I actually sat and watched all 25 previous James Bond movies (yes, counting Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again) during the first month of “lockdown” in April of 2020. So when I give my usual “this list will not be your list” disclaimer, I should also note that this list won’t necessarily be the list I thought it was going to be prior to watching the entire series at about one-per-evening for a month. With a few exceptions (no spoilers), even the “bad” 007 films are pretty enjoyable when taken as one “episode” in a very long story, not unlike say Iron Man 2 when taken as one piece of Marvel’s long “Infinity Saga.”
Moreover, watching them all in a row showed that A) they were less formulaic than you’d thinking for the first half of the run (say, prior to the end of Roger Moore’s tenure) and many (most?) of the films’ sexual encounters are a bit less problematic than you might remember. They are mostly consensual booty calls or situations where a villain is bedding Bond either as a honey trap or because she just wants to have sex with him before knocking him off. Heck, can you imagine how different the franchise’s reputation, if not overall pop culture, might look if Eunice Gayson had stuck around as James Bond’s regular “no power imbalance here” f*** buddy after Dr. No and From Russia With Love?
Yes, this will include No Time to Die somewhere among the rankings. Yes, I am including Never Say Never Again. So, without further ado, here are all 26 James Bond movies ranked from “the worst” to “the best,” with my patented formula of math, science and dark magic.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
$116 million worldwide on a $7.2 million budget
With George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service having slightly underwhelmed and with Lazenby reluctant to commit to a second flick, Eon friends enticed Sean Connery for one more rodeo, partially thanks to a then record-breaking $1.5 million paycheck (which Connery allegedly donated to charity). However, the result was a campy and lackadaisical romp in Las Vegas, with a clearly disinterested Connery going through the motions. Moreover, following a dramatic and character-focused melodrama with a comedic, “on autopilot” installment added insult to injury.
We can debate whether On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been better with Connery in the lead role, but Diamonds Are Forever would have been much superior had Lazenby returned to avenge his murdered wife. At the very least, the film may have might have avoided the almost willful indifference to itself. To be fair, the film opens with Bond tracking down Blofeld and (so he thinks) avenging the murder of Tracy Bond. As such, it’s not implausible that Bond wouldn’t be as gung-ho about queen and country this time around.
Charles Grey makes for a boring Blofeld, Jill St. John is (through no fault of her own) a regression in terms of Bond Girls exhibiting agency and value to the mission, and Connery just ambles along. Save for Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as “problematic” (but delightful) gay assassins murdering their way through the cast, there’s very little to recommend in this in this uncommonly indifferent 007 flick. Diamonds Are Forever is the very worst movie in the James Bond franchise, and the only one that is barely worth the effort even for completists.
A View To A Kill (1985)
$153 million on a $30 million budget
This seventh and final Roger Moore vehicle represents the greatest chasm between the quality of the movie and the quality of the Bond song. Duran Duran’s “Dance Into the Fire” is still one of the very best hard-rock 007 themes, and (like Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”) is ideal for downing an energy drink and playing an all-night session of GoldenEye N64. Alas, A View To A Kill is still one of the very worst films in the franchise.
Moore isn’t just 57, he looks too old to be saving the day compared even to Octopussy two years earlier. Tanya Roberts is saddled with being one of the more passive Bond Girls in the franchise. To be fair. after several installments of “take charge” Bond Girls, an old-school damsel-in-distress does count as mixing it up. Grace Jones’ May Day is fun, even if she is forced to “go good” at the end. Meanwhile, Chris Walken is oddly underacting as the genetically-engineered “spawn of Nazi experiments” computer chip tycoon. I admire his willingness to not go “full Walken,” the film desperately needs a shot of adrenaline as it moseys along to its admittedly impressive Golden Gate Bridge climax.
Moore knows full well that it’s time to leave, and the film’s set pieces (including a fire truck chase in outside a burning city hall and encounters with local police) only make Bond feel that much smaller in terms of globe-trotting heroics. I’d argue part of why Roger Moore is somewhat underrated as a James Bond actor (with somewhat underrated 007 films) is because his run ended on such a stinker. Alas, while last year’s rewatch gave me a renewed appreciation for the Roger Moore films, this Goldfinger knock-off, with Superman: The Movie thrown in for good measure, is still a whiff that ended Moore’s seven-film, 14-year run on an all-time low.
$881 million on a $240 million budget
Sam Mendes returned to the director’s chair following the stunning commercial and artistic triumph of Skyfall to apparently show everyone that his previous 007 movie had been a fluke. That’s harsh, but it’s shocking how much Spectre retreads the big themes (the battle between old-school espionage and high-tech intelligence) from Daniel Craig’s last 007 movie as if $1.1 billion worth of moviegoers hadn’t seen that one three years ago. Moreover, the film retreads the whole “Is James Bond past his prime?” shtick that powered Skyfall despite said themes being present back in Pierce Brosnan’s GoldenEye but with none of the trip-wire intensity or breakneck urgency that made Skyfall a kick-ass action thriller.
Throw in halfhearted action scenes that didn’t even look impressive in the trailers, and a circular narrative that sees Bond spending the first 45 minutes tracking down the Spectre headquarters, getting chased out and then spending another 45 minutes getting back to that same general destination. What is supposed to be another “James Bond falls in love for real this time” arc doesn’t work since it stems from a chemistry-free flirtation with Léa Seydoux’s “She’s a shrink so she’s empowered” love interest who serves no purpose beyond getting damseled at key junctures. It’s such a “they are hot and can hold a conversation so it must be true love” botch that it retroactively makes Casino Royale’ s core romance worse.
Sure, the movie often looks great, but a superb pre-credit sequence (much of it is done in a single take) set in Mexico can’t compensate for a “Bond goes rogue for no good reason” plot that stood out as especially flaccid when compared to Spy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The failed attempt to blend the Craig era’s self-seriousness with Moore-specific camp and newfangled “mythology world building” leads to an endless narrative and where plot twists mean more to the audience than to the characters and where a major climactic reveal (Christoph Waltz is Blofeld and Bond’s step-brother) is literally cribbed from Austin Powers: Goldmember.
