After two weeks of non-stop Bond here at Criticwire, it’s time for the grand finale: the rhetorical equivalent of Bond and his army of Japanese ninjas storming Blofeld’s volcano lair. We’ve already covered the worst Bond films ever; now it’s time to tackle the best. Because we’re talking about 007 here — and because I couldn’t decide and literally spent an hour shuffling and reshuffling my list — let’s pick the seven best, instead of your typical five. Starting with:
007. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
“The Spy Who Loved Me” is the traditional consensus pick for the best Roger Moore Bond, but I’ve always been partial to its underrated predecessor. Bond receives a death threat from a sort of evil doppelganger — a deadly assassin for hire named Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) — and sets off to kill the man with the golden gun before he kills him. Lee is the perfect actor to play a “dark Bond” — he actually resembles the character as Ian Fleming wrote him, and was even a cousin of Fleming’s to boot — and his sidekick, the diminutive Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize from “Fantasy Island”), is amusingly vicious as well. Britt Ekland, as Bond’s assistant Mary Goodnight, is a regrettably ditzy Bond girl, but, on the plus side, she spends the entire third act in a bikini for absolutely no reason. Some folks claim Moore was still trying too hard to be Sean Connery at this point in the series, but I like the believable hard edge his Bond has in “TMWTGG” — outward gentleman, inward sadistic brute — as when he negotiates with a black market arms dealer by holding him at crotch-level gunpoint (“Speak, or forever hold your piece”). One undeniable problem: the inexplicable return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a Southern redneck cop from “Live and Let Die,” who shows up (in Thailand?!?) and gets unwittingly roped into the action. Finally, a simple observation: this hilarious “karate fight” was made seven years before “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Directed by Peter R. Hunt
The sixth Bond film is a tale of two reputations: to the public at large it’s an infamous flop — the one and only appearance by Australian male model George Lazenby as 007. To hardcore Bond nerds it’s an underrated gem, with more pathos, humor, and action than almost any other installment in the series. Some argue that if Connery had hung around long enough to appear in it, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” would be the best Bond film ever. It’s possible, but Lazenby is actually a perfectly serviceable Bond (even if his accent is a bit wonky); he’s a formidable physical presence and he’s got wonderful chemistry with Diana Rigg as the doomed Bond girl Tracy. The thing that really holds “OHMSS” back is the story, which is even more absurd than usual. The entire plot hinges on SPECTRE leader Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas) not recognizing Bond when he infiltrates his compound disguised, Clark Kent-style, as a genealogist. Blofeld finally figures the whole thing out when Bond makes an obscure goof in his genealogy facts — not because, y’know, he looks like James Bond, the guy he just fought in “You Only Live Twice” (admittedly Bond looked a lot more like Sean Connery at the time). Still, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. Bond himself is particularly scrappy; instead of using Q’s gadgets he improvises his own, like when he rips the pockets out of his slacks to use them as climbing gloves. “OHMSS” was directed by a former editor, Peter R. Hunt, and it shows — particularly in action scenes propelled by energetic cutting. It’s a fun film with a surprisingly moving ending.
5. Skyfall (2012)
Directed by Sam Mendes
The latest James Bond adventure already deserves a spot in the discussion of the greatest of all time, particularly because it manages to pull off a very rare trick: thoughtfully considering Bond’s place in the world after 50 years while still providing all the series’ requisite thrills — more requisite thrills, in fact, than either of Daniel Craig’s two previous outings. Several of Bond’s missing allies return, as do the gadgets, and the action sequences — particularly the cold open in Istanbul and a key chase through the Tube — are first-rate. One of the pleasures of James Bond in the past was his projected air of immortality; Craig’s Bond is a much more vulnerable man, which makes him the right guy to play this particular 007; older and weaker after a failed mission, and threatened with retirement along with M (Judi Dench), who is being forced out of her job by misguided bureaucrats. There are still a few better Bonds, but thanks to Roger Deakins, there may not be a better looking Bond. His stunning visuals are going to last for at least 50 more years.
