It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since my son and I went to a preview screening of Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually,” featuring just about every British actor working at the time.
Colin Firth. Liam Neeson. Bill Nighy. Emma Thompson. Keira Knightley. Martin Freeman. Andrew Lincoln. Hugh Grant. Alan Rickman.
Plus a nice turn by an American, Laura Linney. What a cast!
My son and I both were charmed by the movie; however, a couple of friends who went with us to the screening didn’t like it as much.
Ultimately, the moviegoing audience at large seemed to agree with us, though.
Since then, the film has become a cable/satellite staple, and certain scenes in it are now oft-used pop culture memes (I’m thinking of Hugh Grant’s dancing prime minister and, especially, the bit with the “To me, you are perfect” sign at the door).
Watching this film over and over is a holiday tradition for my daughter and me.
It’s funny, sad and, ultimately, very life-affirming.
The return of James Bond to movie screens seems a bit up in the air right now, as creative differences have delayed production of the 25th official 007 movie. But, that hasn’t stopped the venerable British superspy from being ubiquitous over the past few weeks.
First, in mid-August, there was another brief media flare-up of the rumor that Idris Elba will become the first black Bond after the next film, which many expect to be Daniel Craig’s last as Agent 007. Elba first teased Bond fans by tweeting, “my names Elba, Idris Elba,” before later denying he’s been approached about the role.
About a week later, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, who’d come on board after Sam Mendes declined to do a third consecutive 007 movie, announced he was quitting the latest production, apparently because of “creative differences” with the star and producers. That’s likely to push “Bond 25” (the working title) back to 2020, rather than the fall of 2019 release originally planned.
And, then, as if that weren’t enough to get Bond fans shaken and stirred, the Starz Encore Action satellite-cable channel decided to show James Bond movies 24/7 all this month, which has allowed me to revisit some old favorites, as well as a few that aren’t exactly classics.
All of that, plus the Guardian publishing a ranking of Bond movies that I disagreed withquite a bit, prompted me finally to undertake my own such list, covering the 24 official films released so far by Eon Productions and the two unofficial movies based on Ian Fleming’s character that resulted from Eon not controlling all the screen rights to the tales.
I begin my worst-to-first list with one of those renegade Bond movies …
“Casino Royale” (1967)
The screen rights to Fleming’s first Bond story were sold off long before he made his deal for the official series, and the result was this bloated attempt at spoofing the ’60s spy craze that the real Bond films had started. With almost as many directors as there were stars (including Woody Allen, Orson Welles and David Niven as the retired “Sir James Bond”), this was an unfunny mess. Best thing about the film was the music by Burt Bacharach, including the zippy hit theme song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,and what I consider one of the finest movie songs of all time: “The Look of Love,” sung by Dusty Springfield, with Alpert adding one of the sexiest trumpet solos ever.
“Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)
Original movie Bond Sean Connery had quit the series after his fifth outing, but he was lured back by a big paycheck after his replacement decided one film as 007 was enough. Unfortunately, Connery’s return was the worst of the official films, a smug, campy effort that morphed from a diamond-smuggling tale into yet another bid by white cat-stroking supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld to extort the world. It suffered from too many Bondian one-liners, a terribly cast female lead (Jill St. John), an irritating subplot with a couple of inept gay assassins (as it was smirkily implied), and a setting in ugly, charmless Las Vegas. The film hasn’t aged well, aside from the theme song sung by Bond perennial Shirley Bassey.
“A View to a Kill” (1985)
This was the seventh and final go-round for the third 007, Roger Moore. By this point, Moore was way too old for the role, which made his love scenes with the Bond “girls” kind of icky. The first half hour started out promisingly, like an old-fashioned spy tale, featuring a favorite of mine, Patrick Macnee (“The Avengers”), as Bond’s sidekick. But, Macnee’s character quickly got killed off, and the film descended into a charmless mess with a wooden Christopher Walken as a thoroughly unconvincing criminal mastermind, freaky-looking Grace Jones as his henchwoman, and one of Charlie’s latterday Angels, Tanya Roberts, showing why she never should have taken up acting.
