This is the first of what will likely be multiple articles on the subject of James Bond. I am something of a 007 junkie. I haven’t read the Ian Fleming novels, but I’ve seen every single movie (including the spinoffs) and there are some that I’ve seen so many times, I can point out censorship of action sequences in TV viewings. I own nearly all of the films on DVD; I played the crap out of Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 and I also played the crap out of Agent Under Fire & Nightfire for the original Xbox. I know the films in order from Dr. No to Skyfall, including the years they were released, and November is also one of my favorite months because SpikeTV airs every Bond film at least once.
Have I made myself clear enough? V…LOVES…JAMES…BOND.
Having run a whopping total of 23 films in a period of fifty years, James Bond is the longest running film series in history and the second highest grossing film series behind Harry Potter. In official capacity (as in, not including David Niven), Bond has been played by six actors:
- Sean Connery (1962 – 1967, 1971) 6 films
- George Lazenby (1969) 1 film
- Roger Moore (1973 – 1985) 7 films
- Timothy Dalton (1987 – 1989) 2 films
- Pierce Brosnan (1995 – 2002) 4 films
- Daniel Craig (2006 – present) 3 films
For those who don’t know, Sean Connery quit the role of Bond after You Only Live Twice. The role was filled by Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but that was just for the one film and Connery returned to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever.
James Bond films have not only been one of the best sources of spy-thriller entertainment, but they have also been a source of education for millions of children. My mother, who grew up in India once told me that before she came to the States in 1980, James Bond was her world tour guide. The stories have taken place, and indeed have also been filmed, in dozens of exotic locations from England to Venice to St. Petersburg to Egypt to India to Saigon to the Americas and everywhere in between. Bond has taken down a villain and made love to a woman in just about every major city in the entire world. He’s also done both of these things in space. He is an icon of western Cold War heroism and his movies represent the evolution of the entire action genre over the course of film history.
One of the biggest discussions and debates dispensed throughout the 007 fan community is not just “what is your favorite Bond film?”, but also “who is your favorite Bond actor?” That’s what this article will be about.
To effectively characterize the quality of acting portrayals of James Bond, one must understand the very nature of Bond’s character. As such, they can be broken down into four major categories.
For the record, this is just my opinion, so decide for yourself if I’m worth listening to or not.
Bond is a smooth charmer. He is the ultimate man that all men want to be and all women want to have…at least once. His mannerisms ooze confidence; he moves with natural stylistic fluidity and he is a shameless deliverer of hilarious puns. Suave is what makes 007 the sexiest man in the world and any actor who wishes to truly convince us that he is James Bond cannot do so without a strong grasp of that trait.
Suave is furthermore the characteristic that defines his relationship with women. He pursues women he can’t have or shouldn’t be pursuing, and he very cruelly turns down women that he can have. But he gets away with it because he’s James Bond.
- Pierce Brosnan – From his movements, his relaxation, and his relative ease of task at hand, no matter what it was, Brosnan exemplified this characteristic of James Bond to a degree of perfection that no other actor could match. This by itself is the reason so many people in my generation rank Brosnan as their favorite James Bond overall. On this category, he’s more than earned it. He even had the best gun barrel openings too.
- Sean Connery – His signature moment of suave was given upon his very first introduction in the beginning of Dr. No when delivered his name in a manner so wonderfully charming it still gives me goosebumps to this day: “Bond…James Bond.”
- Daniel Craig – This is controversial. However, the reason I put him up here is because I believe it is worth emphasizing that Craig is extremely undeserving of his biggest criticism. Having directly followed Brosnan’s body of work, Craig has been viewed with mild contempt for his rougher and more reckless/immature portrayal of Bond. It’s understandable that people would say this, but not necessarily measuring up to Brosnan’s suave is not the same as not having any. Craig possesses a suave that fewer people recognize as quintessential James Bond. You will find it in his action sequences, something that Craig has done quite a lot of in his films because the quantity and intensity level of stylistic action is one of the things Bond films have consistently gotten better at.
- Roger Moore – His suave is very fittingly British. While it isn’t within a ten foot pole of Brosnan or Connery, it’s good enough for the audience to get used to and accept comfortably that we are indeed still watching James Bond, a good thing to do when you expect us to stick with you for seven films.
- Timothy Dalton – Nothing wrong with him; I consider Dalton to be underrated even if he doesn’t quite measure up to the others. He had a natural likability to him.
