If you’re reading this, I assume you read the first article and don’t hate me yet. Good! We’re off to a great start. This is probably going to change in due time. Numbers twenty through sixteen include some of the Bond films I’m least likely to revisit. One is downright lousy, some are unrelentingly mediocre while others wound up as wasted opportunities. But all five films have their good points, too.
Once again, the ground rules: We’re only looking at the EON films, we’re only evaluating the films on the basis of the filmmaking, and these rankings are 100% subjective, so no whiners please. Here we go…
20. Moonraker (1979, Dir. Lewis Gilbert)
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? Holly Goodhead. Moving swiftly along…
Somebody expressed his surprise that Moonraker wasn’t in my Bottom Four. I told him not to worry because there was no avoiding the Bottom Five. Yes, Moonraker is awful. It kicks off with an embarrassing attempt to outdo the iconic cold open for The Spy Who Loved Me. Now, we’ve got James Bond literally flying through the air while pursued by Jaws (Richard Kiel), the steel-dentured henchman who definitely died in the previous film and ends up somehow surviving his fall through a circus tent. Yes, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Jaws is death-proof.
The film gets off to a dreadful start but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the first half. For a little while, Moonraker is a decent if clearly inferior follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me. Here, Bond is tracking ex-Nazi Hugo Drax and the Moonraker project, which turns out to be an intergalactic space station designed for breeding sexy space colonies. On paper, this sounds like the funniest film ever made. And for the most part, it’s smooth sailing until 007 finds himself in the middle of a wild Gondola chase through the streets of Venice. This is when the movie goes off the rails. Jaws is ruined forever when he falls in love with a mute hippy and makes friends with Bond, and the outer space section is a pitiful Star Wars cash-in that everyone onscreen seems embarrassed to be apart of. “No,” you’ll cry out in the middle of the interminable laser fight. “No more outer space!” It doesn’t help that Roger Moore looks like he’s aged twenty years since The Spy Who Loved Me. If only he left after Moonraker, allowing Timothy Dalton to take over on For Your Eyes Only and become the Bond for the 1980s. But Alas and Alack…
19/18. Tomorrow Never Dies/The World is Not Enough (1997/1999, Dirs. Roger Spottiswoode & Michael Apted)
One of the biggest problems I have with the Pierce Brosnan era is that I can’t work out which of the two middle films I dislike more. Again, I stress that my problem is not with Brosnan’s performance but with the overall trajectory of the franchise at this point. Each film has an intriguing premise with potential: In Tomorrow Never Dies, a Rupert Murdoch stand-in (the great Jonathan Pryce mercilessly hamming up a storm) trying to concoct a fake war to sell newspapers whereas in The World is Not Enough, Bond is tasked with protecting an oil heiress after her father is killed by a maniac who can’t feel pain (Robert Carlyle). Beyond that, the two films are practically interchangeable. You could easily edit random scenes from one film into the other film and nobody would notice. Both films, however, will make you want to scour the internet for emulators of the tie-in video games so you can play those instead.
It’s difficult to write about The World is Not Enough because it’s such a thoroughly forgettable experience. Even an impassioned performance from the always-dependable Robert Carlyle isn’t enough to rescue the proceedings. But as Bond villains go, Carlyle’s Renard is among the more memorable. I’ll give this film credit for containing the one good Bond theme of the Brosnan era, courtesy of Garbage (Legendary crooner cum avant-garde composer Scott Walker performed this unused track intended for the end credits.) At best, the film is only sporadically amusing. But I defy any Bond fan not to get misty-eyed at the final appearance of Desmond Llewelyn, who tragically died in a car crash shortly after filming his final scene as Bond’s trusted gadget man, Q. John Cleese makes a delightful if all-too-brief cameo as Q’s replacement. But any and all goodwill I have toward The World is Not Enough evaporates the second Denise Richards turns up as nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones–I hate everything about that phrase. This film also contains the worst double-entendre Bond has ever uttered, and a plot twist so obvious and idiotic that it makes Spectre look like The Usual Suspects. I’ve literally run out of things to say about The World is Not Enough. This is the most boring Bond movie to talk about. Let’s move on.
Now technically, on a narrative level, Tomorrow Never Dies is the worse movie. The premise is stronger but it’s dealt with only in broad, superficial strokes. As per usual, Brosnan’s Bond is like Tony Curtis in The Great Race: Nothing bad ever happens to him and he never seems to be in any danger whatsoever. As a result, it’s impossible for me to care about anything that happens in the film. However, Tomorrow Never Dies has an ace up its sleeve: Michelle Yeoh. Let’s face it, most of the female “characters” in the Pierce films might as well have been blow-up dolls gathered together from a disused fetish shop in Bucharest. But Michelle Yeoh gets right into the thick of it and winds up kicking more ass than Bond does. Whereas we needed to be told that Jinx was supposed to be Bond’s equal, Wai Lin actually is Bond’s equal. And because she isn’t constantly being objectified, the relationship between Bond and Wai Lin feels all the more satisfying. The fact that Brosnan and Yeoh have a fantastic onscreen relationship doesn’t hurt either. Danny Boyle once praised Michelle Yeoh as the greatest Bond girl of all, and as much as I dislike the movie, I won’t disagree with that. But whenever she’s not onscreen, Tomorrow Never Dies is crap. So if you want my advice, skip to the Michelle Yeoh bits only.
