Live and Let Rank: The Official and Correct Ranking of the James Bond Movies, part 2

Continuing my Official And Correct Ranking of the James Bond films! This time we will go from Number 20 to Number 16. Our first entry contained the one Bond film I outright dislike, followed by several that just don’t do a whole lot for me and which are almost never my flick of choice when I decide I want to watch a Bond movie. With this list, we start getting into “Not my favorite, but watchable and sometimes I’ll turn it on for fun” territory.

Here’s the ranking thus far:

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

And now, we move on!

20. TOMORROW NEVER DIES

Some years ago a blogger named Snell had a James Bond blog that he updated for major Bond events (new films, news of new films, that sort of thing). Sadly Snell died about a year ago, so he never got to see No Time To Die, but he did cite me in his review of Tomorrow Never Dies, when I had previously referred to that movie as “a film I like as an action movie, but not so much as a Bond movie.” I stand by this assessment to this day. Tomorrow Never Dies would, I think, be frankly better if it was simply redone for some other action hero. It took me a long time to really figure out why I always have such a weird relationship with this movie, and I finally figured it out: TND is the least subtle Bond movie ever. This movie doesn’t have a single ounce of subtlety in it. And that’s my problem with it.

You may be thinking, “Bond? Subtle?” Well, yes! The Bond series won’t ever be in the Subtlety Hall of Fame, but these movies do tend to deploy subtlety in enough doses to be effective. TND, though, is just blunt-force trauma from start to finish. The precredit sequence is a thrilling mini-action movie on its own, yes–and it ends with Bond apparently being able to include “flying a modern jet fighter with more skill than trained pilots” in his skill set. Bond can apparently use the touch-screen controls on his 90s-era phone to drive his new car with as much precision as he’s ever driven anything else. This gives us another very nice action sequence (the action in this movie is some of the best-filmed action in any Bond movie), but again, a disconnect: He can drive like this with a remote control he’s never touched? And he’s laughing with delight as he does so, minutes after he saw a former lover murdered?

On that last point: my general take on the Brosnan films is that they are full of great ideas that are executed poorly, for one reason or another. This is why a lot of ideas from Brosnan’s films showed up again in the Daniel Craig run: it’s as if Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, writers of Brosnan’s last two movies, were set free by the jettisoning of the Bond Formula that came with the series reboot, and thus were able to put their ideas to better use. Note that Purvis and Wade did not write TND, so they’re blameless here, but TND has two great ideas, and only one is done well. The one they nail is the media mogul villain who is manipulating events for his own profit. Yes, we’ve seen this in You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and A View To A Kill, but Jonathan Pryce’s Elliot Carver is a particularly nasty and believable piece of work, coming as he does in the late 90s, when we were just starting to become aware of giant media conglomerates starting to consolidate their power.

The other great idea in TND, though? The one handled badly? That’s Paris Carver, the Teri Hatcher character.

Think about James Bond, and all the ex-girlfriends he has all over the world! Think how many times he’s had the break-up speech. Yes, some of those were undoubtedly mutual; I’m sure Octopussy was fine with it, because she was a mature woman with her own doings in life. Others, though, were probably less thrilled to get dumped by Bond. And here comes TND, which puts Bond in the position of having to contact one of his former lovers from an old adventure of his! That is a great idea! I loved this idea. The previous Brosnan flick, GoldenEye, had Bond squaring off against a former Double-O, and now this one has him with a former lover. But the character is wasted, just becoming another in the long line of Bond Girls Who Die At The End Of Act One. Bond and Paris have a conversation (“Tell me, James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?”) that is immediately eavesdropped on by our boy Elliot, who is instantly aware of his wife’s possible faulty loyalty. So we know her fate barely a minute after she’s introduced onscreen.

Lack of subtlety? How about the film’s briefing scene? It takes place not in M’s office but in a car speeding to the airport, and it serves less as a briefing and more as a series of sexual puns using the word “pump” (“Contact Mrs. Carver, your former lover, and pump her for information. You may have to do a lot of pumping. Pump away, 007.”) And the Michelle Yeoh character? Yeoh is terrific! I totally believe that she’s pretty much Bond’s equal, though once again we get a Female Bond who ends up in a pickle while Bond does the world-saving all by himself. We don’t get much about her as a character, unfortunately–the movie has to spend its first act on Paris Carver, so that we feel bad when she’s killed, and by this time the plot is whisking along so there’s no more time for any character stuff, so Wai Lin is shorted in the character department. She and Brosnan do have chemistry, but so did Brosnan and Hatcher, so this movie wastes two potentially good female characters.

