A new James Bond film is coming out. It will be the twenty-fifth film in the franchise, now nearing sixty years of age, and the last picture to star the sixth actor to have played 007. We may have reached a point where such a prospect no longer excites us. But just in case we haven’t, here’s a ranking of all the Bond films from worst to best.
Eon Bond films only. That means that both Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983) are not on the list.
Of the 24 films, the good ones are worth all the muck and failures in the world (and boy do some of those bad ones fail hard), and they’re worthy of respect because films are really difficult things to make. If you want a basic arc of the franchise: the 60s are the core, the 70s were a departure, the 80s were a mixed bag, the 90s brought it back largely by remaking the 60s, and the new century is another mixed bag in the service of post-modern stupidity.
Every single one of you is going to disagree with me over at least one of the placements here. That’s okay! But just to make sure that my list is understood, here are a few larger thoughts to keep in mind as you read it.
James Bond does not need deconstruction. He does not need an overly elaborate explanation or justification for existing. There are some films that manage to do that thoughtfully, and we’ll talk about that down the list. But Bond films work because at their best they operate by a simple and enjoyable serial formula.
The formula proceeds like this. Some cartoonish villain initiates his dastardly plan. Bond, fresh off some glamorous assignment or mount, reports to MI-6 and is given the task of investigating it. After meeting the villain socially and making a strong enough impression to get at least one henchman after him, Bond must conduct further espionage, often by infiltrating the pants of the villain’s trophy woman, learn the big plan, and stop it at the eleventh hour. During the course of doing so, he has usually met at least one other woman – someone closer to an equal in one way or another – who he has either grown fond of or is begrudgingly working with. And by the end, MI-6 walks in on him making love to her right next to the villain’s corpse.
Where did this formula come from? The novels, of course, but the more practical answer is that it came about in cinema by trial and error. If you read a book without any of the films in mind, you get something closer to a British-ized Raymond Chandler noir detective novel, infused with the memory of World War II and against the backdrop of the Cold War. The sex he has, usually with married women, is so cold and casual that it goes with barely a mention. And when Bond gets hurt in the books, he bleeds and aches for days on end. Kitchy gadgets and innuendo names aside, Bond himself was inspired from Fleming’s own brother Peter and other British intelligence officers with whom he served during World War II.
The first Bond novel – Casino Royale – was published in 1953, the same year that saw Marilyn Monroe featured on the first issue of Playboy Magazine. The attitude of Playboy was that high-brow philosophies and culture could be found between the naked photographs like a Rosetta stone inscription in the cleavage, and therefore once all the centerfolds’ and playmate’s pages couldn’t be opened anymore, you could still find quality reading material. Hugh Hefner, the founder and original Playboy himself, was considered in his day to be the “new” Renaissance man of class; connoisseur of literature, music, art, and gregarious sophistication who had his pick of the beauties in the new era of American prosperity. Sean Connery’s James Bond, then, may have been an adaptation of a British novel, but it was also a British appropriation of a concept from its American counterpart. That is one of the reasons why Dr. No was chosen by Eon as the first Fleming novel to be adapted into film. The book was a dud in England, but it sold like hot cakes in the States in large part because of the sex.
The other part of Bond that emulated Playboy were the girls. It’s a strange thing to fathom in today’s unenlightened time, but the James Bond film franchise was one of the key cultural touchstones of the sexual revolution. You might think those old girls look like exploited objects now, but the actresses who played them in their day considered it fresh and empowering the same way today’s actress considers an action role in a Marvel movie to be.
In other words, the fact that James Bond is a cartoonish man himself is neither a damaging revelation nor something that warrants obsessive modernizing or correction in any way. That was the point.
Continuity in the Bond franchise is an odd and inconsistent thing. Most people who have seen the franchise watched the films out of order, and that’s okay. I did too. What that also means is that people saw Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn – the longest continuous cast of the films – at various different ages and with different presentations where the only point of consistency is their presence itself.
The first five films had a near-unbroken continuity and buildup to Connery’s Bond (with an army behind him) battling the SPECTRE organization. After that, the films largely had to construct their own stakes and exigencies on their own until the Craig era. On the one hand, that gave them a stronger standalone quality. On the other, one of the reasons there are so many terrible films in the Bond franchise is that without even a minimal sense of story continuity, what many of them tried to do in order to retain a sense of familiarity with the rest was to just repeat those familiar staples mindlessly.
What Bond is, much more than a plot, is an experience. Bond’s confidence and swagger inspire the same for nervous virgins all over the world. My mother traveled the world through the Bond films before she was able to travel it in real life. His movies are also time capsules for bygone eras, bending and reshaping to fit with changing times and cultures. The stunts performed in Bond films inspire people to try it in real life.
So the ranking below is not only based on plot, but also the equally important question of what kind of experience these films give us.
With that out of the way, let’s begin. Start counting backwards.
#24: “Quantum of Solace” (2009)
There is nowhere else for this movie to sit than in the special electric chair reserved for the worst of the worst. I argue a lot with friends about the merits of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and even I have to admit that they can win simply by pointing to this and reminding me that the Eon studio actually allowed it to bear its name. Maybe it’s because it had the word “Quantum” in its name, which sounds scientific and quizzical.
Time has done both good and bad things to our beloved JB, but one thing made clear by Quantum is that there is no reason for Bond to even exist if there isn’t a difference between him and other JBs like Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer, especially when both of them were just past the height of their popularity.
It’s a rushed, ugly, nonsensical assault upon the senses, and perhaps the only thing you can say for it is that so little of it has anything to do with the things we love about Bond that it is easy to forget it exists.
