A View to a Ranking: The Official and Correct Ranking of the James Bond Movies, part 3

Sean Connery as James Bond, on walkabout

With this entry, we move from my bottom half of the Bond rankings into the top half. It’s worth remembering that this is all relative: there’s only one movie, Live and Let Die, that I find basically unwatchable. Every one of these movies entertains me on some level, so when I throw rocks at a particular movie, one shouldn’t assume I’m throwing particularly large or hard rocks, or that my aim is very good.

By way of refresher, here’s my ranking as we enter this post (nos. 21-26 here, nos. 16-20 here):

26. LIVE AND LET DIE

25. DIE ANOTHER DAY

24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

23. GOLDFINGER

22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

21. A VIEW TO A KILL

20. TOMORROW NEVER DIES

19. QUANTUM OF SOLACE

18. THUNDERBALL

17. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

16. SPECTRE

Moving on, to numbers 15 through 11! These aren’t quite my “favorite” movies in the series, but they’re movies I like more than I dislike, if that makes sense.

15. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

There’s a lot wrong with this movie, but I really do end up liking it, because it’s pretty fun, it boasts some gorgeous cinematography, and it has a few fantastic scenes. Christopher Lee is one of those actors whose presence automatically elevates anything he’s in, and that’s the case here; he’s one of those wonderful Bond villains who genuinely seems to like James Bond and on some level probably finds it a bummer that he’s going to have to kill Bond at some point. The scene where Bond and Scaramanga meet at the martial-arts match is an outstanding scene in the annals of Bond-meets-the-bad-guy scenes, as is the subsequent scene where they meet over a nice meal before going off to do their gun duel.

And that gun duel: I honestly love that sequence. Many think Scaramanga’s “fun house” maze that he uses for duels is dumb, but I find it trippy and interesting, especially in light of how Scaramanga uses it to keep his skills up: he has Nick Nack, his servant, bring assassins to the island for a big payday if they can kill Scaramanga. Of course, this has never happened, but it’s a fun conceit, and that we see the fun house in the pre-credit sequence and then not again until Bond enters it–already knowing that among the mannequins of great criminals and shooters and killers, Scaramanga’s fun house centers on a mannequin of Bond himself–there’s some real tension. I love how this entire sequence plays out. It reminds me of the famous short story “The Most Dangerous Game”.

What’s not to love? Well, the movie is rather racist again–not quite as badly as in You Only Live Twice, but it still looks down on East Asians with a kind of “Awwww, aren’t they cute” colonial condescension, and that’s before we get to Sheriff JW Pepper, who has for some reason decided to take vacation in Thailand, so he can be annoyingly racist during one of the film’s chases. And then later on Sheriff Pepper happens to be in the car that Bond steals from a dealership so he can go on another high-speed chase! What the hell is Sheriff Pepper doing looking at cars in a dealership when he’s on vacation in Thailand? Who knows!

And that chase leads to a stunning stunt: Bond leaps a canal in that car, in a way that the car executes a barrel roll as it jumps. That’s awesome to behold, one of the great stunts in movie history, but the producers decided that the stunt actually needed sonic accompaniment by a slide whistle. It’s one of the great WTF moments in Bond history.

The less said about Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight, the better; she’s an incredibly uninteresting character who stands alongside later gems like A VIEW TO A KILL‘s Stacy Sutton. Ekland does what she can, but the part as written doesn’t do much. Soon Teck Oh is excellent as the Hong Kong intelligence officer who helps Bond; I always like him when I see him in things. And Herve Villechaize as Nick Nack? He gets some grief from fans, but I really like him in this movie. After a bunch of Bond henchmen who are big super-strong guys, a little person is more interesting, and he has his own agenda (if he gets Scaramanga killed in the fun house he inherits the entire island). I like him. Finally there’s Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s lover, who is the one who sends the bullet with 007 engraved on it to MI6, in hopes of getting Bond on the case against Scaramanga so she can be free of him.

And let’s be honest: Roger Moore gets a lot of grief, mostly undeserved, for the campy turn the series took as he entered the role, but he’s really quite good in this movie and he even has several moments of ruthlessness you expect from a James Bond.

