Friday, November 6, 2015

From Dr. No to Skyfall: Ranking Every James Bond Movie

Daniel Craig as James Bond, Agent 007, in "Skyfall"
For most of the franchise's 53-year history, the James Bond films have been less like movies than systematically engineered products. Ian Fleming's haughty secret agent was never meant to be a superstar—his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, is a brisk and brutal affair, lacking the humor and insouciance that came to define the films—but after the success of Dr. No in 1962, the producers quickly realized they had a hot property on their hands, and they gradually grew it like they were cultivating a bumper crop. Every Bond movie is nominally different, but most conform to the same winning formula, marrying outlandish action with winking charm and faux sophistication. The series' sheer predictability is part of its point; there is an enjoyable sense of familiarity to each new entry, a feeling of participation as you wait for it to dutifully hit all of the expected beats. And there is also pleasure in seeing how different directors attempt to rearrange the same essential ingredients—the megalomaniacal villain with his invincible henchman; the hot babe with the cheesy name; the vehicular mayhem; the gadgetry and the globe-trotting; the shaken-not-stirred martinis and the groaning double entendres; the mannered introduction of "Bond, James Bond"—into a different action-adventure stew. The pop-star-powered ballads that play over the ornate opening credits may change, but the song remains the same.

At least, it did. Over the past decade, the Bond movies have indeed changed, and not just because Daniel Craig is blue-eyed and blond. They still follow the same basic template, but where earlier Bond films felt weightless and carefree, the three most recent installments have been darker and heavier, grounded in more recognizable human emotions and wrestling with the distinctly grave notions of fallibility and loss. Agent 007 remains the most supremely sophisticated spy in the land, but Craig plays him with an alarming lethality and gravity that are new to the series. This rebooted Bond still sips martinis, but he also struggles with the taste of blood.

Today marks the release of Spectre, the twenty-fourth official Bond film (I am ignoring the unauthorized Never Say Never Again) and the second straight helmed by Sam Mendes, the art-house lightning rod who turned the franchise's previous entry, Skyfall, into the biggest box-office hit in its history. It will be interesting to see if Spectre continues down this path of self-reflective thoughtfulness or if it returns to the series' lighter roots. Both approaches have their virtues, but it is undeniably intriguing that, unlike in the past, we don't know exactly what we're going to get from the latest Bond.

But that's for next week. (UPDATE: The Manifesto's review of Spectre is now available here.) Today, we're honoring the James Bond franchise by ranking all of its installments prior to Spectre. This list comes, of course, with the usual proviso that any comparative ranking of movies is necessarily arbitrary and foolhardy, and that it is intended solely to inspire debate and contemplation. All of which is to say, my list is better than yours.

And so, here is the Manifesto's ranked list of every James Bond movie, from forgettable worst to breathtaking best:

Tier 5: Roger Moore's Total Flops

23. A View to a Kill (1985). None of the movies on the bottom third of this list could be classified as "good", but A View to a Kill is the only one that's downright bad. Roger Moore being 57 years old doesn't help, but credibility was never James Bond's calling card. The real problem is the insipid story, which lacks the imagination and verve of even the weaker entries in the series. Tanya Roberts is perhaps the least appealing Bond girl in the entire franchise, but the most dispiriting performance comes from Christopher Walken. You would think that one of America's wryest actors could wring great wit and menace from a Bond villain, but Walken just seems bored. He isn't the only one.

22. Live and Let Die (1973). If Moore's final film was his worst, his debut isn't much better. Setting aside the racial stereotyping (do remember that this movie came out 42 years ago), Yaphet Kotto's Kananga is a terribly dull villain, and Clifton James's role as an idiotic sheriff is painfully strained. The movie's high point comes during its opening credits, which feature one of the franchise's most iconic theme songs, penned by Paul and Linda McCartney. Sadly, there's more energy in that song's legendary riff than in the entirety of the film that follows.

21. Octopussy (1983). It's possible that I would have appreciated Octopussy more if I'd been an adult at the time of its release, given its stab at metaphorical relevance involving the Cold War. As it is, Steven Berkoff's Russian general is just one of far too many blasé baddies, and while there is some cool knife-throwing, there are few memorable set pieces. Even the supposedly provocative title just feels like a rip-off of Honor Blackman's femme fatale from Goldfinger. "Pussy Galore" is a happily ridiculous name, but she has real character. Octopussy has Bond disguised in clown and gorilla suits.

