impetus).
Fukunuga delivers some outstanding action – these may be the series all-time-best car chases – and Hans Zimmer dials up his dependably rousing Tony Scott cues with a Bond theme remix. Jeffrey Wright makes you mourn Felix’s loss in a way you simply don’t the series’ star player, and Lashana Lynch’s 007 manages to avoid overt woke invocation while skirting as close as the series has to Bella Emberg since Basildon handed in his licence to drive a heavy goods vehicle. The theme song is lousy, the only thing in its favour being that its marginally less so than Spectre’s, while the use of We Have All the Time in the World is a testament to how bereft this (final?) Bond movie is of actual inspiration. Oh, and give Ana de Armas her own spinoff now.
Villain stakes: The real villains are the British government, of course, intending to put their DNA-targeting nanobot virus to benign use, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Spectre. No, I mean Satan Devil Hooves. No Time to Die expressly beckons the comparison of Spectre to the Elite (the Rothschild-esque masked debauchery of the Cuban club) before wiping them out and reframing the movie with a standard-issue disfigured revenger. That might be argued as intentionally avoiding obvious comparisons to actual events, but the predictive programming is there, of government sponsored plots that can be used to wipe out swathes of the population, ones that involve filling them with deadly nanotech (the difference being mist or injection, although shedding is common to both). The series hasn’t preceded actual events quite this closely since 007 helped the brave Mujahidin.
(1962) Just because it’s first, doesn’t mean it’s fantastic. Connery’s debut as Bond is most satisfying during the opening stages, when it more closely resembles a traditional spy picture, than later, when we are introduced to the titular character and his soon-to-be typically extravagant lair. It’s a fairly no-frills movie, made on a slim budget but boasting an exotic Jamaica location shoot and an easy confidence.
The crippled super villain is a requirement from the off, and his affliction (and name) is more memorable than the character Joseph Wiseman is required to essay. Ursula Andress’s remains justifiably the most iconic Bond girl entrance, and Connery himself inhabits his part magnificently. Much credit is due to Terence Young for influencing both the Scot’s performance and the series’ template. Also notable for Jack Lord’s Felix Leiter, the best Leiter until Jeffrey Wright alighted 44 years later.
Villain stakes: What exactly is Dr No’s grand scheme here? He’s sabotaging rockets, but to what end, other than working for SPECTRE? By the loose logic of the organisation, every little bit of disruption helps the greater goal. Besides, the fine print scarcely matters, as Dr No is obviously big on promulgating the nuclear threat as one both pervasive and potentially world-threatening. Here, it’s mostly confined to No’s physical corruption (robot arms) and the Bond-induced meltdown of his island’s nuclear reactor. Live in fear, kids. And munch that popcorn.
The Living Daylights
(1987) As noted some way above, the Dalton era has its staunchest advocates, claiming him as a trailblazer for the later success of Daniel Craig. And yet, he never appeared entirely comfortable as 007. Which is surely essential. Indeed, Dalton’s later riffing on the character in Looney Tunes: Back in Action is much more estimable than his two appearances proper. At the time, though, while he failed to capture the public’s goodwill in the way Roger Moore (abundantly) did, his incarnation was seen as a much-needed return to the spirit of Fleming following Sir Rog’s Zimmer frame-assisted, eyebrow-raising digressions.
The Living Daylights did sufficient business to keep the franchise ticking over while striving for a more grounded milieu, and so was reminiscent of For Your Eyes Only six years earlier. An accompanyingly reinvigorated eye for action might have served Dalton’s debut better, but direction-wise, this is probably the most satisfying of John Glen’s ’80s-spanning stints on the series.
As alluded, The Living Daylights is notable for the most obvious attempt by Eon to address criticisms of the series’ failures to move with the times. Thus, while Bond is seen smoking like a chimney, he’s also uncharacteristically monogamous. The greater problem, beyond such “enforced” restrictions, is that the Dalton incarnation doesn’t know how to have fun (but again, see also Looney Tunes: Back in Action).
While the Afghanistan backdrop may not have aged quite as amusingly as Rambo III’s, it’s nevertheless determinedly glib and broad-brush. As for the villains (despite boasting Joe Don Baker’s debut in a Bond movie), they are wholly forgettable. So too, alas, is Maryam D’Abo’s chaste, anodyne, AIDS-era Bond girl. Like A View to a Kill, the boy band pop of A-ha’s title song suggests an up-to-date sensibility the actual movie can’t match, but this isn’t a bad effort, all told.