So let’s go ahead and do that as we move onto the next torture-fest also known as…
#23: “Die Another Day” (2002)
This movie is bad enough to kill any franchise in the unfortunate position of having to include it in its membership. You could survive #24 provided everyone just agrees to do what I’ve already done and forget its entire existence. But Die Another Day leaves just enough of a grotesque impression like shrapnel to the face that we remember it to the point that we wished we died on the day we saw it.
Pierce Brosnan was a fine enough James Bond in his day, but by Die Another Day he looked old, half capable, and dead inside. So of course the movie brilliantly put him in a fencing outfit and had him dance with the villain. Speaking of the villain, it should have been an international crime to have hired such an incredible actor as Toby Stephens – himself known for having portrayed James Bond himself in the BBC – and having him play a North Korean in literal whiteface. But as we’ll see again, racism is not an uncommon characteristic among the worst Bond entries.
Yet what makes Die Another Day even worse outside of how boring, unfunny, and wasted every part of it feels as a movie, let alone a franchise movie, is the fact that it sinks the Bond franchise to even further depths by misappropriating some of the most interesting parts of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker novel, widely considered to be one of the best books in that series. Okay, maybe I’m the only one who finds that offensive, given that it was the first Bond novel I read. What does it think about these things? The clearest answer can be found in the Moneypenny masturbation sequence, which…
No, I can’t live and let live with it, so let’s move on again.
#22: “Live and Let Die” (1973)
Well, I mentioned racism earlier, and sure enough that’s all over this one. Blaxploitation era excuses aside, it’s pretty hard to justify a single frame of this absurd romp, even when Jane Seymour is in them. But you can’t think of her Solitaire in this film without remembering that the way Bond tricks her into bed is by playing on her reverence for tarot cards, which even ultimate ladykiller Alec Trevelyan would find pathetic. This is, almost mercifully, the only memorable scene in the film, other than J.W. Sheriff (maybe it’s not racist if every race looks stupid and buffoonish?) and Pincer Guy. These are not the things you would usually want people to remember about your film.
It was Sir Roger Moore’s first go at playing James Bond, and as bad as the film is it’s hard to blame him for any of it. He played it smoothly and comfortably, giving the best “My name is Bond… James Bond” introduction of at least his own era and mastering the puns right away. That is not easy to do when seemingly everything is working against you. Part of the problem is that although Live and Let Die was the second Fleming novel, the Caribbean adventure and SCUBA diving thriller stuff had already been done before. So of course, the movie did the logical thing by setting the whole dull affair in a shark-infested Louisiana swamp and giving one of the henchmen a prosthetic pincer. Because pirates… or something?!
The theme song was pretty good, though.
#21: “Spectre” (2015)
Now that we’re a sixth of the way in, let me make a confession. This movie would probably be ranked even lower on the list than it is were it not for the fact that I’ve modified the way I write these lists in order to use them for greater themes to enhance our understanding of these films.
Maybe the only worse thing you can do than twist your iconic hero into something he doesn’t belong in for the sake of an utterly miserable experience is to overthink your hero to such a painful degree that you destroy anything else in your movie that may have worked. That is largely what happened in Spectre.
It combines into itself a mesh of everything that made the Daniel Craig era of Bond one of the worst in the history of the franchise, even with two of the entries being far higher up on this list than they have any right to be. To be sure, the problem is not that it wants to be a beat-for-beat Marvel movie but with James Bond. The prior movie copied into itself half the themes of The Dark Knight. #8 on this list was only made the way it was in the first place because of Star Wars. And #6 is an Alfred Hitchcock movie (no peeking!). A James Bond movie can model itself off of anything. That doesn’t mean it has to be so drab, dreary, and depressed. It also does not mean that it can only make sense if the entire universe folds into itself, beginning and ending with a petty sibling rivalry in Bond’s past, whereupon the villain changes his name to the name of Bond’s fifty-year-old nemesis with whom he has no connection simply because the movie wants to drop the name of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Maybe the next film will explain how his cat was fathered in the street by the runaway cat in the Oberhauser house to whom young Bond was once rude to.
The only reason I know of anything that does this exact story worse is because Zero Punctuation told me about the video game Ride to Hell: Retribution.
There’s missing the point of a Bond movie and then there’s missing it from satellite orbit. When you do the serious version of what the franchise spoofing you did as a joke, you’d think it would occur to you that no one is laughing with you anymore. But what else can you expect from a studio that can’t seem to envision James Bond as anything other than a regrettable, malleable social condition who suffers a mid-life crisis while still wearing his training girdle?
#20: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
Speaking of girdles, I badly needed one the first time I watched this movie. I needed both a straightjacket and a supply of oxygen to get me through it. There is nothing in this film, save for one halfway decent ski slope chase, that works. The main villain, fresh off his escape from the lair Bond blew up in the prior film, apparently lost all memory of having ever interacted with Bond and now for some reason cares about titles of royalty. None of this is explained or given sense. It plays as a satire while pretending that this is the most earnest, personal Bond story ever. As filmmakers today have largely figured out, a movie usually works better when it’s exactly the opposite.
It’s a funny coincidence that the ungrateful and utterly incapable George Lazenby went from starring in the then-untouchable and insurmountable male porn series to being featured twenty-five years later in a French female porn series. He remains the most unpolished actor ever to have played James Bond (even Daniel Craig cut his teeth on Road to Perdition and Munich) and did that in a movie that was entirely about Bond’s relationship with English royalty. Again, the irony is palpable. It’s like casting a chair to play a marathon runner and then telling us no, you aren’t actually kidding.
