I’m not going to lie, I’ve not always been a fan of James Bond. In fact, up until a few years ago, my Bond knowledge was limited to CASINO ROYALE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, GOLDENEYE, DIE ANOTHER DAY and…OCTOPUSSY. They just weren’t part of my formative years like they were for so many. My parents were never particularly interested in them, and I’m sure for many born during the Bond hiatus of the early 90s, they would have first been introduced to the films by family members who were around in Bond’s glory years, and keen to revisit them for nostalgia’s sake. But I’m a convert. A housemate at university was a Bond fanatic, and introduced me to a few, and I was given the delightful gift of the James Bond 50th Anniversary Box Set for Christmas last year, so I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through the rest. Nothing is quite like a Bond film. What follows is my selection of the very best of the James Bond movies, those elevated above the rest of the series, the “5 Star” Bonds, if you will.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
In his second performance as Ian Fleming’s suave super-spy, Sean Connery reportedly blew the author away, and obliterated any previous doubts that he was the only actor for the role. A truly epic espionage road trip that was far ahead of the times in terms of scale, ambition and the visceral nature of the action, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE takes 007 from Istanbul, through Eastern Europe and to Venice in his mission to retrieve a Cold War technological McGuffin, all the while pursued by assassins. It’s sharply plotted, intense, action-packed and features a surprisingly brutal fight in a confined train carriage between Bond and Robert Shaw’s “Red” Grant that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jason Bourne movie.
GOLDFINGER is a great old-fashioned and gleefully over-the-top thriller. It has all the elements that would become icons of the Bond series – the gadgets, the Aston Martin, the colourful henchman, the ridiculous villain torture scene, and a knock-your-socks-off theme song from Shirley Bassey. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) is one the great flamboyant Bond villains, uttering arguably the series’ most famous retort of “no Mister Bond, I expect you to die!”. He also has one the very best raving villain master plans – breaking into Fort Knox to contaminate the gold reserves and cause economic chaos – it’s completely illogical when you stop to think about it, yet makes a weird kind of sense. The film’s sexual politics haven’t aged well (like in much of the series), but that doesn’t detract enough from the end product to spoil the fun.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME is not only Roger Moore’s best Bond (performance and film) but also the best-looking classic-era Bond movie. The filmmakers seem to have taken extra care with the shot construction, and the featured locations, particularly Egypt look stunning. Add to that one of the most memorable Bond henchmen, the hulking Jaws (Richard Kiel) and a really unusual relationship dynamic with Russian agent XXX (Barbara Bach). The Roger Moore films especially tend to look sexist to modern audiences in their treatment of female characters, but Bach’s character gratifyingly holds her own against Moore’s 007.
LICENCE TO KILL (1989)
LICENCE TO KILL is violent, brutal, pleasingly simple, but with appropriately ridiculous action when required. It features a solid central performance from Timothy Dalton portraying the most human Bond. Dalton’s 007 is engagingly flawed – you believe he can handle himself, but he takes a beating, and goes through a well-developed and emotional character arc. He gets cocky, he gets (really) angry, he mourns. Often, the plot of Bond movies become convoluted, but some of the best of the series have simple stories, and Licence to Kill is one of them. It’s basically a revenge film, with a few twists and turns plus some shockingly nasty villain deaths thrown in for good measure.
SKYFALL was a difficult balancing act to pull off, and Sam Mendes and co. met the challenge in fine style. It’s a near-perfect blend of character beats, action spectacle and Bond franchise fanfare. A fittingly grand tribute to 50 years of James Bond films, with some witty and playful references to past instalments, but thankfully it’s not restricted by that function. The story is a relatively stripped-back, no frills affair, elevated by thematic complexity, self-awareness and a striking, arty aesthetic courtesy of Roger Deakins. The most visually stunning scene is undoubtedly Bond’s (Daniel Craig) fight with an assassin (Ola Rapace) in a Shanghai skyscraper in silhouette, illuminated by flashing, colourful projected advertisements. The real highlight of Skyfall in comparison to the other Bonds is the quality of the characterisation – Bond and M’s (Judi Dench) relationship is allowed to evolve, Javier Bardem’s villain Silva is an unusual and incredibly memorable, like a flamboyant lion with a laptop, and Bérénice Marlohe, as briefly as she’s on screen, brings something seldom seen in Bond performances – subtlety.
There you have it – the very best of the James Bond movies. Do you agree with the selection, or have I missed off your favourite? Look out for the worst of Bond in the future, as soon as I’ve re-appraised the later Roger Moore appearances…SSP