Die Another Day (2002)
$432 million on a $142 million budget
Pretty much every Pierce Brosnan 007 film starts as a “What if XYZ happened to James Bond?” story. In this case, Die Another Day features a prologue showing Bond getting captured behind enemy lines and tortured as the opening credits roll. Alas, the film mostly forgets about that status-quo shattering development (and how it affects his relationship with Judi Dench’s M) after the first act. It then falls headfirst into a tragically self-aware (the film opened on the 40th anniversary of Dr. No) farce that blends over-the-top action (that’s good) with halfhearted plotting, including a skewed face-swapping scheme that merely serves to turn Will Yun Lee (exciting!) into Toby Stephens (boring!).
Halle Berry is done no favors by the film’s second half during which the filmmakers can’t decide if they want Jinx to overshadow James Bond (for the sake of a planned spin-off) or just be his latest gal pal. I actually like the more ridiculous action beats (the invisible car in the ice palace, the sword fight, the surfing, etc.) but the narrative just lacks any propulsion partially because it’s almost until the end of the film before we get any real confirmation that Gustav Graves is a bad guy. Like Moore, Brosnan’s overall reputation (as a Bond actor and in terms of the quality of his 007 films) was tarnished by the mediocrity of his swan song.
Live and Let Die (1973)
$162 million on a $7 million budget
This first Roger Moore entry does a fine job in differentiating the new guy from his predecessors, including a first-reel beat with Q, M and Moneypenny hanging out at Bond’s home as a bathrobe-clad secret agent gets the newest mission. And this first Moore flick arguably establishes one of the franchise’s trends during the 1970s and onward, which is namely letting Bond play in the sandbox of a given popular genre. In this case, James Bond tackles Blaxploitation and America’s drug war. If that sounds problematic, especially by today’s standards, you’re wrong.
Ironically, one reason the film sputters is that Tom Mankowitz’s screenplay is so (understandably) hesitant to make its Black villains seem farcical that Bond himself ends up quite incompetent until the end. The infamous Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) doesn’t help matters, but I was amused at how we’re placed in the position, during a big mid-movie action scene, of either rooting for the Harlem heroin dealers or the racist Louisiana sheriff. Yaphet Katto is fun as the baddie, although Jane Seymour is both passive/damseled and presented as a sexual prize (one who loses her Tarot card abilities after being deflowered by Bond) to be fought over between the dashing white spy and the “grotesque” Black gangster.
Put aside “problematic” elements, because A) this film is 48 years old and B) the presenting of a white small-town American sheriff as clearly racist and incompetent is almost progressive by today’s cowardly standards. Live and Let Die just isn’t that exciting beyond the whole “new Bond actor” and a few iconic stunts. Not unlike A View to a Kill and Diamonds Are Forever, placing a high-camp Bond in America and having him face off against American law enforcement only serves to make the whole adventure feel smaller in scope and scale. Still, not unlike the above-mentioned Moore flick, Paul McCartney’s theme song is a killer rock tune and is as good as the movie is bad.
No Time to Die (2021)
??? million on a $250 million budget
Well, the good news is that A) No Time to Die is better than Spectre and B) it’s a better swan song than the likes of Diamonds Are Forever, A View to a Kill and Die Another Day. For that matter, the first hour or so of this 163-minute epic merrily chugs along as a mostly stand-alone James Bond adventure, complete with fun supporting characters (Ana de Armas is hilarious as a bubbly but ruthless novice field agent), reunions with old friends (Jeffrey Wright is finally back as Felix Leiter and it’s good to see Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw’s “Q my wife would like to… ya know” again) and at least two terrific action sequences.
Alas, once the film stops being a stand-alone sequel to the first three Daniel Craig flicks and an explicit sequel to Spectre, the wheels come off. Rami Malek’s baddie may be the worst 007 villain ever merely by being incredibly underwritten (or left on the cutting room floor), and the movie absolutely requires you to care about and believe in the “forever romance” between Bond and Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Swann. That’s a problem since A) Spectre so brutally dropped the ball and B) Swann spends a shocking amount of the movie being damsel-ed yet again. Think, offhand, Dark Phoenix being rooted in a Jean Grey we barely got to see in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Oh, and the action devolves into generic run-and-shoot video game-style (not in a cool John Wick way) set pieces, with an evil plot so poorly spelled out there’s no urgency to the climax. That said, if you like Spectre more than I did, you may well enjoy this one more as well, and the Cary Fukunaga-directed flick looks absolutely spectacular. See it in IMAX if you can. And even if I’ll argue that some of the choices lean too hard on familiar “series finale” tropes or subtextually “apologizing” for the James Bond series, the film does go to some uncharted destinations. Craig is great per usual and this one may play better as “just tonight’s random 007 flick.”
Never Say Never Again (1983)
$160 million worldwide on a $36 million budget
This unofficial 007 movie, released by Warner Bros. and helmed by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and penned by Lorenzo Semple Jr., (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor) is a remake of Thunderball because that’s the one James Bond movie to which Kevin McClory held the rights. Yes, the film stars 53-year-old Sean Connery in the role that made him a star, and the film is an ahead-of-its-time riff on the now-fashionable “can James Bond thrive in the modern world” themes.
The new M (Edward Fox) loathes him (and would prefer he teach and stay out of the field) while poor Bond is ordered to ditch the vices (red meat, booze, etc.) and start a diet/exercise regimen. Fortunately SPECTRE (led by Max Von Sydow’s Blofeld) steals two nuclear warheads and thus gives James Bond a chance to prove his continued worth. Say what you will about Connery doing his thing 12 years after Diamonds Are Forever, but everyone else (Klaus Maria Brandauer, Kim Basinger, etc.) are committed to making a quality espionage actioner.
