SPECTRE

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ranking the Bond Films

And so here we are.

I've ranked the Bond films many a time before, but this is the first time I've done it so systematically. Watching all the films in order, in close succession, gave me a new perspective on some of the films, put some things into focus for me that had only been nebulously hanging about in the back of my head, showed me some relationships between the films that I hadn't caught onto before.

First let me note that Quantum of Solace is still too fresh for me to slot into this list comfortably. Give it some time to percolate in the back of my head for awhile, and then we'll see what pops out.

Secondly, fans of any particular movie, please don't get too upset at me. I know every Bond is someone's favorite...but in a forced ranking, some movies have to be in the bottom, right? Don't take it personally, and realize that I would still take, say, the #17 Bond movie over almost any other film 9 days out of 10.

Third, there's no magic formula. You can't go "Well, this movie had the #1 teaser but the #8 Bond girl and the #2 villain, so that averages out to X." There's lots of things involved, lots of synergies, and they all clump together in odd ways in my critical mind. A complicated way of saying, a Bond movie is not the sum of its parts...sometimes it's more, sometimes less.

And it's not static...there's been fairly substantial movement on this list since the last time I did it, and I'm sure there will be more when I do it again before The Hildebrandt Rarity.

And if nothing else, give me credit--over the months, I've put a lot more into this than the average 3-sentence blurb used when a hack outfit like EW does it. For deeper explanations, check out my actual reviews.

22) Moonraker. It's not just the wannabe Star Wars trappings, although those are fairly egregious. But this is the one Bond movie where I can't escape the feeling that everybody involved is just coasting. Let's repeat the henchman for the previous film, repeat the villain's plot, ruin most of the stunts by playing them for humor, allow everyone involved to give the most low-affect performances allowed under SAG rules, and conclude by having Bond playing a video game. Bleh on almost every level.

21) A View To A Kill. It's pretty dire, I'll admit. But I put it above MR because at least those involved are making an effort, albeit unsuccessfully. Devoid of most of the trappings we expect from a Moore era Bond, and replaced with pedestrianism: a gun filled with rock salt? A boring chase through San Francisco--and Bond's not even driving? A 20-minute rescue of Stacy from the fire and climb down a ladder sequence? A weak effort. At least Christopher Wlaken injects a bit of life.

20) Never Say Never Again. What if you had a Bond movie made by a bunch of people who had no idea of what it was they were trying to do? You'd get this--a film torn between being serious and tongue-in-cheek, without the courage to pick a side; a film with everyone playing at a different level, as if they were in different types of movies; a movie that tries to simultaneously be far, far over-the-top and yet the talkiest, least action filled Bond move ever. PRO-TIP: If you're doing a remake, it's not a good idea to have it be less good than the original in every way possible. Still, it was good to see Sean again.

19) You Only Live Twice. Sean Connery's Moonraker. OK, that's too glib...but not exactly incorrect. Lovely sets, lots of beautiful location filming...but an underbaked script that manages to give 007 virtually nothing to say or do. Throw in a terribly underwhelming reveal of Blofeld, the lack of a real confrontation with the villain, the lugubriously filmed space scenes...some good ideas, but it never comes together, or even become actually interesting. The first film to diverge significantly from Fleming, but they didn't quite no how to do that yet...

18) Live And Let Die. A film that really hasn't aged well at all. Some decent stunts, but Guy Hamilton makes the many chase scenes both long AND boring. And of course, there's the elephant in the room. Somebody should have pointed out to Eon that if you want to do a blaxploitation film, those movies had black heroes, not just black villains. Special bonus: Mr. Big, with the WORST make-up job in cinema history.

17) The Man With The Golden Gun. OK, it's gotta seem like I really have it in for the Roger Moore era at this point...sorry, nothing personal, Sir Roger. A marked improvement on LALD, but things still don't quite click. The first half is actually pretty good, I think. But when the plot turns out to be just a trick to get 007 involved, and that Scaramanga was never interested in Bond, it takes away a lot of the tension in the movie. The "solex agitator" MacGuffin feels so tacked on, even the villain can't pretend to actually care about it, or understand it. And whichever fool put that slide whistle over the Hornet jump...well, there's no punishment too severe.

