Starting my ranking of all the James Bond movies (here’s the introduction to this exercise), starting at the bottom and working our way up to my favorite Bond movie of all time! Without ado, here we go:
26: LIVE AND LET DIE
This is the only Bond movie, the only one, of which I will say: “I do not like this movie.” I do not even own a copy of Live and Let Die, and any instincts I have toward completeness are insufficient to make me even want to get a copy of this movie. I find it a slow, boring mess, with unexciting action sequences, a villain’s plot that’s just dull, and for a series that is wildly problematic at times, this one ratchets all of that to 11. The attempt to have 70s-era Blaxploitation in a Bond movie now just seems racist.
Live and Let Die is a massive creative break in the series, and not just because Sean Connery finally left the role for good, yielding to Roger Moore. The creative tone, already pushed toward jokey parody in the previous Diamonds Are Forever, is now firmly in tongue-in-cheek territory, and world-threatening villains would give way for at least a couple of movies. This film makes Bond feel smaller. SPECTRE and Blofeld are gone, and Live and Let Die unfolds in a grungy 70s New York City and a fairly stereotyped New Orleans and bayou Louisiana. Our villain, Kananga, has a plot to corner the heroin market in the United States, and there’s stuff about murdering British agents, and there’s some voodoo stuff and our heroine (Jane Seymour) is a Tarot-card reading soothsayer. There is some good stuff in this movie: Yaphet Kotto as Kananga is terrific, the alligator farm sequence is neat, and Moore himself is quite good. But the rest of the movie is dull, mostly ugly to look at, and the action sequences just go on and on, and that’s before we meet Sheriff JW Pepper. This is a movie that I really don’t need to ever watch complete again; I can find my favorite scenes on YouTube and watch them in a combined ten minutes.
Oh, and Live and Let Die has a great song by Paul McCartney and Wings, and the score by George Martin is actually pretty good, bringing some funk that the movie desperately needs (this was the first Bond film not scored by John Barry). But that’s about it.
25. DIE ANOTHER DAY
The Bond series has several times in its run hit a point where it got so out of hand that the next movie was a kind of mild reset and a dialing back on the whackiness, but Die Another Day is so out of hand that even though it was a big hit at the box office, it still made the producers slam on the brakes and literally start the whole series over again at Square One with a full reboot of the franchise. Exit Pierce Brosnan, enter Daniel Craig a few years later.
But here’s the thing with Die Another Day: like all of Brosnan’s movies after GoldenEye, this one actually starts out pretty interestingly and actually has some good ideas. In fact, when you really look at Daniel Craig’s much more highly-regarded run of films and compare them to Brosnan’s, you may see how many ideas in the Craig films are actually much better executions of ideas already tried in the Brosnan ones. It’s like the main writers (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) saw their chance when they got to the series reboot to revisit their favorite ideas without the baggage of the tried-and-true (and increasingly tired) Bond formula.
Yes, Die Another Day starts out very well indeed. But somewhere in the second act it goes completely off the rails. For me it’s when the film’s villain, whom we’ve already met as a North Korean military officer, has been changed via extensive plastic surgery into a British white guy. Or when Q presents Bond with his invisible car. Or when Bond parasails away from a collapsing glacier. Or when Bond and a bad guy have a high-speed chase through a giant building made of ice. Or…look, Die Another Day just goes off the rails entirely. Brosnan does what he can, and I love the movie’s gritty opening and its conceit of Bond being damaged goods who has to earn his way back into MI6’s good graces, but after a promising Act One, Die Another Day is an over-the-top mess.
The song by Madonna is an unpleasant listen by itself, but it actually works very well with the visuals of the title sequence, during which Bond–having been captured by the North Koreans at the end of the pre-credits sequence–is being tortured. David Arnold’s score is good, but it doesn’t really break a whole lot of new ground. One notable cue at the end, during the film’s coda, is actually a reworking of a cue from the previous film! Alas.
24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
Remember my method here: I ask myself, “If I’m channel-flipping and I happen across this movie, am I going to want to sit and watch the whole thing?” Many people rank The Spy Who Loved Me very highly, but for me it’s mostly slow and dull, with a villain whose demeanor is so understated as to be soporific, a terrible score, a heroine who is supposed to be Bond’s female KGB equal but who still spends the entire climax in true damsel-in-distress fashion tied to a chair.