That’s not to say that the film is much more than a curiosity, especially in light of how it proceeded GoldenEye and Skyfall’s “spying is a young man’s game” shtick. However, perhaps by default, it’s a more enjoyable action thriller than Connery’s previous romp, its underwater action still impresses 18 years after Thunderball and it makes you almost wish that McClory had gotten to make his second Thunderball remake (Warhead, allegedly starring Timothy Dalton). Besides, a cameo from Rowen Atkinson makes this violent and occasionally bloody actioner a de-facto Johnny English origin story/prequel.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
$111.6 million on a $9.5 million budget
This Lewis Gilbert-directed fifth installment is one of the more influential 007 movies. It set the template for “fantasy Bond movies,” in terms of plot, production design and villainy. The “SPECTRE snatches space shuttles to trick America and Russia into going to war with each other” became the stock fantasy action plot, not just for the 007 films, while the production design (including the seemingly impenetrable volcano fortress) and larger-than-life villainy (Donald Pleasance as our first onscreen Blofeld) inspired the path to spoofing the entire superhero spy genre.
You can trace the entire progression of the series, and over-the-top action movies in general, to screenwriter Roald Dahl going off the reservation with nobody willing to reign him in. Alas, Connery is starting to get bored by this point, and the twenty minutes of screen time (in the last under-two-hours 007 movie until Tomorrow Never Dies) spent turning James Bond into a Japanese man is both offensive (for obvious reasons) and a tragic waste of time in an otherwise tightly-plotted action thriller. It’s not like Bond needs to be a Japanese ninja to machine-gun S.P.E.C.T.R.E. baddies. The story choice also costs the film a comparatively empowering Bond Girl (Akiko Wakabayashi’s Aki).
Nonetheless, you can see the formula being created before your eyes, and it inspired a number of better movies both within (The Spy Who Loved Me, Tomorrow Never Dies, Moonraker) and outside of (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) of the franchise. And yes, if you consider yourself a fan of Austin Powers, If Looks Could Kill, or Kingsman, you arguably have this film to thank. It may not be the best 007 movie, but it’s one of the “most” 007 movies around.
$124.9 million worldwide on a $3 million budget
This Guy Hamilton-directed offering turned the James Bond series from a somewhat popular superhero riff on North By Northwest to a towering cinematic action franchise. The film is also patently different from its predecessors, a more leisurely adventure less concerned with spy craft and more so in dipping into fantasy. That I don’t adore this one as much as most folks (it’s a solid three-star 007 flick) is mostly due to how passive and incompetent Connery’s Bond happens to be for much of the film. Come what may, his survival and success mostly predicated on luck, happenstance and being able to seduce the villain’s main henchperson (Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore) at just the right time.
Nonetheless, Goldfinger is still pretty damn entertaining, and it kick-started many action movie tropes (Gert Fröbe’s larger-than-life villain, Harold Sakata’s colorful henchman, the ass-kicking female lead, the goofy but logical villain plot, etc.). It has a banger third-act full of action and incident, even if the previous 75 minutes is mostly Bond willfully negging Goldfinger and remaining indifferent to the obvious collateral damage Said arrogance results in collateral damage and very nearly results in the murder of 60,000 people and the destruction of the world economy. Sure, there’s a case to be made that Bond wasn’t supposed to be a peerless superhero quite yet and that the film is in on the joke, but it still a periodically frustrating watch.
Even if it’s not my favorite 007 movie, it helped cement the series as a top-tier cinematic franchise and helped assure fans that each Bond movie would be different from the last in terms of plot, scale and scope. I will argue that the “no two Bond movies are alike” mentality continued, save for Lewis Gilbert’s The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (both of which riffed on You Only Live Twice) until the Pierce Brosnan era where, by default, they became comparatively self-aware. Ironically, Hamilton’s next three 007 movies (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun) would be considered, fairly or not, among the franchise’s least compelling entries. Speaking of which…
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
$98 million on a $7 million budget
Prior to last year’s rewatch, this was usually near the bottom of my 007 movie rankings. However, Guy Hamilton’s fourth and final 007 movie works alongside the rest as a comparatively paired down and surprisingly mean little action movie. Not unlike Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig before him, Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond allows him to be a little cold-blooded. The film is torn between being a stripped down “Roger Moore’s James Bond vs. Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga” thriller and offering the usual “stop the plot and save the world” plotting. Still, for those who just want to see Lee as a 007 baddie, well, you get your money’s worth.
The picture also dabbles a bit in the martial arts “fad,” which again brings to mind the idea that Bruce Lee might have spawned an action franchise to rival 007 had he lived long enough to make Enter the Dragon 2 right as the 007 franchise was working out its post-Connery wrinkles. More so than even Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun feels like it was intended for Sean Connery, but as such the casual cruelty (including coercing Maud Adams to snitch on Scaramanga and not being all that upset when that betrayal costs her her life) and stripped-down manhunt elements stand out especially compared to the next two big-scale Lewis Gilbert-directed efforts.
The reprisal of Clifton James’ Sheriff J.W. Pepper is inexcusable, especially in how it dilutes an otherwise strong big-scale chase scene and brings farce into an otherwise serious 007 flick. Neither Hervé Villechaize as Nick Nack nor Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight will make anyone’s list of favorite 007 supporting characters. But when the film is focused on Roger Moore and Christopher Lee hunting each other, along with a now standard “bad guy wants to exploit clean energy source for evil” plot, The Man With the Golden Gun works as a lean-n-mean detour before a return to larger-than-life theatrics. It’ll never be a “if you only watch on 007 movie” pick, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
$340 million on a $110 million budget
This streamlined effort, allegedly because focus groups found GoldenEye too challenging to follow, finds Pierce Brosnan as comfortable in the role of 007 as he’ll ever be. Brosnan effort glides along as one of the more relaxing films in the series. It’s the first since You Only Live Twice that’s under two hours and filled with colorful locales, quirky supporting character and cheerfully silly violence. Jonathan Pryce hams it up as “not Rupert Murdoch.” His British newspaper tycoon who wants to pit China and Britain against each other to sell newspapers is perhaps the most outlandish Bond baddies since Goldfinger and represents a distinctly post-Die Hard/Batman 007 villain.
