12. For Your Eyes Only
For Your Eyes Only serves as a bit of course-correction for Bond after Moonraker, and it finds the series going for something serious. Well, as serious as a Roger Moore film could get. It’s not exactly the most distinguishable Bond film; in fact, it’s very formulaic. Bond’s mission is to stop a piece of British weaponry from falling into the hands of the KGB. The film benefits, though, from a stronger-than-usual Bond girl in Melina Havelock, out to avenge her parents’ murders. Of course, there’s also the matter of an underage girl hitting on Bond. On the one hand, at least he’s quick to reject her. On the other hand, gah.
11. The Spy Who Loved Me
Roger Moore’s run as Bond has not stood the test of time for any number of reasons, but there is at least one film in his run that perfectly encapsulates everything about that era. The film’s opening sequence, with Bond falling through the air for what seems like forever until he opens his Union Jack-bearing parachute, remains one of the best opening sequences in Bond history. The villainous plot to destroy the world and create a new society underwater would be attempted in various forms again (including with the very next film, Moonraker), but rarely better than it’s done here. And then there’s Jaws, the henchman who’s as menacing as he is silly. The Spy Who Loved Me is pure spectacle, but it’s well-made spectacle. Carly Simon was right – nobody does it better.
By the time Thunderball hit theaters, the Bond films had developed a winning formula. Thunderball effectively continues in that vein, with Sean Connery as cool as ever portraying Bond. The budget went up significantly for this film, and it shows. The film’s underwater sequences are gorgeous, though lengthy. And while some of the scenes are obviously dated now (example 1: the jet pack), some effects like the electric chair in the SPECTRE boardroom still have the power to shock.
9. The Living Daylights
Timothy Dalton’s brief run as Bond tends to be overlooked. It’s a shame, because his Bond is one of the more effective iterations of the character. Dalton’s debut, The Living Daylights, is a stark departure from the frivolity of the Roger Moore era. This Bond is first and foremost an assassin, and Dalton sells the lethality of the character better than any of his predecessors. Initially, Bond is assigned to protect a Soviet defector, and while the plot becomes as convoluted as any other Bond film, it’s surprisingly easy to follow (which isn’t always a given with this series).
8. Licence to Kill
One of the key elements to a James Bond film is his status as a 00-agent, which grants him a license to kill. While other Bond films have shown him threaten to leave MI6, Licence to Kill actually follows through with the threat. What pushes Bond over the edge is the abduction of friend and associate Felix Leiter, and the murder of Leiter’s wife, hours after their wedding by associates of a drug smuggler. The film connects this to the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, making this a personal matter for Bond. No wonder he comes out fighting. Even more than The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill shows a brutality that may have shocked fans of the film series, but delighted fans of Ian Fleming’s original literary creation.
7. Dr. No
Looking back, it’s remarkable how many parts of the James Bond formula started with Dr. No. Not everything is in place yet, but the combination of the gun barrel sequence and the opening notes to the James Bond theme song immediately set the mood. And has any film character had a better introduction than that iconic first “Bond, James Bond”? If so, it’s a short list. The series would strengthen with its next few films, but 53 years later, Dr. No remains a strong debut for Bond, and for Sean Connery’s take on Bond.
Casino Royale may have marked the first time Bond’s early days as 007 were explored on film, but Skyfall took advantage of a special occasion – its release came 50 years after Dr. No – to reflect on what Bond means in the 21st century. The film travels back to Bond’s childhood home in Scotland (a nice nod to Connery, a native Scot), firmly rejecting the fan-held notion that James Bond is a code name for different agents in the process. Skyfall also gives Judi Dench’s M material fully worthy of her talents, making her the film’s Bond girl in the process. The film also benefits from landing director Sam Mendes, who (along with collaborators Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman) bring a refined cinematic quality to Skyfall that the Bond films had never shown before. But for all of the breathtaking visual elements, the most effective moment in the film is Raoul Silva’s lengthy story about cannibalistic rats, presented in a single take.
