Not only are you about to discover my all-time favorite Bond films, but at least three of them rank among my all-time favorite movies period. If you haven’t seen any of these films before, rectify that as soon as you can. I apologize in advance if I get carried away in my effusive praise for my Top Five Favorite James Bond Films…
And without further ado:
5. License to Kill (1989, Dir. John Glen)
So Goldfinger failed to make the Top Five but License to Kill made the cut? Well, hear me out. There’s one other Bond film I’ve been dying to write about more than License to Kill...but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, I’m here to argue that Timothy Dalton’s sophomore effort is not only the most unfairly maligned entry in the series, but it’s also one of the strongest.
When it was time to revisit License to Kill, I hadn’t seen it in about ten years. Back then, I hated it because I didn’t consider it a “Bond” movie–whatever that means. Now, changing my mind on Octopussy is one thing. But I promise you: I didn’t expect to change my mind on License to Kill so drastically. But as much as I wanted to be a good fan and squeeze Goldfinger past, I just couldn’t do it. License to Kill is too damn good.
Right from the start, License to Kill announces itself as the darkest Bond adventure yet. Just look at the gunbarrel. I wouldn’t normally insist you watch a James Bond gunbarrel–they’re fairly standard by now. But I didn’t even know it was possible to be this intense with the gunbarrel. Now, obviously I’m not saying License to Kill is great just because it’s dark. But think back to The Living Daylights. In that film, Dalton’s grave performance was in stark contrast with the movie’s lighthearted tone. Whereas Dalton was trying to inject some much-needed realism into the proceedings, the filmmakers had other ideas. As a result, Dalton participates in some of Bond’s lamest moments, not least riding down a mountain in a goddamn cello case. In short: The Living Daylights suffered because the lead actor and the filmmakers were pulling in different directions. It would be like watching Peter Capaldi trying to remake a Sylvester McCoy episode of Doctor Who.
But License to Kill doesn’t have this problem. The timbre remains dark from beginning to end. Consider the story it’s telling: Felix Leiter, 007’s best friend, has been horribly tortured and maimed at the hands of the sadistic drug lord Sanchez, played effectively by Hofstra University’s own Robert “Be The Moon” Davi (ask Huey). Sanchez also murdered Leiter’s beautiful new wife, another one of Bond’s closest friends. 007 wants revenge; this is one of the rare films in which Bond appears to have a meaningful personal life. But then Robert Brown, who was definitely the worst M, I’m sorry, but there has to be a worst M (Dalton had the worst Moneypenney, too, the poor bastard.) Anyway, M wants to place 007 on another assignment because he’s worried Bond won’t be able to remain impartial. When 007 refuses, M revokes his license to kill, compelling Bond to go rogue and exact revenge on Sanchez.
The two biggest criticisms lobbed at License to Kill are thus: “too dark” and “nothing like Bond.” Let’s begin with the former. I’ve never understood the why certain Bond fans have to “pick sides” when it comes to the tone of these movies. There’s no reason why Bond can’t be light and dark. Tone and quality have nothing to do with one another. And exactly how is License to Kill too dark? My idea of “too dark” for Bond is Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man. But 007 kicks plenty of ass in License to Kill, he still relies on ludicrous gadgets (like the unfortunate Polaroid camera death ray), and Wayne Newton shows up. Bond still lives in a fantasy land, folks. He simply has a few more scars.
As for the accusation that License to Kill is “nothing like Bond,” that is correct. License to Kill has more in common with Schwarzenegger and Stallone than with Connery and Moore. But why is that a bad thing? Hasn’t Bond always survived by taking after popular Hollywood trends? Let’s be honest, the classic Bond formula of yore had grown stale by 1989: remaking You Only Live Twice wasn’t an option for Dalton. Besides, the Daniel Craig era owes everything to the Bourne movies and you don’t hear many people complaining about that. If all of the Bond tropes were removed and License to Kill was just some late-80s revenge thriller starring Timothy Dalton, it would be praised up and down as an action movie classic. License to Kill works because it’s a Bond film that makes sense not only for the time period but for Timothy Dalton’s performance. Remember: Dalton is the Bond of the books, and that Bond wouldn’t be caught dead wearing clown makeup or messing around on the back of a fire engine. It follows that Dalton’s best film takes itself just as seriously as he takes the character. All in all, this is a tense and gripping thriller that had the guts to take a tired franchise in a radically different direction, and I think it’s about time License to Kill was reassessed.