Michelle Yeoh (fresh off Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3: Super Cop) makes an appropriately kick-ass sidekick in what eventually turns into a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me. Alas, like Die Another Day, this one also starts as a more serious, “What if?” 007 story, frankly looking at a regretful and mournful James Bond taking stock as a former brief flame (Teri Hatcher) pops back into his life. The weightier drama is eventually tossed overboard for a pure action romp that struggles to differentiate itself from the Hollywood actioners (Face/Off, Terminator 2, Lethal Weapon, etc.) that became par for the course between Dalton’s farewell and Brosnan’s debut.
Brosnan and Yeoh have little romantic chemistry, which is only an issue because the movie tries to present them as more than just hot spies who might want to sex each other. Oh, and the film can’t resist damsel-ing Wai Lin twice in the film’s submarine-set action climax. Still, there’s a lot to like in this Roger Spottiswoode-directed actioner, including a terrific motorcycle escape sequence, a chilling showdown between a vengeful Bond and Vincent Schiavelli’s very scary bad guy and the film’s refusal to treat Yeoh’s action skills as “a very big deal.” Tomorrow Never Dies knows that “Bond Girls” have been “Bond Women” for a very long time.
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
$195 million on a $28 million budget
John Glen steps up for the first of five straight 007 movies, as James Bond enters the 1980s with a quieter shade of spy craft. Understandably wanting to tone down the bombast after sending Bond underwater and then into outer space, For Your Eyes Only is a more real-world actioner, probably the most “realistic” Bond flick since From Russia With Love. It also contains one of the goofiest bits in the whole series, a prologue where Bond visits the grave of his murdered wife (yay, continuity) and then is attacked by and then swiftly murders an unnamed Blofeld by dropping the ultimate 007 bad guy into a smoke stack.
Yes, it was a nice extended middle-finger to Kevin McClory and the ongoing legal battles related to his ownership of the character and his attempts to make his own007 movies (which resulted in the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again), but it’s a weirdly comic resolution to one of the few outright dramatic arcs in the franchise. Anyway, the plot (about a race to recover a missing/stolen ATAC system from a sunken vessel) is refreshingly real-world, as is Carole Bouquet’s Bond Girl (the crossbow-wielding daughter of an early murder victim) and the skewed relationship between the baddie (Julian Glover) and Lynn-Holly Johnson’s Bibi Dahl (a young ice-skating prodigy who gets crush on Bond).
There is an obvious attempt to make Moore’s 007 into more of a grounded action movie bad-ass, Topol has great fun as a rival smuggler who may or may not be the real threat and Bouquet is the third straight “ladies can kick ass too” Bond Girl even if the film frowns upon her thirst for vengeance. It’s a solid, middle-of-the-road 007 movie but honestly it’s arguably more concerned with what it’s not (over-the-top like Moonraker) than with what it is as its own singular movie. Still, good is not the enemy of perfect, and For Your Eyes Only remains a pretty good James Bond film.
Dr. No (1962)
$59.6 million worldwide on a $1 million budget
The one that started it all, which meant that some of the pieces were not yet in place. There are almost no gadgets, there’s no Q (Desmond Llewellyn would debut in the next movie), and just a bit of the larger-than-life fantasy for which the series would eventually become best-known. Nonetheless, Terence Young’s lean, violent and occasionally ruthless action movie did its job, and then some, taking a somewhat conventional Hitchcock “wrong man on the run” plot and inserting a take-charge action hero into its midst. Sean Connery nails the casual cruelty and above-it-all professionalism right off the bat.
From the start, most of 007’s salacious encounters were either mutually consensual booty calls (Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench wasn’t exactly looking for a committed relationship) or honey traps for which sex was a prelude to murder. The plot, about a missing agent and an uncovered plot in Jamaica, actually comes off like many of the Pierce Brosnan movies, in that it starts as a grounded and real-world espionage movie only to detour into fantasy blockbuster-land in the second half. Up until the flame-thrower tank/dragon shows up, Dr. No could be mistaken for merely a more action-packed spy movie.
It’s the third act, where we meet Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. Julius No in his impenetrable bad guy lair and hear about his plan to disrupt a space shuttle launch in the hopes to pitting America and Russia into war, that we realize that this isn’t quite The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. So, by default, this is one of the more grounded Bond flicks, but it works on its own terms, features a star-making lead performance and remains great fun for fans to see the franchise come to life before our eyes.
Quantum Of Solace (2008)
$589 million on a $200 million budget
It is no secret that many 007 films amount to “James Bond plays in this particular genre sandbox,” usually as a come from behind attempt to emulate the success of a recent hit or new genre. But the “Bond does Bourne/Jason Statham” stylings of Quantum of Solace were so bald-faced obvious that the film was marked from before its release. Yes, the action editing is terribly choppy, but the film works as a politically/socially conscious action thriller that happens to be the 23rd Bond movie. The screenplay was partially written by Paul Haggis, so we get a get more introspection and “we are the enemy” pathos this time around.
Those who complained that arch villain Mathieu Amalric’s scheme to basically steal water from impoverished locals wasn’t evil enough need to have their proverbial privilege checked. The film works not just as a take on the action styling of the Bourne franchise as a take on their liberal guilt politics as well. Here is a mega-budget blockbuster where the American government is explicitly portrayed as one of the bad guys. Olga Kurylenko’s main Bond girl is wholly focused on revenge, a revenge that she is allowed to take sans moral scolding, and yet the picture works as a second act of a long play where Casino Royale is the first character development/set-up heavy first act.