Villain stakes: Possibly the least flamboyant in the series to this point, and thus rather fittingly dealing with the world of arms dealing. Bond also gets currently political, just like Rambo III, with its noble Mujahedeen fighting the infernal Russkies. 1987’s noble Mujahedeen are tomorrow’s… Likewise General Koskov’s (Jeroen Krabbe) plans to distribute massive quantities of opium in the US because he’s a rogue Russian, as opposed to the CIA, who do that kind of thing for breakfast. The closer Bond gets to “legitimate” or “realistic” villainy, the less interesting and insightful it becomes.
Tomorrow Never Dies
(1997) Brosnan’s second serving is a tad underrated, probably because it can too easily be mistaken for any old ’90s action movie. If Tomorrow Never Dies doesn’t quite squander the potential of the best premise for a “classic” Bond villain since the ’70s, it doesn’t get the most out of it either (media baron Elliot Carver is much better on paper than as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, in full mugging mode).
But the mid-section of the picture nevertheless elicits strong action beats courtesy of journeyman Roger Spottiswoode, including a sterling Propellerheads-fuelled remote-controlled carpark chase, a motorbike versus helicopter altercation, and best of all, Bond’s confrontation with Herr Doctor, played by Vincent Sciavelli. Also on board is Michelle Yeoh as Brosnan’s most complementary Bond girl, kick-ass and with a sense of humour to boot.
Villain stakes: One of the series’ smartest villainous propositions, making it the more disappointing that it couldn’t follow through. The series gets to the nub of wars being fought predominately through the news, as Murdoch-esque billionaire media baron Carver makes the headlines by setting in motion the events that create them. He’s attempting to start a war between Britain and China as revenge for the latter rebutting his media access (pretty believable in capitalist concept). Of course, the reality is that, fakery being what it is, you don’t even need an actual war to convince people there’s a war on. Just look at what you can do right now with a fake global threat, MSM approved.
(1983) Roger Moore wearing a clown suit. What’s not to like? Admittedly, I used to hold this penultimate Moore excursion in slightly higher esteem; in the cold light of day, the Octopussy plotline is a bit of a damp squib. On the other hand, Octopussy features one of the best Bond songs (albeit, perhaps only in my mind) and, if the finale is standard fare, it’s preceded by a first-class race against time countdown (cue the aforementioned clown suit). Plus, there’s Steven Berkoff, spitting scenery with every exhalation.
Moore’s ’80s efforts definitely saw him looking the worse for years, but this is the noble exception and, if the flippancy never reaches The Spy Who Love Me/Moonraker levels, Bond swinging on a vine with accompanying Tarzan holler is irresistible. As is his eyebrow-exerting response to “That’s my little Octopussy”. And let’s hear it for the double-taking camel.
Villain stakes: In the absence of SPECTRE, the series’ return to Cold War threats during the ’80s became inevitably much less fantastical, if no less fabricated (the Cold War illusion itself), even when, as here, there was plenty of outré material. General Orlov (Berkoff) is attempting to set off a nuke (yep, one of those; they never grow old) in Germany, induce disarmament and thus enable a full-scale invasion of Europe. This guy thinks big, with a welter of ifs and buts, in his own limited way.
The Man with the Golden Gun
(1974) Moore’s second adventure, and the end of his “early period”. The result is ever-so-slightly run-of-the-mill (bring on Pepper again, why don’t you, boy?), but hugely boosted by a charming and sophisticated performance from Christopher Lee. And Britt Ekland’s inept eye-candy turn as Agent Goodnight (no, really. I’m a fan).
Bond is fully embroiled in fantasyland by this point, with cartoonish henchmen (Nick Nack), flying cars (both literally and in terms of impressive stunt work) and an exotic, hi-tech island paradise (ever since an over-indulged tourist attraction). If Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga never quite becomes the mirror of Bond as devised, there’s a winning vibe of iconic ’70s stalwarts at loggerheads here that makes The Man with the Golden Gun one of the defining Moore entries. On the minus side, Lulu’s theme song is akin to being beaten about the head with a breezeblock. Or a Nick Nack.
Villain stakes: Ostensibly smaller in scale, per its predecessor Live and Let Die, as Scaramanga is a professional assassin and thus closer to the type who’d typically be a henchman rather than main protagonist. Crucially, though, he’s played by Christopher Lee. And he has a solex agitator up his sleeve. So to a degree, Scaramanga is pre-empting later figures like Dominic Greene and Stromberg (well, in an inverse kind of way), and illustrating that environmentalists are inherently villainous types.