16) Die Another Day. Another movie I thought got off to a pretty good start, but once Bond "comes back in," it loses most of the momentum, and turns from a kinda gritty "Bond goes rogue" story into "James Bond becomes a high-tech superhero" flick. The extensive (and bad) CGI, the not-performed-by-actual-human stunts, the supersuit the villain wears at the end...these all drag the movie way too far away from what most of think a James Bond film should be. Lots of spoiled potential. I'm also the only human being on the planet who really likes the theme song.

15) Diamonds Are Forever. Lots of people like this more than I do, and what can I say? Far too jokey for my tastes, and incredibly lazy and slapdash in its story construction and filming. I like the movie, I really do, but it so self-destructs into illogic and incoherence in the last act that I got whiplash from the cognitive dissonance. Seriously, the worst last act in James Bond history.

14) The World Is Not Enough. Man, this is always one of the toughest ones for me to place. But Apted just cannot direct action, so the last half disintegrates into a series of over-long and uninteresting fight scenes on fairly crappy sets. Elektra is a great villain, but Renard is mostly wasted potential. And if you look up "nails on a blackboard' in the dictionary, you get a picture of Denise Richards. A potentially interesting story made overly complex and poorly told. I'm always going back and forth on this one, and even now there's a voice in my head nagging me to move it higher on the list...

13) Octopussy. PRO-TIP: the title character in a Bond film shouldn't completely boring and forgettable. There's a lot of fun stuff here, and Tarzan yells and "SIT!" aside, Roger Moore still has the charm to pull it off. But the movie focuses on the wrong villain, as Bond spends all his time hunting down the henchman, and barely meets Orlov. Also, it seems fatally overlong, as the final hunting down of Kamal Khan takes place after the film's emotional climax, and it takes forever. Frothy fun that never quite gels into something more.

12) Dr. No. The beginning. It does quite a fine job of setting the table for the franchise, telling us about Bond and his world. Everything that came later was to spin off of what was established here. Still, there's some overly long stretches of just wandering around without actually advancing the plot. We don't actually meet No until the end of the film, which drains some of the dramatic conflict for us. Apparently, some people think Ursula Andress had an interesting bathing suit...

11) The Living Daylights. Weak villains and a weak plot are overcome by a spirited debut by Timothy Dalton; some of the best stuntwork in the series' history; some great supporting cast; and a dynamite teaser. But most importantly, TLD features the series' sweetest romance--seriously!! Maryam d'Abo is terrific as the innocent woman who helps humanize a fatigued and bitter Bond.

10) Tomorrow Never Dies. A pretty good outing for Brosnan. There are those who say that the all-out machine gun action at the end goes too far away from what Bond should be...and they might have a point. There are also those who don't like Jonathon Pryce as Elliot Carver...and they're just goofy, because I think he's great. Well made, tense fun...you'll have to decide for yourselves if it goes too Die Hard at the finale.

9) Thunderball. Sean Connery at the height of his swagger, and 007 at the apex of Bondmania. The first nuclear blackmail plot, which (probably unfortunately) raised the stakes for what the plot had to be in many of the following films. The best collection of beautiful women in any of the films. Largo and Vargas, though, are surprisingly ineffectual...and everything seems to come just a little bit too easily for Bond. Plus the ending seems a trifle flat. Big extra credit points for the brilliant Junkanoo sequence.

8) The Spy Who Loved Me. The era and the circumstances made this one the most overrated Bond film of all time...but it's still good. But when we get this high on the list, small distinctions can make a big difference, and TSWLM has several glaring weaknesses: a turgidly paced second half; a huge battle scene that is just as gung ho, for its day, as the finale of TND; a boring cardboard cut out of a villain; and a terrible, terrible performance in the crucial role of Anya. I will say this--if the second half had been anywhere near as good as the first hour (which was damned near perfect), TSWLM had a shot at taking top honors.

7) Goldfinger.

OK, I'm going to get some comments on this one, aren't I?

