I've been working on my review of the series for a while now. I hope it's not too long to put here.
I watched all 23 007 movies on blu-ray over about six months. I was seeing some for the first time in 15 years or more, and some I saw as recently as 2008-2009 when the first batch of blu-rays were released. I watched them all on a large screen (108”) from a projector; in many cases, it was the first time I’d ever seen some of them on anything but a TV or HDTV screen, since the first film I saw in the theater was 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. (I also watched Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again on blu-ray, but I won't discuss those here.)
What I found is that many of my long-held opinions about the series and the individual films held up, some were challenged (meaning some films didn’t hold up as well as I thought) and some films improved.
Sean Connery is still, by far, the best James Bond. His interpretation of the character and the films he made (particularly the first four) still define the character and the entire series, even 50 years on. (Not to mention that the first four films have been given unparallelled treatment on blu-ray, looking better than anyone has ever seen them. Unless you were in Jamaica when they filmed Dr. No and had better than 20/20 vision, no one has seen these films look so good.)
Roger Moore is a close runner-up to Connery. His screen presence in his films is endearing and has enough charm to smooth over any rough parts of his films, some of which are hampered by poor writing and too much tongue-in-cheek humor.
Daniel Craig is terrific as James Bond. Unlike any of the others except maybe Connery, he inhabits the role very well, and seems very comfortable in it. Unfortunately, all three of his films have been hurt by complicated plots and most of the films don’t hold up under scrutiny. That said, Craig is the best thing to happen to the series in decades.
Timothy Dalton could have been a great James Bond. His first film in the series, The Living Daylights, is one of the best, but his second, Licence To Kill, is so grim and humorless that the series became unrecognizable, like any of the dozens of generic revenge thrillers that were popular in the 80s. Legal squabbles derailed his tenure as Bond, so he was never given a chance to redeem himself.
Pierce Brosnan seems like he really wanted the role and worked hard to make it right. Unfortunately, with but a single exception (1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), his films are marred by exceptionally poor writing, with plots so convoluted that they defy understanding even after multiple viewings. Brosnan also tried too hard -- his Bond took everything personally (an unfortunate trait of the series from Licence To Kill onward to the present) and often spoke in an angry whisper that lacked the joviality of the character we’d come to love.
George Lazenby has gotten a bad rap over the years, since his single film - 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - was the first in the series to seriously underperform at the box office. The truth is, he isn’t bad, but as his former modeling career suggests, he’s a stand-in. Yet he still manages to have a presence in one of the very best films in the series -- one that, had Connery not left and the attention to story, co-stars, and all the other film elements stayed the same, would be considered the best.
From the early 60s through the mid-80s, Bond was a man doing his job, passionately at times, but just as often cool and detached. From the late 80s to the present, every Bond mission has been personal, to the point where he has operated outside Her Majesty's Service on several occasions. With this in mind, you can easily separate the series' first 25 years and its second. The first makes for more effective films, which are more stylish, cooler and just more fun. The later films simply are too grim, with too much sadism, to be as enjoyable. There may be more verisimilitude in the later ones, but who cares? We’re not seeing Bond films to see espionage documentaries. We want a good time with some well-written, exciting movies.
Dr. No is one of the films that holds up better than I remembered. Many of the elements that became staples of the series are introduced here, and it is a genuine thrill to see things like Bond's humor, brutality, and disarming smile for the first time. This film's "Bond, James Bond" moment is unequalled. The character of Dr. No is intriguing and the audience never really hates him (except maybe when he calls Bond “a stupid policeman”). He’s the best kind of bad guy - one with his own cause, who doesn’t simply act out of malice.
From Russia With Love is still, to me, the best in the series, and a template for what the films should be. Terrific locations, great villains, plenty of action and humor, a memorable score, as well as one of the best Bond girls of all, this is the movie the rest should have been copying.
Instead, they copied Goldfinger, which is not a bad thing at all. Goldfinger may lack the bigger picture its predecessor had (no references to SPECTRE or governments being pitted against one another), but it has more spectacle and clever gadgets, which do not yet strain the film's credibility, as later ones will. The villain is one of the most memorable in screen history, a man whose class we can admire even as we root for his downfall. It also has the best theme song in the bunch.