When GoldenEye was released in 1995, six years had passed since a Bond film was in theaters. While this was more due to legal issues than anything, Licence to Kill had underperformed commercially. GoldenEye was a chance to refresh the series and bring it square into the 90s. Thankfully, nearly every element of GoldenEye works brilliantly. Pierce Brosnan makes a great Bond for the 90s, bringing the best qualities of Connery, Moore and Dalton into one package. By pitting him against the rogue (and presumed dead) 006, Bond basically faces off against himself; it’s one of the best choices for a villain Bond has faced over 24 films. And while the series is littered with Bond girls with suggestive names, it’s hard to top Xenia Onatopp and her orgasmic excitement over inflicting pain.
4. From Russia with Love
As much as the Bond films are pitched as being able to stand on their own, it’s easy to forget that From Russia with Love serves as a direct sequel to Dr. No. After killing off Dr. No, Bond is targeted by SPECTRE. For all the elements of the series introduced in the first film, From Russia with Love effectively introduces a slew of its own: an opening scene before the credits, tech from Q, and a variety of locations. It’s a great build to the series that’s still effectively taut over 50 years later.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
George Lazenby’s run as James Bond is notoriously short – he announced that he wouldn’t continue as Bond before his film was released – and he’s frequently viewed as the weakest Bond actor. While that may be the case, since this marked Lazenby’s first role as an actor, his film is one of the strongest Bond films to date. Lazenby’s Bond is more of a fighter than Connery’s, and he doesn’t have Connery’s charisma. But Connery’s Bond never had a girl like Tracy di Vicenzo. From their first meeting, as Bond saves Tracy from a suicide attempt, to their tragic ending at the hands of Blofeld in the film’s final minutes, it’s a love story that’s wholly believable. Diana Rigg gets a lot of the credit for this, and she deserves it; in her hands, Tracy is one of the series’ most believable characters. But Lazenby deserves credit, too; he may not have been perfect, but his take on the character made this film possible. I can’t imagine this film working with Connery’s Bond, or Moore’s for that matter. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also benefits from director Peter R. Hunt, who had previously edited all of the earlier Bond films. His direction makes this film one of the most visually stunning of the Bond films, period.
2. Casino Royale
2002’s Die Another Day was a massive box office success, but a critical low point for the series. The series was at risk of becoming a joke. Rather than merely make a course correction, as the series had done previously, the entire series was reset for the first time. Out went Brosnan, in came Daniel Craig. With director Martin Campbell, who had previously helped launch a new Bond era with GoldenEye, Craig’s Bond saw the character go back to his early days as 007. It’s a different Bond than we’ve seen before. This Bond doesn’t just fight; he knows how to pack a punch, and he’s also brutally beaten (including one scene that can make every man clench in phantom pain). But nothing’s more brutal than the relationship he develops with Vesper Lynd. Eva Green matches Craig’s performance note for note, and the two create the single most believable Bond relationship to date. It makes the final act of the film all the more tragic, and makes Bond’s fury in follow-up Quantum of Solace work. As far as Bond introductions go, whenever Craig decides to quit, his successor will have to live up to this film. I don’t envy that actor.
The third Bond film is still the quintessential Bond film. Goldfinger didn’t just serve as a high water mark for every subsequent Bond film; it’s influenced the entire genre of action films. Even with its influence on pop culture, though, Goldfinger remains fresh to this day. It’s among the shortest of Bond films at 110 minutes, but is remarkably packed with lines and moments that have seeped into a broader consciousness, from the Aston Martin and its ejector seat to Goldfinger’s assistant Oddjob, with a razor-sharp bowler hat, to the memorably named Pussy Galore. And while Sean Connery was great from the start, Goldfinger is the peak of his performances as Bond. Finally, there’s the one element Goldfinger added to the Bond formula which they’ve never been able to top: Shirley Bassey’s brassy “Goldfinger.”