Sunday, February 23, 2014

James Bond Marathon -- Top 10 Review

The trick to partaking in a James Bond movie marathon is not to try and do it all at once. Cramming as many viewings as you can within a week’s time or so quickly becomes a chore, thereby taking the fun out of it. I started back in mid-January at an average, easy pace of three per week, wrapping things up just yesterday. That’s all 24 films, including the one non-Eon Productions installment. I’m done. Sharing my thoughts on every single film of the series would likely drive what’s left of my functioning brain into a vegetative state. Instead, I’ve laid out my Top 10 of the franchise followed by a summary opinion on who I rank as the best actor to play Bond. No doubt, a number of my picks, and/or omissions, will prove unfavorable by the majority. I wholeheartedly welcome all gasps and criticism so feel free to respond with any degree of WTF?! you deem necessary. But before we proceed with the list, I’m compelled to at least cover the one Bond film I consider the worst. I do this for perspective and, because this is intended to be a celebratory blog post, to get most of the negativity out of the way early. So, here we go. Worst Bond movie:   
Hey, Moonraker maybe and goofier than shit but at least it makes good on its ridiculous promise of sending Bond to outer space, while the marginally less dumb Die Another Day delivers a wicked swordfight and goes for broke with a pretty neat ice fortress. A View to a Kill is slow-pokey but kept afloat with a manic Christopher Walken/Grace Jones duo and some scenic San Francisco locations. So what saves Diamonds Are Forever? Next to nothing, as far as I can tell. This lumbering excuse for a Bond film has the ugly brownish look of an early 70s TV show and suffers from wonky attempts at mixing camp with suspense. Set in Las Vegas, it actually feels like a second-rate night club act of the times, with Bond and villains alike doping about in bad blazers and hitting the bar in between their autopilot shticks. On paper the notion of Bond escaping a desert research lab in a retro futuristic moon-car sounds deliciously fun, when, in fact, the on-screen results are just bland and stupid. That’s really the whole movie right there: a collective "Whah Whah Whaaah!" gag, and the less said about Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the better. Connery is frumpy and out of shape (ironically, bouncing back spryer some twelve years later in the just average Never Say Never Again) and looks bored out of his mind. The only highlight is the scantily clad Jill St. John; the shot of her naked body half-wrapped in a white fur blanket is prime hard-on material. Otherwise, I can watch this movie well enough to get through it but by the end credits I’m all too eager to welcome any amount of Roger Moore’s cheeky antics.
My Top 10
Markedly downsized from the ludicrous scenarios of the latter 70s entries, this seventh-and-best of the Moore era forgoes fanciful secret lairs and world domination villainy for more semi-credible espionage. Sure, there’s a MacGuffin plotline hinged on the threat of ballistic missiles, but the proceedings mostly deal with Bond escorting an impassioned femme driven by 'Greek vendetta'. And while Moore still manages to goofball his way through at least one contrived downhill ski set-piece, scored by Bill Conti’s dated disco beats (which I find admittedly charming), the action narrative eventually settles for a rock climbing climax in the Mediterranean that succeeds with some genuine degree of suspense.

Bond outruns the Czech Army in a makeshift cello case sled and Joe Don Baker plays with battlefield miniatures. There’s also a pretty rad Mujahideen desert raid that ends with an exciting henchman fight aboard a cargo plane. This entry features some impressive scale but likewise steers clear of the more elaborate spy fantasy. For his first go-around in the role Dalton’s Bond is maybe a bit too perpetually irritated but he does nonetheless refreshes the character with some harder physicality and doggedness that in turn gave the franchise a much-needed boost of energy, and I really dig his intro along with the opening Gibraltar set-piece as a whole. The only notable weak link is the hapless and plaintive Maryam d'Abo, though I suppose her character was intentionally written as such.

Consider this the all-purpose James Bond film, due, I suspect, to its timing as the belated 17th installment of the franchise where the producers seem compelled to honor the more outlandish spectacles of past entries with slick 90s polish while also anchoring the story with some heftier emotional stakes in order to meet modern dramatic standards. We get space lasers and secret lairs and wanton model-FX and even a dopey sight gag involving computer hacker Boris and some antifreeze, yet the conflict between Bond and fellow friend/MI6 agent-turned-evil (a smooth Sean Bean) centers the film with dignified purpose. I also like the two Bond girls: the spitfire Natalya and Famke Janseen’s breakout as the ever memorable Xena Onatopp. Special props go to director Martin Campbell’s sharply staged action & stunts, including one of the best fight scenes of the series.

