There’s no one quite like James Bond.
For 50 years, 007 has been thrilling folks like you and I with his trademark style of action, coolness, and panache. Six different actors have filled the role of Bond over the course of 22 movies with number 23, Skyfall, releasing in just a few days. While I will happily watch any 007 outing and every one has had it’s thrilling moments, not all James Bond movies are created equal. For every Goldfinger, there’s a Moonraker to match. In celebration of Skyfall and the Bond 50th anniversary, I have set out to separate the great flicks from the not so great. This isn’t a mere 1-22 ranking; rather I’m going to separate the movies into four different tiers. We’ll be showing off one tier per day leading up to the much-anticipated release of Skyfall on November 9.
Thankfully, the worst is behind us. It’s day 3, and we’ve moved on towards the top of the tower. The Bond films in this tier are awesome movies, but have a few noticeable flaws that keep them from being among the best.
Tier 2: “There is something horribly efficient about you.”
I really wanted to put Thunderball in yesterday’s list. It has its share of issues, the biggest being 30 minutes of the movie consists of slow-moving, hard to follow underwater battle scenes that jarringly screw with the pacing of the movie. When combined with what’s a pretty pedestrian story, that doesn’t bode well for the fourth Bond outing. Emilio Largo, the big bad in Thunderball, played by Italian actor Adolfo Celi, is actually pretty blah as far as Bond villains go, and this is the dude that was the inspiration for Number 2 in the Austin Powers movies!
The reason I have to put it in tier 2 is because Sean Connery is really, really good in this film. Connery sites Thunderball as his personal favorite Bond performance, and with good reason. He is on point for the entire film, and his strong performance elevates that of other actors in the film. For as gruff as Connery tended to play Bond, he displays a genuine warmth towards his leading ladies, and this brings out a solid performance from Claudine Auger, who was a model before being selected as Domino. Fiona Volpe was also the first real femme fatale Bond has the displeasure of dealing with, and Luciana Paluzzi is able to hang with the screen presence of Connery in every scene they share.
It speaks volumes that such good acting can overcome what could otherwise be a fairly by the numbers affair. If not for the underwater scenes that drag down the film, Thunderball would actually rank among the top films in the franchise. As is, it will have to settle for being pretty damn good.
License to Kill (1989)
Like I mentioned yesterday, Timothy Dalton gets a bad rap. In The Living Daylights, it’s somewhat earned, but his sophomore outing is a more solid endeavor. Many bemoan License to Kill for being too dark and un-Bondian because of its revenge-themed plot. I find it to be a refreshing shake-up of the standard Bond formula, and think License to Kill is among the more entertaining Bonds because of it. That, and it’s really fun to watch Bond screw with Sanchez and his crew from the inside throughout the film!
Dalton’s propensity for seriousness is an asset in this movie. If your longtime ally, in this case Felix Leiter, got mutilated by a psychotic gangster, you’d be pretty pissed off too. It even causes Bond to go rogue in a clever scene where M attempts to detain him and revokes his license to kill. Notice the awesome subtlety of M holding a white cat during this particular section; a great touch for those who noticed.
License to Kill has some pretty sweet action pieces as well. Ever see anyone go fishing for a plane? How about a semi doing a wheelie? You get both of those things here. There’s some memorable acting to be had too, with Robert Davi balancing a cool confidence and ruthlessness with ease as the drug lord Franz Sanchez. A young Benecio del Toro also commands the screen in the few scenes he is in as Sanchez’s right hand man Dario. Wayne Newton was the perfect casting choice as the corrupt televangelist fronting Sanchez’s drug operation.
Watch License to Kill again, and lay off poor Timothy Dalton. Now that he was given a script that better suits his talents, he wasn’t half bad portraying 007.
For Your Eyes Only (1982)
Many cite The Spy Who Loved Me as Roger Moore’s best Bond film. I tend to agree, and we’ll get to it later on, but I think I may enjoy watching For Your Eyes Only a little bit more. There’s quite a bit to love here, but as with other Bond films on this list, there’s just a few sticking points that prevent For Your Eyes Only from achieving true greatness.
A scene I have to mention in this film is not one you might think of straight away, and that’s the scene where Bond has the nefarious henchman, Locque, trapped in a car hanging precariously over a cliff edge. If you watch the special features, the producers and director John Glen thought long and hard about how to have Locque meet his end. I wouldn’t have at all been surprised if Moore, who is noted for being the lightest-hearted Bond, simply tossed Locque’s trademark dove pin (his calling card, left on the bodies of his victims) into the car and had that be the thing to send Locque to his death. Instead, they opted to have Moore kick the car off the cliff, which was the coldest Bond kill since Connery unloaded into an unarmed Professor Dent in Dr. No. Personally, I thought it to be the right choice, and it still holds up as my favorite Roger Moore scene in any of his appearances as 007.