I can usually look past a forced romance. I wouldn’t have written what I have about the Star Wars Prequels if I couldn’t. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that the concept of the romance as featured here was one of the healthiest things that could ever happen to a character like Bond, and that the venerable Diana Rigg did as good a job as she could to make it work. But just like #21 can’t look past its self-parodying mesh of stupid to make the magic blossom from other things in it that might have been fine otherwise, OHMSS has the same problem. So we have a movie that has what should probably be the greatest ending to any Bond movie now and forever… and all it’s worth is a ski chase and the last five minutes provided you have in your mind an entirely different James Bond than was portrayed here.
All the time in the world? Sure felt like it.
#19: “License To Kill” (1989)
In an alternate universe, Timothy Dalton might be the best James Bond ever. That alternate universe consists of some wildly different events from reality, such as this stupid movie never existing in the first place.
It was a movie that was bad in its time and is even worse today because the rivals of its era have been elevated to a camp of nostalgia it could never hope to reach. Dalton’s Bond was too thin and stiff a British Boy Scout (this is not a criticism) to compete with the vulgar everyman appeal of Bruce Willis as John McClane, the roaring aspirational physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, or Sylvester Stallone’s raging jungle warrior Rambo who still found the time to make lighthearted quips like: “Don’t look at me, look at the road. That’s how accidents happen.” Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, who George Lucas created as an all-American answer to Bond, also had our man outmatched in that decade.
But while he never had a chance, the key mistake License to Kill makes is that you can feel it trying harder and harder with every passing second to compete with them anyway. The movie features multiple deaths by shark, a man’s head exploding in a pressure chamber, and another man being devoured by a rock shredder. How in god’s name can a movie with these things be so boring?
#18: “A View To A Kill” (1985)
Everything about this movie is redundant, including the theme song’s artist.
In the first season of the show Chuck, the main character chooses this film as the first Bond movie to show a kid his age who has never seen one. For the life of me, I cannot understand why. Oh it made sense in the episode since they spent a couple minutes debating the merits of Max Zorin as villain or misunderstood hero, which applied also to the kid. But the irony of that is that the show gave that movie a strange kind of respect that A View to a Kill barely gave to itself. I mentioned at the beginning that the 80s was a mixed bag, which means that the only reason to look fondly upon most of the films of that decade are because of nostalgia. If Roger Moore was your first Bond not because of his late 70s picture but because of these… well, I hope you have more patience than people had for him in 1985 trying to pass as a high-altitude daredevil in his late 50s.
Even the idea of this being someone’s first Bond adventure is absurd. Roger Moore was 57 years old when shooting it. It’s the kind of movie you wouldn’t even consider releasing until a decade after retirement and the book is closed on the franchise. If you needed to get the band back together one last time before someone important died, A View to a Kill would still be pretty bad, but far more easily forgiven as a cheeky reunion for its own sake and nothing more.
But beyond that, what it goes to show (and we’ll come back to this) is that Director John Glen, who directed every single 1980s Bond film, had a decent eye for spectacle but was only as good as the scripts he was given.
#17: “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)
A friend of mine puts this as the best “bad” Bond film. I disagree, but he’s got an argument. It has a gangbusters car chase (1971 was full of those – Vanishing Point, Le Mans, Le Casse, Duel, The French Connection, The Last Run, Dirty Harry, Two Lane Blacktop, and THX 1138) that was far better than any before it in the Bond franchise. It holds up today as well, though that’s the only good reason I can think of to actually watch this movie, other than this moment.
In reality, Sean Connery should never have returned as James Bond. I know that sounds like blasphemy, given that he’s the best Bond ever, but up until that point his career with the character was untouchable (pun intended). It will be a while until he’s mentioned again, so as long as I’m making fun of him, let me add one more point: had he not done this, we might look somewhat differently upon Never Say Never Again, which, appropriately enough, came out just before #18.
Other than that, what else is there to say? Tiffany Case is one of the worst Bond girls in the franchise. I’m not even sure I should mention Blofeld, except to say that his Willard White impression was at least an improvement over J.W. Sheriff. This movie is stupidly goofy and tone deaf to the point that it would make more sense if the title character was Inspector Gadget. It is certainly not a girl’s best friend.
#16: “Octopussy” (1983)
Maybe I’m wrong, and actually this is the best bad Bond. It’s certainly not good. I cannot remember a thing about the plot. I think diamonds are involved again. And I don’t know whose idea it was to make Maud Adams a lead girl. After how well she did before, giving her more to do was probably the opposite solution especially when she is surrounded by better candidates for the girl. And I cannot hope to defend Bond in a clown costume (though I might point out that there’s another movie higher on this list where the “disguise” he dons is far worse).
But it’s a whimsical little adventure and I just can’t hate it, especially since it’s the first movie on the list so far to have a truly great opening sequence. More on that in a bit…
No, the real reason this movie is this high is because of just one impossible scene. One moment of glorious stunt work that may be the most impressive thing that has ever been done by anyone in this series. Stunts are sometimes so good that they can save a bad film or elevate a good one to heights of greatness it otherwise might not deserve. More on that also in a bit…
#15: “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1975)
This is the best bad Bond movie, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. Is it bad? You bet. Mary Goodnight is an even worse Bond girl than Tiffany Case, and the wisest choice it makes with Maud Adams is to kill her. It features the unwelcome return of Sheriff J.W., and doubles down on him by including him in the big chase. Nearly every movie in this franchise reacts in some way to the audience reception of the previous film, but apparently no one figured out that when someone like Maud Adams or Pepperjack Cop here (if you want to see that character done right, watch Smokey and the Bandit) isn’t working, featuring more of them does not improve things.