I realize this will be a controversial choice for many Bond fans. But I encourage all of you to revisit License to Kill with an open mind. Look out for a terrific early performance from the magnificent Benicio Del Toro. Bonus points for incorporating Q into the plot (Fun Fact: Dalton was Desmond Llewelyn’s favorite Bond to work with.)
4. Casino Royale (2006, Dir. Martin Campbell)
Before I discuss my undying adoration for Casino Royale, let’s travel back in time to my teenage years.
I’m a jaded, 17-year-old James Bond fanatic who grew up loving Sean Connery and Roger Moore (plus Austin Powers) but who never cared for the Pierce Brosnan era. As far as I’m concerned, Bond is dead and Die Another Day was the golden bullet between the eyes. I’m in high school now and I’m slowly but surely expanding my cinematic palate beyond blockbusters and mainstream fare (I was a bit of a dick about it, really.) During that time I saw Layer Cake, Matthew Vaughn’s sleek and stylish crime thriller starring a virtually unknown Daniel Craig. Here was this masculine actor who moved so urgently and beautifully onscreen. In Layer Cake, Craig acts with an intelligence, wit, and energy like a Michael Fassbender prototype (see also Love is the Devil, The Mother, Enduring Love, and Munich.) Like Fassbender, Craig could have held his own in 1950s British kitchen sink dramas opposite Richard Burton or Albert Finney. But then it’s announced that this same rising star is going to be the new James Bond. Moreover, this new Bond is going to take the series back in a more serious direction a la Dalton or Connery. Great! I thought. Maybe 007 isn’t dead after all. Awesome, a Daniel Craig Bond sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to share the good news with everyone. I’ll bet everyone is looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig as James Bond!
If Ben Affleck believes he was given a hard time for playing Batman then I hope he and Daniel Craig never bump into each other. The backlash Craig suffered from worthless morons on the internet was stunning in its abject stupidity. You’re seriously telling me he’s a bad choice because he’s blond? And yet the ploy worked! Everywhere, I heard people complaining about the new “blond Bond.” What difference does James Bond’s hair color make? Honestly, what difference does Bond’s skin color make? I have absolutely no problem with a black James Bond, and my only issue with Idris Elba is that he’s stated numerous times that he doesn’t want to do it. Bond is only as good as his movies anyway, and that will remain true whether they cast David Oyelowo, Tom Hiddleston, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Henry Cavill. As long as the next Bond is a good actor who comes from any one of the British Isles and looks fuckable in a suit then what else do you need?
Despite these dumb and superficial complaints, I held firm in my belief that Daniel Craig was going to knock it out of the park and he did not disappoint. Boy, did I feel smug listening to all those people concede that, well, yeah he was a pretty great 007 after all and it was stupid to prejudged him. Maybe we should stop making our minds up about movies before they’ve even shot a single frame of footage. Maybe getting outraged about a movie you’re not going to see for an entire is sort of a waste of time, huh?
So what about the damn movie? Casino Royale came out ten years ago. It seemed cutting-edge at the time but does it still hold up?
Yes. It holds up magnificently. While I still love Skyfall’s staid elegance, sometimes the aesthetic threatens to undercut the momentum of the story. On the other hand, Casino Royale never stops moving forward. It’s a smooth ride on a rampaging bullet train. It was the kick up the ass that Bond so desperately needed, and it more than washes away the foul stench of the unwatchable 1967 spoof movie starring David Niven, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles (who both despised each other because they were both brilliant but unreasonable egomaniacs), and which was directed by six people including John Huston–and no, Graves, I’m making it sound a thousand times better than it is.
