You could say the 53 year-old James Bond franchise has had its share of ups and downs (double entendre alert!). And as its 24th installment, Spectre, arrives in theaters this week, perhaps you are just discovering James Bond for the first time. I’m pretty sure no one has ever written a “Best of James Bond” list before, so it is my obligation as a well-informed viewer with an internet connection to put together some recommendations.
But first, some prerequisites: You will need tolerance for the occasional dodgy special effect or groan-inducing pun. You must also have the capacity to chuckle at archaic technology, fashion styles and human behavior (particularly regarding the treatment of women). In return, you will be rewarded with some of the most inventive stunts, iconic villains, and exotic locales in movie history.
Selections are listed chronologically:
The original James Bond adventure is surprisingly low key in contrast to any of the sequels that followed. There are indeed times when the film's shortcomings peak through (like this, ahem, Robo dragon), but given its budgetary constraints and lack of an established formula to follow, Dr. No succeeds admirably. In fact, it may just be the absence of formulaic beats and overly flashy action set pieces that allows Sean Connery to carry the film with the perfect mix of sophistication and ruthlessness. Connery’s Bond doesn’t show up for a full 8 minutes into the movie, but when he does, he’s armed with an unlimited supply of "seen it all" macho swagger. With each passing film, Connery lost a little bit of the razor-sharp edge displayed here, gradually playing the role with more of a bored smirk.
Arguably the most authentic spy thriller of the franchise, From Russia with Love is brimming with '60s style and Cold War espionage. By this point, a few more pieces of the superspy puzzle have started falling into place. Gadget master Q (Desmond Llewelyn) makes his first appearance. John Barry contributes his first of ten Bond scores, creating an oft imitated combination of lush strings and jazzy brass. SPECTRE henchman Red Grant's (Robert Shaw) menacing presence is felt throughout the film like an angel of death, and his claustrophobic showdown with Bond on the Orient Express can hold its own with any fight in modern action movies. Oh, and did I mention there is a girl gypsy fight midway through the movie that is absolutely essential to the plot?
After the slow burn of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, James Bond officially became a cultural phenomenon with Goldfinger. This film firmly establishes many of the familiar Bond conventions: the gadget laden car, the henchman with a defining quirk, the girl with an eyebrow-raising name, Monologuing Villain Syndrome, and the list goes on. Once you throw in Jill Masteron's (Shirley Eaton) death by gold paint and Bond's near castration by laser, Goldfinger has more iconic moments per frame than any other Bond movie. Of course, this is also where the realistic espionage got ditched in favor of the slightly overblown and silly, starting a game of one-upmanship that led to some truly awful Bond films.
George Lazenby’s only appearance as 007 is full of contradictions. You never quite buy Lazenby as the ultimate ladies man that Sean Connery was, but he sells the vulnerable moments in a way that Connery probably never could. His banter with top tier Bond Girl Tracy (Diana Rigg) sparkles, but most of his other quips land with a thud. The aggressive editing and Lazenby’s physicality add oomph to the fight sequences, but the film drags in the middle and runs about 20 minutes too long. The ski sequences in the Swiss Alps are breathtaking, while the intercut closeups shot against rear projection plates are decidedly not.
What ultimately sways the film to the winning side is a renewed faithfulness to the source material, and a more realistic tone after the series had slipped a little too far over the top. Unfortunately, reaction to the film and the “new” James Bond were mixed at the time. Lazenby made his hasty exit, and soon an overweight, disinterested Sean Connery was being bribed to return for the mediocre Diamonds Are Forever. But On Her Majesty's Secret Service has proven to have “all the time in the world.” The film spent the next several decades honing its reputation as a forgotten, unheralded gem, and has been name-dropped as inspiration for great modern action films such as Bond reboot Casino Royale and Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
I will say upfront that I am not a fan of Roger Moore’s smirking, campy take on 007. But, if you are looking for a representation of his lengthy run as Bond throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s (without straying into laser battles in space, or sharp shooters with a third nipple), then The Spy Who Loved Me is your best bet. Highlights include Bond evading bad guys on a ski slope in a bright yellow jumpsuit, a killer disco remix of the Bond theme, and the iconic henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel).
