Ranking the Bonds

EON Productions

Every so often, I do a Bond marathon. When I found myself single years ago, I collected all the Bonds on DVD. I was alone and on my own schedule. I could binge whatever I wanted.

A couple years ago, we attempted a movie night James Bond marathon, one every Sunday. At the time, that would have taken 24 weeks. We made it to The World Is Not Enough, which is impressive considering my stepsons were getting fatigued and my wife got incredibly bored.

More recently, I did a Bond marathon on my own in my office. Since it was just me, I included the “unofficial” Bonds: The 1954 and 1967 versions of Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. Of the three, Never is the only one that feels like a Bond film. That’s probably because Roger Moore was still Bond, and Connery came back for an updated version of Thunderball. Mind you, you can almost smell the cocaine that went into making both Never and Octopussy, this being 1983, but it was still fun. And Edward Fox’s M, which works in Connery’s movie, shows the wisdom of passing on promoting the Moore-era Tanner to M after Bernard Lee died.

But as expected, my rankings of Bond worst-to-first have changed. Some of this is the recent completion of Daniel Craig’s self-contained continuity. Other movies haven’t aged well. And then we have the ones that weren’t quite as good as I remembered. So, who gets the honor of going first by being last?

25. Octopussy

What an abysmally stupid movie. Bond in a clown suit? It has the murkiest plot of all the Bond films. Moore, who wanted to retire on top with For Your Eyes Only, looks embarrassed. Maude Adams is much better as the titular Octopussy than her turn in The Man With the Golden Gun, but the great Louis Jourdan is wasted as a mustache-twirling douchebag who should have had a bullet between the eyed before the story even began. He does, however, give one the the all-time great Bond villain lines ever: “Ah, Mr. Bond, you have a nasty habit of surviving.” (Coopted by Trace Beaulieu as Crow on a classic episode of MST3K.)

24. The Man With the Golden Gun

Beyond a doubt, this is the most boring Bond ever. Of the regular cast, Bernard Lee gets a great line, suggesting Bond’s would-be killer was a jealous husband or an infuriated tailor. Beyond that, the best way to watch this dumpster fire (in which American Motors got the product placement instead of Aston-Martin!) is to fast-forward to all the scenes with Christopher Lee or Herve Villaichez. Yes, Tattoo from Fantasy Island is an evil henchman.

And Lulu tries to be both Shirley Bassey and Paul McCartney with her theme song. Spoiler alert: She’s neither.

23. Die Another Day

This could have been the best Bond ever, in line with all of Craig’s Bond. But John Cleese’s sole turn as Q gives us an invisible car. The villain is unbelievable even for the silliest Bond movies, somehow becoming a Richard Branson clone in a single year. The ice palace might have worked if not for the villain and the invisible car, and they made horrible use of North Korean politics. But you get to see Halle Berry looking hot while being a kick-ass counterpart to Bond. So it has that going for it.

22. A View to a Kill

A Bond too far for Roger Moore and Lois Maxwell. A fair story made silly by a firetruck chase and Bond bedding Grace Jones, an otherwise terrific henchwoman. Christopher Walken is the scariest Bond villain, one who makes recurring Soviet spymaster General Gogol flinch. A middling story, it might have been better executed by Dalton or Brosnan, who already had been approached before. Duran Duran turns in one of the best themes. I used to rank this last, but it’s actually watchable. That’s the best I can say about it. Still, after Never Say Never Again, an aging Bond and Moneypenny should have been slipped into the dialog. Remember, Moore’s Bond is an older Connery/Lazenby Bond.

21. Moonraker

I sometimes would rank this last, but over the years, I’ve come to really hate Octopussy, The Man With the Golden Gun, and Die Another Day, in that order. They’re just terrible films. Moonraker is actually a decent remake of the more solid The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s a serviceable spy story with a “not Blofeld” villain and the return of Jaws, who is clearly having a blast as Bond’s archenemy.

Aaaaand then they go into space and have a laser battle. Yes, Star Wars was big, but there’s a fine line between Flash Gordon and Star Crash. And Moonraker wobbles on it.

