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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: A Personal Journey through the highs and lows of James Bond

  Everyone’s favourite vodka martini-swigging, monogamy-scorning superspy celebrated his fiftieth anniversary at the movies in 2012. So, twenty-three (official) films down the line, how does the James Bond series stack up? Pretty darn well, to be honest. Few film franchises have proven as consistently entertaining. Even the ropiest Bond flicks pack the odd ingenious action sequence or witty one-liner. Which is more than can be said for the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films.

As a testament to the sheer power and panache of Bond transcending even the most inept and inexplicable butchery imaginable, my first encounter with 007 came via a bizarre patchwork effort screened on Arabic TV in the late Eighties. Re-titled James Bond is 007 The Spy Who Loved Me, it was a bizarre concoction typical of the cut-and-paste standards of Saudi Arabian television at that time, comprised of the last fifty minutes of The Spy Who Loved Me, fifteen minutes culled from For Your Eyes Only including the mildly kinky sequence with Sir Roger Moore and a stripped-to-her-skivvies Carol Bouquet dragged by a speedboat through a sea full of sharks (which remains a vivid childhood memory), and the entirety of Moonraker save for the celebrated pre-credits parachute stunt. To say the plot proved incomprehensible would be an understatement. Nevertheless the pulp potency of the film formula survived miraculously intact (Danger! Excitement! Gadgets! Girls!) and imprinted on my impressionable six year old mind everything one needed to know about the world of James Bond. What follows is a personal rundown of the worst to the best Bond films. Underline that word personal, because scores of Bond fans out there will undoubtedly balk at some of my more, shall we say, idiosyncratic opinions voiced here. But then lists like these always reveal more about the people who compile them than the films themselves, don’t they? Just bear in my mind you are dealing with someone who reckons Domino is the best Bond girl, Donald Pleasence was an underwhelming Blofeld and would happily sit through umpteen screenings of the 1967 Casino Royale but would sooner chew off my own arm than revisit A View to a Kill.

So where better to kick things off than with the absolute rock bottom, dig a hole and bury it nadir of the series: A View to a Kill (1985) directed by John Glen. No Bond film is unwatchable but by heck, they sure tried with this dog’s mess. At around one hundred and eighty-six years too old for the role, poor Roger Moore appears visibly queasy, adrift amidst a sea of lacklustre set-pieces, misjudged comedy (Bond snowboards to the Beach Boys’ California Girls? Really?) and a horrendous, Aaron Spelling-afflicted ambience that seems as if the Eighties threw up over James Bond. Christopher Walken gives it the full-tilt boogie as principal villain Max Zorin but Glen’s bland Bond-by-numbers styling glosses over the sheer peculiarity of a genetically engineered Nazi superman, former KGB, billionaire megalomaniac. Tanya Roberts is the most vapid Bond girl of all time, the film scandalously wastes the great Patrick Macnee (James Bond meets John Steed - how did they screw that up?) in a role any oddbod with an Equity card could play and - oh, god help us - Grace Jones is Eighties novelty casting at its worst. Armed with an outre fashion sense and a face frozen in a permanent sneer, Jones doesn’t act, she vogues through the entire film as if auditioning for America’s Next Top Androgynous Mannequin. Utter bilge and, lest we forget, the one where Walken sneaks up on Roberts... aboard a blimp. Think about that.

Next to last on the totem pole, a Bond film that isn’t bad so much as hopelessly vanilla. Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of Bond attracts a lot of undeserved flak but the producers did him no favours serving up the most lacklustre Bond debut ever. Admittedly, The Living Daylights (1987) directed by John Glen has one of the more appreciably complex plots in the series but be honest, does anyone remember anything about this forgettable film beyond Bond snowboarding on a cello? Drippiest Bond girl (Maryam D’Abo), dullest villain (Joe Don Baker was so nondescript he was able to return to the franchise as a different character without anyone noticing), worst Moneypenny by far (sorry Caroline Bliss), plus the embarrassment of Bond cosying up to the Taliban. On the plus side: great theme song from A-Ha, though sadly the experience of working with the Norwegian warblers proved enough to put the legendary John Barry off from scoring a Bond movie ever again. Boo and indeed hiss.

