This is going to be the controversial article, isn’t it? Hoo boy.
One of these films is widely regarded as the absolute worst in the series while another is often hailed as one of the best. But I’m going to argue that all these films rest comfortably in the middle. Despite my reservations, I’d happily recommend any of these films to somebody looking for a passably entertaining James Bond adventure to pass the time.
Let’s review the ground rules: Only EON movies, only looking at the films as films, and there is zero tolerance policy and fanboy bitching around here.
Everyone ready? Deep breath…
15. You Only Live Twice (1967, Dir. Lewis Gilbert)
Remember in the first article when I said I wouldn’t be discussing the “social justice shortcomings” of Bond with “a small handful of egregious exceptions”? Well, you’re looking at one. What’s happening here is that James Bond has to go undercover as a Japanese fishmonger in order to infiltrate Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s secret volcano base. In order to do this, James Bond pretends to be Japanese and even goes as far as to take part in a traditional Japanese wedding (Yes, all of it.) In other words, Bond wears yellowface.
The fact that Sean Connery winds up looking like Leonard Nimoy instead of an actual Japanese person is beside the point. I’m as lenient as it’s possible to be when it comes to the unfortunate casual racism and misogyny in some older films; art is merely a reflection of its time period, and that reflection isn’t always going to be flattering. But even I can’t get past this. It’s misjudged on every possible level: racially, logically, and especially narratively. This film also contains the unfortunate line, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” Did I mention that Roald Dahl wrote thd e screenplay? Yes, that Roald Dahl.
But again, we’re talking about James Bond here. It’s a franchise built on silliness, and You Only Live Twice is about as silly as it gets. Is it really worth getting upset about the racial politics of a film about a giant space rocket that devours smaller space rockets (Why is that always the premise for every Lewis Gilbert-directed Bond film? Giant evil thing eats smaller Cold War things.) As I indicated above, my biggest problem with this scene is what it does to the narrative: the movie simply stops happening so we can watch a wedding ceremony play out for what feels like five days. I only want to see Bond getting married if the filmmakers are prepared to punch me hard in the stomach immediately afterwards. Otherwise, tits or get on with the story.
So here’s my advice, especially if you’re a sensitive viewer: Once the initial shock of the makeup wears off, go into the kitchen and make yourself a cup of coffee. This is the most boring section of the film and you won’t miss anything. As you listen to the percolations, reflect silently on what you’ve just watched. Think about what we can learn when we consider the evolution of political correctness, and how even the most benign stereotyping can grow more repugnant with the passage of time. Should we be more understanding of the historical context provided or is political correctness a universal truth that the elders of the past deliberately failed to recognize? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the second time in my life that I found a use for my Philosophy minor.
By the time you sit back down with your coffee — or maybe finish your cup in the kitchen, give the movie time — the bulk of the boring bit of the film will be in its homestretch. But everything before and after the Japanese wedding section is quite fun. The third act is strongest because it has the exact same third act as the first Austin Powers movie (For the record, the first Austin Powers movie is one part Thunderball, one part Dr. No, the end of You Only Live Twice, and the wood paneling from the jacuzzi in A View to a Kill.) Donald Pleasence is one of my favorite “mad” actors, so naturally he set the standard for how Blofeld and all megalomaniacal geniuses thereafter would be played. I also think the Nancy Sinatra title track is the most beautiful of all the Bond themes.