20. You Only Live Twice

The details of the plot are quite inconsequential. Actually, this is the Bond on which all subsequent parodies are based. We finally see Blofeld’s face, Donald Pleasance with a dueling scar. Even the cat plays a bigger role. However, Bond’s Japanese disguise is pointless and cringeworthy even for 1967. It’s infinitely more watchable than that year’s unofficial Bond, Casino Royale, mainly because the 1967 Casino Royale doesn’t even look like Bond in either the books or the movies. But the kickass female agent is killed off to enrage Bond only to bring in a clone of her. It’s a mess. Not the biggest mess in the series, but a mess.

19. The World Is Not Enough

This came off as a thin adaptation of a really good Bond novel. And I don’t mean Raymond Benson’s adaptation either. Sophie Mareau goes from Bond girl to Bond villain. M starts getting her own subplots, a staple of the early Craig movies. Instead of SPECTRE, we get a very real-world antagonist to play Russia and the west against each other. How? Oil.

But then they cast Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist when she looks like she hasn’t even started her masters degree yet. And for the sole purpose of stripping out of that radiation suit and running around in shorts.

18. Diamonds Are Forever

It’s great seeing Connery back for one last hurrah (until Never Say Never Again.) Charles Gray remains favorite Blofeld. It’s not as ridiculous as You Only Live Twice, but still a bit silly compared to the first four movies. Gaudy with Jill St. John as Tiffany Case, everyone seems to know who James Bond is. Q starts getting some scenes of his own. And Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are cinema’s first high-profile gay couple whose hobby is… Murder! (OK, they wouldn’t fly today, and that line came from another franchise. Sorry.)

17. Tomorrow Never Dies

Underrated, mainly because fanboys complain that the villain is a Rupert Murdoch wannabe instead of Dr. Evil. Um… Have you watched Succession? Brian Cox’s roman a clef of Rupert Murdoch is one angora cat away from needing a death warrant from MI6 or the CIA. Terri Hatcher is annoying, but Jonathan Pryce is at his smarmy best as the British villain. Brosnan nails Bond. The film is missing Tanner, who was a welcome addition to the series, but Colin Salmon steps up as another aid to M. And Moneypenny gives as good as she gets from Bond.

Good, but not quite as good as the other sixteen, though I’m willing to argue with you whether Quantum is better.

16. Quantum of Solace

Let’s be honest. This is the bonus disc to the Casino Royale Blue Ray. Craig is awesome, but the story’s kind of murky. I’ve heard some say it’s Bond crying for 2 1/2 hours. Probably accurate, though the development of the dynamic between Judi Dench’s M and Craig’s Bond is a bonus. Still, this is filler in the Craig story arc.

15. Spectre

Christoph Waltz has a blast as the new Blofeld. The Spectre storyline is a bit jumbled. It glosses over the previous Quantum being a front for Spectre, but the backstory was unexpected. Originally, Blofeld was an angry displaced person from World War II getting even with the superpowers. Just say to yourself this is just a show. You should really just relax.

14. Doctor No

Sean Connery invents the movie James Bond. And he does it with such ease, you think he’d been doing it all his life. This and From Russia with Love draw more from the 1954 Casino Royale then any other movie. Bond is a working-class agent with a taste for the highlife. Not all the Bond tropes are in place yet, but that’s because they went for Hitchcock more than modern spy thriller. And it’s in the upper half of the list because all the Bonds that follow the books work the best.

13. The Living Daylights

Timothy Dalton turns in a decent post-Cold War thriller, not a bad lead in to Goldeneye, marred by the dull Robert Brown as M and an annoying Moneypenny. There’s nothing but a short story title tying this back to Fleming, but it does a far better job capturing the spirit of Fleming than the awful John Gardner novels of the day. The Cold War is ending, and rivals prove not necessarily enemies. Felix Leiter returns (played, of course, by another actor, a trope retired by Jeffrey Wright years later.) Dalton deftly puts away Moore’s light-hearted approach while keeping some of the humor.

12. No Time To Die

Daniel Craig’s Bond goes out in a blaze of glory and turns in the most gut-punching Bond since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Kept out of the Top 10 by it’s length, probably 30-45 minutes too long. Sam Smith’s slit wrist-inducing theme might have worked better here. The franchise picks up on Mission Impossible‘s team-focused story with Moneypenny as an active co-conspirator with Bond, Q playing a more active role, and Mallory (M) embroiled in his own conflict. This is not going to end well for several of the characters, but it wraps up Craig’s self-contained story arc nicely.