“Never Say Never Again” (1983)
“Diamonds Are Forever” should have been it for Connery as James Bond, and the title of this film comes from his supposed vow never to play the spy again. Unfortunately, against his better judgment, Connery signed on for this unofficial 18-years-later Brand X remake of “Thunderball,” which resulted from the legal settlement of a dispute over rights to the original story. While Klaus Maria Brandauer was promising as a Bond villain, the romantic pairing of the aging Connery and my high school classmate Kim Basinger, who was 23 years his junior, was positively creepy. Plus, Bond’s boss M was played as an uppercrust twit by Edward Fox (doing his King Edward VIII impression), and the film couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be spoofy or serious.
Even though he’d do one more Bond film after this one, Moore already was aging out of the role when he undertook this silly late-Cold War tale involving a troupe of female acrobats/smugglers based in India who are led by film’s provocatively named titular character (played by Maud Adams). There’s also a rogue Soviet general (Steven Berkoff), a smarmy Afghan prince (Louis Jourdan), some phony Faberge eggs and a nuclear bomb. The fact that the climax features Bond in circus clown makeup and floppy shoes says it all.
Attempting to jump on the “Star Wars” bandwagon, this slow-moving film revolved around the theft of a space shuttle by possibly the most boring Bond villain ever (played in a monotone by Michael Lonsdale). It also saw the return of the seemingly indestructible steel-toothed henchman Jaws (played by Richard Kiel), who had been introduced in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” The climactic outer space laser battle between the bad guys and a bunch of astronaut-Marines (SPACE FORCE!!) is rather cartoonish, but there’s a nifty skydiving chase sequence earlier. The theme song sung by Bond favorite Shirley Bassey is quite forgettable.
“Licence to Kill” (1989)
When Welsh-born Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton took over the role of 007 from Moore, I applauded the intention he and the producers expressed of taking Bond back to his roots, with a more serious and contemporary approach. Even more than in Dalton’s first outing (“The Living Daylights”), the result in his second film is a pretty grim tale torn from the headlines, about a South American drug lord and 007 going rogue on a mission of revenge with the help of Q (Desmond Llewellyn in his largest Bond movie part). The problem isn’t Dalton’s darker portrayal, as much as it is the serious tone and more graphic violence is not leavened by any moviemaking flair or wit. Film buffs should watch for a young Benicio del Toro as a henchman.
“The World Is Not Enough” (1999)
Generally speaking, you can be sure that a Bond film will feature a chase or two (or three), quite frequently on either snow or water. The speedboat chase in the third of Pierce Brosnan’s four Bond films is a good one (and on the River Thames!), and there’s a skiing chase as well. Brosnan aimed somewhere in between Connery’s sexy brute and Moore’s debonair charmer in his Bond portrayal, and he generally succeeded. But, this one is kind of tough to follow early on (with a particularly convoluted plot featuring multiple villains and a double-cross). Best thing about it is Sophie Marceau as the woman Bond sets out to protect, before her true colors are revealed.
The first Bond film I ever was allowed to go see in a movie theater (as a 7th-grader), this is pretty garden-variety Connery-era Bond, with an international criminal organization stealing a couple of nuclear bombs, with which to hold the world to ransom. The underwater scenes were amazingly filmed, but they go on way too long. Both the villain (Adolfo Celi) and the love interest (Claudine Auger) had their voices dubbed by other actors in this OK-but-not-great outing for 007.
“Quantum of Solace” (2008)
Coming on the heels of Daniel Craig’s terrific 2006 debut as Bond in the hit remake of “Casino Royale,” this “sequel” (its story essentially picks up minutes after the conclusion of the previous film) wasn’t nearly as much of a fan favorite. Our daughter Olivia hated it, in fact, though Leslie and I both thought it was pretty good, though it paled in comparison with the first film. Part of the problem was the story, which revolved around control of water in Bolivia (not the sexiest of concepts). The title, which puzzled a lot of reviewers, was one of the handful of Fleming titles unused by the movie series — which Bond history buffs appreciated, if no one else did. (The remaining unused Fleming titles, unlikely ever to appear on a Bond film, are “Risico,” “The Hildebrand Rarity” and “The Property of a Lady.”)