With Casino Royale, EON pulled off their smartest move in years: They went right back to the source. Beyond updating some of the specifics, Casino Royale more or less sticks exactly to the Ian Fleming novel. For the first time in the series, a Bond movie has the good sense to get the hell out of Fleming’s way. That’s exactly why Casino Royale is a triumph. It’s a simple espionage story told with crisp confidence. The pace starts to flag towards the end but that’s a minor criticism.
Anyone who felt any doubts about Craig’s casting was surely put at ease during the film’s brutal yet exhilarating cold open. Daniel Craig is a natural successor to Steve McQueen: rugged and masculine but still cool and detached. He doesn’t preen like every other Bond besides Connery. He slips effortlessly into a dinner jacket and he’s instantly cooler than anyone you know. This Bond is reckless: perfect for the kinetic and confused world we’ve lived in since 9/11. This 007 doesn’t have time to worry about how his martini is prepared: he’s on a mission and he needs the booze now. I realize while I’m typing this paragraph that my favorite Bonds are the ones who seem to be the most soused. Connery, Moore, and Craig all blacked out by Movie Three.
Best of all, unlike the contrived love story in Spectre, Casino Royale’s romance feels passionate and earned. Whenever you look at Daniel Craig and Eva Green together, all you can think about is the two of them banging each other’s brains out. Crass, yes, but you know I’m right. See, this is exactly what you want from a Bond girl. It has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with chemistry. Green gives one of the most powerful performances in Bond history, and her breakdown after the stairwell fight reaches an emotional depth that the series has only achieved one other time. No words can adequately convey how chilling Mads Mikkelsen is as arms dealer Le Chiffre, managing to communicate so much with a mere flicker in his bloody eye. Martin Campbell outdid his tremendous GoldenEye efforts in spades here. It’s that rarest of things these days: An flesh-and-blood action movie with a rich story keeping the momentum alive and burning. Reminds me of another recent reboot of a long-dead franchise…
Before we move on, I’d like to take this opportunity give a shout-out to the most underrated Bond theme of all.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Dir. Lewis Gilbert)
Forget my review. Scroll down to Number Two and watch this video instead.
In my snarkier moments as a Bond enthusiast, I’ve been known to say things like, “If you’re going to complain about plot holes, watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Let me be clear: I think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is brilliant. I loved the John Le Carré book and I loved the Tomas Alfredson movie. But Le Carré writes about what it’s actually like to be a spy, and in real life, it isn’t fun. It’s miserable; Richard Burton was right. Bond has always been first and foremost about escapism, whether it’s in the form of an intense action thriller like License to Kill or an unabashedly silly tale like The Spy Who Loved Me. And for two hours of sheer entertainment, you can never go wrong with The Spy Who Loved Me.
This is the apotheosis of the Roger Moore era. It feels like everything that Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun were building up to. The Spy Who Loved Me has you the second it starts. A giant tanker is devouring military submarines on both sides of the Iron Curtain. A cultured European (the worst kind!) lurks in an underwater base from where he plans to rule over the high seas in a modern day Atlantis! It’s up to the UK’s 007 and the USSR’s XXX to put aside their differences and save the world. But first, Bond has to dispatch a series of Red bastards on the Swiss Alps. He was just making sweet love to a woman in a log cabin (the unfeasibly attractive Sue Vanner who is definitely not into it), but Queen & Country needs him! In the middle of the hot pursuit, however, 007 slips off the cliff. Is the world’s greatest secret agent about to plummet to his death? Of course not — the parachute flies open to reveal none other than the Union Jack, representing centuries of imperialist genocide. Now politically, I despise everything James Bond stands for. But I don’t care because I just watched Roger Moore make out with a hot foreign woman before warding off a fleet of trained Soviet assassins only to survive a fall that seemed to be certain death for our hero. It’s ludicrous, it’s pointless, and it’s everything I love about the James Bond franchise.