Tier 4: Kitschy Fun, But Mostly Flawed

20. You Only Live Twice (1967). Any Sean Connery entry in the series has some intrinsic value, but the Great Scot's presence is about all that's praiseworthy in You Only Live Twice, which actually features a subplot where Bond transforms into a Japanese ninja. The most disappointing thing about the film is the reveal—after half-a-decade of buildup—of Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the singularly unappealing mastermind who spawned Mike Myers's far more entertaining Dr. Evil. Austin Powers' nemesis can't even get sharks with frickin' laser beams, and he's still scarier than Pleasance's limp incarnation of Blofeld.

19. Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Connery memorably left the series after You Only Live Twice, only to return two films later after United Artists put on a full-court press. He should have stayed dead. Shirley Bassey's rendition of the theme song is solid, but the villains are completely toothless, and Jill St. John is an absolutely insufferable Bond girl. Let's just move on before I'm tempted to make a pun about how Diamonds Are Forever is more like cubic zirconium.

18. The Living Daylights (1987). There's nothing especially wrong with The Living Daylights—the first of two entries to feature Timothy Dalton—which may be why it's so forgettable. The action scenes are crisp, competent, and lacking in flair; the villains are unpleasant and uninteresting; and Maryam d'Abo's performance as a meek Bond girl is thoroughly inoffensive. It's a perfectly respectable action film, which is exactly what makes it an inferior Bond movie.

17. Dr. No (1962). Dr. No will always be treasured as the one that started it all, which makes it difficult to evaluate independently. Frankly, strip away the glorious subsequent history, and you're left with a reedy, muddled B picture that's really only memorable for two things. The first is Monty Norman's legendary James Bond theme, an electric piece of quasi-swing music that has wormed its way into every subsequent installment. The second, of course, is the entrance of Ursula Andress and her bikini. There may not be a whole lot of substance to Dr. No, but when Honey Ryder (Andress) glides out of the ocean cooing "Under the Mango Tree", it's small wonder that Connery straightens up.

16. Thunderball (1965). Andress's entrance may have immortalized Honey Ryder as an all-time classic Bond girl, but there wasn't much substance to her character. That's not the case for Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), a voluptuous antagonist whose scenes opposite Connery's Bond crackle with sexual tension and incipient violence. Beyond that, Thunderball is a middle-of-the-road Bond picture. It features some neat double-crosses and cool underwater photography, but another glum villain dampens the excitement, and the action never kicks into overdrive. If the movie involved two hours of Connery and Paluzzi warily circling one another, it would have been better served.

Tier 3: Sturdy Entertainments

15. Die Another Day (2002). Pierce Brosnan's final turn as 007 is a gigantic mess: overlong, overplotted, and generally overwrought. It's also something of a blast, with two excellent Bond girls—Halle Berry as Jinx and, more impressively, Rosamund Pike as the ice-cold Miranda Frost (and that's not even counting Madonna!)—and some enjoyably high-octane action sequences. It's one of the more absurd entries in the franchise, but Brosnan's performance keeps it grounded just enough to prevent it from teetering into camp.

14. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Roger Moore's sophomore effort demonstrates just how far a strong villain can carry a mediocre Bond film. On the whole, The Man with the Golden Gun isn't very interesting, with a tiresome story, a flat setting, and even a bizarre scene involving a belly dancer. But Christopher Lee is excellent as Francisco Scaramanga, the man with, well, you know. And the film's climax, an oddball cat-and-mouse hunt through a funhouse maze, is intriguing simply for its variety. It may not be a good movie, but it is one of the franchise's more interesting failures.

13. Licence to Kill (1989). If Daniel Craig's performances as 007 have put a distinctly darker spin on James Bond than is typical, Timothy Dalton's second (and last) go-round is arguably even more grim. Long stretches of Licence to Kill, which features Robert Davi as a nefarious and humorless drug-dealer, exist entirely outside of the playfulness of the Bond universe. A stench of death pervades the film, which involves Bond seeking revenge following the death of his long-time friend and partner, Felix Leiter. Strangely, this development feels more generic than daring, and Dalton's relentless seriousness clashes with the movie's more exorbitant sequences. Nevertheless, it's undeniably fascinating to see a Bond who's this unmoored from his typical queen-and-country propriety. Licence to Kill fails to properly execute its garbled mix of high-wire action and thuggish brutality, but it sowed the seeds for things to come.

12. Moonraker (1979). Hey, outer space! Moonraker is ridiculous, but it's the right kind of ridiculous, with a bananas plot that it doesn't even try to take seriously. It also sets the right tone for Moore, who was always more comfortable accentuating Bond's charm than his action chops. Michael Lonsdale is a suitably oily villain, Lois Chiles is a perfectly acceptable Bond girl, and the retro special effects capture the inherent zaniness of the entire enterprise. If Licence to Kill brought the Bond franchise back down to earth, Moonraker was the apex of its glorious inanity.

11. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). This one is all about the villain. The concept of an all-powerful media mogul may seem dated, but Jonathan Pryce is nevertheless magnificent as a man who's willing to manipulate two superpowers into war in order to secure headlines. The rest of Tomorrow Never Dies is more functional than astounding: Michelle Yeoh is a sturdy Bond girl, the action scenes are efficient but not eye-popping, and the climax is rather tedious. Still, Pryce steals the show, and Brosnan proves that he can anchor the franchise without really breaking a sweat.

10. Quantum of Solace (2008). A jumbled mess of a movie, Quantum of Solace personifies both the best and worst of the new-age 007. Marc Forster proves a terrible choice as director, relying on velocity rather than clarity with his action scenes, most of which use frantic cutting as a substitute for sensible choreography. The plot is also incomprehensible, with a half-baked romance and some truly ugly second-tier villains. But Daniel Craig absolutely demolishes the role, continuing the thrilling reinvention of Bond as a possessed, broken-hearted loner rather than a carefree superspy. Matching him, the great Mathieu Amalric is a captivatingly despicable big bad, and several of the film's set pieces—particularly an enthralling moment in an opera house—are majestic. Quantum of Solace is a frustrating, poorly realized film, but its commitment to character is noble, and its theme of elusive vengeance proves surprisingly powerful.

9. For Your Eyes Only (1981). Spirited and playful, with a deceptively clever screenplay, For Your Eyes Only is a fun and frolicsome adventure. In terms of Bond girls, Carole Bouquet doesn't make much of an impression, but Lynn-Holly Johnson does as an ice-skating airhead. For the men, Julian Glover is a wily villain (a quality he later replicated in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), while Topol brings a gentle gravitas to his role as a sly smuggler. Moore doesn't try too hard to do any heavy lifting, which is where he's best. For Your Eyes Only is hardly a great movie, but it's feather-light and easily enjoyable.

Tier 2: Legitimately Good Movies

8. The World Is Not Enough (1999). Now we're talking. The World Is Not Enough is the James Bond franchise firing on all cylinders. The action is robust, a strong balance of explosive special effects and old-fashioned brawn. Robert Carlyle is excellent as an anarchist with a bullet swimming in his brain, while Robbie Coltrane brings a tinge of pathos to his part as a Russian gangster. (Speaking of pathos, bonus points for Desmond Llewelyn's touching final scene as Q, the cantankerous quartermaster who appeared in 17 different Bond films.) And if Denise Richards is less than credible as a nuclear physicist (she is also the subject of what's possibly the series' best double entendre), Sophie Marceau is terrific as a victim with a secret, and she shows strong chemistry opposite Brosnan. There is nothing fancy about The World Is Not Enough; it's just a blast of a good time.

7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). The best of Roger Moore's seven appearances, The Spy Who Loved Me is peak '70s-era Bond, with gee-whiz gadgets, geopolitical intrigue, and a killer car that doubles as a submarine. As a comely KGB agent who is every bit 007's equal, Barbara Bach is one of the all-time great Bond girls, while the action is fleet and crowd-pleasing. The real star, though, is Richard Kiel as Jaws, the hulking silent giant who is undoubtedly the franchise's preeminent henchman. This is pure entertainment, and it's only fitting that Carly Simon's theme song, also one of the series' best, is titled "Nobody Does It Better."

6. Skyfall (2012). For its first hour-plus, Skyfall is one of the best action dramas of the new millennium. Sam Mendes's direction is confident but not showy, Roger Deakins's cinematography is astonishing (this is easily the best-looking Bond movie ever made), and Javier Bardem's entrance is one of the great introductions of any villain, right up there with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Even better, Daniel Craig's incarnation of 007 as a grizzled, wrung-out veteran is a stunning interpretation of the character, mingling twinges of doubt and regret with his hard-wired values of loyalty and patriotism. That Skyfall disintegrates into merely a good James Bond film in its final act is disappointing, but it shouldn't compromise the movie's overall audacity and execution. For the most part, Skyfall is the best of both worlds: It's a thrilling reinvention of the franchise and a rousing, classical Bond adventure. Spectre has its work cut out.

