LICENCE TO THRILL: Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No
(All photos MGM/Fox unless noted otherwise)
For ample lists about everything 007, including Best Theme Songs, Best Villains, Best Character Names and more, see related sidebar.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond movie, but before I’m accused of being a day late and a pound short, let me state that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary for U.S. audiences.
While the premiere entry in the 007 series, Dr. No, debuted in the U.K. in October 1962, it didn’t reach the rest of the world until 1963 (it landed on U.S. shores that May). So while the theatrical debut last November of Skyfall gave every publication and website permission to clog the newsstands and the Internet with rankings of the 23 entries in the franchise, that historic tidbit — to say nothing of this week’s debut of Skyfall on Blu-ray and DVD — allows me an equally opportune moment to offer rankings of all 25 movies in the popular series.
Why the two-title discrepancy? Simple: Although there have been 23 official James Bond outings, there have also been two movies made by other hands and not included in the accepted canon. But since we tend to be completists around here, both works — 1967’s Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again — are positioned accordingly in the following list, which starts at the bottom and shoots to number one with a bullet.
25. TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997). The four lowest-ranked movies on this list all competed for this barrel-bottom-scraping spot, but in the end, this Pierce Brosnan entry — in which 007 basically squares off against Rupert Murdoch (a TV magnate played by Jonathan Pryce) — earns the designation as the worst of the entire series. Bond movies have been campy, they’ve been overblown, they’ve been absurd, but Tomorrow Never Dies manages what always seemed impossible: It makes a Bond movie boring.
24. A VIEW TO A KILL (1985). A wheezing Roger Moore makes his swan song in this poor entry that features a killer Duran Duran theme song but strikes out in nearly every other regard: a terrible heroine (the vapid Tonya Roberts, the last and least of Charlie’s Angels), a weak villain (a hammy and ineffectual Christopher Walken) and a laughable plot (microchips in peril! How exciting!). David Bowie had the good sense to turn down the Walken role (“It was simply a terrible script,” he stated); too bad everyone else pressed on.
23. CASINO ROYALE (1967). David Niven plays James Bond, Peter Sellers plays a Bond imposter and Woody Allen (stealing the show) plays 007’s nephew Jimmy Bond in this tone-deaf spoof that was released the same year as the official series entry You Only Live Twice. This troubled production wastes an awful lot of talent; for those wanting to compare the casting to the Daniel Craig version, Orson Welles portrays the villainous Le Chiffre while a post-Dr. No Ursula Andress tackles Vesper Lynd.
22. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999). There are a few things to like about this generally lackluster Brosnan entry, including the poignant final appearance of Desmond Llewelyn, who had played MI6 gadget creator Q in 17 films, and the second (after GoldenEye) and final appearance of Robbie Coltrane, a treat as Russian mobster Zukovsky. But all goodwill evaporates when placed alongside the presence of Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist partial to midriff-baring outfits and wretched line deliveries. It leads to one of Bond’s all-time worst sexual puns: “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.”
21. LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). Moore’s first effort as 007 finds him clumsily filling Sean Connery’s sizable shoes, but he’s not the biggest debit here. Instead, it’s the producers’ misguided effort to get with the times by making a blaxploitation romp as much as a Bond flick, a move that now falls embarrassingly flat. Additionally, this introduces the worst — I repeat, worst — character to be found in any Bond movie: J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a good ole boy sheriff whose grotesque scenery-chewing makes Jackie Gleason’s later work as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit look comatose by comparison.
20. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974). Moore’s second try in the part finds him again partnering with Sheriff J.W. Pepper, which automatically knocks this movie down a peg or 20. While this overall ranks as a middling entry, it admittedly features one of the best villains: the world-class assassin Scaramanga, played to perfection by Christopher Lee. It also features one of my favorite character names: Nick Nack, Scaramanga’s assistant (Fantasy Island‘s Hervé Villechaize).
19. THUNDERBALL (1965). Until 1979’s Moonraker, this blockbuster was the most successful Bond film at the box office, and when adjusted for inflation, it stands at number one. So consider it my pick for the most overrated movie in the franchise. Of course, it’s not without its merits — starting with the presence of Connery, the best Bond of all — but as SPECTRE mastermind Emilio Largo, Adolfo Celi is ludicrously miscast, looking as if he would rather be inhaling a plate of spaghetti than threatening the world with stolen nuclear warheads. And the climactic underwater skirmish goes on forever.
