Hi, everybody! Sorry it’s been a while since I posted, but I was traveling through a number of parallel universes and checking out all sorts of movies that never got made in our reality, and Internet access was spotty. I can’t say the trip was worth every penny (the universe where every single movie since 1966 was a sequel to ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ was a particular lowlight) but I did really enjoy seeing all of the James Bond movies in the universe where Batman and James Bond had each other’s Rogue’s Galleries. Still, as always with these things, some were better than others…and since this is the Internet, naturally I am compelled to rank them all for you!
23. Die Another Day. I understand that for the 20th Bond movie, they really wanted to pull out all the stops and give us a movie packed with kisses to the past…but honestly, the film feels more like a warmed-over rehash of its superior predecessors. Making Clayface the villain was a clever way of working in appearances by old villains without it seeming forced…but turning Clayface into a mercenary working for the North Koreans caused its own set of story problems. Even bringing back a reformed Catwoman as a CIA operative didn’t work, not with Halle Berry reprising her part from the box-office flop version of the character. (Yes, the Halle Berry ‘Catwoman’ was a flop in all realities.) There were some nice set-pieces, and Clayface gets a nice death when he falls into his own solar laser, but ultimately it just didn’t work.
22. Diamonds Are Forever. It’s really unfortunate that between the recasting of Bond and the recasting of Ra’s Al-Ghul that we never really got a confrontation between the two best actors to play the part (I’m going to be potentially controversial here and say that I thought Telly Savalas made a better Ra’s than Donald Pleasance). Here we get a classic Bond in Connery, but a decidedly substandard Ra’s in the form of Charles Gray. I’m not sure if his personality change was supposed to be due to the Lazarus Pit’s effects, or if the screenwriter just hadn’t seen his previous appearances, but turning him into an effete charmer with a giddy wit left the already-silly plot with very little momentum. That said, putting Tweedledum and Tweedledee as his henchmen was interesting, if nonsensical.
21. Octopussy. Quite aside from the embarrassing and racist caricatures of Indian culture, this one suffers from a lot of over-complications and a lack of interesting things happening on-screen. The whole “theft of valuable artifacts and their replacement with duplicates” element is primarily a way to get Two-Face and Catwoman into the plot (and while I get that she’s on her “eighth life” in this film, ‘Octopussy’ still should have been abandoned at the title stage). There’s a lot of bland and unmemorable slog to get from the thefts to the plot to blow up West Germany with a stolen nuke, and the final team-up between Catwoman and Bond to storm Two-Face’s base is as predictable as it is dull.
20. Live and Let Die. I know I’m going to get a lot of flack for putting this movie so low on the list, but I just can’t watch it without cringing at the racist subtext. Doing James Bond as a blaxploitation film was always going to be risky, because Bond is inherently part of the white male power structure and blaxploitation films are usually about African-American leads rebelling against exactly that, but by making the villain Hugo Strange, it takes the whole thing to new levels of awkward. I get that it makes sense within the context of the plot for Strange to be using his psychological expertise to manipulate people with “voodoo”, but having a white person manipulate black people’s superstitions is awkward and there’s no getting around it. The film is fundamentally flawed, despite some iconic set pieces.
19. The Man With the Golden Gun. The thing is, this feels like it could have been so great. A duel of wits and weapons between James Bond, the world’s greatest spy, and David Cain, the world’s greatest assassin? With Cain being played by Christopher freaking Lee? With all that, why did they think they needed the whole dull MacGuffin about the “solar agitator”? Why did they decide to include all of the awkward and instantly-dated Shaw Brothers homages? why did they make the second movie in a row where everyone is a racist caricature? Why Herve Villachez as the Ventriloquist? Why why why why why? If it wasn’t for the fact that Christopher Lee was so resolutely awesome, this would be even lower.
18. Thunderball. It’s not so much “bad” as it is “utterly unmemorable”; despite the elaborate underwater battle sequences, this one has almost nothing that sticks in the memory. Tiger Shark is too obscure and gimmicky a villain to carry the story, and even tying it in to the ongoing Ra’s Al-Ghul plotline that wove through the first several movies doesn’t pep up the lethargic action scenes. It’s utterly skippable, which is both the nicest and the worst thing you can say about it. (The remake, ‘Never Say Never Again’, didn’t do it any favors either.)
17. A View to a Kill. Don’t get me wrong, here. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Christopher Walken’s riveting performance as Maxie Zeus, and his plan to bring the wrath of Olympus down on Silicon Valley is exactly the kind of over-the-top lunacy that a good Bond movie needs. No, the problem here is that they resisted recasting Bond for one film too far, and Roger Moore is just too old to play the part. This would have been spectacular with Timothy Dalton in the role.