He has a solar power plant on his island and a solar-powered laser cannon, one that can be powered by the agitator. Or he can just sell the agitator on the black market. Some topical elements here, including the backdrop of the 1973 oil crisis as an opportunity to sell environmentally-friendly energy tech (as if manufacturing a global crisis in order to sell “green” tech could happen now…) While this tech is high in the Bond-ian sense, it doesn’t manifest as some fabled free-energy device. That would be too fantastic even for Bond…
(1995) If Martin Campbell’s first exercise in reinvigorating Bond isn’t quite on a par with his second, it’s still nothing to be sneezed at. As with the Craig era, Brosnan’s best came first, in a sprightly post-Soviet tale that expressly expunges all trace of the Dalton double-O (it begins in 1986) and takes in a hugely impressive opening leap, a St Petersburg tank chase and the first appearance by Dame Judi Dench’s ubiquitous incarnation of M.
Eric Serra’s score is divisive, and Sean Benn manages to be one of the least notable Bond villains (like a fine wine, or more aptly an earthy ale, he became richer and more rounded with age). But, as per Casino Royale, the supporting cast are, in the main, exceptionally well chosen (Robbie Coltrane, Joe Don Baker, Famke Janssen), and the titles provide a necessary upgrade on the by-then-tired Maurice Binder efforts. Crucially, the picture is shot through with a kineticism sadly lacking from the John Glen’s ’80s output.
Goldeneye also picks up on The Living Daylights’ recognition of increasing disquiet with Bond as an antediluvian force who needed some kind of reckoning regarding his behaviour. Thus, the “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” meta commentary, albeit the push-pull between Brosnan, with just the right level of smug self-awareness, and Dench, as his fiercely matriarch handler, allowed the series to have its cake and eat it during his tenure.
Villain stakes: I’m sure part of the reason Goldeneye seemed like a breath of fresh air (quite apart from being a good movie) was that it recaptured some of the series’ more flamboyant, larger-than-life villainous concepts. Not so much in the villain himself – as noted above – but in the idea, of an EMP weapon that will be used to destroy London’s economy. In a flash, we’re back to nukes (well, kind, of by way of the effects of EMP) and money (the Goldeneye satellites’ targeted EMP will facilitate a theft from the Bank of England, leading to global economic chaos, at which point Klaus Schwab will…. Wait, no. Alex Trevelyan wants revenge and is directing it at the UK). All of this is by way of ever-popular satellite technology, one of the series’ abiding paradigm reinforcers and back in full effect following its ’60s heyday. Bond was back!
Live and Let Die
(1973) Roger Moore’s debut, embracing Blaxploitation movies and dressing 007 in some very ’70s fashions. It’s the incongruity, in part, that makes the whole so appealing. Highly formulaic in some respects, quite unusual in others (the supernatural element), Moore enters the scene like he’s been playing the part for years (because, with The Saint and The Persuaders, he pretty much had).
Jane Seymour is at her most comely and a whole two decades shy of the TV doldrums of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman but Solitaire is easily the least autonomous Bond girl up to that point. Moore’s penchant for adlibs (“Butter hook”) works better than some of the scripted laughs (the character of Sheriff Pepper is one long, overlong, equivalent of a fart gag). McCartney’s theme song is marvellously overblown. In some respects, this is still the coolest Bond movie, even if it’s some way from the best.
Villain stakes: The least substantial plot since From Russia with Love, revolving around heroin dealing. Despite the appearance of Felix Leiter (David Hedison, later to encounter more drug dealing in Licence to Kill), the CIA is entirely unbesmirchable when it comes to profiting off the drug trade. Which makes Live and Let Die, far more than Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto) inflating like a balloon and exploding, patently ridiculous.
From Russia with Love
(1963) The second Bond, and the last time (for a while at least) a tight budget would dictate content. The result is as economical and crisp as the series gets. Robert Shaw’s Red Grant is the ultimate brawny match for Connery’s brawny 007, and having him shadow the British spy, one step ahead, until the classic train dust-up is a smart move that puts our agent on a back foot. The fight itself is enthrallingly visceral.
Lotte Lenya makes a highly memorable lesbiotic henchwoman in Rosa Klebb (Frau Farbissina, anyone?), equipped with determination, endurance and a poisonous toe-spike. However, Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova, for such a suggestive title, is one of the least memorable Bond girls.