11. Live and Let Die

Moore has a killer debut as James Bond. The story, which somewhat follows the book, hasn’t aged so well however. I suspect it will fall farther on subsequent lists. Blaxploitation allowed a wider audience in 1973, and the Louisiana scenes were hilarious. I swear The Dukes of Hazzard based Roscoe P. Coltrane on Sheriff JW Pepper. But Moore does what Lazenby did not. He plays Bond as not Sean Connery. The producers and writers leaned into the comedic, so Moore’s quips and arched eyebrows did much to get away from Connery’s smooth cool persona.

10. License to Kill

This is Bond put through the meat grinder, at one point almost literally. In 1989, drug cartels were the big baddies. In a closer adaptation of the novel Live and Let Die, Leiter (played by David Hedison, the only actor in the original run to play him twice) is mangled by sharks while his wife is murdered. Bond quits MI6 to go after Sanchez, the ruthless strong man in the Republic of Isthmus. With the help of one of Leiter’s allies, he doesn’t just walk in and shoot Sanchez. He uses the drug lord’s own money and mistress to turn him against his own people. You almost forget Robert Brown’s Python-reject M and Caroline Bliss’s simpering Moneypenny. And Wayne Newton is great comic relief as a televangelist-inspired money launderer for Sanchez. Bless his heart.

9. The Spy Who Loved Me

Moore hits his stride with this one taking on Not Blofeld. He presents a real-world Bond with just enough of the Moore cheek to pull off an over-the-top plot. Barbara Bach is both Bond girl and Russian Leiter stand-in, gelling nicely with Moore. The plot is essentially You Only Live Twice with enough real-world touches to sell it. Robert Brown appears as Admiral Hargreaves, who later becomes M after the death of Bernard Lee. Walter Gotell shows up at M’s KGB counterpart and has fun with the role.

And Carly Simon is magnificent singing the theme song. Nobody could have done it better.

8. Thunderball

There are two Bonds: The over-the-top action flick with Bond facing off with Blofeld or some other megalomaniac, and the real-world Bond caught up in whatever plagues the world currently. Here, Connery does both and defines Bond all the way to the Craig era. And it’s a Bond so nice, Connery made it twice. (Fun fact: Lani Hall, who sang the theme song for the latter version, Never Say Never Again, is the wife of Herb Alpert, who did the theme to the 1967 Casino Royale.)

7. For Your Eyes Only

Roger Moore’s best outing, a real-world Bond with a stinging commentary on the Cold War, one that leaves recurring character KGB Director Gogol laughing at the absurdity of it all. Holly Lynn Johnson turns the Bond girl trope on its ear by playing a too-young ice skater with the hots for Bond, which let’s Moore’s Bond balk to comedic effect. Topol is a pistachio-munching Greek smuggler who adds the right spice to the story.

6. Goldeneye

Soft reboot with Bond doing cleanup from the Cold War. Judi Dench is the new M and a fully fleshed character. Samantha Bond is a stern Moneypenny, and a better foil for Bond. Izabella Scorupco is a Bond girl who spends half the film battling unknown forces herself while Sean Bean is a bitter ex-00 whose gone rogue. Like Silva in Skyfall, he seems to be a stand in for a previous Bond, in this case, Dalton’s. (Brosnan’s in the latter film.) Moneypenny as more foil than friend with implied benefits is a breath of fresh air. Also great they added Tanner as the Tanner from the Fleming novels and not some precursor to Edward Fox’s foppish M from 1983. Could do without Joe Don Baker as Wade, but with Leiter now missing a foot, they had to do something.

Spoiler alert: Sean Bean dies in this one.

5. Goldfinger

Before: Sean Connery plays a guy named James Bond who works for the British Secret Service. Now: Sean Connery is Bond. James Bond. Some of this wouldn’t work today, particularly a character with the name Pussy Galore. But a cheating, almost Harvey Weinsteinesque villain in Auric Goldfinger is awesome. And they do it without the SPECTRE subplot. Goldfinger straddles the line between the gadget-laiden, Playboy vibe of the later movies and the Hitchcockian spy thriller of the first two.