Every argument about how iconic every element of Goldfinger is, how it forms the blueprints for all Bonds, it's got the freakin' car...I'll give you those arguments. It created the Bond "phenomenon," cemented the series as a cultural fixture--no argument. I myself said it had the best theme song and best teaser and the #2 villain!!

But Goldfinger is less than the sum of its parts. If you look at how it plays as a movie, as a Bond film, well, I feel its clearly lesser than the films above it on the list. Much of GF feels "on the cheap," with Gert Frobe and Sean Connery not even actually appearing in Miami, terribly unappealing stock footage of Kentucky commercial zones, and lots of obvious studio lots covered up by great sets. The vaunted Aston Martin doesn't actually help Bond at all (except to pick up Tilly)...he can't escape the GF compound or his goons in it, and crashes into a wall because he can't tell a reflection of his own headlight from a real car. And 007 is highly incompetent throughout, failing at every aspect of his mission and getting everyone killed until his unconvincing turning of Pussy.

Watching Golfinger again--really watching it--I see it as establishing the franchise's panache, but it plays more as Bond's Greatest Hits than a fully successful Bond movie. Sorry.

6) For Your Eyes Only. Also known as "we apologize for Moonraker." Bond goes gadgetless with a plot that, rather than threatening the end of the world, gives us a look at a life and death struggle over a rather small piece of technology. The action never stops, from the mountains to deep beneath the sea. The momentum is fast paced, a crackerjack supporting cast, and a Roger Moore you can really believe has a licence to kill. I love this movie to pieces, and would have ranked it higher if only the villain had a little more "oomph" (no fault of Julian Glover's).

5) Licence To Kill. This will be another controversial ranking, I'd imagine. I know a lot of folks out there disagree about this one, and a fair number of people have LTK ranked at or near the bottom. I strongly disagree, for many of the reasons you can see in my review. Robert Davi makes Franz Sanchez one of the most compelling villains, and his fall is breathtaking to watch. After two and a half decades, it was good to finally see 007 stripped of his support, and see how Bond the man would perform. of all the "non-Fleming" Bond movies, this one plays almost exactly as you would imagine Fleming had written it, and that counts for a lot in my book.

4) Casino Royale (2006). After the DVD initially came out, I had pretty much put this film away for a couple of years. Coming back to it for this blog, I was stunned by how good it actually was, holding up in almost every way. A wondrous debut for Daniel Craig, CR is the movie none of us expected to see--a pitch perfect telling of Bond's first days of a Double-O, as well as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the first Fleming novel. It does have a couple of structural difficulties that come from following the novel so closely, but otherwise, damn, this is a good movie. Don't be surprised if, in future rankings, I move this fella up...

3) Goldeneye. I don't remember being this impressed by Goldeneye when I saw it in theaters, but there you go: the bugger has wormed its way into the Top 5. Why has it aged so well? In part because it can now be viewed as a reverse order thematic bookend with Martin Campbell's other effort, Casino Royale--the latter shows how Bond became Bond, and Goldeneye shows Bond confront what that life means, and has done to him. And it accomplishes that by giving Bond a great villain, his evil doppelganger--the rogue 006, who's going to show James what he could have become. Great cast, thrilling stunts and fights, a wonderful Bond Girl, and Brosnan immediately nailing Bond.

2) From Russia With Love. Two words: Kerim Bey. Two more words: Rosa Klebb. Two more words: Orient Express. Two more words: Red Grant.

OK, enough...but what they tentatively touched on in Dr. No, they fully find the rhythm here. We reveal S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (while only glimpsing Blofeld), we get a vast army of evil opposing 007, we fall in love with Istanbul, we get the gypsy camp and Bond settling a dispute, we have the briefcase. We have Pedro Armendariz as one of the greatest supporting characters ever. We get the train compartment fight, still to this day one of the most intense, believable fights ever portrayed on screen. We have our villains deftly maneuvering various factions against each other in a fiendish plot only Kronsteen could come up with. Bond in a straight spy story, done with wit and seriousness. Nearly perfect, and it so very nearly edged out...

1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service. How good is OHMSS? I have it number 1 even with George Lazenby shambling about. That's how good it is. The most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel, the one that still gets to us that our eyes still get misty at the end, almost 40 years later.

