Saturday, October 24, 2015

James Bond Franchise Review Part Two

This is the second of two posts reviewing the first twenty-one James Bond films. See also my introductory thoughts about James Bond.


Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice.

You Only Live Twice (1967)
I hate to put any Connery-as-Bond film on the mediocre list, and You Only Live Twice, the fifth entry in the franchise, almost deserves to be at the bottom of the Great list. It has one of the best theme songs ever, the very best villians’ lair (a hollowed-out volcano!), and one of the best fistfights in any Bond film (the fight in the Osato Chemical office building twenty-five minutes into the movie). Yet I am forced to agree with other critics who contend that the pacing of You Only Live Twice is a little slow. And perhaps Connery’s weariness of the Bond role is beginning to show here: by the time the shooting of this film was underway, Connery had announced that he would not star in another Bond picture. Indeed, he did not participate in the sixth Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though he was wooed back to Bond two more times: for Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 and again in 1983 for the Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again.*

Live and Let Die (1973)
Although it is dated and/or marred by its Blaxploitation-influenced depiction of African Americans as heroin pushers and savage voodoo practitioners, Live and Let Die nevertheless counts as a fairly excellent Roger Moore James Bond film. It has one of the best Bond theme songs ever. The speedboat chase and the sequence at the alligator farm are thrilling and iconic Bond moments. In terms of its supporting cast, most notable is Yaphet Kotto as Kananga / Mr. Big, who is one of the best actors ever to play a Bond villain, although his onscreen motives in this film are a little ridiculous, hackneyed, and unclear. Maybe Live and Let Die's biggest weakness is its leading man: this film constitutes Roger Moore’s debut in the role of Bond, and Moore is still finding his way into the role. Thus the film is not as laden with slapstick humor as its immediate sequels, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, though it does successfully go for the laughs during the “flying lesson” sequence and when it introduces Louisiana Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). Yet the pacing of the first half of Live and Let Die is surprisingly slow, picking up and staying lively only from the double-decker bus chase onward, after the one-hour mark. Nevertheless, this is a Bond film I return to with some regularity, and all in all, I am forced to call the imperfect Live and Let Die a worthwhile and largely entertaining Bond adventure.**

British comedian Rowan Atkinson joins Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
While a bit lengthy and certainly no match for the film (Thunderball) of which it is a remake, Never Say Never Again is nevertheless pleasurable because Sean Connery is so damned good in the leading role. After twelve years of Moore’s parodic take on the Bond character, it is a treat to have the tough, believable Connery back as 007, and the film has many excellent sequences, most notably the clinic fight early in the film and the motorcycle chase midway through. Barbara Carrera particularly shines as villianess Fatima Blush, and I am a big Rowan Atkinson fan so enjoy his appearance here as bumbling government liason Nigel Small-Fawcett. All in all, a fun if imperfect farewell from the best Bond actor there ever was.

The Man with the Golden Gun's "duel between titans" -- Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) squares off against James Bond (Roger Moore).

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Yes, The Man with the Golden Gun is a decidedly “cheesy” James Bond movie. The sequence where Bond fights an entire school of martial arts practitioners is flatly ridiculous, as are the stupefyingly silly antics of Bond’s “helper,” Agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ecklund). However, I return to this film again and again for one central reason: Christopher fuckin’ Lee. There is a reason Lee played Count Dracula so successfully in the 1950s Hammer horror films, and the answer is that he is a fine actor with an awesome, deep voice, a scary onscreen presence, and thus he totally rocks as super-assassin Francisco Scaramanga in this film. Lee’s performance and the script’s framing of the conflict between Scaramanga and Bond as a duel between titans, two world-class professional killers with few peers to challenge them, brings a gravitas and excitement to the climactic duel between them that has never really been matched in other Bond films. As Lee himself put it, Scaramanga is “the dark side of Bond.” Further, The Man with the Golden Gun showcases superb location use, for Scaramanga’s island hideout — shot on location in Phuket Province, Thailand – is one of the most beautiful and memorable of all Bond villain hideouts, second only to Blofeld’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. Lastly, along with The Spy Who Loved Me, The Man with the Golden Gun qualifies as the rare Bond film where the writing and tone mesh well with Roger Moore’s gently parodic take on James Bond, thus producing a harmonious if somewhat campy whole. I find myself returning to this one again and again, not least to hear the film’s funky 70’s theme song. Check it out!

Drax and Jaws are friends in Moonraker.