Finally, there’s some really good dialog in this movie. We get to hear a frustrated M, annoyed at how badly things are going, snap “Oh, Q, shut up!”, and when Scaramanga kills the rich industrialist who has outlived his usefulness, Scaramanga says to one of the guy’s servants, referring to the elaborate tomb that the industrialist has been building: “He always did like that mausoleum. Put him in it.” The movie does try to give Scaramanga a “Bond villain scheme”, but it’s a weird plot that is meant to tie into early-70s era energy crisis fears, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, and all it does is give the movie a Maguffin in the “solex agitator”. What’s that? Fuhgeddaboudit!

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN has a lot of cheesy 70s-era stuff in it that hasn’t aged at all well, but parts of it are just fine and very watchable. Just…not JW Pepper. Sheesh. John Barry’s score is typically excellent, and the song is…well, it’s not great but it’s short and a fun listen when it comes up on a Bond playlist.

14. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN

This might be the weirdest Bond movie. It’s an “unofficial” movie, not made by Eon Productions, but it ended up existing because the legal wrangling regarding the ownership of Bond and the story that became Thunderball basically resulted in producer Kevin McClory being given the legal right to make his very own Bond movie, as long as it told this story, and no other. All he could do was literally remake Thunderball, so remake Thunderball he did, bringing Sean Connery out of James Bond retirement to play an aging, a little-out-of-practice version of the character. This is a movie that ends up getting mostly ignored and seems to not be regarded highly by fans.

Thing is…I think this movie tells the Thunderball story better than Thunderball does. It’s got better dialog, better pacing, better casting. It is the exact same story: Bond, while at a health clinic, stumbles on some shady shit that turns out to be the beginnings of a SPECTRE plot to steal two nuclear bombs, with which it blackmails NATO. Off Bond goes to try and figure out the plot, based on what he saw at the clinic (a USAF pilot, having been made into a heroin addict, being trained to use his surgically-implanted false eye to fool the retina scanner into thinking he’s the President of the United States, thus allowing him to change the course of the missiles). Where Thunderball got to the Bahamas and stayed there, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN globetrots nicely, and there’s relatively little slow-motion underwater ballet of the kind that made Thunderball‘s running time feel so bloated.

Also, Never Say Never Again has some great set pieces! In Thunderball, Bond and Largo meet over a game of Baccarat, while here Bond and Largo meet over a gonzo video game that delivers electric shocks to the players when they mess up. Later, Bond and Domino dance a pretty impressive tango, and the final confrontation between Bond and assassin Fiona is one of the better such scenes in any Bond movie.

Kim Basinger’s Domino isn’t the most memorable Bond heroine, but she does well enough, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo is charmingly sinister, just walking the edge of madness. (I’ve no idea why he gives Domino a pendant with a map of the location of his main scheme embedded in it, but we don’t ask these kinds of questions.) Bernie Casey is the first black Felix Leiter and he’s terrific. Really, about the only thing I genuinely dislike in this movie is the score, which is honestly terrible. And in a blink-and-you-miss-it scene, you even get to note that Sean Connery managed to look good in a pair of overalls!

13. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

In the last post, when discussing Tomorrow Never Dies, I mentioned how the Pierce Brosnan era was afflicted by good ideas that were poorly executed, mostly because of the insistence of keeping the films focused on The Bond Formula, even if the Formula undermined something interesting. That’s absolutely the case with The World Is Not Enough, which is a frankly maddening film to behold. There is a lot of great stuff here, but if you watch it now, you might well be struck instead by ideas and plot devices that were later repeated in the Daniel Craig run, to much greater effect.

Bond is physically hobbled in this movie by an injury suffered in the precredits sequence, which would happen to Craig. The plot involves shadowy misdeeds in M’s past, which would be revisited in the Craig films. And in the best of all the ideas in this movie, our writers (the team of Purvis and Wade, in their first Bond script) uncork a beautiful notion: What if the “Bond Girl” and the “Bond Villain” are the same person?

Oh my God, they had that opportunity in the palm of their hands! It was right there! And it was on the screen the entire time, because the chemistry between Brosnan and Sophie Marceau as Electra King absolutely crackles. But then you can just feel the writers backing away, almost in fear, so in comes Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones. They had to have the traditional formula beats with Bond and “the girl”, right down to the final love-making scene with terrible double entendres (“Christmas comes once a year!”) It’s so bad that in the few scenes where Brosnan, Marceau, and Richards are all present, poor Richards gets blown off the screen.