And even though we can’t see the action as clearly as we might like, the car chases, foot chases, and shootouts (especially the first act foot chase and a second act beat at an opera) feature terrific staging and superb stunt work. Unlike Skyfall, which is rooted in nostalgia and reaffirmed a decades-old status quo, Quantum of Solace attempts to take the 007 franchise into uncharted territory. It doesn’t entirely work (Bond never takes the chance to defend himself even when M thinks he has gone rogue), but I admired the hell out of the attempt.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
$185 million on a $14 million budget
Here’s one that, before the big rewatch, I’d figure would be in the top five or so. Nonetheless, The Spy Who Loved Me still stands pretty damn tall as a definitive 007 movie. It is the one Bond movie I’d show a casual viewer if they wanted to see what the James Bond series was “in a nutshell” at least for the first half of its lifespan. It’s also the first time, for better or worse, than the series explicitly copied itself. After the “Not great, Bob” reception to The Man With the Golden Gun, Lewis Gilbert returned to the franchise and essentially remade his own movie.
Once again, the forces of evil (but not S.P.E.C.T.R.E. because McClory held the rights to that organization) created tit-for-tat attacks to goad two superpowers into war. This time with Curt Jürgens’s Karl Stromberg planning to rule from his post-apocalyptic underwater civilization. His henchman, Jaws (Richard Keil), is the most memorable sidekick since Goldfinger’s Oddjob, and Barbara Bach shines as a rival Soviet superspy (XXX) who is every bit as capable as 007. That she eventually realizes that Bond is responsible for the death of her partner (and lover) during the film’s thrilling snowy pre-title sequence (complete with a jaw-dropping cliff jump) puts an additional wrinkle into the film’s climax.
Alas, the film damsels Major Anya Amasova for most of the third act, with the kind of “have your cake and eat it too” cheesecake imagery that would personify the franchise’s early attempts to “diversify.” Still, Moore finally gets a James Bond script suited to his strengths as an actor, but not without a little cold-blooded murder (he straight-up executes Stromberg) to remind you that he’s not a straight-up hero. The larger-than-life action and ridiculously large sets set the tone for the prototypical Roger Moore entry, even if it has more in common with late-era Connery. That it’s not as high on this list as I had expected doesn’t mean it doesn’t periodically rock.
$188 million on a $28 million budget
If Moonraker was “Bond does Star Wars” and Quantum of Solace is “Bond does Bourne/Statham,” then this oft-neglected chapter is at least something of an attempt to craft a 007 movie in the shadow of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Moonraker, it has been overly tagged as a “silly” entry because of one specific climactic visual, in this case Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown. Okay, so that moment is a little silly, but it comes at the end of a gripping and exciting “real world” action thriller involving stolen Soviet treasures, counterfeit Faberge Eggs and a scary plot to detonate a U.S. nuclear warhead in West Germany to provoke unilateral disarmament.
In some ways, Octopussy does feel like the one of the least essential 007 movies. That’s not because it is “bad” but because it’s “just another James Bond movie.” It’s not an introduction or farewell to a Bond actor, it’s not an explicit change of pace or “course correction,” and it doesn’t really stand out in a “The one where XYZ happens” fashion. It’s just a really good James Bond action thriller, one that offers larger-than-life stunts, capable Bond women, a mix of grounded spy craft and over-the-top spectacle and a heavily-stunt-doubled but surprisingly on-the-ball 55-year-old Moore romancing a female lead (Maud Adams as the title character) who was closer to 40 than 20 at the time.
That’s ironic considering Moore was very much intending to retire after For Your Eyes Only, but was persuaded to return when the Broccolis chose not to introduce a new Bond actor right as Kevin McClory’s Sean Connery-starring Never Say Never Again (directed by Empire Strikes Back helmer Irvin Kirshner) was about to open that same year. Otherwise, we may well have seen Timothy Dalton (always a strong contender for whenever Moore decided to hang it up) in both Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Throw in an intended third film for Dalton between License to Kill and Brosnan’s GoldeneEye, and Dalton could have stood right alongside the rest in the four-or-more club. Speaking of…
The Living Daylights (1987)
$191 million on a $40 million budget
Timothy Dalton’s debut flick features the densest and most complicated plot of the series. I saw this one as a seven-year-old in theaters on opening weekend. I surely couldn’t have passed a test on the story, which is initially about defections, treason and illicit arms sales, but I was old enough to know that James Bond was a pretty neat action series and that Timothy Dalton was a pretty great 007. Dalton was both a Bond more faithful to the Ian Fleming books and one suited to the “action > sex” mentality of the late 1980’s.
Dalton brings an icy vulnerability to the part, while Maryam d’Abo provides an unusually sympathetic Bond Girl and John Rhys-Davies extends prestige and pathos to a new KGB head who is trying to do his job without burning the world down. Oh, and Andreas Wisniewski shines as an icy assassin. Much was made of the fact that he had limited sexual interactions (two if you count a presumed pre-credits hookup), but the more important variable was showing that this new and much younger 007 could carry the torch right as the American action movie was coming of age with the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.
In a skewed irony, Art Malik plays a heroic Afghan leader in this film and then played the wild-eyed (but amusing) terrorist arch-villain seven years later in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s True Lies (a film that tried to fill the six-year-gap between License to Kill and GoldenEye). Yes, The Living Daylights would share one story beat with the next year’s Rambo III, namely in our hero taking up arms against Soviet oppressors alongside the Afghanistan freedom fighters. To be fair, I’m sure John Rambo and James Bond would have voted to help those freedom fighters rebuild their country before the Taliban took over.
$210 million on a $31 million budget
In terms of pure earnings, this Roger Moore entry was the biggest grossing of the franchise until GoldenEye jolted the franchise back to life in 1995. With a $70.3 million domestic total in 1979, Moonraker still sits at the top Roger Moore film by a wide margin. Was it a big deal because it was “James Bond does Star Wars” or was it always going to be huge because The Spy Who Loved Me was so darn good? Probably a little of both.