Thunderball was, until recently, the most successful Bond movie ever made (Skyfall has surpassed it at the box office), and it is a well-deserved honor. We can see that Bond is part of something larger than himself and at the same time, he’s the star in his organization. The movie’s got tons of style, elements of danger (that shark-infested pool still startles), space-age gadgetry (we’re still waiting for those flying jet packs), and a story that intrigues and, above all, makes sense.
You Only Live Twice was the first letdown in the series, albeit a slight one. It still has Connery, which goes a long way to saving it. But the movie’s reliance on the formulaic is evident, even as it strives to be different. Not putting Bond behind the wheel makes him a slightly weaker character, reliant on others. Kissy is a weak Bond girl, and one of the least memorable in the series. Still, Blofeld’s volcanic lair was cool, decades before it would be lampooned by the likes of Austin Powers. And Nancy Sinatra’s theme song is terrific; it’s a lasting tune that transcends its role as a movie theme song -- as effective as it is in the film, it was even more effective in the Season 5 finale of Mad Men in 2012.
The filmmakers must have known audiences would have a hard time taking someone other than Connery seriously in the role, because they made the rest of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service bulletproof. Telly Savalas is ideal as Blofeld, giving us the best interpretation of the character in the series. Diana Rigg - fresh from the (original) Avengers and playing a lost child at the end of the turbulent 60s - may give the best performance of any Bond girl. It almost seems unworthy of her to use the “Bond girl” label. George Lazenby isn’t a bad Bond, but he’s just not an actor, and it shows. OHMSS is famously one of Ian Fleming’s best books in the series, and the filmmakers live up to that, crafting an excellent film in spite of the absence of their star. (And let’s be fair, there’s no guarantee that Connery would have performed up to par had he been in this one; he was growing tired of the role, after all.)
The opening to Diamonds Are Forever is very exciting - Connery is back and looking for the man who killed his wife. However, the film quickly gives way to a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, so much so that the film starts to parody itself. More scenes are played for laughs than ever before. Also, the film’s principal location - Las Vegas - lacks the class of traditional Bond locations. In one sense, it’s fun to see Bond in such a place, but the gag gets old quickly. Charles Gray as Blofeld lacks the threat the other actors brought to the role. The movie seems like everyone involved had too much fun making it.
The advent of the Roger Moore years began with Live and Let Die, which was a better film than I remembered. There is a lot of humor - which Moore did so well - but the movie still manages to hang on to its sense of excitement and danger. The blacksploitation aspect of the film gives it an identity, and it’s refreshing to see a Bond movie without an abundance of white Europeans. At the end, with Moore clad in his black spy suit, attacking an island compound, we finally get a sense of Moore as a dangerous agent. Paul McCartney’s theme song is one of the three best the series has to offer.
The Man With the Golden Gun has a lot to like it in, not least of which is Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, perhaps the classiest villain the series has seen. But the movie falls into too many cliches and its humor is too broad. The bumbling blonde agent played by Britt Ekland is an unfortunate stereotype, and the return of Clifton James’ Sheriff J.W. Pepper is so forced that everyone in the audience had to groan “Oh, come on.”
If the series hit a few low peaks, it came roaring back with The Spy Who Loved Me. Billed at the time as “Jaws, Star Wars and Rocky all in one,” the movie hits all the right notes. It’s an exciting story - with more than a lot in common with You Only Live Twice - with Moore giving his best performance ever as Bond, Barbara Bach as perhaps the best Bond girl in the entire series, the return of a “destroy the world” villain, and the most memorable henchman since Oddjob in Jaws. The movie hits great locations all over the world, and contains an epic scope with the use of British, American and Russian naval crews. The result is one of the very best films in the entire series and the highlight of the Moore films. Carly Simon’s theme song is also in the top three.
Much has been said about the producers cynically making Moonraker in the wake of the success of Star Wars (especially when For Your Eyes Only had been announced as the next film); all of that is true. But for its faults, Moonraker is still a good entry in the series. The first two-thirds of the movie show Moore in good form, and Bond making his way around the globe. In fact, the scene in the Amazon rainforest of Iguazu Falls (later used in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and a dozen other movies) was the first time the location was used in a movie. The scenes in outer space may seem silly by the standards of some of the earlier Bond films (but certainly not all of them), but in comparison to other movies of late 70s and early 80s, it was practically science fact.
For Your Eyes Only was the next film, and it saw a return to a more serious spy caper, with less use of gadgets than previous films. It’s easily one of the best in Moore’s group of films. Carole Bouquet ends up being one of the best Bond girls we’ve seen; smart, fiercely independent and deadly when she wants to be.
