Ever since those immortal words were uttered fifty years ago, we’ve seen the character of James Bond go through a catalog of movies, taking the suave, charming and deadly British spy to Fort Knox, to a pit of crocodiles, to an enemy base sat at the bottom of a volcano, on countless escapes from gun-toting henchmen and even to space. Bond films have been stretching the concept of implausibility to its absolute maximum for five decades, yet retaining a unique sense of humour and identity that have kept it going for so long. With fifty year’s worth of films, theme tunes and scantily clad women in its history, the Bond franchise has many spectacular moments, but also many of the opposite side of the spectrum.
Throughout this post, I’ll discuss what I consider to be the best and worst elements of the Bond series, including the films themselves, the actors that have played the role of the intrepid spy and the theme tunes.
This half of the post will feature my thoughts on the best and worst films and the best Bond actors, while the second half, which will be posted next week, will feature the worst actors and my thoughts on the theme tunes.
Please note, however, that the latest Bond film – Skyfall – will not be included in any element of this post (other than possibly the theme tune) because I have yet to watch it for myself, unfortunately. The same also goes for the technically unofficial Never Say Never Again.
The Best of the Films
When one considers the best Bond films in the series, it’s easy to overlook the most recent offerings and look towards the classic films from decades ago, which many consider to be the strongest in the franchise. After all, that’s where it all started, with the girls, the gadgets and the character that could face off against men with steel teeth and still live to fight another day.
Two of the earliest films in the series, and easily two of the best in the franchise’s fifty year history, are From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. The former dispensed with Dr No’s outlandish plot and brought things down in scale, with a simple, actual spy-ish, story to tell and interesting characters to tell it. I’m sure we all remember Rosa Klebb and her rather unique footwear, or Bond and Grant’s fight aboard the train, but the best part of the film was in how it stripped away elements that made Dr No a tedious outing and replaced them with things that simply worked. It was, and still is, a highlight of the series.
Goldfinger, the third movie in the series, had all the makings of an instant classic for the Bond series. It had a plot perfect for Bond, one of the series’ most memorable villains, a fight sequence with another villain that still stands out today and a theme tune to last for decades. As you can tell, Goldfinger was a huge success that some consider the best film in the entire fifty years to date. It was also Sean Connery’s third time in the role of Bond, and it was clear that he was having fun with the material he had to work with at that point.
Once Sean Connery’s reign as James Bond came to an end, it became time for George Lazenby to put on the suit and become the next iteration of the legend in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – a film that divides opinion at every turn. Some consider it a step in the totally wrong direction for Bond; others think of it as a success, despite its numerous flaws. I fit into the latter category. While George Lazenby was arguably a poor actor, I didn’t take as much of a disliking to him as some people. Actually, considering his complete lack of acting background prior to the film, I thought he did quite well. The true heart of the film, however, lies with the direction it took.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a different kind of outing for the series. The typical humour and outrageous plots were still present but there was more of a focus on the human side of James Bond, particularly with the relationship between him and Tracy, played finely by the divine Diana Rigg and one of the strongest Bond girls in the series. We all recall that final, heart-crushing scene as the only woman to truly touch Bond’s heart died in his arms. Yes, it was a different side to the Bond that people had watched for many years but it was a side that needed to be seen. To put it simply: it just worked.
After the Connerys and the Lazenbys of the series had departed, it came the turn of Roger Moore to become the next face of Bond, transforming that dark and brooding edge of before into a comical, almost clown-like state. Many have problems with Moore’s era, others think it was the best. One thing’s for certain and that’s that his era had some of the worst Bond movies ever. One I took particular fancy to, however, was A View to a Kill.
To some, A View to a Kill may be a strange inclusion for this portion of the post considering the criticism it usually gets, but I found myself greatly liking it when watching it. The plot was absolutely ludicrous to the point of insanity, the villain was over-the-top sometimes and Roger Moore looked like he needed to be held up by strings but sometimes being utterly outrageous works well for Bond. I loved the outlandish nature of the story, I enjoyed the memorable set-pieces, I adored Grace Jones’ portrayal of May Day and I ultimately consider it one of Moore’s finer outings. Feel free to disagree with me if you like.
After Timothy Dalton’s tenure as Bond came to an end after Licence to Kill in 1989, it was six years before another film came to be in the form of Goldeneye. Goldeneye represented an effort to reinvigorate what some were calling a dying series and what a job it did of that.
Pierce Brosnan’s first time playing Bond came in Goldeneye. His portrayal managed to find a point in-between the darkness of Connery’s version and the humour of Moore’s, and although I don’t consider him the best Bond actor, it was a success.
Goldeneye’s other strengths came from a brilliant theme tune by Tina Turner, excellent villain material from Sean Bean, an eye-popping opening sequence, a memorable plot and the fantastic, yet slightly creepy, Xenia Onatopp. Goldeneye needed to breathe new life into the series and not only did it do that but it also became one of the best Bond films to date.
Pierce Brosnan’s era lasted for seven years, with five films in that time. Then came along Daniel Craig in 2005’s Casino Royale. Many are quick to call the current Craig era ‘not Bond’ simply because it chooses to focus less on the gadgets and the escapism of old and instead on the raw realism of being a secret agent. I disagree.
