The Best of Bond — Ranking the Original 17 Films
What’s good, what’s great, and what sucked.
Ranking all the Bond flicks of the original EON Productions run, from Connery to Dalton.
Inspired by the current PlutoTV 24–007 Bond channel, and brain-addled from watching them non-stop for about 4–1/2 weeks now while reliving a whole lot of my tween/teenage years thru the eyes of a globetrotting British agent that we all thought was the coolest dude in cinema, I decided to tackle a ranking of the original run of Bond flicks, from the start up until they rebooted with Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig. Some of this was pretty easy, some of it was parsing details. All of it was fun.
edited to add the years of release to the movies
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
All of the key 007 hallmarks are here: exotic locations, high — but realistic — stakes, dynamic villains, multiple seductive women, and enough build-up in the intrigue that the full picture of the opposition isn’t slapping you in the face at the start. The battle scenes aren’t over-the-top cartoonish, but rather very realistic ones with handguns and motorcycles and the occasional stray crossbow. Is there some comic-book silliness? Yes. The ski-and-motorcycle-chase-in-a-bobsled-run is goofy, as is the ‘fight’ at the hockey rink. But those are small set pieces in a much larger narrative in which they are not essential parts of a story that cause it to unravel.
One of the best parts of this movie, though, is that the topic is so definitively English. It’s not shoe-horning in a English angle to an American-centric theme. It’s an English mission for an English agent on an issue of English security, that keeps Bond grounded in his English-ness. The theme song is one of the best 3–4 songs in the entire Bond pantheon. The opening scene at the cemetery, with the call back to the deceased Mrs Bond, is a great opening touch, too.
And honestly, while the start of Goldfinger is interest in the title character by the English government, this one very quickly turns into an American-centric story, despite early scenes in England and Geneva. Why is an MI6 agent taking the lead on a case involving Ft Knox? I get it — there’s cooperation between the agencies, and Bond is already on the inside, yadda yadda yadda. But Bond saving Ft Knox seems a little over-the-top. Meanwhile though, we’re back to the classic Bond formula where he gets the girl, the great toys, the two-part fight at the end with the big boss, and the globetrotting locales that provide a great pastiche for the story. Some folks think Shirley Bassey’s title track is the best Bond song, too. While I like others better, I won’t think less of you if you prefer this one.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Look, if you want to flip this one and Goldfinger, I’m not going to argue with you. I have Goldfinger slightly ahead for 2 reasons. First, the maturation of the “Bond formula” really settles in with Goldfinger, and is still developing here. Second, the pace of the performances is more settled in Goldfinger. There are times in From Russia With Love that the actors almost feel like they’re rushing through their lines to hurry and get to the next scene. This story is arguably better than the one above. As a movie, though, the combination of the awkward shoehorning in of the gypsy camp, the claustrophobic camera work on the train, and the punk-speed dialogue in places are enough to bump it out of #2 for me.
I feel like this one is consistently under-rated, and almost feel guilty for putting it so low(!) here. There are global high stakes, an excellent villain, a well-developed process for the bad guys’ plot, a storyline that solidly positions the happening as a matter of urgency for Her Majesty’s government, and — for the first time — a real sense of MI6 as a wider, grander organization than just Bond, his boss, and a long-term sexual harassment case. We got some glimpses of SPECTRE in Dr No and From Russia With Love, but in this one they feel like a legitimately threatening global force to be reckoned with. The villainous set pieces, like the sharks in the swimming pool, play well to the quirks of the villain without seeming too cartoonish. And bond handing Domino her shoes while she’s in the tub is peak scamp. The biggest drawback is that when you have a fight underwater, you can’t tell whose faces are behind the snorkel gear and its easy to lose track of who the good guys are.
Never Say Never Again (1983)
It’s impossible to separate this one from Thunderball, given the origin story of the underlying source material. The acting is top-notch. Klaus Brandauer as Largo is legitimately both brilliant and nuts. Kim Basinger as Domino is naïve but grows out of it in a hurry. Max von Sydow was made to play Bloefeld (and Ming, but that’s another article). Even Barbara Carrera chewing scenery as Fatima is deliciously entertaining. The all of the key points for Thunderball are present here, too, with SPECTRE as a legitimate global threat, and the plot to steal the nukes.
That said, while this is almost every way a superior iteration of the movie, you can’t help but notice everything that’s missing from the EON Productions toolbox: the theme song, the guitar riff, the background cast of M, Q, and Moneypenny (though in fairness, Edward Fox is a great M, just not the right M), the opening gun-barrel look, and all of those underlying touches that come from years of producing the films. Existing outside the ‘official’ Bond continuity is enough to drop it below the original on this list, but it’s splitting hairs.