Somewhat reluctantly. I still have issues with two-thirds of the scripted material for its derivatives and missed opportunities -- see my comments over at JKM -- and yet I cannot deny that goddamn third act; a masterstroke of conceptual storytelling that illuminates Bond’s origins via darkly Western noir poetics without undermining the very mystery that both surrounds and drives him as agent 007. Overall, the film offers superb visual representations of the deeper storied content and tone, accumulating in what is no doubt the most artistically inclined interpretation of Fleming’s spy world to date. It’s also got a vintage Aston Martin with machine guns and a scene where Bond fights dudes in a Komodo dragon pit.

Cool, creamy, pastel ...on the surface this Caribbean set exploit, the first Bond entry out of the gate, plays for palm tree paradise escapism with quaintly lurid thrills. But I wonder if we today take for granted what a truly unexpected mind-fuck this must have been for general audiences of 1962. Ya know, there’s something vaguely surreal about Dr. No, with its sublimely tropical front hiding sinister violence and giving way to a frankly bizarre circumstances involving a mermaidesque Ursula Andress appearing randomly out of nowhere, an atomic-powered island stronghold conversely furnished in postmodern 60s swank -- with sex fantasy female staff and a magnified aquarium glass dining room -- owned by a self-proclaimed, Aryan-Asian "doctor" (of what, exactly?) who dresses like he’s from the future and sports a metal hand. Think about it. This movie just gets weirder and weirder.

I’ve always admired this rather uncharacteristic foray into the then popular genre tropes of the Miami Vice and Lethal Weapon decade (even appropriating a Michael Kamen score), swiping out Cold War espionage with DEA/drug cartel intrigue. Yes, this film is more gruesome in its various depictions of death while baddies Robert Davi and a young Benicio del Toro are borderline sadistic. It all fits with Dalton’s steelier Bond who’s hell-bent on personal revenge, and I think it cool to see him blaze off MI6 reservation in 80s 'rogue cop' fashion. An expanded part for Q and some Wayne Newton shtick still keeps one toe in the waters of lighthearted fun and I also like the pearly white, Acapulco overlook used for drug lord Sanchez’s lavish villa. Best of all, perhaps, is the multiple tanker chase climax along the Mexicali highway that displays some ballsy staging a pyrotechnics.

Hands down, this is the most undeviatingly entertaining James Bond installment of them all. It is the go-to Bond film that, in decades following, would be amorphously defined, referenced and parodied across pop-culture for its quintessential alchemy of fanciful spy dangers, heterosexual bravado and super-villain reveal of the notorious Blofeld and his volcano crater SPECTRE base, altogether amounting to the franchise’s first, and still best, "big shebang" of comic book proportions. And then there’s the speedy pacing itself; I challenge anyone to find a needless lag or boring stretch amidst Bond’s Japan-hopping narrative. Intermittent throughout his near-death escapes, including some awesome gyrocopter air-combat, is an endless trove of exotic, Far East venues and eroticism, whether he’s bathing with lush beauties or training at a ninja camp. Said volcano lair boasts some remarkable soundstage production value, complete with monorail cars and a rocket ship. Lastly, Donald Pleasence is still the best Blofeld.

The comparatively short, 106 minute runtime for this entry also determines its overall tone. Stripped down from the sprawling (and, to be honest, slightly taxing) story arc of Casino Royale to what is little more than a thinly plotted wrap-up, this film is almost purely reactionary in both set-piece and its emotional depiction of Bond himself; the former reflecting the latter’s mood with the rapidly cut bursts of action. The whole thing acts as a kind of limbo-expressway that allows Bond to find closure before moving on. Even the visual aesthetics matches the brisk pacing with European and South American settings that range from travelogue casual to ultra-sleek to downright barren. I dig this trimmed approach; its singular clarity. Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene oozes Euro-smarm and this was the first time I ever laid eyes on Gemma Arterton, here as Strawberry Fields.