I’m currently reading a book about the Bond series called Some Kind of Hero. In the preface, authors Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury compare watching a Bond film to watching your favorite sports team. Like Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me assembles some of Bond’s finest team players, all working at their best. Screenwriter Richard Maibum and editor John Glen — who directed all of the Bond films throughout the 1980s with varying degrees of success — are returning players while composer Marvin Hamlisch and cinematographer Claude Renoir lend their unique skillsets to the proceedings, adding to the film’s campy and exotic flavor. Production designer Ken Adam, who tragically passed away yesterday, creates some of the most alluring and meticulous sets in the series, and even got Stanley Kubrick to secretly help Adam light the villain’s underwater lair: a secret that Adam maintained until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
Additionally, The Spy Who Loved Me has the ideal Bond villain in Curd Jürgens. His performance as Stromberg perfectly embodies that irresistable combination of sophistication and madness. You’ll also get to see one of the most bewitching Bond girls in the form of Barbara Bach, who’s been married to Ringo Starr for the past thirty-five years. So remember that the next time you make fun of Ringo. Of course, Jaws remains the most lovable henchman in the series: he’s massive, he’s ludicrous, and Kiel is clearly having the time of his life. He’s one of the only henchmen who has an actual personality. It’s no wonder audiences wanted to see him come back, and as much as I have problems with his use in Moonraker, I totally understand why they did it. I love Jaws and it was sad to see Richard Kiel go recently.
Kiel and Roger Moore both embody the spirit of James Bond for me: the unabashed weirdness, the tongue-in-cheek wit, and the refusal to allow realism to get in the way of a good story. And I’d argue that the Roger Moore era was much more consistent in quality than that of Connery. Granted, he played the part for way too long, but he has a genuine likability that instantly endears him to an audience. Anyone who tells you that Roger Moore was the worst Bond can go to Hell. He just wanted to make us happy. Was that so terrible?
2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Dir. Peter Hunt)
Words cannot express how excited I was to write about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when I first decided I’d be doing this. This is the one Bond film I’ve wanted to gush about more than any other: including the Number One spot. I’ve stretched this list out over five articles and I would’ve happily written five about why I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service instead. But not everybody feels the same way. This is the one Bond film with fierce opinions on both sides. No Bond fan has a middling or indifferent opinion about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and showing it to someone who hasn’t seen it before is a thrill. Reviled and rejected for years, the one George Lazenby film has finally been reassessed in recent years, and these days it’s a lot more common to see it ranked towards the top. I’d go as far as to say that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is more than a great Bond film: it is simply a great film.
So why does it remain one of the least seen Bonds? Well, George Lazenby’s reputation precedes him. The cards were stacked against Lazenby from the beginning because he was following the wildly popular Sean Connery. In addition, Lazenby’s acting experience amounted to literally one commercial. Rumors about his brash behavior on and off the set spread like wildfire, and it was even alleged that leading lady Diana Rigg purposefully ate garlic cloves before their love scenes in order to spite Lazenby. Finally, even though Lazenby was all set to star in Diamonds are Forever, the actor unexpectedly quit and torched his career in the process, which is why the only other thing I’ve seen him in is the softcore Emmanuelle TV show from the 1980s. It’s a fantastic set-up, actually. Sylvia Kristel, who played the original Emmanuelle — this series is basically the James Bond of softcore erotic entertainment — sits down on an airplane next to George Lazenby. “Aren’t you Emmanuelle?” says George Lazenby. “Why, yes I am,” replies Sylvia Kristel. “This flight to God-knows-where is going to take a while,” Lazenby continues. “Could you tell me some sexy stories?” I’m not making this up; everything I’ve just described is true and here’s the totally SFW video evidence.
But I digress.
