So here we go: the first half of my person Top Ten James Bond movies! Let’s refresh our rankings to this point:
26. LIVE AND LET DIE
25. DIE ANOTHER DAY
24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
21. A VIEW TO A KILL
20. TOMORROW NEVER DIES
19. QUANTUM OF SOLACE
17. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
15. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
14. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN
13. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
12. DR. NO
With lists like this, the ones at the top probably end up as vexing as the ones at the bottom, especially if one is deviating wildly from accepted orthodoxy. As someone who really doesn’t think Goldfinger is anywhere near the classic it’s held out to be, I expect that to be the case here. So let’s get to it!
Here’s another Bond movie that routinely gets ripped–it’s almost always in the bottom third of lists like this–and yet I love it. The “British Colonialism” style of racism is hard to overlook, and the chase scene through the streets of Delhi, which I found wildly fun and entertaining as a kid, is pretty cringey. But beneath the somewhat icky nature of Octopussy‘s depiction of India is an espionage thriller that I really enjoy on story grounds. I wrote in depth about Octopussy some years back, and those thoughts still stand, so I’ll just link that and mostly have done here.
But I do want to note something about the Bond films of the 80s, which is to note that the Bond series is often reflective of something else in the zeitgeist. The Connery-and-Lazenby run is, for the most part, devoted to fairly faithful adaptations of the Fleming source novels, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever aside. Adapting Fleming fell by the wayside for good, for the most part, when Roger Moore came aboard, because the films’ order did not echo the order of the novels, and because by that point they were running out of novels to adapt. By the back half of Roger Moore’s run the filmmakers were relying on short stories for plot material, and mostly for background stuff. That’s the case with Octopussy. When Bond and Octopussy first meet, Octopussy asks Bond about a mission he once had to track down a British officer who had turned criminal. Bond had found him and given him 24 hours to clear up his affairs before taking him into custody, and instead the officer committed suicide. Octopussy wants to thank Bond for giving the officer, her father, an honorable alternative. That’s straight out of a Fleming story.
So, once the focus was off adapting Fleming novels, the producers started looking elsewhere for plot material. That’s why you had a Blaxploitation Bond film (Live and Let Die), a movie about the energy crisis (The Man With the Golden Gun), and, most weirdly, a post-Star Wars Bond-in-space-with-lasers film (Moonraker).
With the 80s, the Bond films drew a lot of inspiration from the Cold War. It’s interesting, when you think about it, that the Bond films started in 1962, and yet until 1981’s For Your Eyes Only they are almost entirely devoid of Cold War subtext. And along with the Cold War subtext came a new set of influences: the spy and espionage fiction of the time, which relied on globetrotting adventures through labyrinthine, sometimes almost impenetrable, storylines. When you watch an Octopussy or a For Your Eyes Only or a A View To a Kill, it’s easy to think along the lines of, “Wait, how did we get from 009 being killed with a fake Faberge egg in his hand to a scheme by a rogue Soviet general to smuggle an atomic bomb onto a USAF base in Germany?”
This is my point: this kind of plot was all the rage in the espionage genre of the time, and Bond was following suit. I spent a big chunk of these years reading the novels authors like Robert Ludlum and Nelson DeMille, and if you read any of those (I still recommend The Parsifal Mosaic, which I just reread last year!), you’ll see the DNA of the 80s Bond films writ large.
Meanwhile, as for Octopussy, I still love this movie, Indian cringe aside. Maud Adams is fantastic, and how wonderful to have a “Bond girl” who is not too young and who has a very real life of her own! And while whitewashing is never a great look–surely there are hundreds of Indian actors who could have played Kamal Khan–Louis Jourdan is always worth watching, as is Steven Berkoff as General Orlov (“We invade through Czech-o-slo-VAKIA!!!”). The back half of the movie, with Bond’s race against time to get to the bomb before it goes off, is riveting. John Barry’s score is a lot of fun, and I think the title song is underrated.