Granted, it's not perfect, and this time I came perilously close to putting FRWL ahead of it. But Peter Hunt's bravura direction, especially during THE CHASE, and the performances by all of the supporting players elevate this affair so high, I find the critiques to be mere quibbles. Bravo, sirs. Bravo.

And then there's Diana Rigg...sigh...

15 comments:

  1. 1. OHMSS
    2. Casino Royale
    3. FRWL
    4. Thunderball
    5. GE

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  2. >> CR is the movie none of us expected to see

    I'm always a bit bemused when people say they were surprised by how good Casino Royale was. Because when I was following news and hype about the film's development, it sounded like they were making all the right noises from the very start. I can't remember being at all skeptical or worried about it. At the very least, it seemed clear from very early on that Bond 21 would not continue the tone of Die Another Day - an assumption that many skeptics seemed to have.

    --

    My list wouldn't be too different from yours. I'd rank TWINE (easily my second favourite Brosnan film), The Living Daylights and Dr No much higher than you; and Licence to Kill would be the main one I'd drop down a lot.

    1. From Russia With Love
    =2. GoldenEye
    =2. Casino Royale
    4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
    5. The Living Daylights
    6. Goldfinger

    Sorry for the wussy cop-out of not making a choice between Martin Campbell's two films. :P

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  3. Oh OHMSS, how I hate you...

    Anyway, for me, my top 5 would be like:

    1. TSWLM
    2. GE
    3. CR
    4. FYEO
    5. OP
    6. TLD
    7. FRWL

    Well, top 7 anyway

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  4. I also like Madonna's "Die Another Day" a lot, a song with major balls to NOT do a Shirley Bassey impression. Sure, the lyrics are clumsy here and there (some verses need to be reworked) but it's fantastic record that manages to be modernized without losing the Bond tradition.

    Madonna performed it live here in Miami when her Sticky And Sweet Tour stopped by (well... kind of... she played it on projections when she was changing costumes) and the crowd went wild.

    She also broke the record for highest grossing solo tour ever. A Bond song is involved in it. It should be major Bond news. :D

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  5. Interesting list! Although I might have some individual quibbles, I respect how you've compiled these. I also give you props for courageously -- and correctly! -- ranking GOLDFINGER right around where you do. Bond's Fort Knox battle royale with Oddjob notwithstanding, the wheels almost completely popped off this film immediately the action switched to Kentucky. I also like how you like TOMORROW NEVER DIES; a vastly underrated James Bond movie that doesn't get the credit it deserves for its cleanly linear plotting and excellent construction. Personally, I rank TWINE higher than you do, mostly for the superlative performance by Pierce Brosnan -- second only to Connery's in GF, at least until Daniel Craig showed up.

    My short list:
    1. OHMSS
    2. FRWL
    3. Thunderball
    4. Casino Royale
    5 & 6. TWINE tied with TLD
    7. Dr. No

    Great post!

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  6. I think GOLDFINGER is probably the most important Bond film, but that shouldn't be confused with being the best. Some of it plays terribly stilted these days, and I always giggle at the soldiers dropping to the ground en masse at the end. With GOLDFINGER Guy Hamilton clearly begins some of the trends that marked the films' descent into comedy.

    TWINE I would move up the list several notches, due to the sheer Fleming feel of the piece plus I think it's Brosnan's best performance as Bond. Complaints about Apted's action direction are, I feel, misguided as I understand Vic Armstrong and the second unit handled most of the action duties. And I actually liked the action anyway, barring the final fight aboard the submarine.

    I think my top three would have to be: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE; OHMSS; and CASINO ROYALE.

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  7. Paul..

    Complaints about Apted's action direction are, I feel, misguided as I understand Vic Armstrong and the second unit handled most of the action duties.

    Well, Apted's name is on the credits, so he gets the blame, just as if he would get the credit were I to praise the action scenes. Regardless, whoever directed them, I still feel they were lackluster and confusing.

    Still, you are right about TWINE's positive aspects. It's one of the most difficult movies for me to rank, and I constantly go back and forth about it.