From a dull debut to a sorry send-off for arguably one of the finest, most underrated Bonds: Pierce Brosnan. For many fans, Die Another Day (2002) marked the nadir of the series. Never mind invisible cars - Toby Stephens as a maniacal North Korean spy transformed by plastic surgery ranks as the most implausible concept in Bond-dom. It is an amorphous mess of misconceived ideas but, speaking personally, one finds it impossible to resent the film that launched the sublime wonder that is Rosamund Pike. She is pure class as ice maiden Miranda Frost. Would that she had played Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough instead. Also clinging to the lower rungs is The Man with the Golden Gun (1975) which, in spite of its kitsch comic book appeal, is unsettlingly among the most brazenly misogynistic Bond films. Seriously, Bond’s treatment of the already-victimised Andrea played by two-time Bond girl Maud Adams is appalling. No film featuring smoking hot Britt Ekland in a bikini is a total loss, not to mention Christopher Lee as a three-nippled henchman with a name like a venereal disease carrying killer midget Hervé (“Look, boss! The plane, the plane!") Villechaize in a suitcase. But Moore is at his smarmiest and sadly the surrealistic approach that served director Guy Hamilton through three marvellous earlier films goes seriously awry here.

License to Kill (1989) directed by John Glen (do you notice a pattern developing here?) is a film I once felt compelled to shield from mud flung by Dalton detractors, but each new viewing renders its flaws increasingly obvious. A “hard-edged” Bond is a good idea in principle but proves sheer window dressing without a solid script to back it up. After a strong set-up the plot collapses with shocking ease. Points for effort include Dalton’s strongest performance as Bond armed with intriguing psychological motivation for his revenge, harking back to a key film in the canon. While not always palatable, the numerous grisly deaths are certainly memorable. Talisa Soto may as well have been an inflatable doll but Carey Lowell is among the best Bond girls, gutsy and resourceful. And Gladys Knight’s theme song is up there with Shirley Bassey at her brassiest. A cut above is the colourful camp of Octopussy (1983) also directed by John Glen. It is a surprisingly fun romp with a complex plot belying the sub-Carry On level humour (what else would you expect, given that title?), though by this point Bond bore an unsettling resemblance to Jeffrey Archer.

Here’s where we get controversial: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) directed by Peter Hunt. Yeah, I know, legions of Fleming purists rate this the best Bond ever yet their admiration stems from that gut-wrenching final scene. It is undeniably powerful yet for the bulk of the film the walking charisma vacuum that is George Lazenby saps all credibility out of the central love story and that is a BIG problem. Blofeld’s plan for world domination is among the silliest ever conceived and the filmmakers don’t bother to explain why he and Bond don’t recognise each other. Sure, it’s because they filmed the books out of order but that’s no excuse for sloppy storytelling. Good points: Peter Hunt, already one of the unsung heroes of the Bond franchise as editor, proved himself an outstanding action director. The ski chase was the best ever filmed, the prototype for every ski chase that followed (and by heck, them Bond producers sure love a ski chase!). Diana Rigg delivered what stood as the greatest acting performance in a Bond film for more than three decades. Both John Barry’s score and Louis Armstrong’s vocals are sublime.

Proving I don’t have it in for John Glen, For Your Eyes Only (1981) climbs ever higher in my estimation with each viewing. Roger Moore’s grittiest Bond film - despite a handful of woefully misjudged camp moments (namely that coda with Faith Brown as Maggie T) - features terrific stunt sequences staged by mayhem maestros Vic Armstrong and Remy Julienne and that kinky speedboat sequence with Carol Bouquet (is it just me?) Two questions though: 1) what is the point of Bibi? 2) why the hell does Blofeld offer Bond “a delicatessen in stainless steel?”