4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

George Lazenby’s only turn is the closest any of the movies come to the source material. Only one of two Bond movies to make me tear up at the end. Lazenby’s inexperience works for him here as he gets out of the way of the story. Diana Rigg is the most fully realized Bond girl, more an ally than someone for Bond to bed. The relationship with M is better shown here as Bond butts heads with him, and Moneypenny becomes more of a factor in running MI6, more Samantha Bond than Lois Maxwell’s earlier flirty turns. After this, you can believe she and 007 bonded of her shooting him in the field. (Yes, that’s a Skyfall reference.) Telly Savalas is not the Blofeld of Donald Pleasance or Charles Gray’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge Blofeld, but he oozes charm and malice in equal measure.

3. Casino Royale

Daniel Craig not only takes over as Bond, he reinvents it. Like the rest of the Top 10 (other than Skyfall), it respects its source material. It’s not Americanized like the original 1954 television episode nor is it a complete mess like the 1967 parody. Craig takes Bond back to the beginning with his first two kills, earning his 00 status. Judi Dench returns as M, and she finds him exasperating. Vesper Lynd is more in the mold of recent Bond girls, an ally who can hold her own more than someone for Bond to sleep with. Rene Mathis is an interesting ally who gets the short shrift near the end. And the tragic ending defines Bond for the ensuing five movies. This Bond gives the series a depth it wasn’t capable of before. There’s not that many sour notes in this one. You might say it saved the franchise.

2. From Russia with Love

If Doctor No and the 1954 Casino Royale were a dry run, this is the first-year model. Equal parts Hitchcock thriller and 60s spy caper, this movie is the Bond all the rest are based upon. Spectre replaces SMERSH from the book, mentioned briefly in Doctor No. Blofeld appears with his face hidden, a criminal mastermind rather than comic book supervillain. They channel North By Northwest in this, which Sean Connery would be perfect for in a remake. But the gadgets, the quips, and the girls enhance the story rather than get in its way. And several Bond films – Live and Let Die, Goldeneye, Spectre – would call back to this with climactic scenes taking place on a train. It’s as close to pitch perfect as the series ever gets.

1. Skyfall

I actually ranked this lower in the top 10 before, but No Time to Die finally puts the entire Craig era in perspective. This is probably the first Bond where the women are as important as 007 and more important than the villain. Moneypenny is reinvented as a colleague, and Naomie Harris’s performance lets me believe Lois Maxwell and Samantha Bond had a similar shooting incident in their past. While Ralph Fiennes takes over as M by the end of the movie, it’s the relationship between Bond and Judi Dench’s M (revealed to be Olivia Mansfield in Spectre.) It’s rare to see a mother-son relationship between two characters in this type of setting. (A guy named TS Hottle does one in a science fiction setting.) Drawing parallels from License to Kill, Bond quits after a mission goes badly. When MI6 – and M personally – under attack, he returns “from the dead” to go after the killer. Silva, played deliciously by Javier Bardem has a history suggesting Brosnan’s Bond gone bitter and rogue. Craig comes in still in Casino Royale mode and leaves as the classic Bond – crusty veteran M, Q arming him, and Moneypenny as the smart accessory to Bond’s schemes. It’s the perfect Bond film.

3 thoughts on “Ranking the Bonds

  1. Graham says:

    I didn’t much like Skyfall, for some reasons I can’t articulate and one the I can: Q plugs a suspect computer into their production network. (Did you notice they avoided this in NTTD?) My top 6 would be:
    From Russia With Love
    Casino Royal
    Dr. No
    For Your Eyes Only
    On Her Majesty’s etc.

  2. Colin Conway says:

    Hi Jim!

    I love your list! I don’t agree with much of it, but I love the reasoning behind why you placed them where you did. Very well thought out and I liked that there was a sprinkling of all Bonds up and down the list. I recently went through the entire Bond catalog as well and have been ranking them. And I agree with you that OHMSS is a very fine film.

    1. Jim Winter says:

      The nice thing about these lists is no two are the same. And it’s amazing how Die Another Day somehow made View to a Kill respectable. Cringeworthy, but slightly respectable.

      Or I’m just old enough now to empathize with Roger Moore in this one.

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