And that’s not Denise Richards’s fault. Not at all. Every bit of the script’s emotional investment is between Bond and Electra, so Richards falls into the category of Bond actresses who get blamed for doing the best she could with material that Meryl Streep in her prime couldn’t have elevated. It’s…just…maddening.

Like I said, there’s a lot of great stuff in The World Is Not Enough. You can sense Purvis and Wade chafing against the constraints of the Bond Formula, forcing their story into a mold that it just doesn’t fit. The oil pipeline stuff is an interesting plot, as is the nuclear sub/dirty bomb scheme. The scene where Bond and Electra ski to the remote location of the pipeline is a stunning one, with an amazing score cue that was inexplicably left off the soundtrack album (and then reprised at the end of Die Another Day, oddly enough). Sadly that great scene is immediately followed by a pretty lackluster ski chase. And M is given a lot to do here, which is nice. But still…I can’t help thinking that Purvis and Wade kept this story in the back of their heads when the series got rebooted.

David Arnold’s score is quite good, and the song by Garbage is actually one of my favorites. Robert Carlyle is outstanding as Renard, the movie’s other main villain. I’m not in love with Michael Apted’s direction during the action sequences, some of which are hard to follow, but…ooooh, this movie is so close to being top-notch. As I say, it’s maddening!!!

12. DR. NO

And here’s where it all started. There’s no formula at all here, and parts of this movie seem almost quaint. There’s no Q and no gadgets, just Bond and his new gun, off to find out what’s happened to an agent in Jamaica who has disappeared. Sean Connery is almost at his youthful best here, focused and ruthless (there are few scenes more blunt than when he kills Professor Dent).

Dr. No does suffer from pacing issues; you can really tell that nobody really had any idea what exactly they were doing in making this movie. Some of the action sequences, including an early car chase, are hampered by godawful direction and special effects; nobody told Connery that randomly whipping the steering wheel back and forth wasn’t very convincing. The score really overuses the Barry/ Monty Normal James Bond Theme, but you really can’t hold that against the film, can you?

Look, I could quibble a lot about Dr. No, because there’s stuff that just seems weird from the distance of sixty years (the “dragon” on Crab Key? Quarrel couldn’t recognize a big truck painted to look like a dragon?), but last time I watched it I found it surprisingly more watchable than I remembered it. Had it failed, we wouldn’t have this series of movies to base all these posts on!

11. MOONRAKER

At long last the campy 70s era in Bond came to an end with Moonraker, the campiest Bond movie of all. After Star Wars, I suppose sending James Bond to space was the obvious move. And this movie is full of campy weirdness: Jaws the henchman returns, and finds love in a tiny blond girl! A pigeon does a double-take! There’s a space battle with lasers! Much of Moonraker is downright silly, and the plot is another villain who wants to kill the world and repopulate it with his own people, which is what the guy in the last movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, wanted to do. Moonraker is absolutely one of the silliest of Bond movies (despite some brutal sequences like when villain Drax kills a woman who has failed him by siccing his hunting dogs on her), and it’s a good example of a Bond movie getting so “far out” that the next movie had to rein things in with a more limited, human story.

So why do I rank Moonraker as highly as I do? Well, it’s still fun! Lots of globetrotting, some genuine wit in the script, and yes, spaceships and lasers! And for me, this is where it started. Moonraker is the first James Bond movie I ever saw. My Bond fandom started here, in 1979. So I bring a lot of sentimental affection to this film, despite its obvious flaws (which are also its obvious charms). It’s always good to remember, when talking about the Bond movies, that it’s probably the case that every one of these is some Bond fan’s virginal Bond experience. I even count the song, sung by Shirley Bassey in her third Bond song, as one of my favorites, and John Barry’s score is lush and gorgeous. (Weirdly, the soundtrack album is the only Bond score album to not feature the James Bond Theme at all.)

Moonraker is one of the Bonds that I often here ridiculed by fans, but I cannot hate it. I just can’t.

Next up, we hit the Top Ten!

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