But can you really hate a movie that much for these things when it gives you something this endearingly stupid?
Golden Gun is a terrible movie that I kind of love if only because it allows me in writing about it to use both spellings of the word du@l. Its plot is all about setting up a traditional pistol duel and it slathers itself in contemporary martial arts action movie tropes (Enter the Dragon premiered in ’73) in order to do it, which makes the weirdest amount of sense. But it’s also a dual experience, featuring both some of the most impish humor (literally, given the presence of Nick Nack) I’ve ever seen in a Bond movie, along with one deftly serious acting turn by Roger Moore in this scene right here.
I don’t know how that scene ended up in such an otherwise silly film, but the only reason it works is because the movie featured Christopher Lee – lightning in a bottle incarnate. You can and should forget everything else there is in the film, yet at the end of the day, there he stands making beauty out of ugliness, gravity out of hot air, and art from trash.
#14: “For Your Eyes Only” (1981)
The opening of #16 and the opening of this movie should have switched places. If you don’t remember it, well…
It’s an opening so ridiculous that it belongs in a far stupider movie. But Eyes Only is an intelligent and enjoyable one. It brings the formula back to the basics from the realm of the camp and absurd, and you can’t argue with Julian Glover as the main villain. Glover auditioned once for the role of Bond and lost the part to Moore, which makes sense because there isn’t a single person who would look at Glover and not think that he has the perfect build and face of an enemy. Actually, Eyes Only features two actors who would later go on to be in the ill-fated Game of Thrones – the other being Charles Dance. Yup, he’s in there too.
What sinks Eyes Only to the mid-tier is not only the opening, but the ice skater girl who has no personality of any kind except to tell us that she is not a virgin. As we’ll see soon enough, it’s not crazy to put Bond in a romance with a woman who looks like she’s barely past the first d in “adulthood.” But if you’re going to do it, can she at least serve a purpose beyond auditioning for amateur porn? It feels like we the audience are babysitting her too, even though the movie doesn’t take up too much time with it.
Anyway, apart from those things the movie is good. One of the highlights of the Moore era, and probably the film he should have chosen as his last Bond.
#13: “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)
Speaking of films actors should have ended their Bond careers with, welcome to remake town! Yes, the Brosnan era is the era of subtle, unofficial remakes of Bond movies. You might not have noticed it, but that’s why you have me to tell you about it.
There is a boat chase in the opening of this picture that is by itself one of the best action sequences in any Bond film. The rest of the picture is a mixed bag. It’s reaching for worldliness and consciousness of the Caspian energy race, and weaves in billionaire banker games too, but it also feels like a video game. Then again, maybe I’m saying that only because I played the video game almost as much as I played… the other big Bond video game.
The decision to cast Denise Richards to play a nuclear physicist remains one of the most embarrassing decisions any studio has ever made about any movie. But other than that, this movie is essentially a soft remake of #20 with Stockholm Syndrome and a much better ski sequence.
What makes it work through so much of its unintelligible and distracted plotting (it all makes much more sense on the second viewing, which in this case is not exactly a point in its favor) is the transparency of Elektra King’s villainy. Sophie Marceau is a lovely actress but in this ironic way her performance is worse than Richards’s. Yet that plus the action, David Arnold’s score, Robbie Coltrane, and the stupid jokes all come together and save the movie.
#12: “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)
It took me a long time to figure out the things this movie doesn’t do well. In the end, I came up with three of them.
Dr. Kaufman is given far too much characterization for the one scene where he is both introduced and then killed, only for us to be told later on how much he meant to Stamper and what he was doing in the Carver organization. A wasted effort for such a mediocre henchman.
The opening sequence is oddly lacking for Bond, mainly because he doesn’t enter it until several minutes in, even though other people are talking then and there about the things he is doing and observing on his mission. That seems like a trivial criticism, but it always bothered me since the very first time I saw it. Going the more complex route when the simple one is easy is not exactly a foreign option for these films, but all he does is shoot in and out like a literal version of the joke he told Famke Jensen’s character in the previous. Obviously not every opening needs to relate directly to the main story, but since this one does, and since so much of it is about what Bond himself is doing, shouldn’t we see more of him? Like – that compound is in a dense mountain range. How did he get there? Did he ski? Am I really going to have to rely on the old PlayStation game to fill in the blanks here?
The other issue is that silly rooftop motorcycle chase in Saigon. But Tomorrow Never Dies is vastly ahead of its time. We are firmly in good movie territory now, and this one in particular, despite being essentially a remake of #7, has oddly thoughtful politics that take the old SPECTRE villain keen on playing both sides for personal profit and apply its crazy machinations to the post-Cold War world. Is Elliott Carver too much of a cartoonish Bond villain? A little, yes. But today he is everywhere and easily recognizable. It was also how I learned about William Randolph Hearst. Look him up.
#11: “Skyfall” (2012)
Sam Mendes’s artsy sensibilities are hit or miss. American Beauty is horrendous, Road to Perdition is an uncelebrated masterpiece, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road are more weird than they are either good or bad, and 1917 is a movie betrayed by its own visual concept. Then of course, there is the sequel to this very movie, which was already discussed in #21.
The thing about #21 is that it makes Skyfall both better and worse by association. Had the origin trilogy for Bond ended here, there would be an easy argument for this movie being in the top 5. Certain films are, however unfairly, partially defined by when they release and what relationship they have to the prior and subsequent movies. They don’t just air in a vacuum, and Skyfall is very much out there insofar as its visuals largely depart the rest of the franchise. Even #21 feels a bit more conventional in the sense that not every reference to the past feels like a gag.
