Ranking the Bond Films: Special Birthday Post!

For my birthday, I thought I’d just put up something for fun. I’ve got a bunch of reviews in the pipeline: Whiplash, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, Beyond the Lights, and hopefully Force Majeure, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, Rosewater, St. Vincent…and after that, we’ll just see. But I’m taking today off and thought I’d do something special beforehand.

I love the Bond films. I first saw Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, and Diamonds are Forever in the early 2000s. And around the time Casino Royale dropped, my dad got the boxed sets of the first 20 films and I watched all of them avidly, then saw Royale when it came out on DVD. And when Quantum of Solace debuted in 2008, I was there for the midnight premiere–and I was there for the midnight premiere of Skyfall four years later.

There was a long period where I would, before bed, just put these films on and watch my favorite scenes over and over. During the summer of 2012, I watched all of the films to date in preparation for seeing Skyfall. And the following year, my friend (and future roommate) suggested we watch the whole series together. I didn’t object. And then we jointly ranked them. And while the next time I watch my way through the series my rankings may change yet again, And there will be a next time.

And not just because my name is James.

The films, from worst to best:

23. The World is Not Enough

Fuck this movie. It’s boring as hell. The pre-credits sequence is the longest in the franchise–and it sure as hell feels like it. This was one of the only films in the series I never watched for fun. There’s nothing fun or memorable here. Denise Richards’ performance is famously bad, but it’s not bad in a noteworthy way. It’s just bad. Poor Pierce Brosnan tries, but God, he got stuck with some bad material. Sophie Marceau is fine, I guess, but Robert Carlyle is pretty much a total dud.

Oh, and if Elektra had pulled off her plan, the U.S. and Russia would be tripping over each other to take her out.

22. Tomorrow Never Dies

I suppose I should cut this film a little slack. It had a really troubled production: the script was, I think, unfinished when shooting began, Anthony Hopkins was originally cast as Carver, and dropped out after shooting started, requiring Jonathan Pryce to step in, the production was super-rushed…it’s not really surprising that it’s not a good film. But that doesn’t make it good. The plot is incredibly silly, there’s some ridiculously stupid dialogue (my friend seized upon the line “I’d be lost at sea. Adrift” as being especially ham-fisted), and it just adds up to nothing. The only part I particularly like is Vincent Schiavelli’s cameo, but even that loses its charm after a few viewings.

21. Die Another Day

Poor Pierce Brosnan. His performances arguably got better, but the films got worse–or in this case, sillier. The invisible car is…about as bad as it sounds. Halle Berry is pretty weak. Rosamund Pike…has moved well beyond it. It’s got one of the series’ least compelling villains. It was the 20th in the series, so a lot of in-jokes were included; most haven’t held up too well. Oh, and there are some shitacular special effects. It’s pretty weak stuff. And to think, this was actually a hit at the time.

20. A View to a Kill

Hey, Roger Moore! I actually don’t hate this entry, though I’ll admit it’s got a lot of issues (Tanya Roberts’ blah heroine, the line “These bubbles tickle my–Tchaikovsky!”, which is followed by “Détente can be beautiful”, etc.), but it’s also got Christopher Walken as the villain, Patrick Magee being charming as hell, Duran Duran’s awesome theme song…and, honestly, I generally like Moore’s take on the role. This isn’t his best appearance by any means, but I enjoy watching him.

19. Live and Let Die

Paul McCartney’s title song is fucking incredible–we know this. And there are some good moments to be found here, mostly courtesy of Geoffrey Holder (I wish Yaphet Kotto had been given a little more to do). Moore’s first appearance in the role isn’t so hot, and there’s a tiresomely long boat chase (with the infamous Sheriff J.W. Pepper thrown in for some comic bigotry), but on the whole, it’s watchable.

18. Diamonds Are Forever

People tend to forget how much Connery stopped giving a shit in his last couple of films. Which makes it all the funnier that his massive salary for this entry came at the expense of the effects budget, resulting in some of the shittiest effects work of the entire series. The tacky Vegas settings, the bit with the moon buggy, Jimmy Dean’s hammy performance as a Howard Hughes-ish tycoon, Charles Gray’s drab Blofeld…it’s really not that great of an entry. (There’s also one point where the same piece of voice-over is, I swear, repeated twice in a row with minor variation.) But it does have Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, and they’re quite amusing (“I must say, Miss Case is quite attractive…for a lady.”)