As far as the rest of the movie goes, characters make, and also break, For Your Eyes Only. Colombo is my favorite Bond ally aside from Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love, and Topol played the part masterfully. I also enjoyed Julian Glover as Kristatos, Bond’s chief adversary. The red herring (you are originally thought to believe Kristatos is a good guy, and Colombo the villain) in the film was also particularly effective on the first viewing. Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock, your Bond girl, was perfectly mediocre and relatively unmemorable. Lynn-Holly Johnson as figure skater Bibi Dahl was memorable, and for all the wrong reasons. As the story goes, producer Cubby Broccoli saw her in Ice Castles and hired her off of that performance alone, but here, Johnson is terribly out-of-place. She comes off as incredibly immature and annoying in all her scenes, and frankly her throwing herself at the significantly older Moore is kinda gross (Moore himself said as much).
Finally, there’s also the major issue of the pre-credits sequence. Here, Bond battles an unnamed adversary in a wheelchair who we never see from the front, though any Bond fan watching knows damn well it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s oldest nemesis (Eon was unable to use the name or likeness anymore, as they didn’t have the rights to the character). A return fans had been waiting years to see ended up being played for laughs, and the joke wasn’t funny (“Mr. Bond! We can do a deal! I’ll buy you a delicatessen!”). Eon of course meant to belittle the character and wipe him out of the Bond universe permanently, and in that they certainly succeeded, though at the cost of putting a bad taste in viewer’s mouths from the very start of the film.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1998)
Tomorrow Never Dies is perhaps the best example of a by-the-numbers Bond film. It’s solid, but never spectacular; interesting but never truly engaging. Whereas in Goldeneye there was a lot of heart, emotion, and strong performances driving that film forward, it feels like in Tomorrow Never Dies, they were just going down a checklist making sure they hit all the Bond formula requirements.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some things that stand out positively in Tomorrow Never Dies. I enjoyed Jonathan Pryce’s borderline-maniacial portrayal of Elliot Carver: a Rupert Murdoch analogue who wished to start World War III all for the benefit of television ratings. It was a breath of fresh air from your typical Bond villain world domination/get really rich plot. You also have Vincent Schiavelli, one of the greatest character actors of all time, completely stealing the one scene he has in the movie as the evil Dr. Kaufmann. Lastly, Tomorrow Never Dies is noted for arguably the funniest Bond/Q scene in the series as Q is undercover as a car rental agent giving Bond his new BMW.
I always enjoy watching Tomorrow Never Dies, but never once has it creeped into the top of the pantheon for me. It’s a well-done film, it’ll keep you in your seat for the two hours it takes to watch it, but it will never blow you away. The term used in the title of tier two, “horribly efficient,” applies more to this movie than any other you’ll see on the list today.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
It’s a damn shame that Sean Connery had to return for Diamonds Are Forever (and then again for Never Say Never Again), because You Only Live Twice would have been a nice way for him to say goodbye to Bond. I love this movie to death, as it uses Japan to full effectiveness as a location, has my favorite Bond/Bond girl on-screen chemistry with the Bond and Aki relationship, and has some stellar action sequences, all of which were tremendously choreographed. The hallowed-out volcano lair was also one of the first super sets constructed in the movie business, and Ken Adam’s set designs were awesome, as usual.
So why isn’t You Only Live Twice being featured tomorrow? One huge and damaging reason: the Blofeld reveal. When you watch the early Bond movies in sequence, Ernst Stavro Blofeld comes off as a larger-than-life character, and it’s because he’s shrouded in mystery. All you see of Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball is a pair of hands petting a white cat with a deep, unwavering voice that instantly commands fear and respect. He’s a ridiculously effective villain in those two films, because he is essentially the Sauron of the James Bond franchise. Then you get to the big reveal in You Only Live Twice, the chair turns…and it’s Donald Pleasance with weird-looking prosthetics on his face. Needless to say, after all of the hype that gets built with his earlier appearances, the payoff is a tremendous letdown. I liken it to the same feeling I had when the midichlorian conversation happens in Star Wars: Episode I; when mysticism gets shattered by boring reality.
As much awesome as I haven’t even mentioned yet is in this film, the Little Nellie sequence, the Osato Chemicals brawl, and Aki’s tragic death just to name a few, it can’t be understated how badly the Blofeld reveal cripples the rest of You Only Live Twice. The ending is awesome, but every time you see Blofeld on-screen, you’re reminded of how much of a disappointment Donald Pleasance is in the role. It’s no wonder they found a new actor to reprise the role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though we all remember how that turned out…
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
As I said earlier, this was Roger Moore’s finest Bond movie, and the one people think of when recalling his tenure as Bond. It also has the most well-known Bond enemy in the massive, steel-toothed Jaws. Barbara Bach, playing the Russian agent/Bond girl XXX, does very well in her role despite not really being an actress when cast in the movie. There are some really well-acted scenes in this movie, most notably the tense scene where XXX discovers it was Bond who killed her lover, which we saw happen during the pre-credits sequence (though in fairness, he was an enemy agent who was trying to kill 007!). Speaking of the pre-credits sequence, it contains the memorable parachute ski-jump where Bond flies off a cliff on skis, the music cuts out while he freefalls, and then he pulls his chute which happens to be designed as a giant Union Jack. It’s a powerful scene, even if you aren’t British!