Moonraker (1979)
Explicitly produced to capitalize upon the popularity of Star Wars (1977), this Roger Moore Bond film goes way over the top: it ends with a laser battle aboard Drax’s orbital space station. The producers knew they were risking making even Roger Moore look silly in this, yet it more or less pays off: Drax is one of the franchise’s most sinister villains, and who doesn’t love Jaws (Richard Kiel), the famous Bond assassin appearing here in his second and final appearance in the franchise? Further, the excesses of Moonraker led the Bond producers to tone down the gadgets and bombast for the next, much darker Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. My biggest complaint about Moonraker is its pacing — it feels a bit slow and bombastic to me. But Drax and Jaws keep me coming back, at least once in a while.

The always delightful Robbie Coltrane as Valantin Zukovsky in the underrated Bond picture The World is Not Enough.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
Some people would disagree with me here, and rate The World is Not Enough below the other Brosnan Bonds, including Tomorrow Never Dies and the ridiculous Die Another Day. But there is something in the plot and tone of this well-directed Bond picture that really works for me. There is a depth of characterization and an intensity in the acting, particularly from Sophie Marceau (as oil heiress Elektra), Robert Carlyle, and even Brosnan himself. In fact, I think this film documents Brosnan’s best portrayal of Bond. Furthermore, the twisted relationship between Elektra and Renard, not to mention its impact on M (Judi Dench), is handled with a sophistication and pathos rare to see in James Bond films. Michael Apted’s direction and an ambitious script come together in a really coherent package, and while Denise Richards’ (Christmas Jones) acting may not be the greatest the Bond franchise has ever seen, it is not enough to seriously detract from this well-crafted and, dare I say, most thoughtful and emotionally rich of all the (pre-Daniel Craig) Bond films.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Stellar action sequences, particularly the Saigon building escape and motorcycle / helicopter chase that take place an hour and sixteen minutes into Tomorrow Never Dies, cannot save this second Brosnan outing from overall mediocrity. Despite an interesting premise, the villian Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is a bit too overplayed to be effectively scary, and Michelle Yeoh, who shines during the fight sequences, is pretty flat elsewhere and she and Brosnan lack chemistry. Two standout supporting performances include Teri Hatcher as the voluptuously alluring Paris Carver and the weird-looking Vincent Schiavelli as Dr. Kaufman, but neither of these two characters live long enough to provide much ongoing help. However, this is a very well-paced film overall, and the aforementioned motorcycle/helicopter chase is one of the most breathtaking and well-executed action sequences in the entire Bond oeuvre -- well worth a look!

Christopher Walken as Max Zorin in A View to a Kill.

A View to a Kill (1985)
This film is preposterous in large part due to Roger Moore’s tiredness in and with the role of James Bond. Moore wanted to quit the Bond cinematic franchise after For Your Eyes Only but the producers enticed him back two more times. And although the ever-chipper Moore gives it a good parting effort, you can kind of tell that he is finished with the role. However, it is A View to a Kill’s supporting cast that makes this film a stupidly delightful watch. Christopher Walken as Max Zorin, Grace Jones as May Day, and Patrick MacNee (of British “Avengers” fame) as Tibbett really bring their segments of this picture to life. I further admit that I really like the fire-engine / car chase through the streets of San Francisco that happens three-quarters of the way through the movie, and of course the Duran Duran title song fucking RAWKS! Hmm, is this movie so bad it’s good? I definitely enjoy this picture more than I feel I should given that I’m placing it so low on my list. I certainly watch it at least as often as I watch Moonraker.


Robert Davi and Benicio del Toro: two of the most entertaining elements of Licence to Kill

Licence to Kill (1989) 
I used to think this second and final Timothy Dalton Bond film was even worse than its predecessor, The Living Daylights, but upon reviewing it recently [in 2008] for this Guide, I have been forced to admit that it’s not as bad as I remembered it. In fact, it is far faster paced than The Living Daylights, and is chock full of lean-and-mean fights and well-orchestrated action sequences. There is also some good supporting cast here, like the very attractive Carey Lowell as CIA agent Pam Bouvier, Robert Davi as the diabolical if stereotypical villain Sanchez, and a very young Benicio del Toro as Sanchez’s twisted henchman Dario. The opening and closing theme songs, “Licence to Kill” and “If You Ask Me To,” are excellent as well. Yet I still have trouble sitting through the fucking ridiculous truck stunts near the end of the film (an 18-wheeler doing fucking side wheelies? Come on!), and ultimately it is Dalton’s somewhat strange fit in the role of Bond that keeps this film from rising above the level of dull and dumbshit. But Licence to Kill may be semi-decent dumbshit — occasionally enjoyable as a guilty dumbshit pleasure.