Villain stakes: Charmingly low wattage. SPECTRE attempts to honey trap Bond, little realising he indulges sex scandals for breakfast (before and after brushing up on a little Danish).
The Spy Who Loved Me
(1977) Very much in the mould of the modern Bond film, where set piece leads to set piece leads to set piece. In that respect, The Spy Who Loved Me is, in turn, merely picking up where the overblown mid-60s Connerys (Thunderball and You Only Live Twice) left off. Whether this was creatively advisable or not becomes irrelevant in the face of how much money the picture made.
And besides, the series now had an additional weapon in its arsenal; overt, even postmodern, humour. Richard Kiel’s Jaws delivers an imposing but pronouncedly comedic villain, Moore is ladled whole scenes based around his schoolboy wit (Egyptian builders and women drivers), and there’s a lightness of touch that feels fresh and different, even for a series that had spent the decade to that point going fairly broad anyway (but nothing on the level of dropping in the Lawrence of Arabia theme).
The grand villainy of (the somewhat indifferent) Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) contrasts with a post-SPECTRE interest in real-world Russkies, hence the title and Bond bonking his way to détente (Barbarba Bach, Mrs Ringo Starr, makes a much better go of a Bond girl than she does a believable Russian agent).
Elsewhere, Marvin Hamlisch delivers a Bond-disco-a-go-go score, while director Lewis Gilbert is completely on board with the goofy tone. Just don’t expect him to get the action sequences “just so”. In particular, he comes as unstuck with the show-stopping enormity of the fireworks finale as he did previously in You Only Live Twice (that said, there’s an absolutely marvellous slapstick fight with Jaws on a train).
Villain stakes: Now we’re really getting somewhere with the villains. While Moore started out with some lo-fi adversaries, scheme-wise, the late-70s delivered two with pretty much the same plan, and it’s a good ’un. One the eugenics-loving Elite would be proud of (although, typically of Bond villains, Stromberg is a disfigured freak. No, I don’t mean he’s fat; he has webbed fingers). Unlike his successor Drax, Stromberg is logistically barking. And I don’t mean because he buys into the nuke threat. Rather, because, buying into the nuke threat, his scheme involves starting a nuclear war and expecting his favoured new civilisation, composed of his chosen few survivors of humanity, beneath the waves, to survive unaffected. Nevertheless, on a depopulating, ruthlessly totalitarian scale, Stromberg lands (ahem) near the top of the pile.
(2006) On one level, it’s slightly galling to have to admit that a reboot resulting directly from the Bond producers getting cold feet over the direction of the franchise, which entailed looking over their shoulders to Jason Bourne – scrappy action, tortured hero – and Batman Begins – rebooting an iconic character – for (lack of) inspiration, led to such a vital shot in the arm. Well, for one movie anyway.
On another, so much is so good here, it’s very difficult to remain crabby. Craig in particular, despite being a bit long in the tooth for a fledging agent (although still fairly junior as far as post-Moore Bonds go), is an unreconstituted brutish sociopath of a 007, with a sure line in acid wit. It’s what this interpretation of the character becomes, or rather, doesn’t, that gives rise to problems down the line. Returning director Martin Campbell ensures the picture is sharp and brutal, as far as the action is concerned, and the plot, through sticking closely to the Fleming novel, is that rare robust winner for a series so determinedly inflexible in terms of structure.
This is a Bond movie where our hero has to use strategy and cunning to win, rather than glide smoothly from set piece to set piece. It also boasts the rare villain in peril, conspicuously underused in movies, such that as much tension is created from Mads Mikkelsen’s problems as from Bond’s (he also, notably, exits half an hour before the end credits).
Where I go somewhat off piste from the consensus is in respect of the much-praised – and Bond character-furniture-establishing – relationship with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Craig and Green are both absolutely fine doing what they’re doing, but I don’t for a second buy that the liaison’s fallout profoundly affects Bond. Their early sparring wants to be sharper, more playful and possessed of more chemistry than it is. And more crucially, we’re being asked to invest in the romantic entanglement of someone remote, cold and calculating. There’s no warmth, however expertly their dance goes through the motions. Casino Royale is a long way from Lazenby.
On the debit side too, Casino Royale quite evidently peaks at the climax of the Texas hold ’em game. Sure, there’s Bond’s bruised balls and betrayal, but the waterlogged third-act set piece is exactly what a rigorous reboot should have been avoiding: a standard-issue Bond finale.