So why does The Spy Who Loved Me have to get saddled with such a boring villain? Karl Stromberg is nothing more than a really, really poor man’s Blofeld. It’s pretty telling that if you ask anyone who the big bad was in The Spy Who Loved Me, most will tell you that it was Jaws. Not even the uber-popular Oddjob overshadowed Auric Goldfinger, and all Jaws really does in this film is stand there and look scary. That and he bites the crap out of a shark.
I haven’t really mentioned music in any of these articles, but I need to here, because the Marvin Hamlisch score in The Spy Who Loved Me is my least favorite in the series. It’s instantly recognizable, as it sounds more 70’s than anything you’ll ever hear in a Bond film. It’s ironic then that The Spy Who Loved Me may have the most famous title song in the series with Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better.”
Ah well. What could have been. If not for a bland villain and a pop music soundtrack, The Spy Who Loved Me would be an all-time great. Roger Moore will just have to settle for it being his personal Magnum Opus instead.
Surprised to see this one popping up today, aren’t you? Well don’t worry. I’m going to justify my blasphemous actions by explaining just why the holy Goldfinger belongs in Tier 2.
Ask anyone on the street what their favorite Bond movie is. Chances are, over half will respond with Goldfinger. To many, it’s the quintessential Bond movie. It’s the first Bond with crazy gadgets (note I said crazy; the attaché case in From Russia With Love was actually practical) and the Q scene as we know it today, the first with the Aston Martin. It gives us two iconic villains in Auric Goldfinger and the hat-throwing Oddjob. You also had Pussy Galore, who was the first Bond girl in the series capable with holding her own with 007. Everyone, whether they love Bond or not, knows the iconic exchange: “Do you expect me to talk?” “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” And lest we forget the lasting image of a gold-painted Shirley Eaton laying on that hotel bed. As a movie, I can’t find a heck of a lot of fault with it. It’s about as perfect as you can get.
But as a Bond movie, it commits a huge sin that I can’t overlook: James Bond is undeniably incompetent throughout this entire movie. He is about as un-Bond as he can be. Indulge me, if you will, as we look back at what Bond does, post-opening credits, in Goldfinger:
- While observing Goldfinger, Bond instead decides antagonizes him (uncovering his cheating scheme in Gin Rummy), leading to the murder of his assistant Jill Masterson.
- While sent to gather information and observe Goldfinger, Bond once again chooses to get one over on ol’ Auric on the golf course (in what was an awesome scene), essentially making Goldfinger all but aware that Bond is snooping around his affairs.
- Bond then follows Goldfinger to Switzerland where he runs into Jill’s sister Tilly who is attempting to avenge her sister’s death. Naturally, she dies, and Bond is captured by falling for the “headlights in the mirror” trick.
- Bond avoids death by blurting out the name of Goldfinger’s secret project, and is taken, still in enemy custody, to Kentucky.
- Bond manages to overhear Goldfinger’s plot, but again, gets caught in the process, and then attempts (unsuccessfully) to notify the CIA of Goldfinger’s plan.
- Bond finally succeeds in something, by managing to bed a lesbian, apparently turn her heterosexual just by making love to her (little far-fetched, but hey, it’s Bond right?) and by doing so, at least saves the life of an entire military base.
- Despite this, Goldfinger almost manages to succeed with his plan as he escapes from the Fort Knox raid. Bond, after defeating Oddjob in a rather clever manner, is unable to disable the atomic bomb, getting lucky when a CIA operative makes it down to the device to hit the “off” button in the nick of time.
- Finally, Bond’s plane to the White House is hijacked by Goldfinger, who Bond defeats only because our villain foolishly fires a gun inside a pressurized plane cabin.
So essentially, Bond saves the day through luck despite doing everything he can to muck up the situation. This egregious transgression alone relegates Goldfinger to being the best of the great Bond films instead of being in the pantheon. If I may throw in a video game reference, to me, Goldfinger is the Final Fantasy VII of Bond films: undeniably great, but overrated by many because it happens to be the most popular movie in the genre, and often, the first one people had ever seen. Tomorrow, you’ll learn which Bond movie is the superior Final Fantasy VI.
Day 3 is in the books, and there’s just one day left. Tomorrow, we finish up this feature by talking about the four Bond movies left that stand as the very best the Bond series has to offer.
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