17. Moonraker

Certainly not a great entry in the franchise, but I think it’s better than it gets credit for being. You’ve got Jaws returning, you’ve got Michael Lonsdale’s Drax, who’s got some great lines (“You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season”), you’ve got Bond in fucking space…it’s got more than its fair share of nonsense (and Lois Chiles, who was apparently recovering from a family tragedy, brings very little to the table), but I’d take this over something like Tomorrow Never Dies any day.

16. You Only Live Twice

The title song is one of the greatest in the series, a beautifully haunting song that ranks among my personal favorites. The film, though, isn’t that great. Connery is obviously bored, Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld has little to do (and, looking back on it, he isn’t that great–the films never really got Blofeld right), the story is just kind of there…but the volcano set is incredible, Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger is good, and the sheer audacity of Bond “becoming” Japanese gives it some distinction.

15b. Casino Royale (1967)

Oh, it’s a mess. It’s overlong. A lot of it is totally incoherent; a lot more isn’t  very funny. But it’s so wild and, in the end, blissfully crazy, that as a whole I still enjoy it. It’s got a hell of a cast (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen (and that’s just for starters), it’s got dance numbers, flying saucers, magic tricks, Frankenstein’s Monster, German Expressionism…it’s such a fucked-up grab-bag of cinema that it’s hard not to love.

15a. Never Say Never Again

A remake of Thunderball produced by outsiders, but with Connery returning one last time to the role. And really, I think it’s not that bad at all. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a far more compelling Largo than Adolfo Celi, and Barbara Carrera (Golden Globe nominated!) is a good campy femme fatale. It does have its dull and goofy moments (Carrera’s exit is really stupid), and Lorenzo Semple’s script is too self-consciously jokey, but it’s overall a decent little film.

15. For Your Eyes Only

Roger Moore in an attempt at a “serious” Bond film after the fantasy of Moonraker. Too bad it’s kind of boring. The whole plot with the ATAC is kind of a retread of From Russia with Love, and Julian Glover is a dullish villain (in my previous remarks, I said Carole Bouquet was “interesting if not totally successful”. I wonder what that was about). But Moore is good, it’s got Topol (who has altogether been too little seen), and the action is fine as always.

14. The Man with the Golden Gun

Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga makes up for a lot–the return of J.W. Pepper, the horrid Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), the anticlimactic final scene, and the often-dopey writing (“He found me quite tit-illating”). There’s not really that much to say about it–it’s a pretty throwaway entry in the series–but it’s enjoyable in its own right. And as I recall, Hervé Villechaize is really pretty solid in it as well.

13. Thunderball

Some people put this on a par with Connery’s first three films. I don’t put it nearly that high, mostly because once it gets to Nassau it slows down significantly (and the underwater scenes tend to get really wearisome after a while), and because Adolfo Celi is a rather uncharismatic villain. And Connery was clearly beginning to get tired of the role. But there are some great moments to be found throughout, it’s lavish as hell, and Tom Jones’ theme song is great (“And he strikes…like Thun…der…BALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!”)

12. GoldenEye

It kind of diminishes for me on repeat viewings; there’s really not much substance to it, and Trevelyan’s big plot really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Still, it’s a good, slick return for the franchise, it’s incredibly 90s (in a way that only 90s kids can truly understand), Famke Janssen is great (and Sean Bean is always good; so is Robbie Coltrane), and the pre-credits sequence is one of the best in the series. Brosnan got off to a solid start. Too bad it didn’t take.

11. The Living Daylights

I used to consider this one of my favorites, but going back to it, it doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like. The Mujahdeen subplot hasn’t aged so well, the story isn’t that great, and Jeroen Krabbe and Joe Don Baker’s villains aren’t as good as I’d once thought. John Rhys-Davies is always good to see, though, and while Timothy Dalton would do better on his second go-round, I actually quite like his take on the role. Points also for the fine title song by a-ha.

10. Octopussy

Yes, I love Octopussy. The plot doesn’t make much sense (there are basically two plot lines, and they don’t link up too well), and Maud Adams’ take on the title role is pretty dull. But Louis Jourdan is a great suave villain, the climactic race against time is really well done, and any film that packs as much in as this one does, squeezing in both Kiplingesque adventure and Cold War treachery, has a certain appeal for me. It’s just consistently fun. Like the theme song says, it’s “a sweet distraction for an hour or two.”