Licence to Kill (1989)
Mean Bond is excellent Bond. Perhaps the closest on-screen analogue to novel-Bond until Daniel Craig came along, the second Dalton does a magnificent job of showing just how much of threat Bond can be when he sets his mind to it, and pulls out the skills in his considerable repertoire to ruin someone’s life. Robert Davi plays a note-perfect villain, and a very young Benecio Del Toro has a casual menace to him that works well as a henchman. Wayne Newton is a bit over-the-top, but you don’t cast Wayne Newton in the search for subtlety. The biggest drawbacks here are the stiff acting of Carey Lowell, who is normally much better than this, and the fact that we really only get one location for the story, the fictitious nation of Isthmus City. Yes, the Bond pantheon had already invented San Monique for Live & Let Die, but look, Isthmus City was Panama, so just call it Panama. And if Panama is offended by that, maybe don’t let a drug dealer run the country for 20 years.
Dr No (1962)
It’s unfortunate that some of these movies were filmed out of sequence from the books, because the death of Strangways, which sets off the events of Dr No, is less meaningful without having met him in an earlier story. Much like Licence to Kill, we’re not globetrotting here — we’re headed to the Caribbean and working on our tan for the whole movie. The lower ranking on this movie is not because of the missing parts of the “Bond formula” — it was still evolving from this starting point. It’s for a handful of other transgressions: yes, Strangways was a British agent whose death he’s looking into, but the problem Bond is trying to solve is an American one with the way Dr No is interfering with US rocket launches. The painfully bad acting of John Kitzmiller has not held up over time. And while the pseudo-colonial vibe of the British Caribbean is a great time-capsule of the early 1960s, some of the stereotyped portrayals of the population (superstitions about the “dragon”, the repetition of the song, the characterization of ignorant locals with purely physical gifts) have not aged well. Still, it’s tough to knock a story where Bond is resourceful and charming to equal degree, and Jack Lord as Leiter is a missed opportunity for a great recurring actor.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
I run completely contrary to most people on this one: George Lazenby was a good Bond; he wasn’t given a great script to work with (most people think the opposite is true). Telly Savalas was a mediocre Blofeld, and given the repeated Bond run-ins with Blofeld over the years, the treatment of them as complete strangers was quite silly, even if it is accurate for the book (which is what happens when you film them out of order).
No, overall this was a decidedly “blah” movie, with one exception: Diana Rigg was a go-go girl after everyone’s hearts. And while her espionage turn in The Avengers had typecast her as a worldly woman of derring-do before this movie, she stepped out of that role and into a much, much better one as the petulant, rebellious daughter of a mob boss who steals James Bond’s heart. Lazenby really sells it, too. This isn’t just Bond falling for the girl-du-jour to love ’em and leave ’em before the next flick. Bond is clearly far more deeply connected to Tracy than to any of his paramours before or after.
The romance saves this one, and that’s a weird thing to say about a Bond movie. But the rest of the script was pretty dull, and the acting lived up to it. Why is it this high? Ultimately, there really aren’t any fatal flaws like most of the movies below this one on the list. It’s just kind of…. there, but with a great love story on top of it.
The Living Daylights (1987)
Anglo-Russian cooperation against a fake defector and an out-of-control mercenary that are trying to ship opium out of Afghanistan while randomly killing intel agents of both sides and blaming it on a Stalin-era assassination program that somehow involves Mujahadeen fighters with perfect English? I mean, at that point Colonel Sanders and Dark Helmet both turn toward the camera and ask you “Got that?!” Truthfully, this one starts out perfectly fine, with a few agent deaths in the opening, and a defector that disappears, and Bond on the case. But once they get to Afghanistan, it’s off the rails and the story starts to plumb the depths of 70s-era Roger Moore absurdity.
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
I originally had this ranked much lower, but bumped it up for a couple of different reasons. First, we’re treated to Bond solving a Bond problem. A recurring critique of Bond flicks is that they shove the Brits into storylines that really belong to the Americans. That is completely not the case in this story. Bond is being hunted by a nut-job, and we get a taste of Beirut and Macau on our worldwide jaunt. Why is this so low, given that it seemingly checks all manner of important boxes to a quintessential Bond movie, and has Christopher Lee as the villain? The studio couldn’t just make a good Bond movie. They had to bolt on some silly nod to current events with a contraption to “solve” the “energy crisis”. They had to bring back JW Pepper, a character that never should’ve made it on screen in the first place. And Herve? Seriously?
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
There’s no reason for there to be a British submarine in this story other than they needed an excuse to put James Bond into the story. Are we really so naïve as an audience to think the US wouldn’t’ve sent the entire cast of Felix Leiters to investigate the disappearance of a couple of nuclear submarines? That we need Bond to bail out the two main superpowers? Look, it’s not a bad story — sub tracking tool on the black market, cooperation with the Russians, a couple of good exotic locales, first appearance of Jaws, and some fun car chases. But it’s one that feels like they shoehorned the Brits into it about as subtly as Barbara Bach shoehorned her accent into it.