But the flavors of Skyfall are appropriate and justified by the themes of the film, however much they copy the carbon of The Dark Knight. Bond returns from KIA status to prove himself to MI-6, which is itself trying to prove its worth to the talking heads of Parliament, and both are haunted by ghosts of the past. Is it appropriate for every movie? No. And maybe we think an origin story for James Bond isn’t needed. Fair. James Bond has never needed much of an explanation to exist, and the idea that he does is sheer postmodern therapy. And that’s what origin stories are at their core – explanations for how and why someone is. But it’s dishonest to say that that’s all Skyfall is, or that the rest of the Bond franchise hasn’t altered its shape to fit contemporary times. Skyfall expertly keeps itself tight on the cable as it blends the old with the new without either feeling forced or strained. It succeeds where #21 failed by making its plot more thematic than reductive, which allows the contradiction at the heart of it – old, tired dinosaurs rediscovering their youthful energy and starting anew in the post-9/11 era – to be resolved by confidently doubling down on all of it.
Skyfall is, therefore, not an explanation for Bond but one for the world in which he inhabits, which makes it the perfect partner to another film higher up on the list that we haven’t yet talked about. Everything about it exudes commitment to that theme, from the simplicity of the gadgets to the retreat to the Scottish mansion to the respective roles of M and Moneypenny to even the questionable treatment of Severine. The size and grandeur of the landscapes reflect the incomprehensible vastness of the world in which they operate, and the choice to end Judi Dench’s wonderful career as M by making her the Bond girl is a choice that frankly I’m not sure any other film would ever get away with.
It was stupid not to open it with the gun barrel, though…
#10: “The Living Daylights” (1987)
I used to hate this movie. Boy was the younger me wrong about it. This movie by itself is enough to propel Timothy Dalton into the conversation for best Bond ever. And if Lois Maxwell hadn’t opened and closed the competition for Moneypenny, Caroline Bliss might very well have been a contender for that too.
The first immediate takeaway from this film when you watch it today is that he, not Daniel Craig, is the serious Bond. Craig is a wonderful actor and I’ll have plenty of good things to say about him later, but Ian Fleming’s Bond of serious determination, focus, and cynicism is Dalton. It is Dalton in just about all aspects except maybe the eyebrows. He is also my grandfather. Not that they look particularly alike, but when I hear Dalton speak I hear my grandfather. I hear his intensity, his humor, the thought behind his words, his silliness; even his laugh sounds like him. When I was young, I thought the trivial bleeding in License to Kill made him serious. Just the opposite; this is one of the most mature Bonds ever, the first truly 80s Bond action movie, and also a thoughtful political thriller in its own right. It doesn’t have quite the same bite as the two immediately lower on the list, but it’s by far the most romantic of them all and holds its own as a Cold War thriller with spies, assassins, defectors, proxies, and arms dealers in between. I realize the Afghanistan stuff makes it dated, but it doesn’t take away from the experience.
Upon the success of The Lion in Winter in 1968, Dalton was approached about the role of James Bond. He was young – not even 25 – and did not wish to fill the shoes of Sean Connery. The studio approached him again a decade later, but he was not thrilled with the franchise by that point, so he declined again. Then when they finally got him, he was Bond for only two films until a lawsuit between MGM and Eon canceled his third. Five years later, he was checked out. It is also speculated that after #19, Dalton and Director John Glen had a disagreement that soured their relationship.
But on the subject of time, the prime of Dalton’s youth was the 70s, during which there was an era of American cinema that might have perfectly suited the Bond he wanted to play. That would be the paranoid thriller era made in the wake of Watergate – films like The Parallax View, The Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, The Conversation, The Boys From Brazil, Network, and others. Few of these were outright masterpieces, but they were far closer to what both Dalton and Fleming himself had in mind when Bond was originally envisioned. We might have gotten a lot more films like this one, rather than the relentless camp that only clicked when Lewis Gilbert took the reins.
Dalton is one of the stars that shined brightest and in some ways all the more glorious for its brevity, despite seemingly the arc of the entire universe bending against him. How lucky we are to have him for this one.
Villains weren’t great though…
#9: “You Only Live Twice” (1967)
Speaking of villains, we come at last (again) to the greatest villain of the franchise. Not because he killed Tracy Bond. Not because he stole diamonds, and not because in this movie he tries to turn the space race into nuclear holocaust for the upstart Chinese. Nope – it’s because he has a cat, a scar, and a presence that basically built the archetype of what a villain looks like. The venerable Donald Pleasance brought a villainous tease to life and made him even more awesome than your imagination did.
The worst thing you can say about You Only Live Twice is that it’s clunky. Okay that’s not true. The worst thing you can say about You Only Live Twice was said by You Only Live Twice itself when Bond was given a Japanese face, which sounds both dirtier and less ridiculous than what it actually was. Shame because poison wire for me was one of the tensest sequences I had ever seen in any movie up to that point.
You Only Live Twice was the first classic Bond film I ever watched from start to finish. I was going through a Roald Dahl reading phase, and found out that he wrote the screenplay for this. So I figured, “hey, this looks cool. I’ll watch it!” And so began my journey into the character.
It should also have been Connery’s final film. End with this, and his legacy as Bond is perfect, and the conversation is over before it even begins as to who the best is. Instead we have a Kirk vs. Picard situation and… what was I talking about?