Also, on nostalgic grounds, Octopussy is the second Bond movie I ever saw in theaters, but it’s the first one that I went to see by myself, buying my own ticket with my allowance.
9. NO TIME TO DIE
This is a pretty provisional ranking, and of all the films, given this one’s freshness, this one is most likely to move up or down pending a rewatch. Also, I plan to write a longer post about this movie once I’ve had a chance to watch it again and really internalize my thoughts, so we’ll just do a capsule thing here:
No Time To Die is, at first glance, almost tailor-made to press each and every one of my personal buttons as a Bond fan. I was emotionally hooked in the first minutes, after the flashback sequence, when Daniel Craig looks at Lea Seydoux and says, “We have all the time in the world.” And the film never let me go, once it had me.
More to come on No Time To Die at some point in the future. For now, here it is.
UPDATE: I did finally write my long review of No Time To Die! And this ranking still seems right-on.
8. LICENCE TO KILL
Another movie that’s generally disliked that ranks high on my list! Which illustrates something about my Bond tastes: as much as I love a good formulaic Bond flick, I really love the films that break the formula, the “outlier” films that do something different. I especially love the ones that acknowledge that James Bond really, truly does have an emotional life of his own and that he gets personally invested sometimes.
This was the last film co-written by Richard Maibaum, whose credits with the series go all the way back to the beginnings. Stylistically, Licence to Kill (note the British spelling of “Licence”!) is probably the biggest outlier in the entire series, at least until the Daniel Craig run comes along seventeen years later. Virtually nothing of the usual Bond formula is observed in this movie, though a lot of the familiar ingredients are here; they’re just mixed up a bit. The precredit sequence isn’t a separate adventure; it sets up the entire movie and establishes the main conflict and introduces the main villain. Q does show up with gadgets, but not until later in the film than usual, and then he sticks around helping Bond in the field. And while we’ve seen Bond infiltrate the bad guy’s forces before, we’ve never seen anything quite like in Licence, where Bond goes so far as to befriend the guy while working to dismantle his operation.
Licence gets ripped a lot for being heavily influenced by the pop culture of the 80s, and I get that, but Bond has always reflected the world around it. I’ve made mention of how the Bond films of the early 80s strongly reflect the styles of the entire spy genre of the time, and in the 70s we had Disco Bond and Star Wars Bond and Blaxploitation Bond and Energy Crisis Bond. This is nothing new, and yet sometimes when people discuss Licence to Kill they act as if for Bond to do anything reflective of real world time-and-place stuff is just awful. The drug trade was a gigantic issue in the late 80s, and to expect Bond to just ignore that would be really weird. It’s not as if Bond was alone in bringing that stuff to the spy genre: Tom Clancy would have his Jack Ryan involved in a drug caper as well, in his novel Clear and Present Danger that came out the very same year.
I’ve also seen people cite the scene in the rough-and-tumble bar as being ripped from the Swayze flick Road House, which is impossible since that film opened less than a month before Licence, so it’s hard to see how the Bond folks could have been influenced by the Swayze flick.
Robert Davi is one of my favorite Bond villains, too: he’s smarmy and charming and he operates with his own personal code, and Davi brings a lot of unique menace to the role of Sanchez. He also doesn’t really have any particular scheme to speak of, other than coming up with new ways to smuggle heroin around (or is it cocaine? I don’t remember), and he’s stolen a few Stinger missiles just so he can blackmail US authorities into backing off from his operations. He’s just a bad guy who just wants to rule his own little fiefdom by doing bad things, and on that score, Licence‘s smaller scale is kind of refreshing. (One criticism that does hold is that at the end, when we’re wrapping things up, Felix Leiter probably shouldn’t be smiling and talking about fishing trips, seeing as how in the first act of this movie he was maimed for life and his new wife was murdered.)