16. Casino Royale. No, not the one that was done as a comedy, with Adam West as “Jimmy Bond” and all the rotating directors. That was non-canonical, and with good reason. I’m talking about the reboot here. Which really had me on its side for most of its length, don’t get me wrong. Mads Mikkelsen is absolutely stellar as the Mad Hatter, and even though his plan to win big at Monte Carlo through brainwashing is a bit overcomplicated (the sub-plan about sabotaging the plane is clearly added to pad the running time) he’s still riveting to watch. But the final poker game is anti-climactic, the car chase that gets Bond captured is even more anti-climactic (especially after the amazing parkour sequence at the beginning) and his death at the hands of someone who just wanders into the film, while true to the novel, is even more anti-climactic than that. (And it’s needlessly confusing. It made sense in the original novel, where it was agents of Ra’s Al-Ghul, but the reboot seems to be ignoring him, probably due to rights issues.) And then…could the death of Vesper Fairchild have been any more telegraphed and obvious? Maybe if they were handing out promo comics that gave it away or something, but even then not by much. Waiting twenty minutes or more for an eminently predictable plot point to stroll along killed the last bit of goodwill I had for the film.
15. The World Is Not Enough. This one was very frustrating; Pierce Brosnan is my favorite Bond, and he’s great in this…but Bane is criminally underused. He’s really nothing more than a generic villain; his immunity to pain never features into the plot in any kind of significant fashion, and he’s basically just another terrorist. The twist that Elektra is really Talia Al-Ghul is actually pretty well-executed, though; no wonder they reused it for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. But what really drags the movie down is Denise Richards as the world’s least convincing nuclear physicist.
14. For Your Eyes Only. Speaking of “criminally underused”, how do you get a magnetic character actor like Julian Glover, give him a part like the ruthless KGBeast, and then have him spend most of the movie pretending to be the most pleasant and uninteresting character in the entire film? I understand that it makes a good twist, and he’s genuinely great in the last third of the movie once his villainy is revealed, but I feel like Glover should have been given more to do. The plot hangs together well, though, and Moore is solid in one of his later Bond parts.
13. The Spy Who Loved Me. This one is almost brilliant. It’s the first time you get a truly mad Bond villain–Mister Freeze’s scheme to set off the world’s nuclear arsenals isn’t part of a blackmail plan or ransom demand, he’s just going to blow everything up to further his insane plans (although I could have done without the “nuclear winter” joke). It’s got great chases, great gadgets, and Richard Kiel is awesome as Blockbuster. But Barbara Bach…ouch. Some of the sets outact her. And since she’s such a major part of the plot, her performance drags the rating down a touch.
12. Tomorrow Never Dies. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found Black Mask that interesting. No matter what they do with him, he always feels like a generic gangster wearing a mask to me; all the attempts to amp him up just smack of pathetic desperation like a teenager’s attempts at swearing. Even giving him a scheme to ignite war between China and America doesn’t help the fact that fundamentally, this is a mask without a character. (That said, Michelle Yeoh is awesome as Sasha Bordeaux, even if she gets sod-all to do in the film’s climax.)
11. Quantum of Solace. I’m still not a big fan of tying King Snake in to Santa Prisca, to be honest; the character feels desperately out of place in Bane’s backstory, and I kind of feel that they should have kept him in the Far East. Even so, the story is interestingly topical (water rights are coming close to being the Next Big Thing in international politics) and it’s nice to see a brutal, vengeful Bond going up against an equally brutal villain. Plus, the whole “blind assassin” does have a certain insane verve that all good Bond villains should possess.
10. Skyfall. I understand that this is a rebooted Bond, so technically you can claim that pretty much just straight up remixing ‘The World Is Not Enough’ and ‘Goldeneye’ into one movie and cut-and-pasting in the Riddler for the Joker isn’t a rehash, just a rip-off. Even so, it’s kind of in bad taste. Thankfully, Javier Bardem gives an excellent performance as the Riddler that more or less redeems the idea, and Judi Dench is, as always, note-perfect in her final appearance as M. (I was still hoping that the new Q would be Simon Pegg, though.)
9. The Living Daylights. I confess, I think that the Dalton Bond films were underrated. I know a lot of people thought that there should have been more sex, but I think that there’s something kind of sweet and tender about the way Bond treats Stephanie Brown. I also think that Jeroen Krabbe’s portrayal of the Cluemaster is underrated; he’s wry, witty, and a compulsive schemer, someone that you almost wind up rooting for (or at the very least feeling sorry for by the end). And Dalton himself is wonderful in the part, capturing all the character’s complexities. This one is worth re-evaluating.
8. Licence to Kill. Apart from the rampant stupidity of changing the title, this one is good all the way. It feels like Bond has almost wandered into the wrong genre; even though Killer Croc is in some ways no different from the other Bond villains, the brutality with which he assaults Felix Leiter gives Bond the perfect motivation to go to a much darker place. The movie pulls very few punches, and it’s neat to see a young Benicio del Toro as Victor Zsasz (albeit one that they did very little with).
7. Dr. No. Purists from our reality will no doubt hate this one, but I like the idea of making Man-Bat into an out-and-out villain, complete with his own island lair. It ditches a lot of the character’s tragic origins (and name), but having Bond play cat-and-mouse on a deserted island against a killer bat the size of a person has to be one of the ultimate action set pieces in the series. And hey, Talia Al-Ghul wound up using the Man-Bat serum in the comics, and Man-Bat works for Ra’s in this one, so it’s almost kind of sort of canon…no? OK, then. Please yourself. Still a great film.
