The James Bond franchise is the longest-running continuous series in film history and, behind “Harry Potter,” the second most successful franchise in cinema history (and by the time “Skyfall” finishes up, will likely take the crown back again). And one of the most impressive things about that achivement, and I say this is as a British writer raised on Bond movies on rainy Bank Holiday afternoons, is how many of the films are simply not very good.
There are scattered highlights, to be certain — much of the Connery era, a few Roger Moores, a Brosnan, “Casino Royale.” But for every genuinely classic entry, there are probably two mediocre (or worse) films. Some of them might have scattered things to enjoy in them, but there’s a few that can’t even claim that much. With the latest film, “Skyfall,” hitting theaters this week (and proving to be one of the better films in the series), we’re continuing Bond week (read our take on the franchise’s best villains and action sequences) by picking out our five least favorite 007 adventures. Disagree? Defend your favorite, or attack another, in the comments section below.
“Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)
Sean Connery stepped away from playing 007 after “You Only Live Twice” in 1967, with replacement George Lazenby stepping in for 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” But Lazenby, after clashing with producers, bailed on the franchise after only one entry, and while producers considered names as varied as Michael Gambon and Adam West, “Psycho” actor John Gavin won the role, only for United Artists to decide they wanted Connery to return, offering him a record salary and funding for two projects of his choice for the trouble. Even so, Connery may wish he hadn’t bothered, because “Diamonds Are Forever” is easily the actor’s worst of his six outings in Bond’s tuxedo. Revolving around Blofeld (Charles Gray)’s scheme to use smuggled South African diamonds to power a laser satellite with which he can menace the globe, the film’s choice of locations — South Africa, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Baja California — feel significantly less glamorous and sleazier then in your average entry, while Gray is easily the least effective of the Blofelds. Indeed, the cast in general, from Jill St. John‘s stilted love interest to Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as gay assassins Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, are mostly flat. The plot is convoluted and sees the encroachment into silliness that the earlier Connery entries mostly did without, and the actor himself feels disinterested. Even director Guy Hamilton, whose “Goldfinger” was one of the peaks of Connery’s five prior films, seems to be phoning it in, with a pretty uninspiring selection of setpieces. It’s not the worst of these five films, but it’s still a pretty dismal (official) finale for the seminal James Bond, who probably wishes he’d left it at five (Connery would return one more time for unofficial entry “Never Say Never Again,” which is pretty mediocre, but just decent enough to stay off the bottom five).
Every generation in theory has a particular fondness for the Bond that they grew up with, so Roger Moore has his defenders out there, but as far as we’re concerned, it would have been fairly easy to pick out five terrible Bond movies from his time in the role. Only “The Spy Who Loved Me” is anything like a success, while the other films have occasionally strong set pieces or other pleasures to be found, but mostly suffer from weak scripts, haphazard tone and an ever-aging Moore, who was close to 60 by the time he departed the role. But the very nadir has to be “Moonraker,” an unconvincing attempt to cash in on the success of “Star Wars” two years previously. This time out, 007 is out to stop the most ludicrous plot in a series full of ludicrous plots: villain Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale)’s plan to destroy the earth, and then repopulate it with the perfect-looking inhabitants of his space station city. One certainly can’t fault the film’s ambition: it trots the globe from Africa and Venice to Rio and the aforementioned space station. But the result is something frantic and overstuffed, with wall-to-wall action but no sequences that really impress, bar perhaps the opening sky-diving stunt (which sets up the ridiculous tone by having returning fan-favorite henchman survive a plunge from 30,000 feet by landing in a circus tent). The sure touch that Lewis Gilbert (“Alfie“) showed in “The Spy Who Loved Me” is nowhere to be found here, the tone feeling closer to parody than straightforward action-adventure, and by the time you reach the space station, you’re no longer watching a Bond film, you’re watching a poorly-conceived “Our Man Flint” sequel. Still, the space gamble worked out financially: the film took over $200 million worldwide, and it stood as the series’ highest-grossing entry until “Goldeneye” sixteen years later.