Moonraker is considered one of the lesser entries, a reputation it does not deserve. Yes, the film has a climax where James Bond goes into space and shoots lasers at the bad guys while Jaws (Richard Kiel returning from The Spy Who Loved Me) turns good and falls in love. However, that’s around 10-15 minutes of a 126 minute action picture. The preceding 105 minutes is a brutally efficient, well-paced, and surprisingly dark and violent 007 caper. Roger Moore is oddly grim this time around, Michael Lonsdale’s Hugo Drax is one of the most low-key baddies in the series, and Lois Chiles makes another great “no BS” (and non-damseled) Bond girl.
The laser-blasting finale is A) really quite well-done and B) less Star Wars and more Thunderball in space. Regardless, it doesn’t do any real damage to what came before, but the rest of the film is one of the more genuinely exciting and gripping Roger Moore Bond entries. And judging by two of this year’s biggest global grossers (F9 and Black Widow), I think popular consensus is finally coming around. If Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finally goes into space in Mission: Impossible 7 or Mission: Impossible 8, then the circle will be complete.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
$82 million on an $8 million budget
Underrated in its initial theatrical release but now almost overrated as a critical course correction (see also: Jennifer’s Body), this one and only George Lazenby-led 007 flick is the rare entry that’s truly “one of a kind.” Peter Hunt, the trailblazing editor who helped shape the Connery era’s groundbreaking action sequences, gets a shot at directing here (while future 80s Bond director John Glenn handles the editing). The action scenes are comparatively sparse but pretty damn spectacular when they arrive. It helps that Lazenby is frankly a more convincing brawler than his predecessor. That it’s not higher on the list is mostly because it’s trying to do too much at one time.
It’s the first non-Connery 007 flick, it’s the introduction for a new actor as Bond, and it’s also an uncharacteristically sincere action drama, one where we’re supposed to look at the film’s main romantic relationship as a “forever” courtship rather than a fling. Whether Connery could have pulled off the melodrama, it certainly would have been fascinating to see him try. Diana Rigg is also arguably the first “already famous” actress to play a Bond Girl and the first to get something of an arc outside of her role as Bond’s squeeze, which certainly helps in establishing her as a potential Mrs. Bond for the film’s infamous epilogue.
Telly Savalas is probably the best Blofeld, the climactic bobsled chase is still one of the most thrilling set pieces in any 007 movie and Lazenby does just fine in his one go-around as Bond. Heck, it’s impressive that a film from 1969 would have its macho male lead go undercover as a gay man without playing to harmful stereotypes or tropes (that Hunt was out and proud didn’t hurt in this regard). Moreover, the shocking finale, which sees James Bond get married only to have his bride shot and killed moments after, is still a jaw-dropper, especially as the series has never dared end on anywhere near as grim of a note since.
$1.1 billion on a $200 million budget
Same Mendes’ blockbuster action thriller was arguably “James Bond does Chris Nolan,” which is ironic in that so much of Nolan’s work is so indebted to his love of the 007 franchise. Doubly ironic in that this film was a huge success partially because, unlike so many “Hollywood copies The Dark Knight” flicks over the last 13 years, Skyfall remembers that Nolan films are (at their best) tripwire intense, ponderous and also unapologetically fun popcorn spectaculars. There’s a lot of The Dark Knight in this flick, especially in the second act when Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva monologues about the M’s sins and makes a violent escape from as part of a “planned to get caught” scheme.
Much of the film’s broader themes feel cribbed from The World Is Not Enough and GoldenEye, with the film once again wading into the metatextual “Is James Bond still relevant?” discourse and offering up a former agent gone rogue and using newfangled technology for nefarious purposes. Moreover, the film seems so determined to revert to a familiar status quo (including fridging Judi Dench to replace her with Ralph Fiennes and putting Naomie Harris behind a desk as the new Moneypenny) that it plays downright regressive. The action is terrific, but Bond fails at every goal yet ends the film all pip-pip and ready for action. We get a third straight “*Now* he’s James Bond!” ending to boot.
Nitpicks (and some regressive gender choices) notwithstanding, Bardem is one of the more colorful 007 baddies, and Dench relishes the chance to get more “real scenes” in her franchise curtain call. Ben Whishaw debuts as, to quote my wife, a “Q.I.L.F.” While released on the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, it keeps nostalgic references to a minimum. Skyfall even offers up a third act that inverts the “Bond storms the bad guy’s impenetrable fortress” trope while positioning M as the “Bond Girl” by default. Warts and all, Roger Deakins-shot visual wonder is a hell of a ride on the first watch and still holds up as a crackling thriller on repeat viewings.
The World Is Not Enough (1997)
$362 million on a $135 million budget
While Brosnan’s two lesser films discard their core “What if?” story ideas at the halfway mark, GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough take them straight through to the end. With The World Is Not Enough, the question was “What if 007 fell in love with a would-be conquest who turned out to be the villain?” This Michael Apted entry, arguably the first time a celebrated non-action director was given the reins, is funny, violent, and filled with genuine drama. In 1999, it was the closest thing we’d seen so far to “a character-driven action thriller that happens to be a Bond movie.”
The two best Brosnan-era supporting characters, Judi Dench’s M and Robbie Coltrane’s Valentin Zukovsky, get ample screen time, Desmond Llewelyn gets an accidentally tear-jerking farewell (he died in an automobile accident a month after the film’s release) and its surprising plot turns have been mimicked everywhere from Skyfall to The Dark Knight Rises. The action scenes (save for the terrific double-whammy pre-credits sequences) are more perfunctory than usual, but that’s at least partially because the acclaimed documentary filmmaker is more concerned about character than spectacle. I’m still mad that nobody got sliced up by the spinning chopper blades, but I digress.
