It's been a long week of Bond here at The Playlist, and the release of "Skyfall" is only a few hours away. We've looked at the best villains, the best action scenes and the worst of the franchise, so what better place to end up than with the very best of the series?
As we said yesterday, the Bond franchise doesn't have the best hit rate, even if fans can find something to embrace in most entries. But there's still a few crackers out there — most of Roger Moore's era is pretty poor, most of Connery's is decent, and Daniel Craig is 2 for 3 at this stage, putting him one better than Pierce Brosnan. We've picked out our five favorites from the last 50 years of the franchise below, but you can argue the cause of your own favorites in the comments section.
"From Russia With Love" (1963)
The first Bond film, "Dr. No," has its charms, but feels constrained by its budget, with the franchise still finding its feet. But consider those feet found in the second film, "From Russia With Love," which even more so than its predecessor manages to both establish and virtually perfect the formula that would serve the series so well over the years. The plot is fairly down to earth: as revenge for the death of Dr. No, SPECTRE plan to steal an Enigma machine-type cryptography device from the Soviets using the unwitting cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) as the means through which to obtain it. Bond is sent to Istanbul to meet with her, but swiftly discovers that he's being set up. Fairly faithful to Fleming's novel (as many of the early Bonds were), it's gritty, down-to-earth stuff decades before it was fashionable, with the plot leaning closer to John Le Carre or Len Deighton than the more out-there stuff that was to come; gripping, but not convoluted. And the bigger budget really shows, with a number of top set-pieces that remain strong today including the attack on the gypsy settlement, the train fight, and the final boat chase and its explosive climax. The use of Istanbul (returned to in "Skyfall"), the Orient Express and Venice as locations give it a real '60s glamour too, while Connery is at the peak of his depiction of the character — charming, but legitimately scary when he has to be. For all the good Bonds that have come since, this one might remain our favorite.
Not that Eon Productions dropped the ball next time out. "Goldfinger" sees a marked difference in tone a year on, with a sly humor often absent from its predecessors and fantastical elements, including lasers, razor-tipped bowler hats and a team of aviatrixes led by a woman called Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). And despite all that, the film's a winner, establishing that 007 could be a lot of fun and appeal to a wider audience, while still maintaining a degree of integrity. The film starts with Bond in Miami, asked to observe questionable gold dealer Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe). The mission sees Bond's latest ladyfriend memorably murdered by being covered in gold paint, and 007 heads to Switzerland to investigate further, eventually ending up back in the U.S where Goldfinger intends to irradiate the gold in Fort Knox. It's the first of the three films so far to really, truly flirt with absurdity, but it just stops short of full-on camp, with Connery maintaining some grit, but having a little more fun (and no wonder he's enjoying himself; he struck a deal during filming to get 5% of the gross on the film). The villains are cracking, the girls are kick-ass, and much of the classic 007 iconography, including Ken Adams' stunning production design and the Aston Martin DB7, is here. And while it might be somewhat lacking in jaw-dropping stuntwork, the fights are pretty strong. Finally, this sees the real establishment of another tradition, the Bond song, with Shirley Bassey contributing one of the real classics of the franchise. The Roger Moore era would take some of the sillier aspects of this one and build on them, but here, they feel entirely refreshing.
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969)
The wisdom has always been that George Lazenby's sole outing as 007 was a misfire; a poorly cast Bond in a film that deserved to be swept under the carpet. But it seems that, over the last couple of decades, the film's been critically reappraised, and rightly so. Maybe Lazenby's not quite up there with Connery, but he's less thuggish and more likable than his predecessor, and arguably handles the physical side of things better. But crucially, the film around him is top-notch. The plot — which sees Blofeld out to use brainwashed allergy-sufferers to destory the world's crops — is a little silly (though more so than in practice than in theory), but this time it's essentially background to the central romance, between Bond and mobster's daughter Tracy di Vicenzo, played by "The Avengers" star Diana Rigg. Tracy is a far more complex and nuanced love interest than the franchise tackled before, and serves as a true match for Bond. Their affair, marriage and her murder at the finale makes it the first film in the series with real emotional backbone, as well as provide a stunningly downbeat cliffhanger of an ending. It means that for all the brainwashing absurdity, it's one of the more absorbing and engaging Bond films in the series. It helps that former Bond editor Peter R. Hunt (who never got another stab at helming the franchise after his directorial debut here) shoots the hell out of it, and it has perhaps the series' finest score from John Barry. A smaller scale, more personal Bond, but one which undoubtedly set something of a precedent for "Casino Royale" and "Skyfall."
Returning to the screen after a six year absence, there was some question if Bond's time had passed. "Licence To Kill" had shown a franchise struggling to catch up to the 1980s era of actioners, and only the year before, James Cameron had made his own Bond homage with "True Lies," which had proven to be a massive success. But "Goldeneye" — directed by New Zealander Martin Campbell, who made his name with '80s BBC miniseries "Edge of Darkness," and penned by a quartet of experienced action scribes — turned out to be a canny reinvention of the series for the 1990s, embracing most of the old staples, while upping the action, and acknowledging Bond's place in a changing world (he's a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War," according to Judi Dench's M), all adding up to the best Bond movie in a quarter of a century. After a great opening scene that introduces us to, and seemingly kills off 006 (Sean Bean), it picks up with the mysterious Janus crime syndicate stealing a prototype helicopter, and the controls to the GoldenEye satellite weapon. Campbell and co. keep the tone fun without creeping into the absurdity of the later installments, and it's clear from the off that Brosnan was an inspired choice; he already feels like he's been playing the character for years (indeed, he was the first choice when Moore left, but couldn't get out of his "Remington Steele" contract). Beyond Izabella Scorupco's bland love interest and Alan Cumming's infuriatingly annoying hacker, the supporting cast are strong too, with Dench showing immediately why she's become the seminal M for this generation, Bean and Famke Janssen making great villains, and Robbie Coltrane having fun as a Russian mob boss. It's the rare Bond to keep the spectacle up throughout, from that stunning opening dam bungee jump through the tank chase to the final confrontation on the enormous satellite dish in the Cuban jungle.
"Casino Royale" (2006)
For the 21st film in the series, and the introduction of sixth Bond Daniel Craig (and with the poisonous response to "Die Another Day" still echoing), EON decided to go back to the beginning, adapting officially for the first time Ian Fleming's first novel, "Casino Royale" (which rights issues had seen turned into a disastrous parody back in the 1960s), and showing 007's first kill, and seemingly his first mission. The new 00 agent just happens to be MI6's best poker player, and he's sent to try and bankrupt terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) at a high-stakes game in Montenegro, with the aid of treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). After an action-packed first half that shows a muscular, blunt, take-no-shit Bond from Craig, things calm down a notch once the card playing begins, but thanks to strong performances from Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright (as long-time Bond ally Felix Leiter) and Green, it's the rare Bond film where the talky scenes are as good as the action (which is, when it comes, mostly exceptional). Indeed, like 'OHMSS,' the romance is genuinely affecting, Craig and Green sharing all kinds of chemistry, and the ending (while tainted a little by a muddy and ill-conceived Venetian action sequence) is genuinely affecting. As with "Skyfall," there are moments of imperfection that make us think, or at least hope, that Craig's best film in the role is still to come. Still, between this and "GoldenEye," director Martin Campbell makes a strong argument that he should be given another entry to helm.