5. GoldenEye (1995). I have a soft spot for GoldenEye, which is the first Bond film I saw in the theater, at the impressionable age of 13. But sentimentality has little to do with my appreciation of the movie, which bubbles with ingenuity and wit. GoldenEye is funny and impish, but it's also exhilarating and compelling, with a fast-paced story and propulsive action. Pierce Brosnan acquits himself effortlessly in his first turn as 007, but the real stars are two very different women. The first is Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, one of the series' great villainesses, a praying mantis of a vixen who kills men with her thighs and climaxes while firing a machine gun. The second is Judi Dench as M, Bond's glowering boss who identifies him as a "misogynist dinosaur". (Dench's part continued to grow over six more films, culminating in her genuinely moving performance in Skyfall.) Maybe so. But there's nothing remotely extinct about GoldenEye, a kinetic adventure that restored James Bond to life.

Tier 1: Movies That Matter

4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Forget the rest of it. Forget George Lazenby, doing his best to replace the irreplaceable Sean Connery. Forget Telly Savalas, providing a far better Ernst Stavro Blofeld than Donald Pleasance did in You Only Live Twice. Forget the impressive action scenes and the beautiful Switzerland location and the spry screenplay. All that matters in this movie—all that is worth remembering—is Diana Rigg. The tenderness in the romance that gradually blossoms between her character and Lazenby's is astonishing, and not just because this is a James Bond film. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a gorgeous, tragic love story, and if it does not feel like a typical 007 adventure, that is entirely to its credit. When Louis Armstrong starts singing "We Have All the Time in the World" at the movie's end—a song he recorded while battling an illness that would take his life not long after—the weight of everything that has just happened crashes down upon you, and it is impossible not to cry.

3. Goldfinger (1964). Dr. No may have introduced James Bond to the world, but Goldfinger really cemented the franchise's legacy. The building blocks of the half-century-old formula were constructed right here. There is Odd Job, the diminutive henchman with the lethal top hat. There is Pussy Galore, Honor Blackman's tough-as-nails Bond girl who cannot resist Sean Connery's full-throttle charm. There is the legendary banter between a kidnapped Bond and his haughty captor ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"). There is the insanity of Goldfinger's scheme, a brilliant plan to break into Fort Knox and not steal anything. There is Shirley Bassey's booming theme song, holding that final note for an eternity. And there is that magnificent Aston Martin with the little red button hidden in the gear stick. Of course, Goldfinger also happens to be a terrific movie in its own right, an effervescent jaunt of freewheeling vitality. But the quality of the film itself hardly matters. This is the one that made the mold. This is why we're still here, ranking James Bond movies after all these years.

2. From Russia with Love (1963). As great as Goldfinger is, From Russia with Love is just a tick better. It's leaner and meaner, with a terrific Robert Shaw as the mysterious Red Grant, as well as a legitimately scary turn from Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, the remorseless Russian with a poisoned spike in her shoe. The story is pure espionage intrigue, while Daniela Bianchi is terrific as a Bond girl with her own hidden demons. From Russia with Love is an atypical Bond film, but that's what's so fascinating about it. It brilliantly straddles the line between franchise popcorn fare and riveting spy thriller, and it does so with both guile and force. I always assumed that I would deem it the best Bond movie ever made. But then...

1. Casino Royale (2006). Five years ago, I classified Casino Royale as one of the 10 best films of the 2000s. Looking back, I'm wondering if I underrated it. I'll let you click on that link to read my extended thoughts, but I'll just briefly reiterate two. First, Eva Green's Vesper Lynd is the greatest Bond girl of all time, and it isn't remotely close. Second, Mads Mikkelsen plays a villain who literally weeps blood, and he's somehow one of the most nuanced Bond baddies in franchise history. The question isn't whether this is the best James Bond movie of all time. The question is where it ranks on a list of the best movies of all time. Casino Royale is a treasure. Give yourself a gift and watch it again.


Allison O said...

Every Thanksgiving I overhear the Bond marathon while cooking. I've actually seen most of the top tier except for Skyfall, which it seems I need to get on asap! Great recap!

Jeremy said...

Thanks! And yes, you should make Skyfall your top priority. Well, that and every other movie I've recommended over the past three years.

Beale Tejada said...

Why was Never Say Never Again not authorized?

Jeremy said...

Complicated legal battle over the movie rights to the Thunderball novel. After Fleming wrote the novel and claimed sole credit, one of his writing partners, Kevin McClory sued him for breach of copyright. Eventually, Eon Productions gained the rights to produce the Thunderball movie, but they only had a 10-year exclusivity window. So, once that expired, McClory produced Never Say Never Again (with Connery returning to star), which is based on Thunderball. So, while the "official" Bond films all fall under the Eon Productions umbrella, Never Say Never Again is not an Eon production.

Got all that? See Wikipedia for details.