Joe Don Baker’s not-Felix Leiter character? I liked him a lot and I wish he’d been around for more of these. Alas.

Oh, and TND saw the arrival of new Bond composer David Arnold, who did terrific work here, weaving in snatches of references to older themes and alluding to John Barry’s style while doing his own thing. The title song by Sheryl Crow isn’t a favorite of mine, while the kd lang song that closes out the film is a terrific ballad in Bond tradition. Arnold’s score actually incorporates the kd lang song’s tune, so I assume that was meant to be the title song before someone higher up the food chain at Eon Productions or MGM mandated using Crow. Anyway….

19. QUANTUM OF SOLACE

OK, after the big word-dump on TND, I’ll try to rein it in a bit on Quantum. We’ll start with the Rule of Bondian Time, a law I’m just now positing: Beware a Bond film that ends in under two hours.

I’m serious. I’ve just looked it up, and there are, to this writing, five Bond movies with run times less than two hours, and four of those are in the bottom half of my rankings. (One of them does make it into my Top Five, but every rule has an exception, no?) Bond stories need time to unfold. They tend to be fairly complex, plot-wise, and each one needs to establish a new set of characters. When these movies get short, it’s almost always to the detriment of story, character, or both. Can Bond movies be too long? I suppose, though I tend to default to Roger Ebert’s formulation: “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.”

As of this writing, Quantum of Solace is the shortest Bond movie ever made, at 1 hour, 46 minutes. This comes after Casino Royale‘s 2 hours, 24 minutes, so Quantum feels like a bit of whiplash, especially when Quantum does a first for a Bond movie: it starts literally minutes after the last one ended. I’ve come to think that this may have been a mistaken choice in terms of narrative, because Quantum asks us to (a) follow Bond’s relentless quest for the nefarious organization behind the scheme that ended up costing Bond the first great love of his life, Vesper Lynd, and (b) acknowledge Bond’s grief at the disastrous end of his first true love affair. Quantum ends up being slightly more convincing on the former score and less so on the latter, partly because it compresses all of this into basically a few days of story time, and because it passes by so relentlessly quickly that none of the story elements really come together. Shame, that.

Quantum was partially hampered by a writer’s strike that sent the movie into production before the script was really ready, and stories abound of Daniel Craig spending his time not in front of the camera hastily scrawling script pages off to the side. Also, the movie looks strange for a Bond movie: washed out and even garish at times, and the action sequences are famously terrible, with quick-cut speed substituting for establishing shots so at times we’re not even sure what the hell even happened. Quantum is worth watching, but it’s ultimately a frustrating misfire.

David Arnold returned to score, but I have no real opinion of his work here. I should give the album another listen at some point. The song is not my cup of tea. I’ll leave it there.

18. THUNDERBALL

After talking about two movies that whip along and give their stories too little breathing room, here’s one that gives its story too much breathing room. There’s a lot of good stuff in Thunderball, but it all comes in the second act; the first act is 40 minutes or so of plot set-up, and the last act feels like 40 minutes of slow-motion underwater ballet “action”.

Thunderball is that odd duck of a film, the one that made the James Bond films a legal mess for decades, owing to some literary partnership between Ian Fleming and Kevin McCrory. I won’t go into that here, but there are legal reasons why Blofeld and SPECTRE disappeared completely from the James Bond mythos after Diamonds are Forever, and why McCrory was able to make his very own Bond movie 18 years later, called Never Say Never Again and starring Sean Connery, featuring the exact same story as this one.

The villain’s plot is very straightforward here, and there’s something kind of refreshing about the Bond films where you get the villain’s scheme in the first act. SPECTRE steals two atomic bombs and threatens to detonate them someplace unless they get paid a pile of money. That’s it. Again, it’s refreshing! It sets the movie up as a race against time. How odd, then, that a movie whose plot is a race against time has some of the worst pacing of any Bond movie.