Denise Richards’ infamous Dr. Christmas Jones is less a character problem then a plot one. The filmmakers should have been willing to end with Bond having killed the main Bond Girl (Sophie Marceau, another great female lead in a series that has more than you think) and defeated the main henchman (Robert Carlyle, who was supposed to be 007’s son if you believed the Internet in the late 90’s) and ended alone. But convention demanded someone for Brosnan to shag in the epilogue. However, one flawed element should not negate what is otherwise one of the more compelling and most character-focused films of the first 40 years. The World Is Not Enough is the most underrated James Bond movie.
$141.2 million on a $9 million budget
If Goldfinger is the movie that put Sean Connery’s James Bond series on the map as a blockbuster series, then Terence Young’s Thunderball is the one that positioned it as the biggest thing coming out of Hollywood. The first 007 movie to be shot in widescreen (2.35:1) and featuring Oscar-winning underwater action (which still holds up today), this fast-paced and propulsive actioner features its hero confronting SPECTRE head-on in what would arguably be their first “take over the world”-style plot. Not unlike GoldenEye 30 years later, Thunderball features its hero almost accidentally stumbling onto the big plot through keen observation and connecting seemingly unrelated events.
It also features a prologue whereby Bond strangles a baddie and escapes by jet-pack, establishing that, yeah, this one cost three times what Goldfinger did and you’re going to see that money onscreen. I also like that its female baddie (Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Volpe, arguably a cinematic ancestor to Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatop) doesn’t get redeemed or seduced by Bond to defect to the side of righteousness (while, spoilers, the Bond Girl kills the bad guy). The film is violent and incident-packed, even by early 007 standards, and yeah that underwater climax is still a knockout.
Moreover, Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo is an unusually “get his hands dirty” villain, partaking alongside his henchmen in key portions of the evil plot, which is probably by Blofeld made him SPECTRE’s “number two” boss. This one is easily the best of the arguably “fantasy Bond” movies, and the best of the biggies until The Spy Who Loved Me 12 years later. Yes, it’s excessive (it’s the first to run over two hours), but every indulgence is on the screen. Thunderball is still the biggest-grossing, in terms of tickets sold, real-world action movies.
License to Kill (1989)
$156 million on a $42 million budget
30 years of film critics/movie nerds like myself constantly making the case for Timothy Dalton’s two film run as 007 has moved the needle to the point where Dalton no longer needs a preemptive defense. They say you prefer the Bond you saw first, and my first exposure to the series was an opening weekend matinee of The Living Daylights in 1987. But nonetheless, the reason I will again defend License to Kill, which was mostly savaged upon release and is the biggest adjusted-for-inflation flop in the entire 007 series ($35m in 1989, $73m today), is that it arguably set the template for the current run of Daniel Craig smashes.
Audiences obviously didn’t bite in the crowded summer of 1989, and this PG-13 entry found itself as just another would-be summer blockbuster in a field dominated by Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2. Its classic 1980’s “This time, it’s personal!” revenge story, a clear case of the 007 series trying its hand at hard 80’s action in what was a more appropriate entry for “grimdark” Timothy Dalton. It’s jolting to see a genuinely emotional and driven 007, for perhaps the first time since the pre-credits sequence of Diamonds Are Forever, as he relentlessly pursues the drug lord who maimed Felix Leiter and killed Leiter’s new wife.
Robert Davi is one of the great 007 baddies, bar none, and his goals as a drug kingpin is refreshingly small-scale compared to the standard threaten the world/take over the world/destroy the world schemes that personified the franchise. The opening and closing action scenes are stunning (Chris Nolan is clearly a fan of the pre-credits airplane-lasso sequence), Benicio Del Toro makes a great henchman, and Carey Lowell is more evidence that “Bond Girls” have been “Bond Women” since the 1970’s. Timothy Dalton was doing the Daniel Craig thing before Craig made it cool. By default, Timothy Dalton got the best “last 007” movie of the series.
Casino Royale (2006)
$616 million on a $150 million budget
Proving that nobody does it better, director Martin Campbell resets the franchise for a second time and makes one of the all-time great 007 movies for a second time. This “dark-and-gritty reboot” was clearly inspired by the rough-and-tumble action and post-9/11 cynicism of the Bourne franchise, as well as Chris Nolan’s success rebooting the Caped Crusader (even as Batman Begins itself used the 007 formula as a guiding light). Daniel Craig’s first go-around as James Bond makes sure to offer genuinely larger-than-life thrills over-the-top grandeur while offering a story that makes sure to let James Bond *be* James Bond for the majority of its running time.
The 140-minute flick gets most of its big-scale action set pieces out of the way in the first hour, establishing that this unrefined novice is still very good at his job. We get the equivalent of a stand-alone “James Bond’s first triumph” mini-movie before we even get to the “main plot,” which gives implicit permission for the second hour to focus on poker and romance accordingly. Eva Green is such a firecracker, especially in her introductory train chit-chat, that she tricked us into thinking that Vesper Lynd has more to do than be confused by poker, scold Bond for losing at cards, be horrified by violence and get damsel-ed.
That’s a nitpick. Craig is terrific in his debut, Mads Mikkelsen gives a star-making turn as a desperate middle man and the action sequences (especially the airport showdown and the stairwell fight) hit the exact right tone in terms of offering gritty real-world violence with the skill, scale and grandeur associated with the mother of all action blockbuster franchises. It’s probably the best “just a movie” 007 entry ever made, and rare post-Batman Begins reboot which actually succeeded for more than a movie or two. I don’t know what Eon and friends have planned after No Time to Die, but they’d be mad not to beg Campbell to do his franchise-revitalizing magic thrice.
From Russia With Love (1963)
$79 million worldwide on a $2 million budget
Terence Young nailed the happy medium between real-world espionage and larger-than-life action on this second installment. It’s no secret that Ian Fleming’s novels got a boost after President John F. Kennedy named From Russia with Love as one of his favorite novels, or that this film adaptation was the last movie Kennedy saw before traveling to Dallas in November of 1963. Trivia aside, the 007 movie is still one of the very best, and it’s easily the best of Sean Connery’s seven films.