Anyway, by that point, apart from Star Wars and Titanic, that was probably the most ambitious movie I had ever seen. If the Bond franchise in its entirety ended here, it would be considered probably the greatest quintilogy of all time. And at that time, that was exactly what they were going for. It’s the first film in the franchise that feels like it was destined to be the biggest movie in history, at least in terms of the way it was shot, the way scenes are staged, the way Blofeld reveals himself, and the way battle is done in the middle of a Japanese volcano from which a space shuttle is launching as if that makes any sense at all. It’s all big all the time, like everyone was told that modesty would get them coal for Christmas.
But then again, look at the title.
#8: “Moonraker” (1979)
Nothing ever raked the moon in this movie. I want my money back.
This was another one of the first Bond films I had ever seen, and for years it was probably my favorite. I loved, and still love, everything about it. It was the movie that made me want to go to space camp as a kid. All the things that nearly got Bond killed in this film were things I would want to do myself as both a kid and an adult.
I once described this film as an example of how to make a perfect campy picture. The only reason it tries so hard to be exactly that way is because that’s what it thought Star Wars was doing, and the only goal it had in mind was to be Star Wars. Not even Moonraker, the extremely popular, critically acclaimed novel, from which it takes the title, the name of the villain, and nothing else.
But on the other hand, this movie was also a test case in how to theoretically destroy your franchise because after this, it took about 15 years for the franchise to find itself again, and not even the good efforts of #14 or #10 could save it from limbo. It’s almost a counter-intuitively unironic parody of itself in that it did the same thing the Friday the 13th series did with Jason Voorhees, or that the Super Mario series did with everyone’s favorite mustached plumber. Throw him into space around the tenth entry or so.
What I’m getting at is that whatever grievances one might have with how much of an outlier it is to the rest of the franchise and however many people in 1979 thought it may have been over the top, Moonraker holds up spectacularly today as a raw, shameless space adventure and romance movie. But it’s also a James Bond movie through and through because no other movie of that kind (not even Star Wars, which was dripping with innuendo all the way down to the proton torpedo reactor fertilization) ever did or will ever again feature a woman named “Dr. Holly Goodhead.”
And then, of course, there’s Jaws.
“Do you know him?”
“Not socially. His name is Jaws. He kills people.”
I’ll talk more about him when we get to the other one, but there are few better ways to be introduced to a henchman villain than that. And he gets a character arc! And a happy ending!
But beyond all of that, what puts this utterly ridiculous, desecration of a great novel so high on the list beyond all the things already mentioned is the opening sequence. Again – those stunts were real.
#7: “Thunderball” (1965)
Let’s return to Planet Earth, which you might remember is about 70% ocean. Yes, I am proud of that transition, thank you very much.
There are two movies in the Bond canon that are so good, Bond raped a woman and got away with it. This is one of them. It’s a weird scene, especially since it comes just after a malfunctioning stretcher machine that literally looked like Bond was screwing himself to death. But the rest of the film consists of maybe the greatest collection of girls in the entire saga.
From Fiona Voluptuous to Domino, Bond gets himself two of the most dynamite beauties in a single film, both of whom are genuine characters being played to great effect by actresses who were determined to make them stand out in the film even as neither of them have much of an actual relationship with Bond. In fact, character is all over this film, which is why the thriller mechanics work so well even if you can’t remember the plot. I always forget it myself, which probably deserves criticism, but that’s the fun thing about Bond. You can make up for it by creating a far greater experience.
Thunderball made popular the underwater camera. It also has probably the single best action crescendo in the entire franchise by building up to a full-blown underwater battle with harpoons and the slashing of oxygen regulators, which when I eventually learned how to SCUBA dive myself utterly terrified me. Not sure how Bond was able to use his other harpoon, though. Haven’t managed to do that one yet.
Since we’re not counting #17 when we classify the Connery era, this is the first one where old Sean began to phone in his performance just a bit. But even at 70% acting capacity, he outclasses every other Bond in terms of his sheer consistency. There is just something so natural about him in the character that it would not be until his Japanese face that I would truly fail to believe something we saw with him. But otherwise, this is an utterly splendid action epic, and it stands head and shoulders above the film that remade it… and also a head above the other film (#12) that remade it.
#6: “From Russia With Love” (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock is all over this odyssey of romance and entrapment. The second in the franchise in a time where the studio was going film by film, and might have been canceled by the first box office dud. North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, even Notorious are all either directly or indirectly taken here. Hitchcock is something of a grandfather to Bond in that his films were an inspiration to Fleming, and because of how much his work is ripped off in Russia.
As only the second film in the entire franchise, James Bond did not yet have a true cinematic identity yet. That came in the next one. Yet it is remarkable that this international spy thriller still holds up today. Robert Shaw as the SPECTRE henchman who ambushes Bond on the train is still the reason the franchise is obsessed with big Aryan ubermensch monsters, even to the point of making Bond one himself when Daniel Craig was cast. The women in Russia are real characters and the movie is almost as much their own story as it is his. It was the only film until No Time To Die to have a Bond girl return from a previous film. And if Donald Pleasance had not run away with the award for Blofeld, the actor(s) in this film would take it handedly.
Russia is one of the best examples for how the villains make Bond. #10 on this list got everything right to an astonishing level, but I still can’t tell you a thing about the villains other than Mr. Civil War reenactment. He was so lame, the actor would be recast as Bond’s new American buddy in the Brosnan era, and I didn’t even notice it. But in Russia, SPECTRE sets a perfect trap for Bond, first luring him in with the cryptography mcguffin, and keeping him there with the beautiful Tatiana Romanova. They even film them in the act of lovemaking through the two-way mirror. It’s a movie that actually feels big, with so many converging and chasing forces in so many different places, yet Bond is moving just as quickly and cleverly with the help of his gadgets.