6. From Russia With Love. On the one hand, this one is a very early Bond movie, and it’s clear that they weren’t totally sure what parts of the novel worked on film and what didn’t. So there’s a lot of digressive “spy business” that doesn’t add a whole lot to the finished product. On the other hand, this is one of the more solidly-constructed plots in the series; Lady Shiva’s plan to steal the Lektor device for Ra’s Al-Ghul is complex without being convoluted, and clever without being cute. And the sequence on the train between Bond and Deathstroke are pure cinematic gold, an absolute masterpiece of building tension that really sells Deathstroke as a physical and mental match for the world’s best spy.
5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Let’s get it out of the way now–no, George Lazenby can’t match up to Connery, and it was hell on him to be expected to try. He does what he can with the part, emphasizing the hidden vulnerability of the character over Connery’s blunt instrument of the state, and his romance with Diana Rigg’s Vicki Vale is sweetly tragic. But the expectations created by Connery are just too great. He’s a sacrificial lamb, getting people used to the idea that the part can be recast, and that’s all there is to it.
But Telly Savalas is, hands down, perfect as Ra’s Al-Ghul. He brings a sense of physical menace to the part that Donald Pleasance couldn’t; this is a Ra’s that you can convincingly believe built his terrorist network with his own bloody hands, and he really does blow the doors off of his few scenes with Bond. His scheme is really a prototype for the future loopy Bond villains of the next two decades (hypnotizing beautiful women into weaponizing chickens?) and the end scene, in which a fresh-from-the-Lazarus-Pit Ra’s Al-Ghul murders Bond’s new wife, is truly epic. (It’s just a shame that the resolution to this came in the far-inferior ‘Diamonds Are Forever’.)
4. Moonraker. Yes, that’s right, I said Moonraker, mofo. Oh, you have a problem with the fact that James Bond did a big crazy space epic? You can’t buy Poison Ivy on a space station? You don’t believe that a ruthless killer like Blockbuster could fall in love and turn good? Well too freaking bad, people. This is one of those films that demands you embrace the crazy, and if you do that, it’s wonderful. Poison Ivy’s plan to use exotic plant toxins to wipe out human civilization is letter-perfect, and anyone who can accept Lazarus Pits and diamond-based laser satellites and submarine cars should be able to accept space marines and laser guns just as easily. And “Doctor Goodhead” (who I was always convinced was an undercover Kathy Kane) is a rarity for Bond movies, a smart and capable female character who isn’t just a peril monkey.
And just to get it out of the way: Yes. The pigeon does a double-take, just like they said it did in ‘Buffy’. You realize that the point of that gag was that only a pedantic twitwho had too much free time would care about that, right?
3. You Only Live Twice. This is practically the ur-spy film, it’s been pastiched so many times. Ra’s Al-Ghul as the immortal leader of a cult of terrorists, complete with clipped British accent and scar over the eye and Nehru jacket and white cat that he strokes menacingly (Donald Pleasance would go on to reprise this role in every third movie he did afterwards) is the quintessential spy movie bad guy. The final scene, with the volcano lair getting stormed by marines and the huge action set piece and the timer counting down to World War III, is equally quintessential. (Although again–a hollowed-out volcano lair stormed by marines is totally plausible and believable and beloved of Bond fans. A space station stormed by marines wearing space suits? A laughable shame upon the franchise. Bond fans can be fickle assholes sometimes.) It’d probably be number one on the list, if not for the awkward “Bond pretends to be a Japanese guy by wearing make-up that wouldn’t convince a blind toddler” sequence.
2. Goldfinger. Really, the best Bond movies are the ones that center around the clash of personalities between Bond and the villain…and there is no better example of that than here. Gert Froebe as the Penguin is like a living Looney Tunes cartoon, all pop-eyed and filled with sputtering indignation, and Bond is the Bugs Bunny to his Daffy Duck. The whole movie is pretty much just a pissing match between the two of them; ordered to “observe”, Bond proceeds to ruin the Penguin’s card game, then sleep with his girlfriend. The Penguin responds by having Amygdala kill said girlfriend two feet away from Bond, just to prove he can. Every single encounter between the two raises the stakes, right down to the way Bond foils the Penguin’s scheme by seducing Catwoman to the side of good. (Well, “seducing” is one way to put it. Have I mentioned that the Bond movies have issues with women?)
1. Goldeneye. The best. Bar none. Sean Bean is magnificent as the Joker; I know some people like having a motiveless madman in the part, but the film squares the circle perfectly. To his henchmen, the Joker is masterminding the theft of the century, a daring scheme to steal millions from the London banking computers…but in actuality, it’s a plan to revenge himself on the spymasters who caused his disfigurement, and sow global chaos in the process. His conflict with Brosnan, who plays a Bond uncertain of his role in the new post-Cold War world, feels meaningful and human in a way that gives the movie real depth. Combine it with some excellent action sequences, and you have what remains to me the single best Bond film ever.
But I’m sure others will have their own opinions there. Feel free to share yours in the comments!