Octopussy was one I remembered liking but it doesn’t hold up. There’s too much bad humor and awful stereotypes through the movie. The best parts of the film - the Russian general who is looking to start a war and Bond’s crossing the east-west border in Europe - are far shorter than I remembered. And scenes like dressing Moore in a clown’s outfit go on way too long. It’s also notable for portraying yet another American authority figure - in this case, the general on the German base - as a buffoon, something the series does time and again. Maud Adams is good as Octopussy, but she can’t save the movie from its cartoonish excesses.
A View To a Kill was the first movie in the series I remember being disappointed with immediately. From the opening scene, when Bond “surfs” to safety in the arctic while the Beach Boys sing “California Girls,” you know you’re in for a comedy. Patrick Macnee of the Avengers shows up, but is made the butt of a few jokes and dispatched. Tanya Roberts is perhaps the worst Bond girl ever, a constant damsel in distress who whines for Bond to save her. The movies start to have a distasteful element of sadism in them; seen here when Christopher Walken machine guns dozens of innocent miners. Even Moore was left unimpressed, as he says in his book.
Timothy Dalton’s first film, The Living Daylights, really brings the series some fresh air, and results in the most authentic spy movie since From Russia With Love. Dalton is great, showing Bond’s distaste for the more gruesome parts of his job, and reveling in the finer things. Once again, the American - Joe Don Baker’s Whittaker - is a stereotypical oaf.
Licence to Kill is one of the biggest disappointments in the series. Rather than continue and build on the greatness of the first Dalton movie, the filmmakers instead turned the Bond franchise into a generic revenge thriller with a brand name. And frankly, the series has never recovered from this - every film since has been one of those “This time it’s personal” missions. Bond was at his best when he was doing his job, not pursuing the agenda of a vigilante. Licence to Kill is full of sadistic moments, from Robert Davi’s Sanchez whipping his girlfriend and cutting out her lover’s heart, to making Anthony Zerbe’s head explode, to seeing Benico Del Toro’s character get chopped up. Machine guns are used very casually, and the body count - especially from Bond - is very high. Also gone are the villains with class. Sanchez is a drug dealer, and not a particularly bright one. There is no trace of the intelligence, wit or civilized nature of the earlier Bond bad guys.
Pierce Brosnan's first outing in Goldeneye was celebrated as a return of the series (after six years) and a return to form. It is not the latter. Nearly every scene in the movie ends in an explosion of some type, resulting in some of the biggest overkill in motion pictures. Famke Janssen's bad Bond girl is also too much, as is Izabella Scorupco's fake accent. Joe Don Baker once again plays the American for laughs. It's hard to find much in the film that doesn't go overboard, except maybe Judi Dench in her first appearance as M. Once again, the mission is personal for Bond, as he seeks justice and revenge after being betrayed. Brosnan's biggest problem in the role is evident: he's trying too hard. He wants the masculinity of Connery and the quick humor if Moore, not to mention the grit of a 90s action hero. It's a little forced, and, yes, too much.
Brosnan's next, Tomorrow Never Dies, is a welcome change. It's story reflects the megalomaniacs of the early films, but applied refreshingly to modern standards. Bad guy Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is powerful like the Rupert Murdochs of the world, and the film successfully portrays the present day implications of a run-amuck William Randolph Hearst. Michelle Yeoh provides one of the best Bond girls in the series, a female spy that is easily Bond's equal - or his better. Not since Barbara Bach's Anya Amasova have we seen a Bond girl this exciting. The movie is still personal for Bond with a former girlfriend used as a pawn. Brosnan seems more comfortable in the role and it goes to show that he is more than up to the task when the material is worthy of him and the series. Unfortunately, it would not be again.
A new writing team came along with The World Is Not Enough, and with them came some of the most convoluted plots the series had ever seen. Even upon multiple viewings, it's hard to make sense of them. Brosnan is back at his grimmest, and M inexplicably goes into the field where she is promptly captured. There's just too many implausible elements to this, not least of which is Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist. She delivers one of the worst Bond girl performances in the series, rivaling Tanya Roberts. Once again, the matter becomes personal for Bond, both because of the kidnapping of M and his romantic involvement with one of the film's villains. Brosnan's Bond can't help but get betrayed every movie and then get pissed off about it. The villain, Renard (Robert Carlyle), is perhaps the most forgettable in the series, and he exhibits not a fraction of the class previous Bond bad guys had. Is it necessary to make him a super-villain? Renard is a guy with some kind of shrapnel in his head that prevents him from feeling pain. Ultimately the film has a plot we can't comprehend, villains that don't move us and enough sadism to turn us off. And yet, it's not quite the lowest point to which the series will sink.