Speaking of gadgets, Russia was the first film to introduce Desmond Llewelyn as Q. No other actor has more perfectly given the Bond franchise a contour of its identity from the margins. What Q himself brings to Bond is the paradoxical idea of a loveable, bitterly sarcastic old uncle telling him to pay attention while he explains new technology from a loud, banging toy lab. He may have no more than three minutes of screen time in every film, but he is both a narrow window into the exciting world of Bond’s life and an emotional anchor for the character.
In a much larger sense From Russia With Love is one of the key reasons Bond endured beyond mere novelty, and was elevated to an internationally renowned franchise. The book was one of President Kennedy’s favorite novels ever, and the movie was the last picture screened for him at the White House before he was assassinated. It may rank as #6, but if I had to pick only four films to present as options for someone who had never seen Bond before, this would be one of them. It’s just that good.
#5: “Dr. No” (1962)
But there really isn’t a substitute for the original film either, especially when you look back on it today and see how much of itself is earned from the ground up.
Director Terence Young is either the best director of the franchise or tied with one other we haven’t talked about yet. With no conception of Bond beyond what was given in the books, Young devised from scratch a noir detective story about a mysterious murder Bond must investigate in the Caribbean. It has the greatest introduction of both James Bond himself and of any Bond girl with Ursula Andress emerging from the water like a mermaid. And it made clear that Bond is under the spell of his ladies as much as they would ever be under his.
Young keeps every element of Bond – the real and the fantastical – on a perfectly balanced knife’s edge. It’s paced and even narrated almost exactly like Jaws 13 years before it, even to the point of a mechanical dragon that I can only assume was also named Bruce. But before #6 elevated him further into the international spy romance genre, Bond was like a more glamorous Philip Marlowe, and Dr. No lets Connery act out both sides of Humphrey Bogart – the sophisticated sleuth from The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and the dirty pulp adventurer from The African Queen and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Dr. No himself explains perfectly that whatever else may exist in the exciting world of Bond, at the end of the day, he’s “just a stupid policeman.”
But beyond being watchable, fun, and earnest as a standalone film with hardly any franchise expectations beyond a mere mention of the “Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion” (if you’ve ever wondered how Marvel came up with the S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym(s), the first issue it was printed came in 1965), Dr. No is elevated above #6 (barely) for one other reason. Timing. I know it’s still controversial to say, but, as I’ve written elsewhere, some movies, good as they might otherwise be in an atemporal sense, are elevated by the circumstances that surround their release. That happened here too, and there is a very good chance Bond does not have a continued legacy without it.
The story of Dr. No involves a villainous plot to disrupt the American Mercury Project during the early heights of the space race just after both sides had put men into planetary orbit. By itself, that made the story topical. But what made it even more topical was the fact that the plot takes place in Jamaica, which is just a few hundred miles south of Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis began two weeks after the film’s initial release, and the film released in America six months later with the nervous eyes of Americans everywhere now on our neighbor to the South in the Caribbean.
It is clear, however, that the filmmakers had no pretensions about the timing of their film. They simply made an excellent story in an exciting place with such smashing success that it not only made Bond a viable franchise, but re-defined him by way of an introduction that was separate from the novels.
“I admire your courage, Ms. …?”
“Trench… Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr.?”
“Bond… James Bond.”
#4: “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977)
A caveat now that we’re in the top four: I only really cared about ranking the other twenty films below these. The final four… ranking them is pretty much impossible and not even necessarily productive. Whatever your favorite is, you’re right.
There isn’t much that one needs to say about Spy. Everything about it just works. A formula perfected: it’s a simple, memorable story, however boilerplate and ordinary the dastardly plot, made interesting by fine touches like a splendid Egyptian and Mediterranean setting, an enjoyable back and forth between Bond and Anya “XxX” Amasova, submarine warfare, and that opening ski jump. And, of course, the introduction of maybe the greatest henchman of all time – Jaws.
Barbara Bach is far more to look at than she is to hear, especially when she tries to speak with a Russian accent, but she sells her character’s abilities as an equal and counterpart to Bond well enough that it doesn’t matter. When that’s your only real weakness, your movie is just fine.
Spy, like two other films in the top 4, is also the “first” of something in terms of an era. It is the first détente Bond. James Bond was constructed as, among other things, a quintessential cold warrior. He was written into existence just before the U-2 spy plane incident, and his first films all rested against the backdrop of the Cold War, and involved opportunistic villains meshed in the chaos. When the détente of Nixon/Kissinger came about, the Bond films tried to mine other material to move off it, with four duds in a row. Spy brought the Cold War back into the center of the franchise again. As a movie on its own, it works and could easily be your first Bond adventure ever. As a franchise serial film, it’s probably the biggest breath of fresh air in the entire franchise.
#3: “Goldfinger” (1964)
This might be the best Bond film if for no other reason than it seems to have the most Bond “things” in it that all work well and feel neither cheap nor clunky. Everyone from OddJob to Auric Goldfinger to Pussy Galore has a name that one can only assume was written by a poetic literalist (Fleming himself would probably smile at that description), but everything they say and do resonates against Sean Connery’s reactions to them all. It is the only Bond film that actually feels like a heist movie. And it seems like a bad joke that so many future films would borrow its iconography without remembering that those things only work when you have a real movie. Then again, the lesson everyone learned from The Matrix was that your action film will be a guaranteed home run as long as your main character is armed with at least two handguns inside a gothic leather trench coat, so I guess that’s just how things go. Ironic, since Goldfinger also invented the Bond blockbuster formula. But it did that entirely by accident.
