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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Ranking the Bond Films

Die Another Day

(Random James-Bond-sounding Title)

(Bond vs. a Snooty Upper Class Nitwit)

In the 20th James Bond extravaganza known as Die Another Day, the filmmakers take the 19 previous Bond films and pastiche parts of them together. That would be interesting, if it were at all an intentional pastiche and not just plagiarism. The line between reference and homage and rip-off can be a very thin one indeed, especially when you are dealing with the Bond franchise – movies that are made with many of the exact same elements in them completely on purpose. If I were at all cynical, I might suggest that the writers (the brilliant duo that wrote the last Bond film, The World is Not Enough) watched every Bond movie, wrote down one of more things from each movie that they planned to put in Die Another Day, and wrote it like a family quilt, patching each plot element next to each other until they had a complete movie (and filling in the gaps with themes from The World is Not Enough). I mean, all Bond films resemble some of the earlier ones, but this seemed a little too familiar, as if they had run out of ideas. Maybe it is actually a homage to all the previous Bonds that came before it, and I’ll take it as such. To make sure you guys don’t feel left out, and because people love lists, I will now list and rate the 19 previous James Bond pictures.

But first, a little bit of my history with Bond must be revealed. In about 1995, so before the first Brosnan Bond picture came out, I watched the first 8 Bond films in one weekend, because my roommate had the first 8 box-set and I was bored. So I was introduced to the Bond universe, its archetypes, its rules, its fully realized style. I really liked it, so I decided to go on the next week and watch the rest. Well, I got about to Moonraker and decided the World is indeed Enough and stopped. I saw the rest, including the accursed Timothy Dalton Bonds, later on. So, my point is, you really don’t get what Bond is until you see the films in order like that. Then you can come up with the important aspects of a Bond movie (mostly involving how cool things are), and rank them accordingly. There aren’t too many Bond movies that are actual good movies in the real world – they’re all way too over-the-top and overblown, unrealistic and at the same time trying too hard to be realistically geopolitical. But you add the Bond style and cachet and universe to the thing, and all of a sudden it’s ok for our hero to kill people indescriminantly and have sex with every girl he sees and get captured but not killed by an over-the-top bad guy in his “secret lair” which looks like it cost about a billion dollars to build and use gadgets that if the British government could actually afford them it would still amount to a gross misappropriation of funds. The movies are bad in our world, but they are good in the world of James Bond. And it’s fun to go to that world once in a while. It’s escapist trash, but outstanding escapist trash.

Ok, so I see on the IMDb ( that in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Bond movie, they purposely included references to every other movie. Interesting. No wonder it seems sewn together from bits of other, better, movies. That explains that. I guess I won’t gripe about it. For a pretty good list of references to other Bond movies go to the “Die Another Day” page at the IMDb, then click on “trivia”.

Now the previous 19 Bond films, ranked 19-1

19) Moonraker – Like a particular brand of macaroni and cheese, it is by far the cheesiest of the Bond films. The film is essentially a special effects film (like Independence Day or The Phantom Menace) that exists to look cool. But 1979 special effects do not still look cool today. The story is silly, boring, and derivative – even for a Bond movie.

18) A View to A Kill – How can you mess up a Bond movie with not only Christopher Walken but also Dolph Lundgren? Only saved from being no. 19 by the presence of Walken and the greatest Bond theme song ever, by Duran Duran. I confess, I’ve never actually been able to sit through this whole movie. I do know Grace Jones is in it. Bleah. The song’s video is better than this movie, as is the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf”. Roger Moore is old…

17) License to Kill – Bond movie or gritty police drama? You decide. As a B-movie starring Charles Bronson, this would be an OK movie. As a Bond movie, its alternatingly boring and shocking. It cemented Timothy Dalton as the worst Bond by far. This movie is no fun, and seeing (longtime recurring friend of Bond) Felix get partially dismembered at the beginning of the movie is unbelievable. It’s such shock value. This movie killed the Bond franchise for 6 whole years until Brosnan showed up[i].

16) Thunderball – Worst Connery Bond by far – the second half of the movie is unwatchable and seems to consist of shot after shot of Connery underwater, cutting the air tubes of SPECTRE agents. If you stop watching it for some reason 1 and a half hours in, this may shot 10 spots forward. But the anticlimactic and boring ending kills it. It seems like they were so happy about the underwater special effects they forgot how to make a good movie[ii]. Also features a relatively nondescript bad guy.

15) The World is Not Enough – 3 words: Dr. Christmas Jones. She ruined what could have been a fairly good Bond movie. What were they thinking, letting teenage-looking Denise Richards near this part? That, and the ending sucks. But that probably mostly has to do with Dr. Christmas Jones’ presence. Worst Brosnan Bond, I don’t care what the Bond purists say.

14) Live and Let Die – Great theme song, bad movie. The message of this movie seems to be “All black people are bad.” First Roger Moore Bond, and a hard movie to judge. On the one hand, it’s delightfully campy at times and has Jane Seymour in it. It also manages to actually pull some suspense out of us. Unfortunately, it has a ridiculous villain with a ridiculous dual-identity my grandma could see through. It also has the worst chase scene in Bond history – a boat chase that seems to last an hour. I don’t know. It could have been good.

13) The Living Daylights – Lamest Bond title ever, this one is ok. I don’t remember too much about it except that Dalton sucked. Average. I guess this would be the line between the bad Bond movies and the decent ones.

12) The Man with the Golden Gun – They brought back the worst Bond character idea ever, the southern sheriff that’s like a poor man’s Jackie Gleason from Smokey and the Bandit. Saved from crapulence by 2 great villains (Christopher Lee and Herve Villachaise) and one great babe (Britt Ekland). Story is so-so, but the ending at the Scaramanga house is fantastic.