The first act, as noted, is all set-up: Bond is at a health clinic, where some other guy is recovering from surgery to be made to look like an RAF officer. Bond notices weird shit going on but isn’t sure what to make of any of it, but he somehow angers some dude to the point of tit-for-tat injurious pranks, and there’s a very uncomfortable “seduction” scene that is frankly rape. Meanwhile the surgery guy turns out to be a SPECTRE guy who is standing in for an RAF guy on a plane that’s carrying two atomic bombs. He takes over, poisons, the crew, and crashes the plane in a specific spot in the Bahamas so the main villain, a SPECTRE guy named Largo, can steal the bombs. And he kills the RAF officer body double, who has already been killed, and who is the brother of Largo’s girlfriend.

Yes, Thunderball gives us all that convolution in the first act, before we ever get to Bond getting briefed by M.

Once we finally get Bond to the Bahamas (sent there instead of Canada because Bond just happened to find the RAF guy’s dead body at the health clinic even though the RAF guy was seen boarding–that’s our body double!), Thunderball gets more interesting, though it remains pretty convoluted. Bond pisses off Largo by beating him at cards, and then Bond seduces Largo’s assassin, and then Bond seduces Domino once he figures out that Largo has the bombs. Finally we get to our climax, which as noted, is a really long underwater chase-and-battle sequence, followed by ships, followed finally by a fight on the bridge of an out-of-control speedboat.

Thunderball is a gorgeous film to look at, and there are some iconic moments in it. But it just feels slow and bloated every time I watch it, and I also think this is when Sean Connery started seeing a bit less invested in the part. John Barry’s score is outstanding, and of course there’s that gonzo song crooned by Tom Jones, with its ridiculous lyrics (“And he strikes…like Thunderball!”) and his apparent death from self-inflicted asphyxiation on that last high note.

17. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

I loved You Only Live Twice as a kid, but I’ve liked it less and less as time has gone on. Another simple villain plot, this time involving outer space: SPECTRE is swiping American, and later Russian, space capsules right out of the sky, hoping to trigger a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, apparently at the behest of China. The British, seeing some weak indication that maybe the kidnapped ships came down somewhere near Japan, send James Bond to check it out.

YOLT is another example of an under-two-hour Bond film not being as good as it should be, but in this case, I don’t think the issue is pacing. The issue here is that the 1960s-era sexism and racism is just impossible to ignore. This movie has so many moments of pure cringe that it casts a pall over the entire thing (“In Japan, men always come first and women come second!” Bond is told, to which he responds, “I just may retire here!”). Also this movie makes a very odd narrative choice regarding the “Bond girl”: it keeps the first one around almost to Act Three, and then she’s killed off. So we actually have some investment in her character, and the one that’s brought in minutes later to finish out the movie is almost literally a stand-in. Her name is “Kissy Suzuki”, which we only know because the credits tell us this.

Donald Pleasance is on board as Blofeld, and this time we finally get to see his face, which has an odd scar on his right eye. I’ve never been able to decide if I like Pleasance’s take on Blofeld or if I hate it. He does seem creepy and evil at times, but at others he seems almost whiny. He’s weird. There’s a beautiful woman assassin who is way less interesting than Thunderball‘s Fiona (one of the series’s best femme fatales), and there are many moments that just defy disbelief (how are they watching video footage of the helicopter seizing the car of goons? And is dropping cars full of goons into the ocean to drown really a thing?).

YOLT is another of the “Under Two Hours” Bond films that I tend to rank lowly, but of it’s one of those that I don’t think really suffers much for its relatively short running time. All the story is there. I just find the movie more and more uncomfortable to watch as the years go by. (This is also not surprising given that the film was scripted by Roald Dahl, who in addition to being a wonderful writer, was a wildly problematic guy.)

On the plus side, YOLT is quite beautiful to look at! There are a lot of very nice Japanese vistas, and there’s a distinctive early shot where some American and Russian officials are meeting to discuss the alarming events the kick the movie into motion. I particularly love a particular fight scene on the Kobe docks, when Bond is running across the roof of a warehouse, evading goons as he goes. This is actually an aerial shot, which is unique even for this series. There are some painful special effects along the way (artifacts of the time, but still, yeesh–did they have to do rear projection with Connery in a boat? Could they really not get that shot for real?), and for a short movie, the pacing isn’t what damages it. I even like the song, sung by Nancy Sinatra, with its lyrical hook.

16. SPECTRE

Ohhh, poor Spectre. This movie has taken quite a beating since it came out, and not all of it has been undeserved. It really is a wildly convoluted movie, story-wise, and it probably does go too far in trying to suddenly tie the previous three Craig films into a single story entity. Personally, I would have been fine with bringing Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace into the “single narrative” fold, but Skyfall was a bit too much for me, as that movie really stands on its own in a singular way. But other aspects of Spectre that have led most fans to pushing this one farther down than I do? I’m fine with them. Once again, we see how wildly divergent opinions among die-hard Bond fans can be!