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  8. Well, movie credits often don't tell the whole story. If I was to praise the screenplay of "Bridge on the River Kwai", for instance, I would be remiss if I didn't name Dalton Trumbo, even though his name is not there as a screenplay credit, thanks to the McCarthy era.

    Regardless, TWINE does seem to cause significant debate amongst 007 fans. I personally tend to rank the films that at least attempt a Fleming feel higher, hence I agree on the relatively high placement of LICENCE TO KILL.

    Anyways, thanks for an interesting piece.

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  9. I just stumbled onto this blog, and gotta say - I agree with pretty much everything you say here. It may be politically correct to say Goldfinger was 'the best Bond film', Connery was 'the best Bond', etc. - but you clearly take a distanced view at the mechanics of each film and that's commendable. Love the EW comment BTW.

    As for me, I just saw Licence to Kill again a couple of days ago, and was struck by how good it was - although I always thought Dalton was a great Bond (second only to Craig now IMO - and if he'd gotten better films to act in, he may have been #1), he's positively dancing in this one - the script has Bond improvising, moving, and never stopping in his mission - even after getting the impact this act of vengeance has on those closest to him.

    And way to go for OHMSS as #1. Time has certainly shown it's a crackerjack of a film. There are a few holes in it - would have helped if Tracy was in it a bit more - but Lazenby isn't bad (especially when he doesn't say anything), and he could have grown into the role. It's hard to believe that Connery would have allowed Bond to be as grief-stricken at the end as he needed to be (and Lazenby succeeded in doing), but we'll never know.

    You've even got me wanting to watch Goldeneye! I put Brosnan just above Moore in the portrayals department - rarely any real sense of danger about - but I'll take another look. I did love FYEO when it came out in theatres.

    Well done!
    B. Smithy

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    Replies
    1. I completely agree with my "liking" of the films (and actors!) based on how closely they parallel Fleming themes/stories/characterizations. OHMSS is my #1--with #2 currently in debate in my mind. I think Licence to Kill (a strong contender for the #2 spot) is by far the most underrated (with GF being the most overrated in my book--for exactly the reasons you mention). As far as how close to my mental image of Bond I had("still have") from reading the books (I was a fan of the books first), I think Craig comes the closest to "what I pictured", with Dalton a close second.
      Thanks for a great post (and comment)!

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  10. Nice post.

    My Top 7 Bond films:

    1) Casino Royale
    2) Goldfinger
    3) The Spy Who Loved Me
    4) You Only Live Twice
    5) OHMSS
    6) GoldenEye
    7) Live and Let Die

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  11. It's the closest list to my own one, I have found in the Internet. I am among people who do not consider Goldfinger as no 1, and think that dr. no, despite it established the legend, is out of top 10 (it looses charm, when action moves to the Crab Key.

    My Top 5
    1. From Russia with love (no doubts for me)
    2. Thunderball
    3. Casino Royale
    4. Licence to Kill
    5. For your eyes only

    I disagree with the worst one. Moonraker was one of the worst, but there are IMO at least 3 worse films. My absolute no 23 eon is Diamonds are forever. I do not know why, but I just can't stand that movie ;)

    By the way. Can you update the list? I'm really curious how you would place Quantum of Solace and Skyfall.
    4.
    5.

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  12. I have watched this movie and I will give this top film ranking. This is a thriller based on serial killer who plan murders corresponding to seven deadly sins. This is one of few movies which moved me.

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  13. Good stuff! Here's my list, including Spectre:

    24. Die Another Day
    23. A View to a Kill
    22. Licence to Kill
    21. Thunderball
    20. Tomorrow Never Dies
    19. Moonraker
    18. Diamonds are Forever
    17. Quantum of Solace
    16. For Your Eyes Only
    15. The World Is Not Enough
    14. The Man with the Golden Gun
    13. The Living Daylights
    12. Spectre
    11. Octopussy
    10. You Only Live Twice
    9. Goldeneye
    8. The Spy Who Loved Me
    7. Skyfall
    6. Goldfinger
    5. Dr No
    4. Live and Let Die
    3. From Russia with Love
    2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
    1. Casino Royale

    ReplyDelete