Mostly, though, this deserves the plaudits. Strong support too from an impeccably picked supporting cast, the already outstayed her welcome Judi Dench excepted, with Giancarlo Giannini deserving special mention as Mathis. It’s easy to see why the Craig era has made minimal use of Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, meanwhile. He effortlessly steals any scene from Craig with his shrewd underplaying, and in their first meeting there’s way more chemistry between these MI6 and CIA men than there is James and Vesper. Oh, and Casino Royale has one of the very best, if not the best, title sequences. The song ain’t half bad either. Remember decent Bond tunes? It’s almost a decade since we had one.
Villain stakes: The reboot offers a remix of the elements in Fleming’s novel, where Le Chiffre is paymaster of a SMERSH-controlled trade union who came a cropper investing their funds in a chain of brothels. That wasn’t likely to fly in any era of making a movie version, so here he’s a private banker financing international terrorism (obviously a flight of fantasy, as we all know who really finances international terrorism; it’s the circle of life). There’s even an allusion to his involvement in 9/11, which some might consider bad taste (particularly since we all know who really finances international terrorism). Like the novel, though, he makes a hash of his finances, thus ensuring he’s one of the series’ most compelling bad guys.
(1979) For some, the nadir of the series. Bond in space! Jaws attempting to fly accompanied by comedy music before freefalling into a big top! A double-taking pigeon! It’s difficult to understand this one being vilified and The Spy Who Loved Me being garlanded, however; they’re very much companion pieces, to the extent that they have virtually the same plot, and Moore’s at his arch best up squared off against Michael Lonsdale’s underrated Drax (definitely in the upper pantheon of Bond villains, he certainly boasts the best quips).
If Lois Chiles’ Holly Goodhead is merely adequate (surname apart), Jaws’ pig-tailed cutie Blanche Ravalec enables that most peculiarly loveable of henchmen a strangely touching send-off. The post-Star Wars cash-in (albeit with impressively old-school effects) finale is laser-zap at its best. Perhaps the least illustrious thing here is wheeling Shirley Bassey back out for a non-descript title song. Also notable for the most compelling evidence of The Mandela Effect, in effect, given Ravelec is now miraculously shorn of the braces that once identified her as Jaws’ soulmate.
Villain stakes: The reigning champ of villainous schemes. Not only is Hugo Drax very witty, he also thinks big. Indeed, he dispenses with such old-hat notions as the nuke threat, and bypasses the usual second favourite and equally tenuous bio-one. Instead, his plan is reliably based on chemical weapons, and a nerve agent derived from a toxin found in a South American plant. Obviously, one would expect the efficacy of proliferation to be an iffy prospect, but he seems pretty confident on that score (enough toxin to kill 100 million people; I’m not sure where the rest of the billions are going).
The only flaw in his plan is buying into what NASA are selling (in this case, supplying them space shuttles) and believing he can actually go and live there for a spell. But then, what else is a billionaire eugenicist to do? This was probably plan B (but go underground, rather than to space), before “They” decided to jab everyone.
(1964) The one critics, fans and the public alike extol as a benchmark for quality Bonds. Certainly, the gift that is Gert Fröbe (albeit dubbed), the Bond baddie par excellence, keeps on giving, He’s the ultimate scene-stealing villain, escorted by a soon-to-be-obligatory distinctive henchman (Harold Sakata ensuring Oddjob remains the Korean adversary of the series thanks to the frequently risible Die Another Day). Meanwhile, Connery is still putting in some effort, and Honor Blackman more than matches him as his believably equal-and-opposite sparring partner.
So how to countenance the raves with the lack of action, and Bond being locked up for half the running time? That it works, basically, but trying to make Goldfinger some kind of template would have been asking for trouble (notably, the planned return of Fröbe as Goldfinger’s brother never happened). It helps too that the finale is really good, of course, since it’s sadly much more common for the series to fluff them than to fashion them into a success.
Villain stakes: The devastating combination of the series’ twin ’60s obsessions – money and nuclear weaponry – as Auric Goldfinger attempts to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold with a dirty nuke (getting one’s story straight with nuke “facts” is very important, such that this was changed from the novel’s undiluted bomb). His obsession is in the name (per the third Austin Powers and the theme song, he loves only gold), and it’s down to that bastion of upright fiscal behaviour, The Bank of England, that Bond investigates his irregular activities. As one would expect of any legitimate villain, Goldfinger is a highly successful businessman. Unlike many of this class, however, he’s not up to anything beyond furthering his wealth (albeit, his act will give the Chinese a leg up globally).
