It’s Thanksgiving weekend and the airwaves are filled – as they are on most holiday weekends – with 48 hours of never ending Bond movies. All this prompted me to look up when the next Bond is supposed to come out (it’s been two years after all), only to find that MGM has gone bankrupt and it’s going to be at least two more years until another Bond comes to the theaters.
This is a shame. For nearly fifty years, Bond has been a cultural staple - reflecting not just what it means to be a man's man (or a man's woman), but the anxieties and fantasies of the time. From the Cold War to space shuttles to media manipulation to international finance, Bond has tackled the cultural craze of the day and reflected it within the classic spy-thriller genre and with Bond finesse, cool, and a healthy dose of camp. More than we realize, the Bond series has defined American culture.
So what’s a Bond lover to do? Revisit the classics, that’s what. You can’t catch all of them, so which are the best? Here’s my list of the top ten. This is a highly personal choice, mind you – some might argue that “From Russia With Love” or “Spy Who Loved Me” or “Die Another Day” would have to be on this list, and they very well might be (I find them all just a bit too lightweight for my tastes). So let me know yours, or how you might order these differently. But if you want my advice, set you DVR to pick from the list below.
The Roger Moore Bonds were on their last legs, with clunkers like For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy having wrung the life out of the series, and an aging Moore dragging half-ass through the films. The producers seemed willing to try anything to lure in audiences, so they loaded up this Bond with some of the biggest icons of the Eighties: a title song by Duran Duran, and villains played by Christopher Walken and a cool-ass singer named Grace Jones. Walken plays Max Zorin, an evil genius who wants to sink Silicon Valley to create a microchip monopoly (though seemingly based on the Goldfinger story, this is high concept to the max, since the plot is never really explained and probably would make no sense if it were). Swinging from rigged horse races to oil rigs to weird-assed zeppelins, the plot makes little sense, but with so much Eighties action, the movie is a kind of cultural icon itself, now.
This fourth Bond movie is often overlooked but really has some fun filler, like jet packs, a gadget-happy Q, a great jet plane stealing sequence, and an underwater scooter fight. Bond is at his emotional coolest in this film – letting his dancing partner get shot to save his own life, or saving the life of a would-be assassin only to send him back to be executed by his employer. The hotel Bond stays at is probably the definitive 1960’s spy redoubt, with its modernist furniture styled for tropical luxury. Definitely worth a screening to enjoy that architecture. Wikipedia calls this the most financially successful Bond film – no doubt it established the financial fortunes of this long-lived series. But the film may be a bit too cool for most contemporary audiences, and Bond a bit too distant, as it’s not become one of the most beloved of the series. The underwater sequences – while state-of-the-art for their day – have not held up well, and will likely bore modern eyes used to CGI and elaborate recreations of movies like Titanic. They were considered to go on a bit too long even in 1965.
If there’s a definitive Roger Moore Bond, it’s Moonraker, with its Star Wars inspired plot and its esoteric, Nazi-like villain in the form of Hugo Drax, who wants to kill off the earth’s population with poison orchid dust and replace them with blond supermen brought up on wheat germ and elevator music. Re-introducing the most popular side-kick, Jaws (who Bond liberates when he points out, rightly, that a tall, metal-mouthed freak would have no place in Drax’s vision of the perfect population), this Bond doesn’t feel quite like any other Bond ever made. More like a Saturday morning cartoon blending Bond, sci-fi, diamonds, cable cars, and gondolas. It’s a bit goofy, but it was wildly popular, and worth seeing for a blast from the past.
This second Bond outing with helmer Pierce Brosnan in the title role creates a fascinating story that’s an interesting twist on the You Only Live Twice plot: Media baron Elliot Carver (loosely based on Rupert Murdoch, one assumes) attempts to start a war between two major powers – in this case, not in service of a third power, but in service of the news. War sells papers, after all. The casting of a media baron as a bad guy is an inspired cultural twist that gives Tomorrow Never Dies the kind of cultural relevance that Bond films haven’t really had since the ’70s (this was the era of the 24-hour news channel and birth of the internet, after all, and the sense that the media was taking over our lives was palpable at the time). A bit plodding and Jonathan Pryce’s Carver is hardly terror-inspiring, but the movie holds up as Bond and a Chinese agent (Michelle Yeoh) race to stop Carver from starting World War Three.
