Part of me wants to say, in answer to the post’s title, “Then go ahead. What are you waiting for?” Bond is not exactly a continuity-heavy, mythology-dense series, whether you’re talking about the books or the movies. It was originally a series of cheap pulp paperbacks, the kind of thing you buy in airports, and it’s become a series of pacy action movies, the kind of thing you go to for fun. Neither one of those things lends itself to a series you have to work to get involved with.
But maybe you’re really just interested in dipping your toes into James Bond. After all, it’s still 22 movies and 35 or so books, not exactly the sort of thing you can just polish off in a weekend. (For the record, I find the books to be a bit of a curate’s egg. Without an actor playing the character, Bond tends to come off as remarkably unlikeable, which makes them difficult to get into. Feel free to try them if you want–they’re all short reads–but don’t be surprised if you come away disappointed. That said, the baccarat sequence in the novel of ‘Casino Royale’ is much better than the poker sequence in the 2006 film.) So what are some of the highlights, the quintessential Bond films if you will?
When it comes to Sean Connery, who is agreed by most to be the “definitive” Bond, two movies stand out above all the rest. ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’, between the two of them, pretty much define the “spy movie” genre, and most of the iconic moments of the Bond franchise come from one or the other of these two films. You’ve got the gold-painted girl, Oddjob throwing his hat, Bond strapped to the table with the moving laser, the villain petting the white cat, the hidden base inside the volcano, the bad guy dropping his henchmen into a piranha tank…pretty much the whole spy package. And you also get the unintentionally spectacularly racist sequence where Bond is made into an Asian through the cunning use of make-up.
Beyond that, there are two other good Connery Bonds (‘Dr. No’ and ‘From Russia With Love’), one mediocre one (‘Thunderball’) and one that feels like a canonical Bond parody (‘Diamonds Are Forever’, easily one of the lowlights of the series.) Oh, and George Lazenby tried his hand at Bond between ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, but despite being a decent actor, he wasn’t able to convince audiences that he was Bond.
The next Bond, Roger Moore, was a great light-comedy actor who unfortunately wound up doing an action hero part. This resulted in a number of “comedy” Bond moments, all of which fell pretty flat. Despite that, and despite some more spectacular unintentional racism (‘Live and Let Die’ is all about Sinister Black People, ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ is all about Asians Who Know Kung Fu) he did have his moments. ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ has a great moment when Bond agrees to hear the villain’s demands, only to discover he really doesn’t have any–he just wants to blow up the world with stolen nukes. And despite its poor reputation, ‘Moonraker’ is full of classic Bond moments, from a stunning opening where Bond skydives without a parachute to a villain who delivers classic lines like, “Ah, Mister Bond. You have all the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”
Then we have Timothy Dalton, an awesomely underrated Bond who was better than his scripts (but anyone who’s seen him in classics like ‘Flash Gordon’, ‘The Rocketeer’, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ knows how great Dalton is.) He only did two Bond movies, the very good ‘The Living Daylights’ and the somewhat less good ‘License To Kill’ (which is fun, but feels a bit too much like a “Miami Vice” episode to be a true Bond classic.)
And then, after a long pause, we got Pierce Brosnan, who had been touted as a potential Bond for about a decade by that point. He had one genuine bona fide classic, ‘Goldeneye’, which examined the relevance of Bond (and by extension, the spy drama) in a post-Cold War world, and then a slow decline through the entertaining ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ to the implausible ‘The World Is Not Enough’ to the ponderous and uninspired ‘Die Another Day’. That was about when they decided to reboot the franchise.
The reboot got a great Bond–Daniel Craig–but the movies to date haven’t lived up to their actor. (Although the 2006 ‘Casino Royale’ is certainly head and shoulders and chest and stomach and groin and thighs and knees and ankles and toes above the 1967 version.) And with MGM teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, we might not see another Bond movie until after Craig is too old to play the part. Still, it’s bound to go on in some form or another. James Bond isn’t just a franchise, it’s an institution.
Of course, these are just my picks for the quick and dirty version of the James Bond franchise. Everyone’s got their own opinions as to the best Bond movies to give you a condensed version of the franchise, and I hope to see them all in the comments!