So which is worse? Well, one of the films is clearly worse, but its one big strength eclipses the sheer mediocrity of the other film. So the two more or less cancel each other out. If the documentary Everything or Nothing is anything to go by, even Brosnan himself can’t differentiate between the two. Poor guy. I wish I liked his Bond movies more. If you’re reading this, Pierce, and I’m sure you’re not: I thought you were Oscar-worthy in The Ghost Writer. No, honestly.
17. The Living Daylights (1987, Dir. John Glen)
Contrary to popular opinion, Timothy Dalton was not a bad James Bond. In fact, I would argue he had the makings of a great James Bond. Think about the context of his casting: We’d just been through twelve years of Roger Moore silliness, ending on the horrors of A View to a Kill. A change was long overdue. So Dalton, a classically-trained actor, decided to go back to the character Ian Fleming first wrote about all those decades ago. Fleming never intended Bond as a cartoon character: he was a violent, cold-blooded weapon of the British government. He may have had a taste for the finer things but he was a killer at heart who used his dry wit to keep him at a distance from his victims, as though he wanted to prevent his human nature from getting in the way of his duty. Dalton was the first Bond to fully embrace this notion. He truly was ahead of his time, and without Dalton paving the way forward, there is no Daniel Craig.
See, I don’t think we’ve ever had a “bad” James Bond. All six of the official Bonds are capable actors, and certainly the two unofficial Bonds — David Niven and Barry Nelson — enjoyed prolific and celebrated acting careers. James Bond is a two-dimensional character, so if you’re lucky enough to play him, you’re only going to be as good as the individual movies. Dalton only made two, and unfortunately The Living Daylights was one of them. I appreciate that making the transition from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton was always going to be bumpy. The problem is that Dalton is way too serious for the ridiculous film he’s starring in. This was originally supposed to be Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film, and it feels much more suited to the former Remington Steele star than to this brooding Welshman, whose sense of humor failed to come to fruition until three upstart British filmmakers cast him as the supermarket manager in their police procedural spoof twenty years later…
The Living Daylights is cute, which isn’t necessarily the best thing for a James Bond movie. Luckily, the relationship between Dalton’s Bond and Maryam d’Abo’s Kara Milovy is sweet and believable. But the rest of the film itself is an overlong, tonal mess: an ignoble beginning for the 007 who deserved so much better.
16. Spectre (2015, Dir. Sam Mendes)
I stand by my opinion that Spectre wasn’t the unmitigated disaster everyone made it out to be, which I’ve humorously addressed elsewhere. But now that the dust has settled, I think it’s high time we Bond fans asked ourselves: Did Sam Mendes ever know what he was doing or was Roger Deakins the true auteur of Skyfall? Spectre’s problems are numerous: The screenplay was overwritten by a committee of at least four scribes, the universally-reviled Blofeld twist made zero sense, the trite subplot involving NSA-level surveillance and Moriarty From Sherlock was a didactic drag, the implied romantic connection between Bond and Madeleine Swann never felt earned despite Craig and Lea Seydoux’s best efforts, the cinematography was drab and shoddy, Monica Bellucci was wasted and objectified (most of all by me), the movie had the exact same double-ending problem as Django Unchained, and the music — all of the music, I’m not just talking about Academy Award®-winner Sam Smith’s crime against sound — sucks.
But as I did last fall, I’m going to argue that Spectre has a lot more going for it than you may remember. First of all, the cold open is fabulous and among the best in the series. The first half plays like an early Roger Moore adventure but with Daniel Craig at his most confident and relaxed performance as 007 yet. He’s cracking jokes, he’s drinking a lot more, and not only is he having casual sex but he finally seems to be enjoying it. The Bautista fight may have disappointed but I enjoyed the hell out of the Bautista car chase. Up until we get to Blofeld’s lair, it’s a perfectly passable Bond movie. No, it’s not as strong as Casino Royale or Skyfall, but it’s a lot better than Quantum or 75% of the Brosnan era. Plus, we now have a solid backup team working behind Bond: gone are the days of Basil Exposition. I love Ben Whishaw’s put-upon hipster Q. Arguably he was the best thing about Spectre: I saw it twice in cinemas, and both times he earned the biggest laughs. Naomie Harris is the sexiest and most fully-realized Moneypenney to date, and Ralph Fiennes’ M as a world-weary ex-soldier is a nice touch. If Spectre winds up being Daniel Craig’s last outing, at least he’ll end on a better note than Connery, Moore, or Brosnan combined. But in any event, I hope they retain the current MI6 team for the next 007. Christoph Waltz has suggested he’d return as Blofeld — I still don’t understand the bitching about Waltz; what the hell did you boneheads expect from him? — but only if Daniel Craig signs on. If this happens, EON, then please take my advice and treat the half-brother stuff the way Star Wars treats the Midichlorians: NEVER MENTION IT AGAIN.
Oh and if you hate “Writing’s On The Wall” as much as I do, listen to “Spectre” by Radiohead and bask in the glory of what could have been.
Coming Soon: #15-10!