Also, the movie’s plot is a complete retread of You Only Live Twice from ten years earlier. In YOLT, the bad guys hijack American and Russian space capsules to trigger a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. In TSWLM, the bad guys hijack American and Russian submarines to trigger a nuclear–well, you get the idea. But first we have a long sequence in Egypt (no doubt a location selected for topicality reasons, as the Treasures of King Tut were on tour at the time) involving a submarine tracking system that goes nowhere (literally: once Bond and Agent XXX recover it, they discover that it’s useless). An evil henchman named Jaws shows up and is kind of menacing, but his attacks are mostly played more for laughs than menace. And…well, again, for me TSWLM commits the sad sin of being boring. The Egypt sequence goes on and on. An underwater sequence goes on and on. The final battle drags on and on. The climax drags on and on. The final confrontation between Bond and the villain is one of the worst in the entire series.
When I watch a Bond movie, this is never the one that I reach for, except to say, once a decade or so, that maybe I owe it a rewatch. Then I invariably rediscover why I never rewatch it.
Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is a classic, even if I don’t think it’s really all that great (Simon’s own “Let the River Run” from Working Girl is a better movie song, for my money), and the disco score by Marvin Hamlisch just grates on my nerves. I do not like it.
ASIDE: Referring to the films by the name of the person playing Bond is a useful means of differentiating one sequence of films from another, but for me this should never be interpreted as a sleight or as an endorsement of a particular Bond actor! I’ve liked every Bond thus far, and when I note that on balance I think Pierce Brosnan’s era is the most lackluster, that is no statement at all on Mr. Brosnan. I bring this up now because we’re three movies into my ranking and I’ve already singled out two Roger Moore movies. I love Roger Moore!
OK, this may get me some strange looks! Goldfinger is a classic, after all! It’s beloved! It’s the one that everybody knows! Roger Ebert even cited it for his “Great Movies” series! Goldfinger set the tone! Goldfinger had that car! Goldfinger had that gloriously wonderful exchange between Bond and villain:
BOND: Do you expect me to talk?
GOLDFINGER: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!
So how can I rank Goldfinger this low? Well…sorry, but setting aside some issues I have with it on location grounds (the plot is to attack Fort Knox, so obviously part of the movie has to take place in Kentucky, but do we have to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the background of a James Bond movie?!), I have a whole damn lot of narrative issues with Goldfinger.
Sure, the Aston Martin DB 5 is an iconic Bond car, but look at that chase through Goldfinger’s factory complex: Bond is holding his own until he sees headlights coming right at him and he pulls aside, crashing the car. It turns out that there was a mirror there! The headlights were his own! Now, does that make any sense at all? “Hey, if a foreign agent is ever driving through here at night, we’ll hang a mirror here to foil him!” It’s utterly bizarre.
Or the scene where Goldfinger brings all his hoodlum financiers in so he can use his big scale model of Fort Knox to show them his plan. Bond manages to overhear this, and he writes a note to Felix Leiter and wraps it around a homing device and slips it into the pocket of one of the gangsters who is leaving. Meanwhile, Goldfinger kills all the other gangsters! Why did he bother explaining the plot to them, then?
Bond’s note? It never makes it to Leiter because Goldfinger has that gangster killed, too! And crushed in a junkyard, so that he later has to have someone extract the gold he paid to the guy from the crushed vehicle! Why not just have Odd Job drive that guy someplace, shoot him, and dump the body?
And then later on, Leiter and friends arrive to foil Goldfinger’s plot. Why? Because Bond, in a very cringey scene, forced himself on Pussy Galore and she apparently rats out Goldfinger to the Feds. Huh?
And even the big climax, with Bond fighting Oddjob in the vault while the nuke’s timer ticks down. Bond doesn’t even defuse the bomb–some other dude shows up and does it. So if you think about it, Bond could have just sat down, done nothing whatsoever, and still ended up winning. Bond’s fight with Oddjob? This has no effect on how the movie turns out at all. Sure, it’s a cool fight, one of those Bondian chess-match fights, but in story terms it accomplishes nothing at all. If Bond had just sat down, the folks outside would have opened the vault, streamed in, shot Oddjob dead, and then defused the bomb anyway.