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
George Lazenby’s sole appearance as Bond is a better film than many recall, with its chief shortcoming being the limited acting scope of the former model. (Lazenby’s voice was dubbed by another actor in the scenes where 007 goes undercover as a genealogist from the College of Arms.) Telly Savalas is a bit affected in his portrayal of villain Blofeld (the way he holds his cigarette is just plain silly), and the ski chase scenes aren’t among the Bond series’ best, but the film has more Bond Beauties than the usual 007 film, and Diana Rigg is a cut above the usual Bond female lead; 007 not only falls for her, he marries her! It’s no big spoiler that she ends up murdered as the happy couple head on their honeymoon, and I have to say that Lazenby does a nice job with the film’s heartbreaking ending. I very much doubt the much harder Bond played by Connery could have come across as vulnerable and sympathetic as Lazenby’s does in that final scene.
“The Living Daylights” (1987)
The debut of Timothy Dalton as Bond, this film represented a transition between the lighter mood of the Moore era and the more serious Dalton approach, and actually was written with Pierce Brosnan in mind. (Brosnan was offered the role but had to turn it down because he was contractually tied to NBC’s “Remington Steele.”) The producers dialed back the humor and, in the AIDS era, reduced the sexual body count, too. Dalton, who originally had turned down the role of 007 in 1971, still had to drop a few one-liners at key moments, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Still, they did have Bond and the lovely Maryam d’Abo (who did a nice job as the cellist love interest) tobogganing down a slope (in yet another ski chase) while sitting in her opened cello case!
“The Man With the Golden Gun” (1974)
This second of Moore’s Bond films isn’t as bad as some say, and it has one of the best 007 villains in Christopher Lee as million-dollar-per-hit professional assassin Francisco Scaramanga. His little sidekick, Nick Nack (played by Hervé Villechaize, who later was Tattoo on “Fantasy Island”) was suitably amusing/menacing, too. In a switch, the main “Bond girl” (as they still called them then), played by Britt Ekland, was the primary comic foil in the film. The problem was that much of the movie felt like a retread (including a cameo by the redneck sheriff from “Live and Let Die”), and the final “duel” between Scaramanga and Bond was a bit of a letdown. The theme song sung by Lulu is the worst-ever for a Bond film.
“For Your Eyes Only” (1981)
The last good Moore entry in the Bond series, this one has a wintry setting (so, naturally, ski chases!), a pretty good villain (Julian Glover) and a beautiful, but boring, heroine (Carole Bouquet). The film almost veers into pervy territory with former figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson as a teenage skater determined to bed 007, but Bond thankfully sends her packing. Scottish singer Sheena Easton (who was a big deal at the time) makes the only on-screen appearance by the singer of a Bond theme song in the opening title sequence.
“Die Another Day” (2002)
This was Brosnan’s last Bond outing (he was let go by the producers for unclear reasons) and, contrary to what the Guardian thought, it’s mostly pretty good. Any film with Rosamund Pike (who plays the traitorous Miranda Frost) is worth viewing. Toby Stephens is a bit callow for a Bond villain, but has the sneer down pat (though the fact that he’s supposed to be a Korean who had plastic surgery is almost as ludicrous as the invisible car Q provides for Bond); and Halley Berry is entertaining as the American agent partnered with Bond. (Reaction to her character of Jinx was so positive that the producers considered launching a parallel spin-off series featuring her.) This was the only film where John Cleese of Monty Python fame took over the role of Q (after being introduced as the previous Q’s assistant in “The World Is Not Enough”). The North Korean opening to the story is pretty grim, but Iceland provides lots of breathtaking natural beauty. Worst things about the film are a cameo by a very wooden Madonna, and the monotonous techno-pop theme song she sings.
“Live and Let Die” (1973)
This one is notable for marking the beginning of the Roger Moore run as Bond, and for its hit theme song done by Paul McCartney and Wings.Shortly before I began writing this piece, I was contacted by a writer working on a book about the Bond movies who wanted to ask about the McCartney theme. The best story I gave him is that, when the recording’s producer, George Martin (who also did the score for the movie), presented the song to Harry Saltzman, the movie producer thought it was a demo and asked Martin, “Who are we going to get to sing it?” Saltzman was interested in Shirley Bassey or Thelma Houston. Martin told him, “That’s Paul McCartney,” and added that Paul would allow the song to be in the film only if Wings’ recording was used. Saltzman wisely agreed. McCartney still does the song onstage (with lots of lasers and explosions) and it’s easily his best-loved concert number. As for the movie itself, it began an unfortunate habit during the Moore era of the producers trying to cash in on a current movie craze. Here, they appropriated many dope dealer stereotypes and cliches from the then-popular “blaxploitation” films. Yaphet Kotto was the villain — the head of a Caribbean nation producing heroin, who also masqueraded as a ruthless Harlem drug lord called Mr. Big. The Louisiana speedboat chase is a classic (involving the redneck sheriff who’d return in “The Man With the Golden Gun”), and choreographer Geoffrey Holder is a lot of fun as the voodoo master of the dead, Baron Samedi. The film introduced Jane Seymour, who went on to much better things, but here mostly simpered and screamed. All in all, a fun Bond outing, if you ignore lines like “Kill the honky!”