The other major issue with You Only Live Twice is, sadly, Sean Connery himself. This is his worst performance as Bond, as the mild boredom in Thunderball has given way to bold-faced disdain. At least in Diamonds are Forever, he just doesn’t care. Here, his scorn is obvious and it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth to see Connery phoning it in so badly. Then again, I’m inclined to cut Connery some slack because it seems that making this film was a miserable experience. Broccoli and Saltzman had failed to renegotiate his contract yet again, prompting Connery to ban Saltzman from speaking to him onset in front of everyone; then the Japanese press mobbed Connery mercilessly as though they were harassing all four Beatles crammed into one body; and then on top of all that, lead actress Mie Hama threatened to commit suicide when the producers threatened to replace her with somebody else. Understandably, Connery walked away from You Only Live Twice determined never to play James Bond again. The fates, however, had other plans…
14. Thunderball (1965, Dir. Terence Young)
Thunderball is a fun movie to write about, but mostly because of the decades’ worth of litigious backstabbing it inspired…
The storyline for Thunderball was the product of a drunken weekend involving Bond creator Ian Fleming, producer Kevin McClory, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham: a weekend that subsequently sparked an avalanche of legal problems for EON Productions. McClory claimed he was responsible for creating the Thunderball storyline as well as several major James Bond tropes, primarily Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his organization SPECTRE. But because nobody could remember who came up with what during that fateful weekend, Fleming was unable to prove otherwise and he lost the lawsuit. As a result, longtime Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman are credited as Executive Producers while Kevin McClory received the sole producing credit. Thunderball went on to become the highest-grossing Bond film after adjusting for inflation, and it’s not even close. To add insult to injury, McClory also retained the rights to Blofeld, SPECTRE, and even Casino Royale–which is why it took forty years for a proper movie to come out.
Sadly, everything I’ve just said about Thunderball is more narratively engaging than the film itself. This is an odd one for me. Every time I decide to watch Thunderball again, I get excited. From the outset, you always feel like you’re in for the James Bond adventure of a lifetime. The Tom Jones theme plus Sean Connery zooming around in a jet pack never fail to hype me up. Come to think of it, Thunderball might be the most confident entry in the series. This was the followup to the monstrously successful Goldfinger, the film that solidified James Bond as a pop culture phenomenon. Not unlike Spectre, Thunderball promised to be bigger and better than its predecessor. But they both try too hard, which is why they both disappoint.
But as with Spectre, there’s a lot to like in Thunderball. Each individual element in Thunderball delivers: the gadgets, the girls, the baddies, the travelogue, the music, the story…the Bond formula was locked into place by now, and when it works, Thunderball feels like a well-oiled machine. Connery is gradually starting to lose interest, but at least he perks up as soon as Domino Derval (a radiant Claudine Auger) enters the proceedings–by the time we get to the next film, even the Bond girls can’t wake him up anymore. But despite its many assets, Thunderball is less than the sum of its parts. Every scene feels like it’s never going to end, and if the scene takes place underwater, it feels even longer than watching the third Lord of the Rings movie on a double-bill with the Extended Director’s Cut of The Tree of Life. Now to be fair, the underwater fight scenes were groundbreaking and even thrilling for their time, and I despise this growing trend among millennials of sneering at “old movies” because of how “dated” they are. But I also need to be honest about how these movies make me feel, and this one always makes me feel frustrated and bored. If I had to define the term “bloated” for an Intro to Film Studies textbook, I would insert the Thunderball poster in the margins. Personally I prefer the more energetic and nimble Never Say Never Again, which was yet another ramification of the Kevin McClory lawsuit.
Incidentally, there are three rejected Thunderball themes, and they’re all worth checking out. There’s two versions of a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” performed by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick, respectively. But the most striking offering is courtesy of none other than Johnny Cash. It’s not quite right for Bond, but it’s a good song. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino could find a home for it?
13. For Your Eyes Only (1981, Dir. John Glen)
For as ridiculous as the Roger Moore era can be, there are some surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout his tenure. One such moment takes place early on in The Spy Who Loved Me: after he kills a man in a public bathroom, Bond lays an “Out of Order” sign on top of the body before returning to his drink like nothing ever happened. Now, slapping a comedy button after a kill is nothing new for Bond. “Positively shocking,” said Connery’s Bond in Goldfinger after electrocuting somebody in a bathtub. Now, I really don’t like comparing Sean Connery to Roger Moore because their approaches to playing 007 are nothing alike. But there is an important distinction here: Sean Connery is cool. Cool actors can get away with things that we layscum can’t, which of course is the essence of the James Bond archetype. But because Roger Moore is so much goofier than the other Bonds, some of his kills come across as unintentionally disturbing. Why is the nice Bond suddenly acting like a psychopath? But in the case of For Your Eyes Only, one kill stands out because it wasn’t intended to be funny. Moore’s 007 really snaps, and the effect is both jarring and powerful.