11) Goldeneye – Brought back the idea that Bond wasn’t supposed to be a gritty cop, and did so with style. The plot was alternately lame (the Goldeneye device) and good (that other British agent being the main bad guy). Most importantly, it was fun without being totally stupid. But it’s not that great, even with 90’s special effects.

10) The Spy Who Loved Me – It’s got a great Bond girl (Barbara Bach) who can’t act, and a great Bond villain (Richard Kiel as Jaws) who became a recurring character. It’s also kind of a throwback to the later Connery Bonds, with the fun and over-the-top setpieces, but it’s not as good. The prototypical Moore Bond movie.

9) In[iii] Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Bond is played by male model and human chin George Lazenby, whose dialogue is dubbed(!). Therefore, it is the hardest movie to classify. Also, Bond gets married (double !). The woman he marries does happen to be the greatest of all the Bond Girls, Diana Rigg, and the plot involving a remote ice chateau with a bevy of babes is a classic. But it’s undeniably hard to watch the dubbed Lazenby skulk through the role. Also features Kojak[iv] as the cat-stroking evil genius that became synonymous with the Bond franchise, Ernst Blofeld.

8) Tomorrow Never Dies – I admit, I’m biased towards this film solely because it has a) Michelle Yeoh, the butt-kickingest Hong Kong Bond girl ever; and b) Johnathan Pryce, my favorite actor of all the Bond villains. But watch it again – it’s the most exciting Bond film since Octopussy. They got this one right. Watch it again.

7) From Russia With Love – 2nd Bond film, distinguished by its lack of bombast and its spy-thriller plot. If Goldfinger had never been made, this is what Bond films may have looked like – plot-driven, taut, and taking place mainly in one location. It’s actually exciting, but could appear a bit boring to current Bond fans. Features a swiss army shoe.

6) For Your Eyes Only – Moore’s attempt to make a minimalist Bond in the “From Russia With Love” vein, it works both as a Bond movie and a spy movie. Not quite a thriller like FRWL, but lacking the brainlessness and camp that distinguishes most other Bond films[v], it’s probably a reaction to fans’ negative assessment of the previous Bond movie, Moonraker. This movie is the line between the decent Bonds and the true greats.

5) Dr. NO – The 1st Bond movie, and it’s a good one. All the Bond archetypes are there (though many in crude proto-Bond form), and the story is intriguing and fun. All that, and Ursula Andress in a bikini coming out of the sea. What a revelation.

4) Octopussy – Despite the mental picture conjured by the title[vi], this remains by far the best Moore Bond movie. All the villains are cool (especially the dude with the giant circular death-saw), the story moves along great, and it has an army of beautiful babes in it. Q even gets to get out in the field. All the things that don’t work in Moonraker and Live and Let Die somehow work here. It’s essential for the Bond fan.

3) You Only Live Twice – All I can say is, a hundred ninjas rapelling down into a secret underground bunker to do battle with Blofeld’s army is the single greatest Bond scene ever. It’s just cool. The rest of this movie – Bond seemingly dying at the beginning, the Asian locations, Ernst Blofeld finally getting main villain duties, the crazy metallic HQ, the bombastic plot – is classic Bond.

2) Diamonds are Forever – Basically a campy Goldfinger, this movie is pretty stupid but is packed with so much undeniably cool stuff it becomes great. Best Bond villain ever, Charles Gray as the British condescending Blofeld who changed his looks to one of the good guys from “You Only Live Twice”. Also has an assortment of colorful villains/characters, from Willard White to babe assassins Bambi and Thumper, to the ambiguously gay hitmen Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, to loopy but super-hot Bond babe Jill St. John, who almost messes Bond up at the end of the movie. The movie succeeds where other failed because the action somehow remains riveting despite being totally over-the-top and often silly. It’s a remarkable achievement of filmmaking[vii].

1) Goldfinger – Needless to say, the movie by which all other Bond movies are judged, so fun and stylish it became cemented into our pop culture like few other movies before or since.


So where does that leave Die Another Day, which knowingly took elements from all these other movies to make a new one? It’s pretty good, and very much keeping in the tradition of the Brosnan Bonds, except for the fact that everything is ripped off from the earlier movies. It makes it almost impossible to judge. It deserves points for resurrecting the ice palace location from “Majesty’s Secret Service”, as well as providing 2 good babes (Halle Berry and the awesome Rosalind Pike) to ogle. The villains are so-so, the main villain (Toby Stevens) being the worst of the bunch. He’s the Keanu of Bond villains. But if you can get past the feeling you’ve been everywhere before, you can enjoy this movie. As of this moment, I’d put it in the 9-12 range – a solid Bond but not a gold Bond.

[i] Ok, I know, it was legal wrangling, the death of a writer, and Dalton’s wise decision not to play Bond anymore. But did you hear any clamor from the public for a new Bond movie after several turkeys in a row, including this one?

[ii] Much like Moonraker was so happy about its space effects.

[iii] Or “On”, it doesn’t matter.

[iv] Telly Savales, who to me will forever be just Kojak. He sucked at being Blofeld, having neither the slow-burn understated craziness of Donald Pleasence(You Only Live Twice) nor the high-class camp of Charles Gray (Diamonds are Forever).

[v] That is, except for the brilliant opening sequence where Roger Moore is visiting his wife’s grave and is attacked by a guy who he ends up killing -- who is not named (because of the Bond legal situation), but is obviously meant to be Ernst Blofeld (the cat-stroking is a giveaway). It’s campy and gives “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” closure. Which is more than you can say about most other Bond movies.

[vi] And the fact that Connery released a remake of the dreaded Thunderball at the same time, called Never Say Never Again, that got more press but sucked worse than the original ‘Ball, mainly because Connery looked 80.

[vii] No, really.


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