For 17 years, the answer to the question “What’s your least favorite James Bond movie?” was easy. It was A View To A Kill. But with 2002’s Die Another Day, we have a new, um, champion. The story is among the most complicated and implausible in any film series, the gadgets go way too far, the villains are just silly, and the acting is simply not good. One perplexing result of the movie is that Halle Berry often tops the list of fans’ favorite Bond girls, which is something I will never understand. She’s absolutely terrible. She overacts in every scene, and her character seems to have been created in an attempt to spin off another film series (an attempt that mercifully failed). Berry’s Jinx rivals Tanya Roberts’ Stacey as the worst in the series. The main villain turning himself from a North Korean into a charming Englishman would be implausible enough, but throw in Bond’s invisible car, MI6’s holodeck and Miss Moneypenny’s virtual Bond fantasy, and you have the worst film in the series. At least A View To A Kill had Roger Moore’s charm and a lively title song by Duran Duran. This one has Pierce Brosnan’s grim and glum Bond and a screeching, fingernails-on-chalkboard Madonna song.
News that the Bond series was being rebooted and the role recast was welcome, particularly after the last several movies. Daniel Craig is terrific in the role, the best interpretation since Sean Connery. Craig’s Bond is grimmer and less jovial, but he fits the times. Casino Royale - the first of Ian Fleming’s books - is a great place to start if you’re rebooting and as a film, this one is pretty great, although far from perfect. Where it stumbles is, again, the writing. The story - co-written yet again by Purvis and Wade - is very complicated, and when examined closely, has a lot of implausible moments. (Are we supposed to believe that Alex Dimitrios travels from the Bahamas to Florida in the middle of the night to deliver an airport security uniform?) On the plus side, Eva Green is a great Bond girl, one of the better ones in the series. Her relationship with Bond is one of the few genuine romances in the series. Mads Mikkelsen is a great villain, too, and the fact that he ends up being small potatoes amid a larger organization is a great move, reminiscent of From Russia With Love. The action in Casino is terrific, and the poker scenes have a great tension to them (although switching baccarat for Texas hold-em seems like dumbing-down the story). Despite some shortcomings, Casino Royale is an exciting new beginning for the series, as well as one of the best films the series produced in 20 or 30 years.
Whatever the reasons, the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was a disappointment. Blame the writers’ strike of 2008 or the writing team of Purvis and Wade (again) or a young, inexperienced director, or the short amount of time between films. Craig is once again very good as Bond, but since this film directly follows the conclusion of the last, Bond’s grim mood from the end of Casino carries through this entire movie. Gone are the exotic locales - the movie takes place in slums and docks, and concludes in a desert. The story is yet again a personal one for Bond, as he tries to track down the organization responsible for his first love’s fate. Olga Kurylenko’s Bond girl is as dour as Bond, and she’s also out for revenge. It’s practically a coincidence that Bond’s mission has relevance to the British government. Mathieu Almaric’s villain Dominick Greene is a pretty generic bad guy for modern films, and not worthy of a James Bond film. The editing of the film is so fast-paced that the viewer often has no idea what’s happening (which is a common occurrence in modern film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck). The action sequences suffer from the editing, as well as not measuring up to the previous film. The best things about the movie are Craig and Gemma Arterton in a too-brief appearance. Ultimately, the film isn’t terrible, but simply forgettable.
A lot of praise was heaped on Skyfall before and after its release. And it's a good movie, well made, well acted, with a great song by Adele over the opening credits. I'm just not sure it's a great James Bond movie, despite displacing Thunderball as the most successful in the series. Once again the mission is personal for Bond, and he's without any real romantic interest in this one. Most of the film finds Bond - yet again - acting outside the business of MI6, and - once again - pitted against a renegade agent. Aren't there any megalomaniacs left in the world? The film also tells us too much about Bond's backstory. We should never really know who his parents were, or who raised him. The film is relentlessly dark and without any humor. The ending of the film promises a return to the classic Bond formula of the earliest pictures. That's a promise the film makers of Bond 24 should try very hard to keep.