9. Skyfall

It’s overrated, to be sure. Some have considered it one of the best in the series, and that’s ridiculous. I’d say it’s Craig’s weakest film, at least in the moments where it hammers home the whole obsolescence theme, or equates hacking with magic, or tries to be cute (the Moneypenny scene at the end is…yeah). And the killing off of the main Bond Girl was a poor choice. But there’s so much greatness here: Javier Bardem’s wonderful (if overly omnipotent) villain, Roger Deakins’ incredible cinematography (which should have won the fucking Oscar), Judi Dench’s best work as M, some astounding action (and some astounding production design)…it’s kind of frustrating, really. I do like this film a lot. I just can’t call it the masterpiece some have.

8. The Spy Who Loved Me

Carly Simon’s theme song is perfect. Jaws (Richard Kiel, RIP) is one of the best henchvillains in the series: funny, unique, and awesome in equal measure. Roger Moore shows how good he can be. There are the customary incredible sets. The ski jump at the start is one of the great stunts in film history. If the story is a little thin and Curt Jurgens’ Stromberg is not one of the better Bond villains (Barbara Bach isn’t a bad Bond Girl, though), it’s still one of the most purely likable entries in the franchise, living up to its fantastical, romantic title.

7. Casino Royale (2006)

It hasn’t held up perfectly since I first saw it; Martin Campbell’s direction, like his work on GoldenEye, has a certain shallowness which becomes more apparent with repeat viewings. But the script is an excellent one, showing a raw, less-experienced Bond discovering just how devious his world really is. Daniel Craig takes the role by storm, Eva Green is one of the best (and most tragic) heroines in the series, Mads Mikkelsen (and Jesper Christensen) are fine villains, and Jeffrey Wright is easily the best Felix Leiter ever. The poker game is great, the prologue is great, the ending is absolutely perfect…it really is a fine film.

6. Quantum of Solace

But this, I think, is even better. By far the most underrated of the series. Is it perfect? No–you can kind of tell they were under time constraints at times. But I like it more each time. Marc Forster’s direction is wonderfully stylish (the opera house sequence is truly stunning), Craig continues his fine work in the role, Mathieu Amalric is a scuzzily believable villain, and its view of modern geopolitics is commendably cynical. I really dig it, and hope it receives a proper re-evaluation in the years to come.

5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

No, Lazenby isn’t a great Bond (though he gets better as the film progresses), and Telly Savalas isn’t a great Blofeld–yet, somehow, this becomes one of the best of the series. Diana Rigg’s tragic Tracy has a lot to do with that, but so does the magnificent action, the rich story, and the poignant, gutsy ending.

4. Dr. No

Starting off right. The first of the series is a pretty low-key affair, up until the finale, but it’s compelling, it’s colorful, and it’s Connery. Ursula Andress is quite good, John Kitzmiller provides fine support, and Joseph Wiseman as the titular Doctor is, if underused, quite a creepy son-of-a-bitch. The final act features some excellent direction, especially during Bond’s crawl through the pipes. It’s just a great film overall.

3. Licence to Kill

Oh, I love this movie. Bond is pure vengeance here, and it’s awesome. He really does go HAM (Hard As a Motherfucker) in this entry, and Timothy Dalton really gets to display the rougher, darker Bond he tried to introduce in The Living Daylights. Reminiscent of Scarface in many ways, it boasts one of the best villains in the series in the person of Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi); the way he kills Krest (Anthony Zerbe) is unforgettable. It’s also cool to see a young Benicio del Toro as one of his henchman. Carey Lowell is an excellently capable leading lady, Desmond Llewelyn gets his biggest and best role ever as M, and Wayne Newton is a fun slimy spoof of televangelists. And the tanker truck chase finale is one of the greatest set pieces of the entire franchise. Great, great stuff.

2. From Russia with Love

These last two you could swap and I wouldn’t object. This has a top-notch story, a great string of action sequences in the final act, Robert Shaw’s great Red Grant, Lotte Lenya’s great Rosa Klebb, Pedro Armendariz’s great Kerim Bey, Connery being amazing…if I keep it at #2, it’s just because of a few minor issues throughout that hold it back, just a little (it feels a bit…I’m not sure if “crude” is the word, but a bit unpolished).

1. Goldfinger

A cliché choice, perhaps, but there’s a reason for that. Pretty much everything in it is incredible. The fact that they got the character name “Pussy Galore” by the censors in 1964, for example. Odd Job (Harold Sakata) taking gold bricks to the chest without flinching is another. Goldfinger himself (Gert Fröbe) is yet another. Do I even need to mention Shirley Bassey’s rendition of the title song? I could go on and on. Or you could just see it for yourself.

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