The very first Bond movie was an instant classic, and established all the crucial Bond elements: the evil lair (and what a fabulous lair it was, seemingly designed by an overspending Frank Lloyd Wright, it would have made a fine hotel), the narrow escape, the Bond bon-mot, and of course, the Bond girl (in this case, reigning sex-pot Ursala Andress). Yet at the same time, the movie seems unlike any Bond that comes after, as it takes its time setting up esoteric spycraft like short-wave broadcasts, ducking a tail, planting a hair to detect entry, and carefully planned assassinations (often gone awry), all of which later Bonds would much more quickly dispense with. Like the first Matrix movie, this first is detached from the conventions later established by the series, even as it inspires them. As such, it’s a fascinating curiosity, introducing us to Bond and his suave ways and luring us into the then exotic Caribbean world of Jamaica, before modern tourism would make it a familiar site to many.
Goldeneye introduces us to the fifth Bond actor, Pierce Brosnan, and attempts to resurrect a series that had grown flabby and irrelevant over the years. Coming six years after the last Bond, but with the last Bond having been the two terrible Timothy Dalton Bonds, it had really been a decade since a Bond of note and Goldeneye. That decade gaped wide and Bond’s old-fashioned antics no longer played, so this Bond casts Judy Dench as a female M who finally gets to call Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur.” A lot has happened in that decade – including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of satellite telecommunications – and the plot of this Bond takes full advantage of the changes, pairing Bond with a Russian satellite worker (played by Isabella Scorupco, who holds her own against Brosnan) as they race to escape the rogue Russians who are out to get them both. Famke Janseen creates a fabulously fun Bond Bad Girl who enjoys killing just a little too much and Alan Cumming gives a fun turn as a turncoat programmer. It was a tough task – reimagining to Bond series to make it relevant again to new generation – but the movie got it right, the film was a hit, and the series lived on.
The best of the Roger Moore Bonds was the first. Moore was a different type of Bond from the others before and after – self-deprecating, air-headed, aloof, campy. Moore turned a series that was quickly becoming old-fashioned into a parody of itself so that the disco generation could laugh at the old-fashioned, stick-in-the muds that was the Feds. A Moore Bond wasn’t a suave spy but a straight man there to be ridiculed by the cool people. Live and Let Die introduced this new concept: the tragic-comic Bond – and it did so in a world of Cool, from Harlem to New Orleans to a Jamaica run by Jazz and voodoo. Moore held his own, however, getting off his share of one-liners. But it was Cool that stole the show, from McCartney’s brilliant title song to the introduction of the Cola-Nut guy (who enjoyed brief fame on subsequent 7-Up commercials, deliciously proclaiming the “un-cola”). This time, the camp held up, and Live and Let Die let the series live on.
The Bond movie introduced, and perhaps perfected, its unique sense of self-aware camp humor with this movie set in Las Vegas. Bringing back a slightly paunchier and grayer Sean Connery, and dealing with the post-sixties, post Woodstock rise of youth and women’s liberation, perhaps the series had no choice but to ramp up the sarcasm to remain culturally relevant. It concocts a memorable rat-pack cast of hoodlums, diamond smugglers, FBI agents, and a Howard Hughes knock-off (Willard Whyte). It also fully embraces its homophobia, creating a creepy pair of gay killers who actually hold hands as they knock off old ladies. Jill St. John is perhaps one of the most memorable Bond girls as Tiffany Case, the smuggler who hires Bond’s “Peter Franks.” But the real reward in this movie is the sequence in John Lautner’s Elrod house (filmed in Palm Springs, the house still stands as a testament to high-sixties modernist architecture). Not only is that house memorable and fabulous, so are its two inhabitants – Bambi and Thumper – who inspired not a few acrobatic sci-fi fight sequences (including sequences in Blade Runner and Kill Bill).