GoldenEye was my introduction to James Bond, but it could also be considered James Bond’s introduction to the modern world. The series was returning from a six-year hiatus—the longest of the franchise. A lot happened in those six years, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, a greater cultural emphasis on political correctness, and the modernization of special effects. Personal computers and the internet were also making their way into more and more homes, meaning GoldenEye was part of a memorable batch of movies in the mid ‘90s where there was no crisis a computer couldn’t be the cause of, or the solution to. Pierce Brosnan shows a great deal of promise in his Bond debut, so it's a shame that each Brosnan film got progressively worse.
My personal favorite Bond film, Casino Royale successfully reinvigorated a tired franchise because it wasn't afraid to hit the reset button and discard the formula that had handcuffed the series for years. It kicks off about as perfectly as a movie can, at least according to my particular tastes. There is the artsy black & white pre-credit sequence where Daniel Craig’s Bond achieves 007 status, followed by a clever introduction of the famous gun barrel, which leads into the very cool animated titles and theme song, and finally capped by a jaw-dropping parkour chase through a Madagascar construction site and Embassy. From there, Bond only goes on to defibrillate himself, win obscene amounts of money at the poker table, roll his Aston Martin a world record 7 times, and inspire the entire male gender to cling to their manhood for dear life. But perhaps most impressively, Craig brings real depth and emotion to the character for the first time since the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as Bond's relationship with Vesper (Eva Green) develops.
On a personal note, Casino Royale achieved something I once thought impossible. When we were first married, my wife did not care for James Bond at all. This was certainly not hard to understand given Bond's misogynistic reputation. When Casino Royale came out, I was eventually able to talk her into seeing it with the caveat that this was a "new" James Bond, and my friends' wives were also going. Even after the credits rolled she denied liking the movie (she may tell a different story), but once I bought the DVD and would come home from work to find her watching it without me, I knew Daniel Craig had won her over.
Quantum of Solace is one of those movies that people have retrospectively decided they hate. I'll give you a handful of reasons. It was doomed to follow the near-perfect Casino Royale. The script was a rush job due to the 2007 Writer's Strike. There is too much reliance on Bourne-style shaky cam and rapid-cut editing. But the film also has a number of strengths going for it. Bond's personal quest for justice echoes the stripped back, serious tone of the early Connery films. The film features some of the most visceral, hard-hitting action of any Bond film this side of License to Kill. Director Marc Forster adds some playful visual flourishes, like a frantic chase sequence juxtaposed with an adjacent horse race, or the unique typographic title cards that announce each location. And by this point, even the way Daniel Craig tosses aside a set of keys seems totally badass.
After the two previous Daniel Craig films unceremoniously stripped away tired Bond conventions, Skyfall carefully dusts them off and gives them a 21st century polish (even if the computer hacking elements still feel a little 1995). The story doesn't always make sense, but this is arguably the most beautifully photographed Bond film to date, thanks to the immaculate framing of DP Roger Deakins. Former agent turned cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) isn’t out for world domination—he just wants to watch (M’s) world burn. Silva even pulls the “purposely getting captured as part of an all-knowing master plan” page from the Joker’s modern movie villain playbook. And in Judi Dench's final appearance as M, she becomes the de facto Bond girl, spotlighting a sparring yet affectionate maternal relationship with Bond carefully forged across a multi film arc. It seems that continuity is finally a priority for a series that recast arch nemesis Blofeld three consecutive times in the early years (not to mention countless Felix Leiters).
So how does my list compare to yours? Are you distraught I left off Moonraker? Did you even make it to the end? Sound off in the comments.