Die Another Day (2002)
This film exemplifies the furthest the Bond franchise has ever gone into the realm of high-tech gadgetry and science fiction-esque premises, barring Moonraker. But while Moonraker embraced its own over-the top silliness (recall that the notorious assassin Jaws finds true love — in space no less! — in Moonraker), Die Another Day seems to try way too hard to take itself seriously. So, despite breathtaking action sequences, such as the clinic raid, the fencing duel (wow!), and the climactic cargo plane fight, and despite semi-decent chemistry between Brosnan as Bond and Halle Berry as American agent Jinx, this film always feels too bombastic and over-determined to me, one I enjoy sometimes and cannot bear other times. I know some Bond fans defend this film and I admit that the first time I saw it in the theater I thoroughly enjoyed it and was more or less blown away. But on increasingly disappointing repeat viewings I digested the fact that there’s an invisible car in this movie, and hence its well-deserved placement in the “dumbshit” category.

This scene from The Living Daylights, set in Vienna, pays homage to iconic imagery from Carol Reed's film noir classic The Third Man (1949).

The Living Daylights (1987)
This one really earns the “boring” label. The worse of Timothy Dalton’s two contributions to the Bond series, this film is too serious in tone, too long in running time, and too desperately slow in pacing at points to be much fun as Bond films go. It’s not that the producers and Dalton himself don’t give this thing a good try, and some of the supporting cast in The Living Daylights — particularly Joe Don Baker as Whitaker and Maryam d’Abo as Kara — are really enjoyable. In the end, while I like Dalton and find him charismatic and I want him to succeed in the role, he nevertheless doesn’t quite feel like Bond to me. Maybe after six years of Reagan and Thatcher, etc., the Bond premise was just wearing a bit thin by the late 80s. Maybe the public so badly wanted Pierce Brosnan in the role that Timothy Dalton could never have fulfilled anyone’s expectations at that time. In any case, the whole Dalton-as-Bond business is an unfortunate mismatch; Dalton is simply not quite at home as Bond, despite his talent. And when Bond doesn’t work, the Bond film doesn’t work, especially when it's this damned slow and somber. So fuck The Living Daylights. (But on the Dalton-is-talented note, make sure to see him in the awesome 1980 Flash Gordon movie.)

Octopussy (1983)
The single worst James Bond film, Octopussy is slow-paced, convoluted, and full of boring characters. The film is so lackluster that even the usually high-spirited Roger Moore cannot breathe life into it. A shit-pile.

1. “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me.
2. “You Only Live Twice” from You Only Live Twice.
3. “Diamonds Are Forever” from Diamonds Are Forever.
4. “Goldeneye” from Goldeneye.
5. “Live and Let Die” from Live and Let Die.
6. “Goldfinger” from Goldfinger.
7. “Licence to Kill” from Licence to Kill.

Ursula Andress as Honeychile Ryder in Dr. No (1962).

1. Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) from Dr. No: Honey Ryder is the first and best. Tough and statuesque, Andress made not just Bond history but film and cultural history when she walked out of the surf just over an an hour into Dr. No.
2. Carole Bouquet as the tough, revenge-driven Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only.
3. Domino (Claudine Auger) from Thunderball: Haunted and very empathetic, Domino feels subtly believable to me, and she doesn’t suddenly change her character 180 degrees by falling head-over-heels for Bond like Pussy Galore and other Bond leading women have by the last reel.
4. Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) from Goldfinger: One of the few Bond women who really seemed close to being Bond’s equal, despite her capitulation to Bond’s charms (and selling out of Goldfinger) by the film’s climactic showdown.
5. Tracy Bond (Diana Rigg) from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: an intense actress and the only leading woman Bond ever marries. . .
6. Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) from The Spy Who Loved Me: Bach is able to play this role with just the right amount of knowing humor so as to perfectly compliment Moore’s performance and the film.
7. Jinx (Halle Berry) from Die Another Day: though trapped in a shitbox of a film, Berry shines as American agent Jinx, almost (but not quite) rescuing this film from its overdetermined self-importance and excessive techno-gadgetry.

French actor Michael Lonsdale as Drax in Moonraker (1979).

1. Drax: The creepiest of them all, so aristocratic!
2. Donald Pleasence as Blofeld: The first and coolest Blofeld.
3. Goldfinger: The most iconic Bond villain, especially in the laser-beam scene.
4. Scaramanga: He’s Christopher fuckin’ Lee. Sinister and perverted!
5. Kananga: Rendered interesting because of Yaphet Kotto’s presence and performance.
6. Largo: His eye patch and love of sharks make him unforgettable.
7. Zorin: Come on, it's Walken.

Roger Moore as James Bond in For Your Eyes Only (1981).