- George Lazenby – Just about everything that could go wrong with Lazenby did go wrong with him. He has absolutely no charm, no charisma, and no warmth to character.
An interesting piece of trivia on the subject is that James Bond as Ian Fleming originally illustrated/pictured him actually looks like a cross between Dalton & Lazenby. See it?
You can watch action anywhere. The reason people love Bond so much is because you aren’t just watching action; you’re watching James Bond in action – a key distinction.
007’s license to kill isn’t just so that he can kill when he’s out of options. 007 is a killer. Bond accepts that it is his job to fight the Cold War, which sometimes includes killing. But the reason this is a characteristic of acting is because it is very physically demanding. 007 doesn’t just shoot people or blow them up. He is extremely skilled in hand-to-hand combat. No actor can possibly pretend to be James Bond without having mastered the kicking of butts.
- Daniel Craig – The time curve is tilted very much in his favor, but Craig is absolutely the best action star in the James Bond series. Craig plays a young pugnacious reckless hot-shot stuntman James Bond. As I mentioned earlier, Craig’s suave of Bond is in the action sequences. He makes the brutality of the fight look easy and he emerges from every battle battered and scarred but clearly the winner. Skyfall in particular has some of the best action I’ve seen in any movie all year.
- Sean Connery – His films are the oldest and thus they are also the most overtly fake and over-the-top action-wise, but Connery sells it. Ridiculous action sequences can be a lot of fun when they’re executed in a relatable way. His fight sequences are gritty and personal, with my favorite among them being the train fight in From Russia With Love. And after emerging victorious, he is most certainly deserving of the woman he inevitably puts his mouth on.
- Roger Moore – His fights were nothing special but like his suave, Moore executed the role of Bond effectively enough in the combat so that no one batted an eye. He got progressively better at the action role too, and that merits consideration.
- George Lazenby This is also controversial. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the worst and most despicable Bond film in the pack but the action wasn’t the problem. In fact, as an Australian martial arts instructor who once trained with Bruce Lee, Lazenby carried out the few hand-to-hand stunts very nicely. The fights had the grittiness of the predecessor films with the ease of skillful victory. Lazenby may fail at everything else, but the one thing he did right was in the thrill of the fight.
- Timothy Dalton – Again, nothing wrong with him; he’s still good, just not as good as the others. I actually really liked the way Dalton played out the action with an air of frustration and exhaustive physical exertion and from every fight emerged with a bloody lip and tattered clothing.
- Pierce Brosnan – Too few people recognize that Brosnan was actually quite terrible at the action. He did fine in the shootouts and in the vehicle chases but in hand to hand, he couldn’t sell it. He was very lacking in terms of control and dominance over the situations and it was as if the only reason he would prevail is because he was saved by the virtue of playing the character of James Bond. Doesn’t work that way; you have to own the role of Bond, not the other way around.
Quality of the Film
This is the most unusual category, but the reason it’s necessary is because James Bond is a franchise. Not all 23 of the films were going to be good. Indeed there are fantastic films (Goldeneye), good films (Moonraker), mediocre films (A View to a Kill), bad films (Live and Let Die), and execrable piles of garbage (Majesty’s Secret Service). So the question is – do you judge a Bond actor based on the quality of his films? I say, yes, but it depends foremost on how much the actor had to do with the film being good or bad. And of course the scales are a little unfair too because some actors have had more chances than others to prove their skill at portraying our favorite master spy.
- Sean Connery – He has played Bond in six films (not counting Never Say Never Again) and none of the six films have been bad. In fact, they’ve all been at least good and more than one of them remain high and mighty on the list of my favorites. And Connery was definitely part of what made those films awesome.
- Roger Moore – This is where it gets interesting. One of the reasons I rank him where he stands is because I attribute his success with Bond to the quality of the movies he was in more-so than to his individual performance. That is not to say that Roger Moore is a bad James Bond; far from it. But Moore has been in both good films and bad films. His best film by far is The Spy Who Loved Me. His worst film by far is Live and Let Die, despite having an awesome introductory song. The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and Octopussy are all good. A View To A Kill is mediocre leaning on bad, also despite having an awesome introductory song. Thankfully, that was Moore’s last one but his run with James Bond was overall very good. Moore is forced to take at least some of the credit for these films, given that they are the examples by which we judge him, but ultimately, Moore was the most consistently formulaic of the actors. He was never the reason these films were good or bad, and it’s primarily due to his lack of failure that he gets this spot.