So, what of Spectre? Well…I really do like it quite a bit. In fact, writing this I’m wondering if I should bump it up even higher on my rankings…but maybe not. It feels a bit like an attempt to recreate the magic and mood of Skyfall, likely because the same director returned for it (despite his previously having said that he was a “one and done” Bond director). A lot of the mood, the film’s visual look, the framing of shots–a whole lot of Spectre is obviously reflective of Skyfall, which is OK for the most part. And some of what happens in this movie is downright amazing! Of course, the opening tracking shot in Mexico City; and I love the Alps setting and the train through the desert.

Storywise is where things get a bit dicier for Spectre, though again, I like this movie more than most. After Skyfall, the legal quagmire that had dogged the Bond franchise for decades finally got resolved, so at long last, Eon Productions was once again allowed to use Blofeld and SPECTRE. I’ve always wondered if they had a script in progress when this legal gift came in the mail, and rather than wait a movie or two to get back to Bond’s version of Moriarty, they grafted Blofeld and SPECTRE (renamed in the new film to no longer be an acronym) onto their existing story. There’s a feeling of disjoint here between the schemes of Blofeld and those of C (Andrew Scott), the new head of MI6 who is developing a super-duper rights-violating surveillance system. Blofeld is behind all of it, but we don’t really get that much of a sense of it, do we?

And then there’s the whole business of Blofeld being “the author of Bond’s pain”. Most fans seem to take this as meaning Blofeld has been specifically plotting against James Bond for his entire life, inserting himself into every single bad thing that’s ever happened to him, but I don’t take it that way. I think he’s rather run his own life and his own schemes, and when things have happened in such a way that James Bond has been on his radar, he’s acted to screw Bond as hard as he can. That I can see, and that I have no problem with, in all honesty.

People also hate the idea that Blofeld was actually Bond’s foster-brother way back when, and honestly, I don’t hate this, either. Not in this context. There’s a theme running through all of Daniel Craig’s Bond films, distinct from any other actor’s run, of Bond confronting the sins of the past, whether it be Vesper Lynd’s past, M’s past, or, eventually, his own. Throughout these movies Bond is constantly having to deal with the fallout from other peoples’ various bargains with the devil, so I honestly have no problem at all with all of this eventually boiling down to what his parents did, or what happened in his youth.

What does bother me in Spectre is that a lot of this whips past, sometimes in the middle of actual action sequences or very quick conversations, so the film can’t actually set any of this stuff in the context where I think it makes sense. Bond calls Q at one point and says something like, “Look up Franz Oberhauser!” The moment is gone too quickly, so the script doesn’t really give us any reason why Bond is asking about some guy with a German-sounding name. Likewise, the opening Mexico City scene: Great scene, but apparently it was Bond acting on his own. When we find out why he went there to kill that one guy, it turns out that it’s M, the old M, Judi Dench’s M, telling Bond via posthumous video: “Find this guy, kill him, and then attend his funeral.” Why? She doesn’t say. How did she have this information, and what was she doing with it? She doesn’t say. This is what bothers me about Spectre: not the what of what happens, but the fact that an awful lot of it doesn’t seem to rise naturally in story terms. Things happen in this movie because…this is where something happens in this movie.

Take the fight on the train. That’s a hell of a fight! One of the best fight sequences in Bond movie history, if I’m being honest! But…it happens hours after they board, so what was Hinx waiting for? And don’t all those other people on the train notice something like a couple of secret-agent types destroying almost three entire train cars’ worth of stuff? How did Bond win that fight and then get allowed to stay on the train until their stop? That whole sequence is strange…but it’s there because “this is where something happens in this movie.”

Spectre has a nice score by Thomas Newman (following up his work on Skyfall), and while the song–“Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith–seems to be fairly unpopular with fans, I actually quite liked it.

Next time: Numbers 15 through 11! We enter the top half of my ranking! Huzzah!! Taking stock, here’s how many films we have left, by Bond actor:

  • Connery: 3
  • Lazenby: 1
  • Moore: 4
  • Dalton: 2
  • Brosnan: 2
  • Craig: 3

Tune in!

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