At the core of Goldfinger, when you take out the golden girl, crotch laser, deadly hat, ejector seat, air squadron, and electrocution puns, is a script that lays bare the mechanics of an epic caper and paces out the action and suspense perfectly. You have a cat/mouse game with the villain where the villain always seems to have the upper hand with the pieces assembled for a grand plan (or rather, a “Grand Slam”) that is explained both as to its Cold War implications and to the characters at the heart of it, with Bond serving almost as a British ambassador to the Fort Knox operation. Then when you add all those fun exterior bits back in, you get maybe the best blockbuster film of the entire 1960s decade.
It’s a movie full of jokes, but as Q says: “I never joke about my work, 007.”
#2: “Casino Royale” (2006)
So here we are at the end, by process of elimination, with the top two films both directed by Martin Campbell. He is, along with Terence Young, the best director in the Bond franchise, and the two films he made had some of the best action, plots, villains, romances, and songs in the whole saga.
This is the best film in the James Bond franchise. It is not necessarily the best “Bond film” in the sense that the story told does not follow the rising action of the established formula. Quite the contrary. From this point onwards, the studio was essentially experimenting with a new formula where, instead of Bond playing hooky with the girl at the very end of the film, Bond takes a vacation in the middle or at the beginning, or, as was the case with #21, drives off into the sunset presumably never to return until another movie takes us back in time again. Casino Royale is the only new Bond film that seems to actually understand that this isn’t a trope or a waystation while the rest of the story catches up. Every subsequent film pretended to be both the beginning and the end for Bond and fashion post-modern commentary out of it. But the story of Casino Royale is the story of a wall crashing, embassy storming, tarmac exploding bull charger who can’t see past the immediate mission, pleasures, and villain in front of him, whose job and life are simultaneously upended by the only woman that I actually believed he ever loved. Even though we never leave his perspective, the movie is just as much the story of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd – the trapped, desperate woman forced to make herself his principal vixen by the shadow players beyond the frame who finds herself falling deeper and deeper in love with the man she is supposed to be manipulating, and doesn’t know how to navigate that world.
At no point was the Spectre organization more menacing than it was to her in this film. Without even being mentioned, we saw how they tormented her. And we saw in her eyes how her fear of failing her mission slowly transitioned into an even more palpable fear of hurting him. It is everything we would ever want from a James Bond film, culminating in a film that, however unnecessary, will always feel necessary because of the humanity on display. And unlike #24, this is a film that actually understands that Bond needs to be shaken from his aggressive, boorish habits rather than having them stirred up in his films. It did exactly what it had to do with him, while making sense of his place in a world of such rampant terrorism and butchery. And by the end we have seen something that transcends the trappings of origin story and stands alone, almost without a franchise to his name because it doesn’t need one. And yet it is all the more rewarding precisely because it has one, and because it respects that franchise enough to know that this is still a human story.
For all you might otherwise say about Ian Fleming, he at least understood that too.
#1: “Goldeneye” (1995)
I guess I’m supposed to write some kind of summation of the entire list or big concluding statement about James Bond in general that explains why this film is the #1. After all, it might as well just be a remake of #3. But the older and more experienced I get, the more I realize that lists like these aren’t really about that. Doing that may also unintentionally make a disastrous recipe for films that come later. How many films at the bottom of this list came about mainly because they were trying to ape the style and superficial qualities of better films in both this franchise and others without taking care of their own needs, figuring out their own identities, and remembering first that they were telling their own story that merited its own payoffs first, with all else being secondary?
In other words, the fact that Goldeneye is #1 here does not guarantee that a future Bond film, or any film featuring anyone, will be good if it simply does things like it did.
But of course, in all such endeavors Goldeneye succeeds and flourishes the way few other films in this franchise do in a perfect post-Cold War retooling of the character, with Pierce Brosnan as perhaps the smoothest, most effortless Bond we had ever seen. The opening is the best one ever with not just one incredible stunt, but two! The jokes in Q’s lab are some of the funniest in the entire franchise. The villains (Trevelyan makes the film on his own) are both politically and personally appropriate for Bond, and all three women perform a perfect function. Xenia Onatopp represents the dark side of Bond’s own appetites, and Natalya is the foil who lovingly chastises him for forgetting that she’s neither a combat agent nor a mission objective. Their romance efficiently puts Brosnan’s character of Bond at arm’s length with his audience, which is the perfect place for him (too close, it’s #24 – lost in his heart which is dark, empty place of meaningless violence; too far away, it’s #23 – unrecognizable and stupid looking in every way).
And the third woman, of course, is Judi Dench as M.
No one can ever replace the steady constancy of Bernard Lee even if the franchise lives to a hundred films. But even with her presence in #2 being just as good, Dench in this film made the new role her own with such commanding authority that she put herself his equal in a single scene. She cuts through the tension like a golden laser through butter, not by being insecure, but by being aware. In fact, awareness is one of the things Goldeneye has in such copious amounts that the flaws go unnoticed (they built Wade up but he didn’t end up actually doing anything, nor did Bond get to use his car in combat, nor was there mission-oriented context for Bond’s first meeting with Onatopp – again, see the video game). The understanding the two of them reach with one another in just that one briefing scene alone made it one of the most exciting in the franchise, and established the parameters for the rest of the film, defining Bond’s relationships with everyone after her.
That relationship continued wonderfully through even a rebooted Bond, which I’m not sure actually made any sense, but then again neither does the idea of a man in the early 60s doing death defying stunts without aging a day even in the mid-90s.
But thanks to James Bond, we believe it.
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