- Daniel Craig – Quantum of Solace was a film kneecapped by the writers strike and its finished product was just more of a clunky action film with James Bond in it than an actual Bond film. However, Casino Royale and Skyfall not only make up for it, they actually elevate Quantum by simple association. The ratio is 2:3 for excellent Bond films.
- Pierce Brosnan – He was in four films. One was fantastic, two were good, and one was bad. In the beginning he was very comfortable with the role. By the end of his tenure, he looked tired and quite worn out. The other problem is that in all but one of the films (Die Another Day), the woman he hooked up with earlier was prettier/more alluring than the actual Bond girl of the film. Don’t get me wrong; I love Michelle Yeoh, but in Tomorrow Never Dies, she doesn’t hold a candle to Teri Hatcher.
- Timothy Dalton – He’s been in one good movie (License to Kill) and one bad one (The Living Daylights). But Dalton wasn’t the reason they were good or bad. I just wish he could have been in more.
- George Lazenby – In dead last is the star of the execrable pile of garbage that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The most depressing part of that is that Majesty’s Secret Service is widely considered to be one of Ian Fleming’s best books and certainly it has one of the most importantly character-defining events in James Bond’s life. But it didn’t work. This is one film that I think actually deserves a remake. C’mon, Eon Productions; if you remade Casino Royale and made it better, you can remake this one too.
When he’s on the mission, he’s 007; when he’s with a woman, he’s Bond…James Bond; and when he’s alone and doing neither, he’s him.
This is the most important category for James Bond’s acting. As has hopefully been understood by his aforementioned characteristics, 007 is a man with a self-constructed cold exterior.
However, when you strip that away – remove the armor, there is an actual human being under there – someone with deep flaws but ultimately a good heart. James Bond has his moments of deep emotional vulnerability and moral self-catharsis. He also has his moments of misogyny and foolishness. The humanity of Bond doesn’t always emerge in film, but when it does, the actor better have something to show for it.
- Daniel Craig – He had a few refreshingly humane moments in Quantum of Solace but in Casino Royale, Craig personified the humanity Bond to a degree of perfection that even Connery had never risen to. He started out as a young and hard-edged Bond and transcended over the course of the film to a still quite reckless Bond, but (in the words of a friend of mine) one deeply wounded by heartbreak and loss and one with a sizable chip on his shoulder. Before Skyfall, I had him ranked one below Sean Connery. But it turned out that his run in Casino wasn’t just a one-time thing – that Craig is actually extremely capable of playing James Bond as one evolving to maturity. Skyfall is a gem of a film and it is because of that film + Casino, I have ranked him above Connery.
- Sean Connery – He takes second prize by just a squeak. As an actor, Connery synchronized himself with James Bond’s character to a tee. He understood how Bond thought, how he felt, and how he would naturally act. And he didn’t personify Bond by telling us; he did it by showing us. There was a deep emotional vigor in his character that shone in every single one of his films and for now, that remains the standard of emulation.
- Pierce Brosnan – There are few moments in James Bond history that can top the depressing sincerity of his performance in one particular scene in Goldeneye where he is sitting on a beach with a woman beside him; she asks him how he can be so cold, and Bond replies by saying, “It’s what keeps me alive.” The scene is powerful because he essentially demonstrates that despite all the glamor around him, whatever part of him that would’ve succeeded in connecting with someone in a meaningful way died a long time ago because of the demands of his job.
- Roger Moore – While Brosnan stole the spotlight of just a few awesome scenes in a couple of movies, Roger Moore is second only to Daniel Craig in terms of portraying a James Bond with a chip on his shoulder. There are profound moments in more than a few of his films (Golden Gun, Spy, & Octopussy)where Bond is quite clearly and justifiably bitter. Moore pulled it off very well.
- Timothy Dalton – And once again, nothing wrong with Dalton. He was only given two films to perform in, and only in one of them did he actually have any kind of human moments, though I respect the films for trying. Dalton played a more mature and gentlemanly Bond, one considerably more…well considerate and less misogynistic overall. It was nice to see, but his films suffer from problems that would require another article to dive into.
- George Lazenby – He did not have the emotional range as an actor and according to the man himself, Bond was too brutish and fictitiously cold blooded for him. So Lazenby takes last…no surprise there.
It should therefore come as no surprise that these are the final rankings.
- Daniel Craig
- Sean Connery
- Pierce Brosnan
- Roger Moore
- Timothy Dalton
- George Lazenby