Casino Royale was a terrific film that succeeded so mightily because it wasn’t a typical Bond film. It was very dark, raw and Daniel Craig’s version of Bond is the most vicious and ruthless one to date. The plot was simple yet intricate, the locations were superb and it wouldn’t have worked had the story been as nonsensical as it was in Die Another Day. You can find issue with the current era of Bond but for me, Casino Royale was a damn fine movie.
The Worst of the Films
For every decent Bond film there is, there’s another that completely sucked. It’s inevitable that a film franchise that’s fifty year’s old will have some turds in it, and the first of those comes from Diamonds are Forever.
After quitting the role of Bond after You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery agreed to return for Diamonds are Forever after George Lazenby didn’t want to. The result is that even though DaF’s plot is bizarre and silly even for Bond, the film’s biggest problem was how bored Connery looked throughout. Quite why they wanted so desperately to have him back despite his clear lack of interest in doing so still puzzles me.
Diamonds are Forever also trashed the continuity of the events that happened in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Blofeld had killed Bond’s wife in cold blood, yet in DaF, you’d be mistaken for thinking that the worst he had done to Bond was stand on his toe. They had built so much with that final scene in OHMSS and then destroyed it in one fell swoop with the next film.
As mentioned earlier, Roger Moore’s era is one that divides opinion. Regardless of what you think of Moore in the role, however, his tenure was hindered by the fact that some of the series’ worst movies took place during his reign. The first to truly stink, at least in my eyes, was Moonraker.
Star Wars was a pretty huge phenomenon around the time Moonraker came into existence and someone, somewhere had the genius idea of sending Bond into space. Not because it actually made sense, or because it fit in with the series, but because they wanted a slice of the pie for themselves. The result was a truly dreadful film from start to finish.
Let’s see where Moonraker went wrong. The plot would be a start, as it was complete drivel. There would also be the insane cheesiness of Jaws falling in love, the double-take pigeon (you remember), the laser fight in space, Dr Holly Goodhead (look at it again till you see it) and…need I go on? It’s hard to believe that they took Bond in this ridiculous direction at all, and that’s even taking into consideration the fact that he had been to the bottom of a volcano, the ocean and dressed as a Japanese man before it.
It’s hard to believe that there could’ve been a film any worse than Moonraker but there was, and it was the very next film to take place in Moore’s era. That’s right, it’s Octopussy, aka the worst Bond film to date.
It’s not easy to pinpoint specific areas where Octopussy failed because the majority of the film was a disaster from the moment it began to the minute it ended. Everybody knew that Roger Moore’s Bond was a more comical take on the character but the degree to which they made it so obvious in Octpussy went beyond a joke. Whether it was Bond swinging between trees yelling like Tarzan or him disarming a nuclear bomb in a circus while dressed as a clown (yes, really), it made the film feel like it was parodying Bond.
There is categorically nothing good I can say about Octopussy other than the fact that it took away some of the stench left behind after Moonraker. I didn’t necessarily dislike Roger Moore in the role of Bond but when they gave him material as awful as Octopussy to work with, it’s no wonder many people give large criticism to his time on the series.
Pierce Brosnan’s fifth and final outing as Bond was a tragic way to end that particular era of the series. All of Brosnan’s films post-Goldeneye struggled to retain that same level of quality but with Die Another Day, it felt like they had tried far too hard to recapture that success. The result was a terrible film with only a few moments of decency interspersed very infrequently within.
Where do I even start? At the beginning, perhaps, with Madonna’s horrendous theme tune? The embarrassingly over-the-top plot that featured ice hotels, satellite lasers in space, a villain with diamonds embedded in his face and a pathetic cameo by Madonna? Maybe the way in which it took the traditionally silly concepts of Bond, like the gadgets, and made them so ridiculous that it felt out of place even in a Bond film (invisible car, anyone?).
Is Die Another Day the worst Bond film to date? It depends on who you ask. For me, it’s not quite as shockingly bad as Octopussy but it’s still one of the worst nevertheless. Brosnan must’ve been horrified to discover he would be leaving the role of one of film’s most legendary characters with a turkey like that.
Best Bond Actor
Since 1962, six actors have filled the shoes of the world’s most famous spy. It started with Sean Connery, who is easily my favourite Bond actor of the series. He made Bond suave and charming while also showing occasional signs of utter ruthlessness and lack-of-mercy. For me, Bond should be exactly how Connery portrayed him. I only wish he had never agreed to return for Diamonds are Forever and Never Say Never Again.
On the topic of good Bond actors, I have to put Daniel Craig in here. His interpretation of the character is the closest to Connery’s since, well, Connery, at least in my opinion. He’s made Bond ruthless again, as well as dark and vicious. When you watch Craig’s Bond, you feel like he would throw you into a meat-grinder without hesitation if you stared at him the wrong way, and I haven’t considered Bond as dangerous or threatening for a long time, if ever.
Even though he was hindered by the fact that many of the series’ worst films took place during his time as Bond, I mostly enjoyed Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond. The character was the complete opposite of what I consider Bond to be but sometimes, it actually worked. During films like The Spy Who Loved Me and possibly even Live and Let Die, I appreciated the different, more comical edge to the character. It was during films like Octopussy where the insistence on Bond being an idiot grated on me. For the most part, however, Roger Moore was fairly decent in the role.
Are you a fan of the James Bond series and have your own thoughts on what the highlights/disasters of the series are? Let me know in the comment box below (just don’t say you like Octopussy because…no).
The second half to this discussion can be located by clicking here.