4. The Living Daylights (1987)
Directed by John Glen
If you like Daniel Craig’s Bond movies but haven’t seen this film starring “forgotten Bond” Timothy Dalton then you know the next 007 adventure on your must-see list. This reasonably serious picture was at least fifteen years ahead of its time — as was Dalton, who brought a wounded, soulful quality that the character never had onscreen before. Dalton’s advantage over Craig: he could tell a joke too (after killing a bad guy next to his chest of Napoleonic toy soldiers: “He met his Waterloo”). This time out, Bond is dispatched to Eastern Europe as an escort for a defecting Soviet general (Jeroen Krabbé), but he falls for the woman he’s supposed to kill and nearly botches the assignment. When the defector is recaptured by the Soviets, M (Robert Brown) sends Bond to find him again. Generally speaking, the less complicated a Bond film plot the better, but “The Living Daylights”‘ story manages to be reasonably coherent and full of twists. The film belongs to its era — Dalton wears more Members Only jackets than dinner jackets and gets a major assist from Afghanistan’s Mujahideen — but its charms are timeless. Romance and globe-trotting adventure never go out of style.
3. GoldenEye (1995)
Directed by Martin Campbell
While I have a very special, very nostalgic place in my heart for “GoldenEye” — the first Bond film I saw in a theater, and the one that really made me fall in love with the series — the film’s strengths exceed my personal connection to them. Some of its superlative elements rank at the very top of the franchise’s history: several great Bond girls — particularly Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, who literally screws men to death — a great villain who’s a match for Bond both physically and intellectually (a surprisingly rare combination for the series, where there’s typically a brilliant mastermind and a brooding goon), and the single funniest Q briefing scene in 23 films (Bond: “They always said the pen was mightier than the sword.” Q: “Thanks to me, they were right.”). “GoldenEye” also has something a lot of Bonds lack: subtext, specifically about our collective fear that ended wars won’t stay ended for very long. The film’s antagonists are a partner who Bond thought he failed and allowed to die and the Russian general he believed had killed him. Seven years later, these “ghosts,” along with the lingering weapons and tensions of the Cold War, come back to haunt Bond and the rest of MI6, a credible evocation of post-Glasnost paranoia. “GoldenEye” is more than a stellar Bond film, though, it’s a stellar action movie, period. Directed by Martin Campbell (who later directed Daniel Craig’s “Casino Royale”) it’s jammed with great practical special effects from the time right before CGI became the industry standard. The tank chase through St. Petersburg, where Pierce Brosnan’s 007 crashes through walls, crunches cars, and steamrolls statues should be Exhibit A in the case of Analog Versus Digital.
2. Goldfinger (1964)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
“Goldfinger” is just 111 minutes: pure, concentrated Bond, hurtling through its plot where others in the series dawdle. And why not? There’s a lot to get through: a gold dealer improbably named Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a foxy female pilot named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a silent Korean henchman named Odd Job (Harold Sakata), a sinister plan — codenamed Operation Grand Slam — to destroy America’s gold reserves at Fort Knox, and the gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5, which is almost as synonymous with Bond at this point as his vodka martinis. “Goldfinger” may not not be the very best Bond, but it’s easily the most iconic: the woman killed with a coat of gold paint, Odd Job throwing his hat as a deadly weapon, and, of course, the immortal exchange between Bond and Goldfinger while our hero is strapped to a table, a laser beam bearing down on his crotch. “You expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die!” In his Great Movies essay about “Goldfinger,” Roger Ebert put it well: “Not every man would like to be James Bond, but every boy would.” And “Goldfinger” explains all the reasons why.
1. From Russia With Love (1963)
Directed by Terence Young
“Love” really is the operative word here; the first Bond sequel, made when a new movie was still a privilege instead of a right and before Sean Connery’s insouciance as Bond morphed into insouciance towards Bond, bursts with excitement, enthusiasm and fun. Instead of simply repeating the thrill of 1962’s “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love” expanded upon its mythos and refined its pleasures. SPECTRE, led by Ernst Blofeld (still in his Dr. Claw you’ll-never-see-my-face-just-my-cat phase), steal a Soviet decoding device in order to stoke tensions between England and Russia and get some revenge on 007. Connery is at his quipping best (after eliminating an assassin with knife-tipped shoes: “She’s had her kicks.”) and the supporting cast is stacked from top to bottom. Good old gadgeteer Q (Desmond Llewelyn) makes his first appearance and immediately establishes his oil-and-water relationship with 007, and Daniela Bianchi is an alluring beauty as the misled Russian cryptographer Tatiana Romanova. Tthe film’s two main adversaries — sniveling hag Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and stoic man-mountain Red Grant (Robert Shaw) — have been imitated endlessly throughout the franchise’s history but never topped. Neither has the movie itself.