The James Bond franchise is known for many things: the girls, the martinis, the cars, the shifting lead roles. But most of all, perhaps, it’s known for the spectacular action sequences. Over the 23 films to date, 007 has punched, kicked, shot, set on fire, exploded, thrown off high things, blown out of airplanes, eviscerated, fed to sharks and come up with countless other inventive ways of dispatching the villains, while using virtually every form of transport known to man, from motorbikes to hovercrafts to spaceships in a variety of pulse-pounding chase sequences.
With the latest film “Skyfall,” hitting theaters in the U.S. this Friday, we’re continuing James Bond week at The Playlist (we looked at the the best villains yesterday) by picking out five of our favorite Bond action sequences. We were, frankly, spoiled for choices when it came to making our picks, and we’re heartbroken at the ones we had to leave out, but we’ve tried to get a bit of a spread across the history of the franchise. But if we missed your own personal favorite, you can fight in its corner in the comments section below.
“From Russia With Love” – The Orient Express fight
Bond has duked it out over the years with hundreds of villains, but no fights have been as thrilling or as brutal as the one that Sean Connery‘s Bond had on board the Orient Express with Robert Shaw‘s SPECTRE agent Red Grant. Bond, Soviet cypher clerk Tatiana Romanova and Istanbul station head Ali Kermi Bey are on board the train with a Lektro cryptography device when Grant, posing as another agent, kills Bey, and gets the upper hand on Bond. But fortunately, Q branch have booby-trapped 007’s briefcase, setting off tear gas in Grant’s face, and what follows is a brutal three-minute bit of mano-a-mano combat, the two agents kicking, strangling and gouging at each other. It’s still a little shocking in the extent of its violence, and for all the best efforts of the following 21 films, hasn’t yet been bested in the series.
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” – Ski chase
The Bond movies have always done well by skiing sequences. Among others, “The Spy Who Loved Me” (with the spectacular Union Jack parachute jump), “The Living Daylights” (with the cello escape) and “For Your Eyes Only” (with Roger Moore being chased down by motorcyclists, and a detour down a bobsled run — this one in particular is a cracker, and nearly made the list) have all featured memorable action scenes on the slopes. But the original, and the best, remains the one in George Lazenby‘s sole entry, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” A professed inspiration for the snowbound action sequence in the third act of Christopher Nolan‘s “Inception” (Nolan’s a big fan of Bond, and of this film in particular), the scene comes when Lazenby’s Bond makes his escape from Blofeld’s allergy-research clinic headquarters on Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. Skiing down the mountain, he’s pursued by Blofeld’s men, leading to a thrilling chase (and later, a bobsled chase after 007 blows the base up). It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some of the other Alpine sequences, but there’s a visceral thrill that’s unmatched elsewhere, aided by camerawork captured by Swiss Winter Olympians bombing down the mountain backwards holding cameras. Some dodgy back-projection aside, the sequence feels like it could fit into any modern-day Bond scene. The death-defying sled chase/fight is almost as good — watch both below.
“Goldeneye” – Tank chase
One issue with Bond films, particularly these days, is that the most spectacular action sequence often comes with the opening scene, leaving everything that comes after to feel a bit underwhelming. That’s arguably true of “Skyfall,” for instance. And certainly “Goldeneye,” as the return of the franchise after a lengthy absence, needed to introduce new Bond with a bang, and did so with a jaw-dropping opening that sees 007 both bungee jump off a dam, and skydive into a runaway plane. And yet director Martin Campbell managed, in a rare feat, to top himself later on with the much-celebrated tank sequence. After being captured and held in the Russian military archives, Bond and computer programmer Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) escape, only for her to be grabbed by fleeing third-tier villain General Ourumov (Gottfried John). So Bond pursues them in a tank. What Campbell understands as well as any of the great Bond helmers is that what makes a memorable sequence isn’t necessarily the pure spectacle and stuntwork (though there’s plenty of that here), but the beats and gags spread through the scene. And Campbell loads up on those, as Bond’s transport goes through entire buildings, forces the Russian police force to reverse away from him, and ends up with a statue on the top of the tank. Topped off with a great bit of tie-straightening from Brosnan, it’s quintissential 007 stuff.
“The World Is Not Enough” – Boat chase
Bond’s always done action sequences on the water well, with memorable scenes in “From Russia With Love” and “Live And Let Die,” but the aquatic stuntwork of the team has never been better than in the pre-credits scene of Brosnan’s third film, “The World Is Not Enough.” The film is, for the most part, a sub-par entry, muddy-looking, with poorly-conceived action sequences and arguably the worst Bond girl in history in the shape of Denise Richards. But for the opening ten minutes or so, Michael Apted‘s film soars. After a British banker friend of M’s is blown up inside the MI6 building, 007 heads off down the Thames after the assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) in an experimental Q-branch speedboat. It’s faintly ludicrous, as is much of the later Brosnan era, but the second unit are really earning their paychecks with the lensing, and here at least, Apted shows the same gift for seeking out memorable beats within the scene — Brosnan’s trademark tie-straightening underwater, a spectacular corkscrew jump, the rocket-powered boat taking to land for a spell, and finally a spectacular drop from a hot-air balloon over the then-new Millennium Dome in Greenwich. No wonder the rest of the film looks so bad by comparison.
“Casino Royale” – Parkour opening
By the time that Bond returned from a four-year gap after Pierce Brosnan left the franchise, the action movie had changed. “The Bourne Identity” had reinvigorated the spy-genre, particularly in 2005’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” which saw Paul Greengrass graft a documentary aesthetic and parkour-inspired action onto the rival franchise. Needing to come back strong, Eon hired Martin Campbell again, and if anything, he came out of the gate even more impressively than he had on “Goldeneye.” Chasing down a bomb-maker played by parkour creator Sebastien Foucan through Madagascar, Craig’s Bond is reintroduced as the “blunt instrument” that Judi Dench‘s M refers to him as. He can’t match his quarry’s freerunning skills, so he takes the simpler route: driving a digger at the guy, throwing a gun at him, generally causing as much damage as he can to his environment and, at the last, shooting Foucan in the heart and blowing up an embassy. It’s not just a great re-introduction to Bond, it’s a great example of showing character through action, establishing the tone that’s run through Craig’s three films to date. Plus it’s impeccably lensed (by Campbell’s regular DoP Phil Meheux) and cut (by action veteran Stuart Baird). As good as “Skyfall” is, it’s hard not to hope that Campbell gets another go in the Bond director’s chair at some point.