So how is George Lazenby? He isn’t great, but he isn’t terrible either. He’s obviously inexperienced but he also has enough practical acting skills to get through any scene without making a fool of himself. Now that may sound like damning with faint praise, but think about how many times Nicolas Cage has managed to fuck that up. Once again, most actors are only as good as the movies they appear in. Pierce Brosnan is a fine actor, but for the most part, he had lousy material to work with. Lazenby, on the other hand, had the best material to work with.
This is the classic Bond team at the peak of their powers. This has John Barry’s best music, Richard Maibum’s best writing, John Glen’s best editing, a psychedelic visual palate courtesy of cinematographer Michael Reed, the coolest ever Blofeld played by Kojack’s own Telly Savalas, and the greatest Bond girl of them all: the vibrant Dame Diana Rigg as Tracy di Vicenzo. Look, there’s no denying that the Bond girl trope is an antiquated, sexist device designed to keep drooling men happy. We like Bond girls because we like staring at exotic and alluring women, and I have no problem whatsoever admitting that. But a good Bond girl has nothing to do with what she looks like. The best Bond girls are fully-realized characters who actually contribute to the storyline. Tension and chemistry are vital prerequisites but the Bond girls you remember give you something more than a sex fantasy: characters like Wai Lin, Vesper Lynd, and Tracy di Vicenzo make you care. Tracy is the woman who melted Bond’s icy heart. As a result of Vesper Lynd’s betrayal at the end of Casino Royale, Bond severed his emotions and evolved into a womanizing cad. But Tracy broke down that wall. Seeing Bond fall deeply in love is intimate and touching, and that’s partly because Diana Rigg makes the viewer fall in love with her.
And then there’s that gut punch of an ending. I should tell you that I took a break in the middle of writing this paragraph to watch the ending again on YouTube. Once again, I sat there in floods of tears. Lazenby may not have been the best Bond but I will say this for him: NONE of the other actors could have played that scene the way Lazenby did. His performance is understated, vulnerable, and devastating. Out of nowhere, Lazenby goes from mediocre to mesmerizing–and all in his final moments as Bond. He ends on the greatest high-note of any 007 who followed: the one Bond movie that can make you cry…
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, whether you love it or hate it, is unique. Even the rhythm of the film is unusual; it doesn’t have the same pace as the Bond pictures before and since. But because the Bond team was willing to color outside the lines, they were able to achieve ever greater heights. Who cares if he wasn’t the best Bond? If he was only going to play 007 once, then George Lazenby picked the perfect film to make his mark. And for that, I salute him.
1. From Russia with Love (1963, Dir. Terence Young)
“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”– Jean-Luc Godard
What makes a Bond movie a Bond movie? Is it the silly gadgets? The beautiful girls? The over-the-top villains and their fiendish secret lairs? We’ve seen what happens when Bond places toys over story. Whenever that sort of thing happens in Bond, I tune out. I don’t care if your Bond is silly like Moore or serious like Craig: if you can’t tell a good story, you’re screwed.
Now, if you ignored the rankings and just read over my On Her Majesty’s Secret Service review, you could be forgiven for thinking it was my Number One Bond. But here’s the thing: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not your typical Bond movie. That’s why it’s such a great film. But when you’re a Bond fan, sometimes you just want to kick back and give yourself over to the cosmopolitan, imperialist fantasy that these movies trade in. You want to watch 007 sleep with ravishing beauties while saving the world from scheming and conniving commie rats. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the exception to the rule; From Russia with Love is the gold standard.
From Russia with Love is, simply put, a perfect James Bond adventure. Even the snobbiest cinephiles will defend From Russia with Love. It’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to an Alfred Hitchcock Bond. Whereas Dr. No was rough around the edges, From Russia with Love is a perfectly polished gem. But as with Dr. No, this is a Bond who doesn’t need an ejector seat or a jetpack to get himself out of trouble: This 007 relies on his wits and actually does a bit of spying from time to time. But you’re always aware that this suave and refined secret agent will murder you in cold blood if you’re standing in the way of his mission. What makes From Russia with Love so thrilling to this day is that Bond hadn’t passed into caricature yet. The “Bond movie” doesn’t exist yet; it took them another film before they nailed down the formula. As a result, From Russia with Love delivers not only as a Bond film but as a film that stands alone on its own merits.