1. Connery
2. Moore
3. Brosnan
4. Lazenby
5. Dalton

There's no doubt that Roger Moore’s ironic/parodic take saved the franchise from imploding — an earnest Bond never worked after the 1960s, as Dalton’s tenure emphatically proves. Regarding George Lazenby, I feel that had he had more time to grow into the role (and acquire more acting skills), Lazenby might have ranked higher on this list, but history was not kind to the Australian model-turned Bond: he was dismissed after one film, the rather excellent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.


1. Dr. No (1962), starring Sean Connery, directed by Terence Young

2. From Russia With Love (1963), starring Sean Connery, directed by Terence Young

3. Goldfinger (1964), starring Sean Connery, directed by Guy Hamilton

4. Thunderball (1965), starring Sean Connery, directed by Terence Young

5. You Only Live Twice (1967), starring Sean Connery, directed by Lewis Gilbert

6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), starring George Lazenby, directed by Peter Hunt

7. Diamonds Are Forever (1971), starring Sean Connery, directed by Guy Hamilton

8. Live and Let Die (1973), starring Roger Moore, directed by Guy Hamilton

9. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), starring Roger Moore, directed by Guy Hamilton

10. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), starring Roger Moore, directed by Lewis Gilbert

11. Moonraker (1979), starring Roger Moore, directed by Lewis Gilbert

12. For Your Eyes Only (1981), starring Roger Moore, directed by John Glen

13. Octopussy (1983), starring Roger Moore, directed by John Glen

14. Never Say Never Again (1983), starring Sean Connery, directed by Irvin Kershner

15. A View to a Kill (1985), starring Roger Moore, directed by John Glen

16. The Living Daylights (1987), starring Timothy Dalton, directed by John Glen

17. Licence to Kill (1989), starring Timothy Dalton, directed by John Glen

18. Goldeneye (1995), starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Martin Campbell

19. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Roger Spottiswoode

20. The World is Not Enough (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Michael Apted

21. Die Another Day (2002), starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Lee Tamahori

* Here I must add a flagrant racism alert. True, all James Bond films carry imperialist implications, what with their championing of a globe-straddling, white, British superspy who saves the Western world at every turn by besting and killing less-white foes and henchmen (and, in most cases, getting his own allies killed as well). But You Only Live Twice features some of the most overt Orientalism of the whole series, culminating in a shocking sequence in which Bond dons yellowface in order to blend in with a group of (gulp!) ninjas. Of course, the concept is ridiculous to the point of absurdity: no matter how you tape his eyes back or yellow his skin, a 6'2" Scotsman is simply not a ringer for a Japanese man. But silly or no, the Bond yellowface scene brings the franchise's racism (in the form of racist stereotyping and caricature) to the fore in a pointed and off-putting way.
** This is another place where my former self's Roger Moore-dislike clashes with my current appreciation for Moore-as-007. I would still call Live and Let Die an imperfect Bond film, but would move it up toward the bottom of the "Truly Great Bond Films" list despite its flaws (particularly Mr. Big's extremely foggy motives for doing whatever he's doing). Along the same line, today I would push The Man with the Golden Gun up a few slots to the very top of the "Mediocre" list or maybe to the very bottom of the "Great" one. I enjoy Golden Gun at least as much as You Only Live Twice -- probably more so.
*** When I originally wrote this review in 2008, I used the term "Dumbshit" to refer to this third, least favored category of James Bond films. However, I subsequently realized that "Dumbshit" wasn't an ideal moniker, since almost all James Bond movies, even really good ones, feature moments that qualify as over-the-top, ridiculous, and "dumbshit." In many cases, those dumbshit moments are some of the most pleasurable ones. No, the worst crime committed by the films on the third list are that they are dull; thus I have re-dubbed the third category “Boring” rather than the admittedly funnier but slightly less accurate “Dumbshit.”


  1. Wow, I was not expecting Die Another Day to place so high! I don't think I've seen all of the Bond films -- I'm almost certain I haven't seen The World is Not Enough -- but Die Another Day stands out as the worst have seen. The odd thing is that it starts quite well; the whole Cuba sequence is quite gritty and exciting, in an odd sort of preview of the Daniel Craig era, and then it takes a sharp turn into crap right about the moment Madonna turns up.

    All that said, I still prefer it to Quantum of Solace.

    Christopher Lee is amazing as Scaramanga and he is part of what lifts The Man With the Golden Gun to above average. I often wonder what his Bond would have been like.

    1. Yeah, I have a real love / hate thing going with Die Another Day. As you say, awesome opening sequence, great fencing duel sequence, but not much else to recommend it.

      And Christopher Lee could've been a terrific Bond.