I enjoy Licence precisely because it does interesting and different things with James Bond. To this point we haven’t seen him go “rogue” much at all, nor have we seen him acknowledge his own humanity a whole lot. Licence may be too violent, but even that doesn’t bother me in the context of James Bond. I love what this movie does, I love that it does it after years and years of The Formula, I love the way it looks (that truck chase at the end! Wow! That’s the best truck chase since Raiders of the Lost Ark!), and…well, basically, Licence to Kill grafts Bond into an 80s action movie, and I honestly love that, being a fan of that particular subgenre. This movie blends the DNA of Bond with that of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and others.
On that last point: the connective tissue is made even stronger by the use of Michael Kamen as the composer. Kamen’s score works very well for me. I don’t think the lush string sound of late-80s John Barry would have served this story quite so well; Kamen’s guitar-heavy punch was what this story needed. Gladys Knight’s title song is terrific, with its Goldfinger-influenced brass, and the movie ends with the first hearing of a song called “If You Asked Me To” (performed by Patti LaBelle), which would become a much bigger hit when a Canadian vocalist named Celine Dion recorded it a few years later.
One final note about Licence to Kill, which I never tire of pointing out because it’s such a great character moment that lots of folks miss (I’ve listened to a number of Bond fan podcasts that never bring this up when discussing this movie): You know how a long-running complaint of Q’s is that Bond never returns his equipment in good order? Well, near the climax of Licence, Q is posing as a Mexican farmer on the side of the road so he can let Bond know when Sanchez, our villain, drives by. Q speaks into a radio he’s mounted to the handle of the broom he’s holding, saying something like “Sanchez is on his way, 007!”, and then, job done, Q just tosses the broom aside and walks away. I always laugh at that.
After Licence to Kill the Bond films went into a period of legal hell, so Bond didn’t return until 1995, when Pierce Brosnan–famously cast back in 1987, only to have NBC screw him so they could force him to do another half-season of Remington Steele–finally got his shot. And he was terrific, right off the bat! GoldenEye is an excellent movie, wonderfully made, loaded with great ideas, brilliantly cast, and just a lot of fun. Honestly, my only quibbles with this film are the first-act pacing (a bit of Thunderball-like longwinded convolution) and what is easily the worst score of any Bond movie.
You may recall from earlier in this series how I voiced my view that the Brosnan run of Bond films was marked by great ideas that weren’t executed very well. In GoldenEye, we get a great idea that is executed well: What if the villain is a former Double-O agent who has fallen from grace? That’s great stuff, and it’s executed wonderfully with Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan, former Agent 006, thought killed in a mission that only 007 survived. The film isn’t entirely clear how Trevelyan survived that–I mean, it’s obvious that General Orumov fakes shooting him–but it really isn’t clarified why Orumov would have done so in that situation, unless 006 was bent all the way back then. No matter, though! GoldenEye opens with a wonderful precredit sequence that has Bond doing some insane stunt work, showing some wit, and establishing some things about this version of the character. I’m not sure about the plausibility of Bond being able to catch up to a plummeting airplane in the space he had to do so, but…we’ll let that slide.
GoldenEye does suffer a bit from pacing issues. The opening act drags quite a bit as villains are slowly introduced and a plot slowly forms. I wonder if the writers, Bruce Feirstein and Jeffrey Caine, felt like they had to get as many Bond tropes into the movie as possible; there’s a weird car chase/flirtation scene between Bond and Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp (a pretty fine attempt at a Fleming-esque name for a femme fatale), which is followed by a tuxedoed Bond in a casino where he beats Onatopp at baccarat. We have a side mission where Onatopp is plotting to steal a helicopter, and Bond is unable to thwart this; then we’re at a snow-bound military base in Russia where the movie’s plot finally starts to kick in: there’s a satellite called the “GoldenEye” that will release an electro-magnetic pulse in space, frying the microchips in everything on the ground beneath. (One wonders what ever became of the prototype microchips from A View To A Kill, which were designed to resist this exact problem, but carrying on.) Someone attacks the Russian base, stealing the ability to control the GoldenEye satellites, and it’s up to Bond to figure out who. This he does, with the help of the Russian base’s sole survivor, a computer geek named Natalia Simonova.