This film brought 007 back to the big screen after a six-and-a-half-year hiatus caused by legal battles between the producers and MGM, during which Timothy Dalton either quit or was dropped (Dalton says the former, others say the latter). The first of Pierce Brosnan’s four films as Bond, it featured the return of the Aston Martin DB5 for the first time in 30 years, M becoming a woman (Judi Dench), and a box office reception that was considerably improved over the second Dalton film, passing the total box office gross of “Licence to Kill” in just the first week of release. Brosnan’s Bond was more intense than Moore’s, and more fun than Dalton’s. The main villain here was Sean Bean as the former 006, gone rogue and planning to use a satellite against London to cause a global financial meltdown. Alan Cumming was amusing as a narcissistic bad-guy computer programmer. Favorite line is when M sums Bond up as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” Also fun is the big chase scene, where Bond destroys half of St. Petersburg, Russia, in a tank.
Having regained the rights to the criminal organization Spectre and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Eon Productions decided to fill in the back story on the current Bond films starring Daniel Craig, explaining that all the events of the previous three Craig films had been instigated or orchestrated by Blofeld. Director Sam Mendes helmed his second consecutive Bond film with a sure hand (it became the second-highest grossing 007 film, after “Skyfall,” also directed by Mendes). Léa Seydoux was a fine Bond heroine, and Christoph Waltz was the best Blofeld ever, making the character much more than the stereotypical guy with the white cat. It turns out, he and Bond are sort of foster brothers. Best line: “It was me James. The author of all your pain.”
“You Only Live Twice” (1967)
This Bond adventure (written by famed novelist and short story writer Roald Dahl) was the first time we actually saw the ever-changing face of Blofeld, played here by Donald Pleasence. It’s the quintessential ’60s Bond film, with lots of gadgets (including a one-man helicopter) and the villain’s lair in a hollowed-out volcano. The plot (involving a plan to snatch spacecraft out of orbit and prompt a war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.) was overly familiar, but the Japanese setting for the film was dazzling, the best ever for a 007 film — although Bond “becoming” Japanese in order to take a wife and go undercover now seems more than a bit farfetched.
“The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977)
The best of the Roger Moore Bond flicks, and the first time 007 really met his match in a female character — Barbara Bach (before she was married to Ringo) as a Russian agent paired up with him on a case. German actor Curt Jurgens was a pretty good villain, and the Egyptian setting for much of the film was suitably exotic. Richard Kiel, in his first of two films as Jaws, proved you can’t keep a good Bond villain down. Ever. No matter how many tons of stuff you drop on him. The underwater car was memorable, and this film had one of the best and most popular theme songs, “Nobody Does It Better,” written by Marvin Hamlisch and sung by Carly Simon.
“Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)
This is the best of the Brosnan films, with Michelle Yeoh terrific as a high-kicking Chinese agent paired with Bond — who is every bit as capable as 007. (In fact, another spinoff series was proposed by the Bond producers with her character, Wai Lin, as its focus, but MGM pulled the plug on the project.) Jonathan Pryce overacts just a little, but still is great fun as a villainous media mogul quite obviously patterned after Rupert Murdoch. Not a bad theme song by Sheryl Crow.
“Dr. No” (1962)
This was the very first James Bond film, instantly elevating Sean Connery (previously known as the romantic lead in Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”) to global stardom. His was a hardboiled, ruthless Bond, a bit closer to the Fleming stories, as evidenced by putting an extra kill shot into a bad guy who already was down and out of bullets. The Jamaica setting was perfect for a story like this, Ursula Andress looked like a goddess rising up out of the surf in a white bikini (though her lines had to be dubbed by another actress), and Joseph Wiseman did a chilling job as the titular villain. This was also one of the more realistic ’60s Bond adventures — at least, until the end, where the template was set for the typical multistory Bond villain’s lair with nuclear reactors and lots of baddies in color-coordinated outfits. The opening music was the now-iconic “James Bond Theme” by Monty Norman,complete with the horns and twangy electric guitar riff; the other song most associated with the film is the calypso tune “Under the Mango Tree.”