Seemingly omnipresent on television these days, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) directed by Roger Donaldson (the man behind Turner & Hooch!) represents the Bond formula at its most well-oiled. Formulaic yeah, but armed with an exuberant turn from Pierce Brosnan, it breezes along fantastically well, only slightly hampered by the outrageous hamming of Jonathan Pryce. The most annoying Bond villain ever. Vincent Schiavelli compensates with his all-too-brief, pitch perfect turn as scholarly assassin Dr. Kaufman. And don’t let anyone convince you that David Arnold/k.d. Lang theme song is a worthy replacement for the sublime one by Sheryl Crow. Next up, a film that draws a fair amount of hate but instills warm and fuzzy feelings for me: Moonraker (1979) directed by Lewis Gilbert. Yes it’s silly, it’s childish, but in an entertaining way damn it! Plus it has Roger Moore’s finest bit of acting in that scene where the astronaut training module goes awry. Beautiful cinematography, mind-blowing set-pieces, deliciously dry villainy served up by the superb Michael Lonsdale and Lois Chiles is actually a kick-ass Bond girl, though sadly fails to appear in the skimpy space costume featured on the poster. Boo! The less said about Jaws the better. Features arguably John Barry’s loveliest score but Bassey’s vocals are the stuff nightmares are made of. Yeah, I said it.

Which brings us to Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which features a cracking Bassey vocal. Yay, Connery’s back! Sure, it’s his weakest (official) Bond film but has so much to love. Bond goes Seventies and does Vegas in the most deliciously twisted, kinky and strange manner possible. Gay hitmen, fake moon landings, Bond racing a moon buggy across the Nevada desert. Guy Hamilton turns the whole thing into a surreal fever dream. Every incident evokes a “did that just happen?” Charles Gray proves an imposing Blofeld while the film has a terrific Bond girl in Jill St. John, especially in that flimsy little nothing she’s almost wearing. Having said that it is a shame her hitherto smart and sassy character reverts to “hapless female” mode throughout the lacklustre climax, but it’s a rip-roaring ride while it lasts. Number twelve on my list would be Dr. No (1962) directed by Terence Young, ranked lower than the rest solely because subsequent entries honed its ingredients to perfection. Nevertheless, without Dr. No we’d be nowhere. It is easy to forget how outstanding this was for its time, starting out in just-about-feasible espionage territory and concluding somewhere south of Fu Manchu meets The Island of Doctor Moreau. Sean Connery IS James Bond! Ursula Andress IS the archetypal Bond girl. Not simply a scantily-clad sex kitten, Honey Ryder is this amazing, semi-feral Amazonian nymphet. That’s such an appealingly pulpy concept.

At number eleven, a film that has become the franchise’s inexplicable whipping boy. Unjustly maligned, Quantum of Solace (2008) directed by Marc Forster is an adrenaline-packed thrill ride and, arguably, the most experimental Bond film. The narrative structure ingeniously mirrors its protagonist’s fractured state of mind, fuelled by rage, incomprehension and a desperate need for validation. Sure it criminally wastes Gemma Arterton - something Barbara Broccoli herself acknowledged - but everything else is aces. Put simply, and at the risk of sounding juvenile, if you hate QoS - you’re a jerk. Next up, The World is Not Enough (1999) directed by the ever-mercurial Michael Apted. Best pre-credit sequence ever (at least till recently...). Pierce Brosnan at his most assured, great gags, terrific set-pieces, a fine swansong for the peerless Desmond Llewelyn. Can you believe they took this long to introduce a female Bond villain? Sophie Marceau made it worth the wait as an intriguingly unhinged character. But oh, granted this is a personal fantasy, but if only Rosamund Pike had played Christmas Jones. Think about it, that character would have been so much more memorable as posh English totty than shrill Californian non-entity. Sorry, Ms. Richards. If it’s any consolation you were great in Wild Things.

Which brings us to Live and Let Die (1973) directed by good old Guy Hamilton. Often thought of as Bond does blaxploitation when it is actually the closest the series ever came to a horror film. Right from the nightmarish Maurice Binder title sequence scored by Paul McCartney and Wings, this film is mind-blowingly weird, quirky and unsettling. What is up with Baron Samedi? Best Bond villain death. Best thing Jane Seymour has ever done. Roger Moore at his most dashing. “Sheer magnetism, darling.” And so on to The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) directed by Lewis Gilbert, which will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who grew up with Moore as our Bond. Aside from one annoying scene where Bond just sits there making quip after quip while Jaw’s destroys Anya’s car rather than, y’know, doing anything bloody useful - this film is pure class all the way. Curt Jurgens might not be the best Bond villain but he had far and away the most awesome base. Outstanding sets, phenomenal locations, gorgeous cinematography by Claude Renoir and, oh jeez, Bond girl overload! Barbara Bach, Valerie Leon, a b-b-bikini clad Caroline Munro. Admittedly the future Mrs. Ringo Starr is a lot blander than you remember in what should be a phenomenal role, but she’s not bad. And Munro steals the honour of sexiest Bond moment with a wink.