Diamonds are Forever
(1971) Connery’s return for (charity-bound) big bucks is ironically the smallest scale 007 picture since From Russia with Love. The consequence is an emphasis on character and humour that pre-empts Roger Moore’s incoming era and echoes the more off-the-wall stylistic conceits of TV’s The Avengers. Connery may be greying and less-than-svelte, but he seems to be enjoying himself immensely, which is more than could be said for his two previous Bonds.
The supporting cast is appealingly larger-than-life, including Charles Gray as the best Blofeld (in a dress, no less) and gay hit men Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. In theory, you’d expect the Yankophile tendencies to maroon the series, but the Las Vegas seediness lends Bond a tawdry reinvigoration. And brash Tiffany Case could easily have been all wrong, but Jill St. John effortlessly establishes her as one of the most appealing, resourceful and all-round very best Bond girls.
Added to the mix are deadly henchwomen Bambi and Thumper, dodgy Jimmy Dean as the hugely likeable, Howard Hughes-esque, Willard Whyte and the bizarrely brilliant TV studio Moon landings/Moon buggy sequence. Oh, and John Barry, fully on board with the larks as he delivers one of his most playful Bond scores.
Villain stakes: This might be the doozy in the Bond series’ catalogue of things “They” want you to believe that may be much less impermeable than you believed them to be. The ’60s took in nukes and biowarfare, and after a tip of the hat in You Only Live Twice, this one has space and satellites covered. We have an eccentric but likeable billionaire (so not like Gates, or Goldfinger) who nevertheless runs a research lab, per above, faking Moon landings (the idea that billionaires are oblivious, or puppets, begins here). Then there’s Blofeld, SPECTRE unmentioned due to the McClory rights issue, developing a laser satellite (utilising the titular diamonds) in orbit, planning to destroy the superpowers’ nukes and so propose a resulting auction for global nuclear supremacy (so again, this invokes the illusion of independent sovereignty, while the actual control occurs elsewhere). Blofeld goes out on a high then, and it’s appropriate that all these areas should be earmarked in a movie so gloriously flippant in tone.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
(1969) George Lazenby’s solo outing is also the best Bond by some distance. Don’t listen to those claiming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been even better with Connery; can you imagine that heart-breaking final scene, the romance with Tracy (Diana Rigg), or Bond desperate, vulnerable and alone, delivered by the indomitable Scottish titan? No, Lazenby fits the material perfectly.
Peter Hunt (formerly working on the series as editor; this was his only Bond helming credit, alas) directs with flair and energy that still impresses. Telly Savalas might not be the best Blofeld (see the above entry on the list), but he’s no slouch, and the non-action interlude at his Swiss allergy research institute is a breezy highlight, giving Bond detective work to do while beset by a bevvy of beauties. Which entails him wearing a kilt and being dubbed by George Baker.
The frosted icing on the cake (appropriate, given the snowbound setting) is John Barry’s most glorious Bondscore and Louis Armstrong crooning its most gorgeous song (We Have All the Time in the World).
Villain stakes: In part, charmingly eccentric, even by SPECTRE standards, and doubtless reflective of Fleming’s own class-based obsessions. The absurd side has Blofeld demanding not money or power but the granting of a UN amnesty and validation as Count de Bleuchamp. Well, he is a mad villain… The less charming and eccentric side has the would-be Bleuchamp ringing out the theories of Pasteur, rather than Bechamp, for he plans to unleash Virus Omega via his select group of brainwashed lovelies (about time brainwashing made a serious series appearance) who are ostensibly seeing his Blofeld-ness to combat allergies.
We now know, of course, that the best way to achieve the effects Blofeld seeks –contaminate and sterilise the world’s food supply, inducing total infertility into plants and animals – is preferably delivered through GMOs or via a jab, and that, if other means were feasible, some Blofeld somewhere would doubtless have unleashed them. Besides, you can always damage the world’s food supply by simply jamming up the channels, or turning them off altogether. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, at the very end of the ’60s, finds the series branching out from its nuke-porn anxiety, then, and focussing on another, equally violable one.
*Addendum 29/08/22: This earlier ranking wasn’t ported over from Now in Full Color to Knowledgeable Cabbages.