The second-best Daniel Craig Bond film, with Javier Bardem as the villain, who’s out for revenge against M; Ben Whishaw introduced as gadgetmaster Q; and Naomie Harris as the new Moneypenny, who is a fellow MI6 agent (but decides at the end to retire from field work to become M’s assistant). The plot, involving the trendy subject of illegal surveillance, takes Bond back to the ruins of his childhood home in Scotland, where Judi Dench’s M winds up dying in his arms, in one of the Bond series’ more downbeat moments. The very good theme song, sung by Adele, was a smash hit. “Skyfall” earned $1.109 billion worldwide, making it the biggest Bond, and the highest-grossing film worldwide for Sony Pictures (which had bought longtime 007 distributor MGM-UA).
This is the film that made James Bond a true pop culture phenomenon, kicked off the mid-’60s spy craze, upped the tongue-in-cheek one-liner quotient for these films, made the Aston Martin DB5 and laser beams stars in their own right, and provided the model for most future 007 adventures. Germany’s Gert Frobe was the best of all Bond villains (even if his voice had to be dubbed by British actor Michael Collins), steel-rimmed-hat-throwing Oddjob was the first and perhaps best of the seemingly unstoppable henchmen, and even though her role was small, Shirley Eaton will live forever in film history as Goldfinger’s doomed secretary, who makes love to Bond and winds up painted gold and dead. The best line is part of an exchange between 007 and Goldfinger that probably everyone reading this already can recite: “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” The title song sung Shirley Bassey may not be the best of all Bond movie themes, but it certainly is the most iconic.
“Casino Royale” (2006)
The internet squall unleashed when Daniel Craig was announced as the new 007 — Gasp! He’s blonde! — seems kind of quaint now, in the wake of Craig being hailed as the best Bond since early Connery. The official Bond producers finally had obtained the rights to Fleming’s first 007 novel, and they decided to give the movie series a hard reboot, pretending all the events of the previous movies hadn’t taken place. We see Bond earning his license to kill and then embarking on an updated version of Fleming’s story, with high-stakes poker replacing baccarat. Craig is a Bond with a difference: gritty, lethal, and not one for clever quips — the anti-Roger Moore. In a nice twist, he rises from the surf at one point in an obvious reverse nod to the Ursula Andress scene in “Dr. No.” His relationship with Judi Dench’s M is contentious — “Bond, this may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand,” she sneers at one point. Eva Green is without a doubt the best female Bond companion ever, as the initially flinty Vesper Lynd, and flat-faced Mads Mikkelson makes a superb, believable villain as Le Chiffre, a banker for terrorists who’s been gambling with their money. The torture scene between him and 007 is extremely ballsy (literally) for a Bond movie. Vesper’s demise is the most affecting death in any 007 film. It’s only at the end of this box-office smash (and now satellite-cable TV perennial) that we hear that immortal self-introduction: “Bond, James Bond.”
“From Russia With Love” (1963)
Without a supervillain like Dr. No, the second 007 film was the most realistic of the series until the Craig era. The quips hadn’t yet gotten out of hand, and the gadgets were pretty much limited to a tricked-out attaché case. Largely set in Istanbul and on the famed Orient Express train, it’s more concerned with being a Hitchcockian spy thriller than a spectacle (the helicopter chasing Bond on foot is reminiscent of the crop duster sequence in “North by Northwest”). The story revolves around a plot by the criminal organization SPECTRE (all caps in those days) to get revenge on Bond for the death of Dr. No, while also playing the British and Soviet intelligence agencies against each other with a fake defection. Daniela Bianchi is an old-school, helpless Bond babe (whose lines were dubbed by another actress). However, Pedro Armendáriz is endearing as the Turkish spymaster helping Bond, and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant is terrific as a rough-hewn assassin out to kill 007. Their duel on the train is great stuff. We don’t see Blofeld’s face yet (just his hands and his cat), but Lotte Lenya is superb as his henchwoman, Rosa Klebb (she of the deadly pointed shoes). Yes, “From Russia With Love” very much feels like an early ’60s period piece now, but it remains a tense, believable spy thriller. And, my all-time favorite James Bond movie.