Specifically, this is the most underrated Bond film of the franchise, as fan consensus seems to glaze over it indifferently with a sort of "meh" attitude or dismiss it altogether as a runner-up for franchise worst. I reckon this has to do with a) the film’s seemingly dreary tone and lack of pageantry, with locales mostly limited to nondescript portions of Eastern Europe, and b) the casting of Denise Richards as a, ahem, "nuclear physicist". Okay. Richards’ acting is maybe a little flat but she’s really just the secondary, plucky sidekick Bond girl, so I never had a problem with her. The crux of the story rests on Bond’s relationship with the femme fatale antagonist, Elektra King, played alluringly by Sophie Marceau. It is here where the Brosnan era is most dramatically compelling -- practically equal to the Craig films that would follow -- branching off into a (pre-Skyfall) revenge plot against M and a torrent, triangle-affair between Bond, King and Robert Carlyle as the terminally cold Renard. I for one love how the film is deep and rich in its darker, overcast and often candlelit visual atmosphere, as it classes up the story with a moodier romantic expression. There’s also cool mini-jet-boat intro and, later, a nifty set-piece inside an oil pipeline where Bond has to chase down a weapons-grade plutonium bomb.
There is no such thing as a perfect James Bond film, for there has since grown within the franchise one too many ports of interest in both content and tone. Where some prefer the bigger and more outrages entries, others prefer the more brooding and serious. Heck, some fans are even partial to the notably campy Bond films. As mentioned, GoldenEye’s all-purpose approach works, though it never quite soars, ultimately settling for a common middle ground, leaving much to be desired from fans who seek a more prudent entry in whatever direction. No one Bond film can do what every Bond film has done to its best and fullest, is my point. With that in mind, let me contend the following:
From Russia with Love is the most antiquely classical spy adventure of the series, so much so that it harkens the older vivid tales of WWII espionage laced with hints of Hollywood film noir that would inspire Ian Fleming's Cold War spy novels to begin with. Its plot MacGuffin is not a super-death weapon, but a cryptographic device, the Lektor. The mission stakes are not predicated on some elaborate world domination scheme nor are there any melodramatic conflicts concerning love betrayals or haunted psyches; rather, it's all just a deadly gentlemen’s game of 'cloak and dagger', but a game nonetheless. Most of the narrative consist of Bond engaged in subtler clandestine pursuits, making contacts and reconnoitering a Soviet consulate for a planned heist. The film takes on a leisurely but shadowy semblance in this respect, drifting from seedy Gypsy camps and marbled stoneways of Istanbul to after-hour happenings aboard the Orient Express, featuring multiple scenes of stealthy trailing, interceptions and murder.
Robert Shaw as Red Grant remains the greatest of all Bond’s adversaries and the duality among the two men established from the film’s opening scene is appropriately downplayed until their first and only confrontation, one that coolly escalates from a poker face parlay of smiles and greetings to a full-on passenger car brawl. Even dubbed, Daniela Bianchi matches vivacious sex appeal with bubbly charm as Tatiana Romanova and I like how Bond indulges her as his own foil of sorts. Lastly, the film’s sleuthing is countered with two back-to-back big finishes: Bond on foot against a strafing helicopter (a macho response to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) and a speedboat escape from a SPECTRE squad, both ending in fireball array. More than any other, this is the Bond film that deftly threads the eye of Fleming’s needle, and with style to spare.
So who is the best Bond?