This is one of the very few Bond flicks in which the Cold-War-goes-hot-in-Europe is even remotely under consideration, which is an odd thing to think about given the breadth of the Bond pantheon throughout the Cold War years. The underlying story of jewel smugglers being used as unwitting dupes for a nuclear “accident” isn’t a bad plot, either. Roger Moore was clearly on the downside of his Bond tenure, but he was trying hard to make it work. The rest of this movie, though, is complete dreck. From the wink-and-a-nudge title to the dreadful overacting by Steven Berkoff and Louis Jourdan to the silliness about the island of women to knife-throwing circus twins, it’s just writers trying to out-Bond each other, and ending up with a variety of set pieces in locales that don’t really match the needs of the story. Is it fun? Sure. Is it any good? Meh.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Kidd & Winn are prominent characters. That should be enough to warn you off. Sean Connery should’ve stayed away. Everyone should’ve stayed out of Las Vegas. And the idea of space-based lasers blowing up nukes should’ve stayed on the drawing board. Again, though, we’ve got a tale that starts off with a British agent tracking a British-connected story of diamond smuggling, and suddenly he’s in Las Vegas and the Americans are going to stay out of his way while he just tears up the town trying to chase down a reclusive American citizen? The best thing to come out of this movie was the inspiration for half of the first Austin Powers movie.
A View to a Kill (1985)
Again, we’ve got Bond injected into American-centric storyline, this time in Silicon Valley. I mean, seriously — the Americans wouldn’t give a crap if an ally discovered someone was trying to blow up half of their most prosperous state? Christopher Walken is a perfectly serviceable Bond villain, but the underlying cause-an-earthquake-in-California plot was already used back in the first Superman flick. Grace Jones as the femme fatale? Parachuting off the Eiffel Tower? Bond’s undercover turn as St John Smythe was amusing enough, but why was a top British agent sent to investigate horse racing in the first place? It was obvious that Roger Moore was going through the motions at this point. The song is a top 5 tune, though; Duran Duran gave the best performance of the entire movie, and their music video for the song was a better movie, too.
Bond drives a gondola car around St Mark’s Square in Venice, and there’s a laser-gunfight in space. Do you really need to ask what else is wrong with this movie?
Live and Let Die (1973)
In an era of blaxsploitation films, there’s no reason Bond couldn’t jump on the bandwagon. Roger Moore’s first turn at the helm has many things wrong with it, from racial stereotyping to, well, ethnic stereotyping. There’s voodoo-obsessed Carribean islanders and there’s bad-accent-and-chewing-tobacco Cajun sheriffs, in the bayou where absolutely no one was ever named Billy-Bob since the French moved in back in the 1600s. There’s bad mysticism, bad callbacks to earlier movies (Quarrel Jr? really?), and bad henchmen. Truthfully, the best thing about this story is that we’re finally leaving SPECTRE behind for a while. The overall plot wasn’t a bad story, but the moment you see a completely empty street in the New Orleans French Quarter during the opening montage, you know there’s going to be problems aplenty with this one. It’s a shame that this is one of the best theme songs, because the rest of the movie sets incredibly low expectations in the first 20 minutes and manages to live down to every one of them.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
It’s not just the worst Connery film. It’s the worst Bond film, and the gap between this and Live & Let Die is so wide it’s hard to truly encapsulate how bad it is. It is the ultimate patchwork quilt of domineering sexism (“In Japan, men always come first”), the cultural condescension of literally every Japanese stereotype (the ninja warrior training camp with dreadful swordfight choreography is particularly egregious), and an unhealthy fascination with helicopters still can’t distract you from the horrid voice overdubs, the impossibility of no one noticing a metal ‘lake’ in a volcano crater, or the barely-better-than-porn-actress opening assassination scene. It’s like the producers hired a bunch of b-movie kung fu stunt actors to make a Bond flick specifically to be lampooned by MST3K, and then MST3K turned them down because it was too bad even for them.
Overall, there’s 7 excellent movies here, 5 of them are the sort of filler you get on a double live album, and 5 that are just crap. As you might expect, the Connery era accounts for most of the good ones, but that’s not a function of his acting so much as it is a function of better stories — solid espionage tales that involve looking out for the best interests of Her Majesty’s government, and focus on Bond using a mixture of brains, charm, and muscle to succeed. Once the movies stray from that formula — one-dimensional caricatures masquerading as characters; idiotic, rather than practical, gadgets; ludicrous set-pieces that are little more than excuses for stunt coordinators to say “hold my beer”; and actors either chewing scenery like a b-movie convention or hurriedly going through the motions on their way to a payday — then the quality drops off fast. There’s a ‘formula’ for a great Bond flick that goes beyond the 2 romantic entanglements, Q with new gadgets, big-fight-followed-by-small-boss-fight, flirt with Moneypenny script requirements. There’s got to be a story underneath it all that is important enough for a top agent of MI6 to be assigned, but not so over-the-top that you need to launch a space shuttle of laser-marines to solve it.
Those are the best of the Bond stories, and they’re fantastic movies when the formula works.
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