Brosnan’s Bond falls somewhere between Roger Moore’s elegance and Sean Connery’s guy-who-works-for-a-living. I actually think maybe it was a good thing that NBC screwed up Brosnan’s potential Bond casting eight years earlier, because that bit of aging is perfect; it gives his Bond enough heft to justify the world-weariness that the script suggests. Bond in GoldenEye is, as Judi Dench’s M says, “a dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War”. I remember that these parts of the script troubled Roger Ebert, who didn’t think that Bond should ever be “in on the joke”, but I like that they try to acknowledge that yes, time has passed, and a spy franchise that’s been going on for over three decades probably needs to bend with the times now and again.
Special mention of Izabella Scorupco as Natalya, Brosnan’s first “Bond girl”. Natalya is not a field agent in any way, but she is competent and smart and occasionally quite blunt. Even when she’s captured by the bad guys, she’s never content to simply be a damsel-in-distress, and she turns out to be a boon to Bond during the film’s climax several times. For some reason Natalya Simonova seems underrated to me as a Bond heroine, but she’s one of my favorites.
Oh, the music. It’s terrible. I don’t even like the song, and I hate saying that because it’s Tine Freakin’ Turner singing it. Eric Serra might be a decent composer (I’ve heard nothing else by him except this score), but the unmelodic electronica that forms the basis of much of this film’s score is often unmemorable and sometimes downright unpleasant. Some other music was written by composer John Altman, which is uncredited; I think this is what’s heard during the chase scene in St. Petersburg and during the movie’s climax. This music is better, but still, GoldenEye is probably the most forgettable Bond movie in terms of music in the entire franchise. (Never Say Never Again‘s terrible score is neck-and-neck with this one, but that film isn’t actually in the franchise, even though I include it on this ranked list.)
Truth to tell, I almost had this one even higher, but this feels right to me. I thought Skyfall pretty much hit on all cylinders, in a lot of ways. It might be the most “nontraditional” Bond film of all: it starts with a failed mission that leaves Bond almost dead, and then it forces him to return even though he’s probably not up to it because M is in serious trouble herself.
Here you can see the biggest example of writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade (along with John Logan) returning to ideas that they had flirted with, to unsatisfactory results, during Pierce Brosnan’s run, particularly in The World Is Not Enough, which gave us a Bond who was damaged goods when a previous mission went south, and which gave us M dealing with results of some mess that she had made. As much as I do admire the earlier film, Skyfall takes those elements and really elevates them to something pretty amazing.
Skyfall is also the most beautiful Bond film ever made, and this is a series that has had some gorgeous visual stuff along the way. There’s that astonishing fight in Shanghai, with swirling LED signs in the background; there’s Bond on the boat into the Macao casino. The Istanbul pre-credits sequence is one of the best action sequences in any Bond movie, and the London and Scotland sequences are beautiful in their gray marble and windswept-moor coldness.
Much has been written about villain Silva and the degree to which his scheme is remotely plausible (or even comprehensible, as somehow this plan years in the making depends on London’s Underground trains being on time), but this movie has enough charisma and sweep that I barely care. Nor do I really hold it against the film that even though Silva dies, he actually achieves his goal, alone among all Bond villains.
Skyfall pushes James Bond into the category of brooding heroes, which may or may not be overdone these days, but I’m fine with it here; again, I value a Bond story where we get actual glimpse into James Bond’s character and his emotional life. It interests me that as Skyfall ends, it appears as if we’ve finally got Daniel Craig’s Bond era back to a point where he can finally engage The Formula: Get a briefing, get a few gadgets, and strike out on a mission. It didn’t work out that way, but…it could have. (And maybe that is why, while I like the movie, I still ranked Spectre relatively low on this list.)
Adele’s song is one of the very best, and while Thomas Newman’s score isn’t my favorite, it’s still pretty good.
Next time: our Top five! What’s left, by actor?
- Connery: 1
- Lazenby: 1
- Moore: 1
- Dalton: 1
- Brosnan: 0
- Craig: 1
(Look, we all know what my Number One is. The destination is not always the point of the journey.)