“Licence To Kill” (1989)
A good couple of decades before the trend for darkness in franchise pictures came about thanks to “Batman Begins” and co., Timothy Dalton‘s Bond saw an attempt to reinvent the franchises after diminishing returns in the Moore era by returning to relative realism, with a more character-driven approach. Dalton’s debut, 1987’s “The Living Daylights” isn’t a classic, but it’s a decent attempt at melding a Bond for the 1980s with the classic template. Unfortunately, things tipped too far the other way with the actor’s second and final spin at 007, 1989’s “Licence To Kill.” The story did at least take the franchise to new places: after an attack on his U.S. liaison friend Felix Leiter and his wife, 007 goes rogue, resigns, has his licence to kill revoked, and sets out on a mission of revenge. Inspired by hardcore R-rated ’80s action movies like “Lethal Weapon,” this is a dark and violent Bond (it had to be edited down from an R in the U.S. and remains the only 15-rated entry in the series in the U.K.), with exploding heads, bullet impacts, and severed legs. But from the off — which sees Leiter’s wife raped and murdered, and the DEA agent fed to a shark — it leaves a deeply sour taste in the mouth. Indeed, between the revenge plot and the coke-dealing villains, the film barely feels like a Bond movie at all; you could swap in Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone and the film might as well be a “Commando” or “Rambo” sequel. There’s one impressive action sequence near the end (the tanker chase), but ultimately there’s very little to like here, beyond an expanded role for Desmond Llewelyn‘s Q. It’s a shame Dalton didn’t get a third stab, because he was a fairly decent Bond. But hey, at least he got to be Mr. Pricklepants.
“Die Another Day” (2002)
Pierce Brosnan was a well-liked Bond who proved to be an inspired choice for the character, helping revive the franchise and take it to new box-office heights. But it’s a shame that his films got gradually worse as time went on, from the excellent “Goldeneye,” diminishing returns seemed to hit every time he was at bat. Things reached rock bottom with Brosnan’s final entry, “Die Another Day,” a CGI-stuffed misjudged mess that, in the same year as upstarts “The Bourne Identity” and to a lesser extent “xXx,” tried to get with the times, but ultimately made the franchise look like your dad in a ponytail and a leather jacket. Things start off promisingly. After an impressive hovercraft-based action scene, Bond is actually captured, tortured and left a bearded, bedgraggled burn-out, traded back to the MI6 only reluctantly. From there, however, it goes rapidly downhill: a hammy villain (Toby Stephens) with a ludicrous sci-fi tinged plot, a would-be counterpart to Bond in the shape of Halle Berry that mostly made the audience question why she’d won an Oscar only a few months earlier, pop-culture baiting stunt casting in the form of a shoehorned-in Madonna, and a creaky script that trades in single entendres more than bona-fide innuendo. Worst of all, having kept mostly to practical stunts in the earlier films, the film sees Bond embrace the age of CGI and overblown set pieces, with an invisible car and some dreadful effects that sees a 16-bit Bond surfing a melted ice wave. Director Lee Tamahori went on to make “xXx2: State Of The Union” starring Ice Cube next. That’s arguably a better Bond movie than this.
“Quantum Of Solace” (2008)
Daniel Craig‘s first entry, “Casino Royale,” suggested a franchise that had been successfully reinvented. At the time, the biggest hit ever in the series, and critically acclaimed, it showed that the filmmakers were learning from the success of rivals like Bourne, without slavishly copying. Were we in for a new golden age of Bond movies? As “Quantum Of Solace” proved two years later, not so much. In advance, it looked promising: an acclaimed filmmaker in the shape of “Finding Neverland” director Marc Forster, a script again polished by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, ‘Bourne’ genius Dan Bradley as second-unit director, and the first Bond movie in history to pick up the threads of a storyline from a previous film. Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production because of the impending writer’s strike, and the result was an insipid, half-hearted and, frankly, dull entry that dissipated any goodwill from “Casino Royale.” Plotwise, the film sees Bond attempting to track down the organization, Quantum, that killed his love Vesper Lynd, but things are swiftly sidetracked by his discovery of a nefarious plan by faux environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Having apparently learned nothing from the mockery pointed George Lucas‘ way when he made the plot for “The Phantom Menace” revolve around trade embargos, Greene’s scheme involves him trying to win a utillities contract in Central America, which has to be the dullest Bond plot in history. And while Amalric’s a great actor, he’s given very little to work with, hardly seeming a physical match for Craig in their final square-off. Most crucially of all, Forster has no feeling for how to shoot an actual sequence. Choppy, line-crossing cutting, overuse of CGI doubles and impossible camera shots, plus an inability to handle geography making it the most incoherently shot film in the history of the franchise. Craig is fine, and Olga Kurylenko makes a spirited Bond girl (Gemma Arterton‘s “Goldfinger“-homaging cameo less so), but one can only be thankful that the makers of “Skyfall” learned from the mistakes here.