Ultimately, in Goldfinger, we get what I consider unforgiveable in a Bond movie: a story in which James Bond is simply irrelevant. Nothing that happens in the movie is a result of anything Bond does. So no, I don’t like Goldfinger much. Sorry!
Goldfinger‘s song, by Shirley Bassey, is a total classic. So is John Barry’s score. If nothing else, this movie is musically top-notch.
22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
Our second Connery film. This was Connery’s last “official” Bond film; he returned to the role after George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, presumably because the producers backed several Brink’s trucks up to his house. Diamonds also marks the end of the unofficial “Blofeld Saga” that comprises all of the first Bond movies except for Goldfinger, though SPECTRE is never mentioned in the movie, just Blofeld.
I enjoy Diamonds for a number of reasons, but it belongs down here for others. Connery obviously has zero investment in what he’s doing here; he doesn’t seem precisely bored, the way he does in Thunderball, but he is phoning it in. Also, the movie is a terrible sequel to OHMSS, completely ignoring the emotional state of affairs at the end of that film. We see Bond hunting Blofeld, but he might as well be hunting down any old villain.
Diamonds also starts the entire series down the direction of self-parody and winking at the audience that many blame on Roger Moore. Here you have all manner of goofiness, from Blofeld in drag to old stand-up comedians to Jimmy Dean–yes, the sausage guy–playing a reclusive billionaire a la Howard Hughes. (Weirdly, Dean is actually pretty good in the role!)
Diamonds isn’t bad, I must admit! Large parts of it are fun and watchable. Jill St John’s Tiffany Case is an interesting crusty American Bond heroine for two-thirds of the movie (the final act makes her into an idiot, which frustrates), and Charles Gray provides yet another interesting take on Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The scene where Bond climbs the outside of the hotel to reach the penthouse, discovering Blofeld, is a very good scene indeed, and the henchmen murderers Wint and Kidd are two of the series’s better henchmen murderers. Too bad the movie has a lot of bumbling action sequences that go on too long, a climactic battle that is just plain bad, and it bugs me to no end that the emotional tone of this movie completely clashes with that of the film to which it is a direct sequel. Imagine if Star Trek III had been the “comedy” Trek movie, right after Spock’s death. That’s what this one feels like.
Oh, and a great song and score by John Barry! Shirley Bassey returns, becoming the first artist to do two Bond title songs.
21. A VIEW TO A KILL
I have a real soft spot for this movie, OK? I can’t hate it. But I can’t really argue against the points its detractors make. It’s overlong, Roger Moore is visibly too old for the action-star thing, the age difference between him and Tanya Roberts is way too noticeable (I’ve read that Roger Moore really started thinking he was too old for Bond when he met the mother of the current “Bond girl” on set and he was older than she was), there are way too many “sacrificial lamb” deaths (the stereotypical French detective, Sir Godfrey, Bond’s CIA contact, a Russian agent), the visual effects occasionally stand out like a sore thumb, and the plot is a rehash of Goldfinger with computer chips instead of gold.
I like the convoluted plot, though: the Brits are working on a computer chip that will resist an electromagnetic pulse from space, but they discovered that the KGB is in on their work, so they investigate the guy who owns the chip factory, Max Zorin, who just happens to be into horse racing. While investigating, Bond discovers that Zorin cheats at horseracing with the assistance of an old Nazi doctor who did experiments in genetic engineering, and that Zorin has some weird plot going in which he’s hoarding computer chips. And he’s also trying to strong-arm some young geologist named Stacy Sutton into selling her company, and so on. It turns out that he’s going to trigger an earthquake that destroys Silicon Valley, making him the richest chip maker ever.
That’s a fun Bond plot, and there’s some entertaining stuff that happens along the way. And yes, it all goes on way too long and poor Tanya Roberts just stands around screaming “James!” for much of the last third of the flick. But there’s a lot of fun 80s cheese along the way.
I don’t know, I just enjoy this one. What are you gonna do. But I also don’t expend a great deal of effort defending this one, either.
Song: Duran Duran. It’s a mixed bag for me, as the lyrics make no sense. John Barry turns in another fun score, though it’s clear that he’s increasingly on auto-pilot here.
That’s probably enough for this post. Tune in next time for numbers 20 through 15!
If you ever see McCartney perform Live and Let Die, wait for the pyrotechnics, which startled not only my daughter but my friends. And you can feel the heat!