Personally, I find it impossible to separate Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965). These are the quintessential Bond films and encapsulate everything great about the franchise. Hell, everyone loves Goldfinger. Sure, the Tilly Masterson sub-plot is almost wholly superfluous but - who cares! - it’s freakin’ Goldfinger! Great scene follows great scene under the super-stylish handling of Guy Hamilton. It as close to perfection as Bond films get. But let me make a case for Terence Young’s Thunderball. Always my go-to Bond for sheer thrill-packed entertainment. Connery exudes cool. Claudine Auger exudes sensuality as scandalously underrated, go-getting action gal Domino. How on earth do these two hold their breath during underwater sex? The climactic scuba battle divides opinion, but for my money provides eye-catching spectacle. Titian-haired siren Luciana Paluzzi is a fantastic femme fatale - her sparring with Bond is some of the series’ finest. One niggling annoyance, though: who the heck is that turncoat aboard the Disco Volante at the end? He just appears then disappears! Never mind. Did I mention Claudine Auger?

People too often forget what a sterling job Goldeneye (1995) did bringing Bond back in a big way, effortlessly negotiating all the cultural shifts from his six year absence and even making this a sub-plot. It is remarkable enough to pull this trick off once, let alone twice as Martin Campbell did eleven years later. Much like Brosnan’s Bond, Goldeneye exudes panache with a sharp, witty script, a great casting firing on all cylinders, and a tank chase through St. Petersburg that ranks among the greatest action sequences of all time. Only a notch higher in the suaveness stakes would be From Russia with Love (1963), most beloved Bond among Fleming purists. Arguably the most polished of all vintage Bonds and also the one series entry that stands toe-to-toe with the best of Hitchcock. Yet it’s the far frothier, loopier You Only Live Twice (1967) that ranks as my personal favourite Connery Bond. As scripted by Roald Dahl, it is a science fiction movie rather than strictly a Bond movie. For sheer unbridled spectacle this one delivers on a scale grander than any before or since: spaceships, ninjas, SPECTRE, killer piranhas, gyrocopter chases, the greatest supervillain base of all time in a freakin’ volcano, Mie Hama breaking outdated Oriental stereotypes as a dynamic Bond girl albeit running around looking yummy in a itsy-bitsy bikini. Best Bond theme song, best climactic battle.

And so at last we reach what are, in my opinion, the two finest Bond films to date. Maybe these won’t surprise too many people, but the fact remains Skyfall (2012) directed by Sam Mendes is awesome on so many levels. The most shocking, psychologically probing, ultimately uplifting Bond film yet made. A film that challenges the very notion of Bond’s existence and relevance in modern times yet finally reaffirms the value of good, old fashioned, resolute British heroism in the twenty-first century. And Casino Royale (2006). The one with the X factor, the one packing the biggest emotional wallop. Martin Campbell has viewers riveted on the edge of our seats throughout the entire running time. These films are Bond as great cinema, Bond as art.

So there you go. Oh, and if you’re wondering about “unofficial” Bond, Never Say Never Again (1983) directed by Irvin Kirshner and produced by Eon Productions' own personal Blofeld, Kevin McClory... I’d rank that somewhere between Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only. Even a rugged-up, love-handled Connery kicks ass. Or should that be “arsh”? And I for one cannot get enough of the 1967 Casino Royale which exists in its own loopy universe, impossible to judge besides others. One parting thought: had ’67 Royale’s Barbara Bouchet played Miss Moneypenny in the official Bond films, would Connery’s Bond have ever left the office? Here’s to the next fifty years!

Author: Andrew Pragasam

 

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