“Rebooting” the bond series with the sixth Bond actor, Daniel Craig, a lot was riding on the success of this film. Fortunately, it delivered. With its amazing opening stunt sequence of Bond chasing a bomber across an African construction site and into an embassy, where he proceeds to shoot up all and sundry, you know they have a hit on their hands. Not only did Craig make a convincing and sexy Bond (we certainly got to see enough of him to satiate even the most lurid Bondophile), but the action sequences were superb from stem to stern. The scene where an airplane takes off and blows a truck into the air not only took my breath away, it was re-created successfully on “Mythbusters,” proving that this special effect is based on reality. Perhaps what makes this Bond so successful is that the wonderful action sequences are combined with some of that old-fashioned Bond repartee that seems to have gotten lost in the ‘90’s. The card sequences in Monte Carlo where Bond invents his signature martini and bluffs his way through a high-stakes poker game are just as fun as the chases. Like most successful Bonds, the movie taps into a cultural zeitgeist of which the culture is only semi-aware: in this case, poker…and the suave allure of gambling and international finance that seemed to typify the era that was the height of the real-estate bubble. It also has a fabulous opening credit sequence that lives up to the best of Bond openers (and is maybe as good as Paul McCartney’s "Live and Let Die").
Perhaps the most original Bond movie, Goldfinger offers a departure from the SPECTRE villain in exchange for a most entertaining plot: the caper to explode a bomb in Fort Knox that would make the gold radioactive for long enough to quintuple the value of Goldfinger’s gold holdings (it was an exemplary lesson in the market value of supply and demand). Bond is a bit slow on the uptake here (the middle of the film drags a bit as Bond has to catch up with what everyone already knows), but there are plenty of rewarding tidbits for the die-hard Bond fan, including a girl painted gold, a lesbian baddie that implausibly succumbs to Bond’s charms, and a mobster crushed alive in a metal compactor. There’s also the introduction of the best evil side-kick in any Bond movie: Odd Job, with the amazing decapitating hat. Best of all is Bond diffusing the bomb at just the right second: 007. If any film established the Bond series as a permanent fixture in American life, it would have to be this third Bond movie – better than the two that had come before, and a decisive moment in cementing the future of the series. For this reason it comes in at number two.
The most iconic of James Bond movies, and not simply because it has the most scenes imitated by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers films (let’s see: the Japanese Osato building receptionist, the boat dock fight, Japanese wrestlers, Ninja training, and of course that marvelous volcano liar.) The producers of the movie felt that Connery was a bit flabby and slow, and so replaced them on the next bond film (1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the biggest Bond flop). Little did they know that this film would be Bond and Connery both in their prime. This film exemplifies all the key elements of the Bond series, from the misogynistic womanizing and cold-war tensions, to the elaborate and comical car chases, to finally launching Bond into the space race, to the high-point of Bond villainy: Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld ferociously petting his kitty in a hidden volcano with a rocket launcher and piranha pool. This is also the movie that finally perfected the bond movie music, including the fabulous theme song. The movie also veered a bit from the typical bond script to create an exotic Asian local, replete with geisha massage, a ceremonial wedding, and even a Japanese Bond. The movie was such a cultural milestone that it inspired a national trend of Japanese steak houses (the Kahiki, in Columbus, Ohio, opened soon after and for thirty years represented a way for Midwesterns to escape for an evening into the exotic world of Japan and Bond, both of which remained connected in the American imagination for years after). And perhaps I have a personal connection, as this was the first Bond movie I ever saw. I was five years old, but I remember Connery’s hairy chest, and his Japanese proverb, “bird never makes nest in bare tree.” Connery established himself then in my mind not only as the quintessence of Bond, but of male desirability itself. If there could only ever be one Bond movie, this would be the one. Everything you ever need to know about the Bond series, the Bond man, and their mutual importance as cultural icons is here.