18. GOLDENEYE (1995). After six years of legal travails, the Bond series finally started back up with Brosnan taking over the role from the short-lived Timothy Dalton. This one’s a fairly decent adventure, with Brosnan more in the dapper Roger Moore mold than the tough Connery-Dalton vein. The best bit of casting is Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, who equates sex and death more than any other Bond character.
17. DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002). This is the first of three movies on this list which I maintain aren’t nearly as bad as their reputations (the others being Moonraker and Quantum of Solace). DAD is actually my favorite of the four Brosnan vehicles, with the actor finally appearing completely at ease in the iconic part. There are some cringe-worthy moments — the invisible car, the tidal wave parasailing, and the lame double entendres with Jinx (Halle Berry) — but the pre-credits sequence is smashing and the supporting characters (including Rosamund Pike in her film debut as the aptly named Miranda Frost) make up a strong assortment.
16. MOONRAKER (1979). This gets frequently lambasted for its producers’ decision to snag some of those Star Wars dollars by putting the secret agent in outer space. Yes, the final half-hour — with laser battles among astronauts outside a space station — is utterly ridiculous, but the earthbound portion has much to recommend it. The fine French actor Michael Lonsdale is both elegant and menacing as master villain Hugo Drax, The Spy Who Loved Me‘s popular character of Jaws (Richard Kiel) returns to again tangle with Bond (Moore), and the use of the exotic locales (Venice, Rio de Janeiro) is inspired. But did we really need that pigeon performing a double take?
15. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971). Connery was offered a then-record 1.25 million dollars to return to the series after bailing on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It would be his final appearance in the official series, and he goes out in style by once again battling SPECTRE’s Blofeld (Charles Gray), dallying with imaginatively named beauties (Jill St. John as Tiffany Case and Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole) and contending with villainous henchmen (the gay couple Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, played by Putter Smith and Bruce Glover).
14. QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). Casino Royale was a spectacular return to form, so it’s not wholly unexpected that this follow-up has been tagged by some as one of the low points of the franchise. Nonsense. While it doesn’t possess the depth of Casino Royale, it still offers Daniel Craig as a top-tier Bond, and its nods to topicality are clever — I especially like how the CIA, which has helped Bond plenty of times in the past, here is hell-bent on stopping him, since American interests are better served by aiding the villain rather than the hero.
13. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983). After swearing to never play Bond again, Connery returned for this movie that is not part of the official oeuvre. Producer Kevin McClory owned the rights to Thunderball and nothing else, so this is basically Thunderball under a new moniker. It trumps its predecessor in most regards: The script gets a lot of mileage out of cracks involving Bond’s advancing age, Kim Basinger shows early promise as the innocent Domino, and Klaus Maria Brandauer is flat-out terrific as the volatile Largo.
12. OCTOPUSSY (1983). It’s time for a confession: I’ve seen the Bond movies countless times over the years, and this title above all is the one that fluctuates the most from one viewing to the next. Louis Jourdan’s villain is only slightly less campy than his evildoer in Swamp Thing, and let’s not forget that this is the film that dares to put Moore’s Bond in clown costume and makeup. At the same time, the film’s willingness to play around with the tried-and-true formula should be commended, and aside from Jourdan, the bad guys here are choice — love that guy with the yo-yo buzz saw!
11. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). This one’s a lot of fun, even if the sight of Connery pretending to be Japanese merits an involuntary wince/giggle. With a script by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, this features the definitive screen Blofeld in Donald Pleasence, whose portrayal inspired the Dr. Evil character in the Austin Powers trilogy. Bond gets killed (sort of); Bond gets married (sort of); Bond falls into a volcano (sort of); and Bond mixes it up with ninjas (definitely). Added bonus: Nancy Sinatra’s lovely title song.
10. LICENCE TO KILL (1989). After the smirky Roger Moore years, Timothy Dalton brought a welcome sense of danger back to the series. This was the second of his two outings, and even more than last year’s Skyfall, it qualifies as the most personal 007 adventure, with the agent seeking revenge against those who harmed his friends. Even the presence of Wayne Newton (as a slimy evangelist) can’t prevent this from being the most brutal film from the pre-Daniel Craig era.
9. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987). Dalton’s series debut is classic Cold War Bond, with the agent involved in a complicated plot involving a defecting Soviet general (Jeroen Krabbé) and a beautiful cellist (Maryam d’Abo) who may also be a seasoned assassin. From that grabber of an opening (with double-oh agents getting picked off left and right) to a terrific aerial sequence (who knew a shoelace could be so important?), this is grade-A spy stuff.
8. DR. NO (1962). The first movie to feature Ian Fleming’s iconic secret agent seems almost quaint when compared to the pictures that followed, but that’s hardly meant as a knock. While there are no fancy gadgets, souped-up cars or flying jet-packs, there is a gripping thriller in which Bond, James Bond (Connery) investigates the disappearance of a fellow agent and winds up tangling with a scientist (Joseph Wiseman) plotting to take down the U.S. space program. As Honey Ryder, Ursula Andress patented the concept of the Bond babe.
7. SKYFALL (2012). The latest chapter immediately vaults into the Top 10 by doing so much right: It humanizes Judi Dench’s M, offers a great villain in Javier Bardem’s fey and philosophical Silva, provides Craig’s Bond with some interesting backstory and refashions old characters in new ways. It’s also the first film to teasingly suggest that 007 might swing both ways — a definite sign of progress, given the franchise’s storied hyper-masculinity.
6. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963). Connery’s favorite Bond movie is based on John F. Kennedy’s favorite Bond book, and who are we to argue with their tastes? The second movie in the series slowly introduces more gizmos to the template, but the story still takes precedent, with Bond trying to keep a decoder out of the hands of nefarious SPECTRE spooks. It’s hard to ascertain who’s more lethal: Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), with those poison-tipped shoes, or Red Grant (Robert Shaw), with that hulking frame (and blinding peroxide hair).
5. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). Not to pick on George Lazenby, but while he’s far from a disaster as 007, it only took his sole appearance here to expose him as the weakest of all actors essaying the role. Fortunately, the film surrounding him is one of the best, with the agent once again finding a formidable opponent in Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and finally finding a formidable companion in Countess Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). You won’t find a more tragic ending in any Bond flick.
4. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). After the out-there shenanigans of Moonraker, the series literally came back to earth for this often underrated entry that takes Bond back to the basics of espionage. The scripting is strong in this Moore episode, complete with a nifty plot twist, stunning action set-pieces and one of the best heroines in the crossbow-wielding Melina (Carole Bouquet). And while many have bristled at the character of the Bond-smitten Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson), I love that 007 has finally met a woman he considers too young even for him.
3. CASINO ROYALE (2006). By going back to when Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill, the series rescued itself from possible irrelevancy in this new Bourne world. As intensely played by Craig, this 007 isn’t a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a rough-hewn bruiser who can still fill out a tux quite nicely. That opening parkour (aka freerunning) sequence stands among the all-time best Bond action sequences, with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd similarly making the grade as among the franchise’s most fascinating characters.
2. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). In the official series, Moore portrayed Bond more than any other actor (seven times) — initially too awkward and eventually too old, he was just fine in the middle entries, the best of which is this outstanding effort that employed the tagline, “It’s the BIGGEST. It’s the BEST. It’s BOND. And B-E-Y-O-N-D.” There are too many highlights to rattle off, but among them are Barbara Bach’s luscious turn as Russian spy Anya Amasova (aka Agent XXX); Richard Kiel’s imposing presence as the steel-toothed Jaws; Carly Simon’s series-best theme song, “Nobody Does It Better”; the spectacular underwater lair created by franchise veteran Ken Adam; and an incredible pre-credits sequence involving skis, a cliff and a Union Jack parachute.
1. GOLDFINGER (1964). It’s the easy choice. The obvious choice. The safe choice. It’s also the best choice, a no-brainer. Everything that’s great about the James Bond collection can be found in this movie. The best 007, hands down (Connery). A superb master villain in Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). A dangerous henchman in the bowler-chucking Oddjob (Harold Sakata). An alluring and brainy beauty in Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). A knockout theme song (performed by Shirley Bassey). Iconic images (including the sight of a gold-plated Shirley Eaton). And the best snatch of dialogue in all 25 movies: “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”