It’s very much a sequel to Dr. No, both in terms of explicit references (SPECTRE is not thrilled that Bond disrupted their Cape Canaveral plot and pushed one of their top operatives into a nuclear pool reactor) and the mere idea of having these established characters partake in a whole new and somewhat different adventure. SPECTRE reacts to Dr. No by immediately plotting to rub out the pesky spy, using a young consulate clerk (Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova) who thinks she’s working for Mother Russia as a honey trap.
To MI6’s credit, everyone suspects a trap but go through with Romanova’s defection request in the hopes of seeing how far the rabbit hole goes. This results, no shocker, in Tatiana falling for Bond and a brutal train car showdown with Robert Shaw’s “Red” Grant. This film just nails the balance, offering what was the most “espionage-y” plot until Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights and a third act that offers one thrilling action sequence (by train, by boat, by air, by… hotel room) after another.
I can’t imagine the consecutive climaxes didn’t impress Spielberg and Lucas back in the day, and this film is the one that delivered on the initial “Hitchcock on steroids” pitch. It is Sean Connery’s best Bond flick and (partially thanks to dynamite supporting turns from Pedro Armendáriz and Lotte Lenya) one of the very best 007 movies ever made. Hell, it’s so damn good on its own that I’d argue it would still be held up as a classic and groundbreaking action thriller even if the Bond series didn’t extend beyond a few movies.
$356 million on a $60 million budget
It’s no secret that Pierce Brosnan’s debut James Bond movie is my favorite of the bunch. It’s not generational nostalgia, because Dalton was my first Bond and I discovered the franchise just in time to wait six years for another one. But this franchise-saving blockbuster pulled off a coup of revitalizing the series and boldly declaring that it could stand tall alongside the new wave of late-80s/early-90s action blockbusters. The trick, deceptively simple, was to present James Bond as pretty much the same guy but make him a glorified fish-out-of-water in a post-Cold War/post-Anita Hill/post-Die Hard era who was challenged by, but not offended by or indifferent to, new social norms.
His clashes with the new M (Judi Dench) were not about gender but rather about trusting gut instinct over statistics. Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) teased Bond about sexual harassment but never for a moment do you think that her and Bond are anything but sporting friends/co-workers. And he’s happy to be bossed around by Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) whose skills with computers compliment his two-fisted approach without negating it. The only conflicts come from M and Natalya’s insistence that this “boys with toys” blood sport comes with collateral damage and real loss, and that Bond shouldn’t treat the carnage, even his own possible death, as irrelevant. The violence isn’t grotesque, but every “good guy” death matters.
Sean Bean’s former 006-turned baddie represents a generation appalled by decades of career-defining spy games eradicated by a post-Cold War peace, and his anguish at his very real loss gives the actor a chance to play a flesh-and-blood human with genocidal aims. Oh, and minor detail, death fetishist Xenia Onnatopp (a star-making performance from Famke Janssen) is the best Bond villain sidekick, period. And the action kicks butt throughout, starting with a jaw-dropping motorcycle jump off a cliff and continuing with a cheerfully zero-casualty tank chase and climaxing with a brutal man-to-man showdown with unusually personal stakes. GoldenEye is the best 007 movie of them all, and sits alongside Terminator 2, Speed, Mask of Zorro and Face/Off as one of the best action movies of the 1990s.
As I wrote last year for its 25th anniversary, GoldenEye remains my favorite James Bond movie and a spectacular action-adventure. It offered one of the best villains, one of the best “Bond Girls,” the best evil sidekick, terrific production values, a strong star performance (Brosnan combines Connery’s cruelty, Moore’s above-it-all wit and Dalton’s seriousness-of-purpose) and a successful balance of the “real drama” and the “fantastical escapism.” Martin Campbell, Barbara Broccoli and friends didn’t give into fears of insensitivity or irrelevance, they instead gave us a classic James Bond character in a classic James Bond movie that mixed espionage and adventure, updated for the hyper-charged 1990’s and using its moment in time to its dramatic advantage.
Oh, and the N64 video game is pretty great too.
I’m sure you have many areas of disagreement, and I was as shocked as you to find myself enjoying several later Moore entries more than The Spy Who Loved Me this time out. For that matter, Tomorrow Never Dies was a toughie in terms of ranking as it’s completely entertaining even if it’s arguably a “lesser movie,” while I honestly enjoyed Goldfinger more this time out than I usually do. And yeah, I was absolutely prepared to put The Man With the Golden Gun near the bottom as I usually did, but this time out it really worked as a mostly “lean-n-mean” action drama between the unsuccessful Live and Let Die and the over-the-top Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
Speaking of which, Moonraker is good, and someday we’re all going to understand that. Likewise, The World Is Not Enough is still very good and I’d argue that Brosnan had a better batting average than even Daniel Craig (3/4 versus 3/5, and that’s me liking Quantum of Solace more than most folks). As noted above, a full rewatch opened my eyes in terms of A) how many of the Connery/Lazenby/Moore/Dalton movies really did try to avoid an explicit formula, B) how the Brosnan and Craig films have to navigate a certain self-awareness and C) how most of the film’s sexual encounters are not as problematic as you might think since so many of them make Bond the fool.
After 25 years and nine movies between GoldenEye and No Time to Die, I think it’s time for the series to stop the apologetic debates about Bond’s relevance in a quickly changing world. That’s probably the best reason to cast a non-white actor next time out. Someone like Daniel Kaluuya or Dev Patel will allow the series to once again play into the aspirational wish-fulfillment fantasy elements without the liberal guilt. Oh, and no spoilers, but I’d seriously commit to using the supporting cast they’ve assembled (Harris, Fiennes, etc.) while bringing back Ana de Armas just for fun. Bond has everything it needs to move on from the Craig era. It just need to believe in itself.