Towards the end, Bond pursues one of the henchman in a car chase. The car veers off road and clings to a ledge. Bond absolutely has the opportunity to rescue this crony from certain death, and think about how many of pop culture’s most iconic heroes would have done just that. But as the car hangs by a thread, Bond callously kicks the vehicle off the ledge and watches the henchman plummet to his death. It’s the kind of cold-blooded kill you’d expect from a Timothy Dalton film, and I’m going to give Roger Moore the credit he deserves: His performance is effective, believable, and downright chilling. Moore may have been uncomfortable with the calculated violence of the scene, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him.
For Your Eyes Only is the darkest of the Roger Moore era, opening with a callback to the heartbreaking finale of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. After the intergalactic buffoonery of Moonraker, it’s refreshing to see a more stripped-down Bond film for a change. Oddly enough, Moore looks younger than he did in Moonraker, suggesting some kind of Benjamin Button fountain was involved. Once you get past the deeply misjudged killing of a never-named, faceless Blofeld — Thunderball lawsuit — For Your Eyes Only is one of the more consistent if unremarkable James Bond adventures, with the car kick as its absolute highlight. While watching it, I can never help but picture Timothy Dalton starring in the film instead of Roger Moore. The imagined film ranks a lot higher than the existing film. But the latter is solid.
12. GoldenEye (1995, Dir. Martin Campbell)
In case I haven’t made this clear by now, I’ve never cared for the Pierce Brosnan era. But whenever the issue comes up with other Bond fans, I’m always asked the same question: “But GoldenEye was good, right?” Yes, GoldenEye was good. But if I had to nominate one Bond film for the title of Most Overrated, it would have to be GoldenEye. Now before you scroll down to the Comments section to tell me to throw myself off a tall building, hear me out.
I like the film. “Overrated” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” I just don’t think it’s Top Tier Bond. I considered squeezing it into the Top 10, but I’m not going to be dishonest about my opinions in order to save face. GoldenEye may be the best of the Brosnan films but that’s not saying much. Honestly, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that my generation looks at GoldenEye with rose-tinted glasses because of the classic Nintendo 64 game. Mike Staub didn’t include it among his 100 Favorite Video Games, which is why I do not want you to click on this link because this dangerous video game enthusiast should not be celebrated. Once again, I rest my case on the Pierce era: These films are video games that the audience cannot play.
However, I have to put my biases aside and give GoldenEye its due. I may not be crazy about it, but that’s more of a matter of preference because it is a good movie. The gap between GoldenEye and License to Kill was the longest we’ve gone without a James Bond movie. Bond no longer seemed relevant after the Berlin Wall collapsed, and the six-year wait seemed to indicate as much. But just as Daniel Craig proved that Bond could exist in a post-9/11 context, so too did Pierce Brosnan reignite Bond for a world without an Iron Curtain. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. He was also lucky enough to be working in the capable hands of director Martin Campbell, who’s up there with Terence Young as one of Bond’s greatest directors. They always bring in Campbell whenever Bond needs to be rejuvenated, and GoldenEye is by far the most muscular and energetic of the Pierce films.
Plus, it’s the one Pierce film with a coherent and involving story as well as a roster of colorful, memorable characters. Sean Bean’s commanding performance as Alec Trevelyan, formerly 006, steals the show and makes you wonder what Sean Bean’s Bond would have been like (I have to type out his full name every time because otherwise it looks like I’m talking about Rowan Atkinson.) Both Alan Cumming and Robbie Coltrane provide ample comic relief, and Famke Janssen devours the scenery and spews it out as the fierce femme fatale Xenia Onatopp. GoldenEye also introduced us to the best M of the series: Within seconds, Dame Judi Dench made 007’s superior entirely her own, swiftly making her mark as she dressed Bond down as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” It’s difficult to fault GoldenEye as far as it goes. I just wish it had gone further. Bond and Trevelyan’s relationship isn’t given nearly enough time to breathe, and thus Bond’s sense of personal betrayal and his subsequent vengeance fail to deliver a truly meaningful pay-off. I always want to like GoldenEye more, but whenever I revisit the movie, I find myself wishing I was firing up the Nintendo 64 cartridge instead. GREAT Sean Bean death, though.
11. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974, Dir. Guy Hamilton)
I’d call this my “guilty pleasure Bond” if I believed there was any reason to feel guilty about how much I love this movie. I agonized over whether it was going to make the Top 10, but I figured I should at least be moderately objective in ranking these films. Whenever other people rank the Bond movies, it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll see The Man with the Golden Gun stand alongside Die Another Day and A View to a Kill as “Bottom of the Barrel Bond.” But what can I say? I think this movie’s a blast and I’m almost always in the mood for it. If I need cheering up, The Man with the Golden Gun will usually do the trick. Is it any good? Probably not. But I don’t judge Bond films according to the standards of real movies; I judge them according to other Bond movies. Bond is not high art and it never will be. These films exist solely to make money and to entertain, and in my book, it doesn’t get much more entertaining than The Man with the Golden Gun.
The worst thing you can say about The Man with the Golden Gun is that it could have been a thousand times better. This I will concede: In the film, Roger Moore is being targeted by renowned international assassin Francisco Scaramanga (the late great Christopher Lee), who uses a trademark golden gun to dispatch his targets. Bond versus Christopher Lee should be reason enough to seek this out right away, and whether you like the movie or hate it, Lee is a force of nature as one of Bond’s most charismatic and calculating adversaries. When Christopher Lee’s name came up during the In Memoriam tribute at this year’s Oscar, they had literally over a hundred movies to choose from. The fact that they selected the dinner scene from The Man with the Golden Gun speaks volumes–a scene lovingly lampooned in this scene from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.
But yes, I also have to concede that this movie is idiotic beyond belief. But in this case, I don’t consider that a bad thing. Even though Lee technically gives the best performance, my actual favorite person in the film is Nick Nack. Nick Nack is Scaramanga’s conniving dwarf henchman played by Fantasy Island’s own Hervé Villechaize. I love everything about Nick Nack as a concept. For starters, I love how impractical Nick Nack is as a Bond henchman. It just makes me wonder how many people applied for the position and failed. So because Nick Nack is incapable of posing any kind of physical threat to Bond, Scaramanga puts him in charge of designing an elaborate Fun House of Death in which Scaramanga’s enemies can go and be killed in the most needlessly complicated way possible. Even by Bond villain standards, this is overkill. Scaramanga could just as easily shoot these guys in the face the second they step onto his private island. How neither Nick Nack nor Scaramanga could have realized that this pernicious labyrinth was inevitably going to blow up in their faces is beyond me. But who cares? It’s a Bond movie. I’ve always liked the idea that most of Bond’s antagonists secretly like the guy. Why else would they toy with killing him for so long? Sometimes, this plot convenience isn’t believable, but considering that Scaramanga is supposed to be Bond’s equal, it doesn’t bother me here.
You also get to watch Roger Moore place Hervé Villechaize in a briefcase before heaving it off a boat. If that doesn’t make you laugh then I don’t know what else to tell you. I love everything about this dumb movie. You can try to persuade me all you like that GoldenEye is a better film, but it doesn’t have Hervé Villechaize or Christopher Lee in it. On the other hand, the return of Live & Let Die’s J.W. Pepper, a cartoon redneck Sheriff reminiscent of Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, was a major mistake despite its key involvement in what is simultaneously the coolest and dopiest car stunt in Bond history. Swedish sex symbol Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man) sounds like a no-brainer for a Bond girl. Unfortunately, Mary Goodnight is every bit as useless to the plot as Tanya Roberts is in A View to a Kill, and both rank alongside Halle Berry as the worst Bond girls in the series. Recurring Bond girl Maud Adams leaves a greater impression, although I’d kick neither woman out of…well, what I’m trying to say is–oh leave me alone, I’m a guy, all right!? Why do you think I started watching these damn movies in the first place?
And now, my favorite of all the rejected Bond themes. While I don’t share everyone else’s antipathy toward the Lulu theme, this Alice Cooper track is fantastic. Talk about a missed opportunity.
#10-5 are on the way!