And it’s fun! From Russia with Love is a potent combination of a great spy thriller and a zesty love story. As a spy thriller, it has a lean and rugged quality that we would never again see in a Bond film until 2006’s Casino Royale. The film picks up where its predecessor left off, with SPECTRE planning to assassinate Bond as revenge for the death of Dr. No. So
Frau Farbissina Rosa Klebb (a game Lotte Lenya) dispatches SPECTRE’s deadliest assassin to do the job. Red Grant is played with brooding sophistication by Robert Shaw, who was one of the finest actors the cinema has ever seen. No other Bond antagonist can truly call himself 007’s equal. But had Connery turned down the role of 007, Robert Shaw would have been an incredible second choice. Shaw is every bit as muscular, elegant, charming, handsome, and ruthless as Connery. He’s the dark side to Connery’s light. Plus, Shaw can actually take Bond in a fight. If there’s a more jaw-dropping mano a mano fight scene in the history of cinema than the Orient Express punch-up in From Russia with Love, please tell me.
And what about that love story? Bond and Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi, without question the most beautiful Bond girl of them all) may not possess the same emotional weight of Bond and Tracy, but we’re not dealing with that kind of romance here. This is more along the lines of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn: that kind of effortlessly charming love story Hollywood used to excel at. In most cases, Bond goes through the motions with his leading ladies: exposition, intercourse, death, more exposition, a grand escape, more intercourse. But again, they’re still developing the formula here. Because Tatiana is so essential to the narrative thrust of the movie, she and Bond have to spend most of the movie together. So when their romance blossoms, the pay-off is absorbing and satisfying. For a film released in 1963, From Russia with Love is sexier than any mainstream film released in the past twenty years. Nothing compares to the searing sexual tension beneath the surface of Bond’s first encounter with Tatiana–a scene EON still uses when they audition prospective Bonds.
That’s why I find it so distressing when I read articles like this. Had I been sitting in that cinema, I would’ve probably had a rage-induced stroke. The inability of hipster millennials to give themselves over to the illusion of older films is one of the reasons our culture has become so cynical. Back in the 1960s, audiences had no problem suspending their disbelief and submitting to the fantasy of the cinema. Maybe that’s because they weren’t busy looking to be offended or live tweeting their irrelevant opinions as opposed to experiencing the movie. Watching a film is supposed to be about stepping into another world an accepting it regardless of how “old” or “weird” it is. I guess From Russia with Love is “dated,” but you know what? Fuck “dated.” Is The Wizard of Oz “dated”? Only an idiot watches an old movie and dismisses it just because “people don’t talk that way anymore.” The filmmakers of the past were imaginative. Today, most of them are accountants. Anyway I’d much rather listen to Richard Maibaum’s colorful, heightened dialogue than listen to some smug and inarticulate Williamsburgite sneer at it.
From Russia with Love was specifically designed to thrill you, make you laugh, and turn you on. Most new movies can’t even manage one of those reactions. From Russia with Love manages all this without resorting to the special effects and trickery that went on to define the franchise. What else can I say? Stay in tonight and watch it. If possible, watch it with somebody you can have sex with afterwards. Hell, watch everything in the Top Ten and keep going. I hope these films can provide you as much long-lasting pleasure as they’ve given me (Read that last sentence in a Roger Moore voice.) If this list inspires at least one person to give Bond a fair chance, then none of this will have been the colossal waste of time that it definitely was.
Join us next week for my countdown of the Top 15 Internet Documentaries About Unsuccessful Cult Leaders!