First, let’s give it up for Roger Moore. The guy put in for seven Bond films over the course of twelve years. Many have since jeered his depiction of the character but, really, that was the Bond of the time as decided by the studio whereas Moore simply played the hand he was dealt, consummately, I might add. And despite his age creeping up on him near the end of his run, I admire how he maintained the role in such a way that avoided any noticeable trace of apathy. Moore was the Johnny Carson of Bonds, always laid-back and comfortable with his disposition as the spy who loved the ladies and the lounging while treating the missions more like they were vacations. His films are the easiest to lull into as casual excursions that deliver the franchise’s storefront delights while demanding little to no concentration or emotional investment in return. Contrarily, Timothy Dalton’s lopsided harder-edged sense of urgency rendered a Bond who wasn’t just interested in the missions but damn near obsessed, which in turn brought them closer to center stage for audiences. Dalton’s Bond pushed himself from one plot point to the next; the girls and luxury were ultimately distractions, at least until his objectives were complete.
While I appreciate what they did with George Lazenby in the role, at the end of the day, it’s just not for me. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is well-made and Lazenby handles his action scenes with verve. He’s also suavely confident enough when wooing Countess di Vicenza (a superb Diana Rigg) or sparring with Kojak’s Blofeld. And yet, there’s still an air of befuddlement about him that robs the character of its roguery. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Lazenby’s bond comes off a tad too...affable. This coupled with the film’s last-minute dour ending gives way to the franchise’s one, rare 'wet blanket' moment. I’ll take Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan instead, together tied as my 2nd favorite of the Bonds. Craig has since carried over from the brief Dalton era a similar degree of fierceness, though he seems to find greater lasting pleasure in aforesaid niceties. Enough has been discussed about the more sophisticated writing approach to this most recent Bond that allows for Craig some on-screen internalization of the character’s angst. And that’s all fine and good. Personally, though, I just like Craig because his Bond is the bruiser-thug of the bunch whose promotion to no-expense-spared globetrotting and womanizing leaves him in a constant state of "the cat that ate the canary".
Brosnan, in preserving the Bond traits that had since been cultured before him -- all the customary posturing required for 007 to walk into frame in tux or let loose whatever the cheesy kill-pun or sexual innuendo -- sailed in and made it look effortless. His own mark left on the role, however, was the ever-faintest touch of smug disdain; juust enough to give the character a cocksure edge befitting the glossy 90s reboot of the franchise. Sure, Brosnan’s Bond was a prick, but he was a badass prick who could get the job done. In tandem, he also gave Bond a newfound soulful presence that never fell prey to ineffectual moping.  
Sean Connery is my favorite James Bond.
Others might agree for more cursory reasons, with such sentiments as "because Connery was the first." Not me. My choice has nothing to do with tradition or nostalgia. All of the other actors in the role each have their particular hook, yet with Connery there is no hook. Essentially, there is nothing to his Bond. The word "cool" perhaps serves as the best uniform definition of 007. In this context, Connery’s performance takes that word to its purest meaning: his Bond is the most unaffected.   
There’s a scene in Dr. No were bad guy crony, Dent, attempts to murder Bond while sleeping in a bungalow bedroom, only to fall into the latter’s trap.
"That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six."
Bond says before shooting Dent twice, one in chest and the other in the back. THAT is James Bond: not just a licensed killer, but a complete cipher. There is no angst or passion or honor. He’s not driven by revenge, or to prove himself. Duty to Queen and Country? A façade. An oath sworn merely as a formality. No, this Bond does what he does because, well, he’s good at it. This Bond is simply in it to win ...and to smoke, gamble and get laid in the process. With Connery in the role, the amorality to the very idea of James Bond is most apparent. We have to acknowledge that he’s really not a great person. At all. And therein lies the fundamental male fantasy to live as a rover free from all social norms, indulging in masculine urges of sex, danger and the constant testing of one’s prowess.       
Top 5 James Bond Title Songs
5. 'Moonraker' – Shirley Bassey  
4. 'The World Is Not Enough' – Garbage
3. 'You Only Live Twice' – Nancy Sinatra
2. 'A View to a Kill' – Duran Duran
1. 'Goldfinger' – Shirley Bassey
Special mention goes to K.D. Lang’s 'Surrender', which should have been the title song for Tomorrow Never Dies instead of the rather obnoxious wail we got from Sheryl Crow. Also, the original version of 'For Your Eyes Only' by Blondie over Sheena Easton’s disco ballad.


  1. Cannon: Your top 10 Bonds (and worst Bonds...) are right on the money, so far as I'm concerned.

    A few things: first, From Russia with Love is the best Bond movie ever, period. Glad we agree!

    Secondly, it is nice to see Quantum of Solace rank highly here. I thought it was a strong entry (and reviewed it as such...), and yet it was inexplicably hated on. I think it is that weird Hollywood contrarian/backlash thing. Oh I loved Casino Royale, so I must hate Quantum of Solace...

    Also, pleased as punch to read your kind words for Roger Moore. I very much agree with your point of view. Whatever the deficits of his era, they aren't generally his fault. I love the guy, and agree with your description of him. At times, he had to front some pretty rotten material, and yet he always did so with style.

    Finally, yay to the inclusion of both Dalton films. Licence to Kill is awesome, in my opinion. Modern Bond (Craig) movies owe the Dalton era a real debt. Nicely done!

  2. Thanks. It's weird, because now I'm suddenly feeling the urge to re-watch the three Connery Bonds that made my list, or maybe even jumping around from one Blu-ray to the next for all my favorite 007 moments. I can't quite shake myself of this early 2014 Bond bender.

    1. I know what you mean. I re-watched Moonraker, and now, after thinking about all these great moments, have the itch to go back to For Your Eyes Only. Again.

  3. An excellent assessment of why Connery is the best Bond: he just 'is', he doesn't affect a role, he absorbs the character like a black hole. And kudos to Moore for pulling Bond through some bleak years. I still think the Living Daylights had the most entertaining script, with Dalton bringing focus to Bond after the light-Moore years. Brosnan was just too pretty, too smooth, insincere even? Still not sure how I feel about Craig: I thought he did well in Casino Royale, but I found Skyfall too chock full of British propaganda, too disjointed, with less chance for Craig to do his Bond, as if he was pushed to the background in favor of heavy plot points. He's brutal though, I'll give him that.

    As to your top 10, I feel the same way about License to Kill as you do about Diamonds Are Forever (although Robert Davi was spot on as bad guy for that era), but at least they managed to make a Bond in those strange late 80s-early 90s years. From Russia With Love is the definitive spy Bond, but I'm surprised Goldfinger doesn't make your list. Along with Dr. No, that's the Bond I like the most, especially because of Gert Frobe's fantastic bad guy, along with some wonderful Bond girls. Anyway, it's a difficult list to make, and if you're anything like me, the list changes with your mood.