Sunday, October 26, 2008

the (other) Best and Worst of Bond

Part of James Bond Blogathon

I admit I was intrigued by Will's post on ranking the best and worst films in the Bond Canon. Top 10 lists (or Top 25, etc.) lists are pretty silly, of course, but they sure are a lot of fun.

I think by the time I was 12, I had seen every Bond film up to that point at least five times, and probably more like 10-20 times for the ones I really loved. I was that kind of Bond fan. I watched them over and over and over. Of course, some of the ones I used to like as a kid, I don't care for as much, and vice versa.

Since the mid-90s, I've not devoted as much time to them, but I've still seen each of the last five at least three or four times.

If there were enough Bond bloggers out there, I'd be tempted to do an unscientific poll of everyone to see what folks think overall.

I suspect, of course, that Goldfinger would be number 1 easily, but its not my number one. On that note, here's my superficial rankings, quite different from Will's, so it worthwhile and perhaps provocative:

1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): I have already said my piece, and too bad haters, I stand by it.

2) Casino Royale (2006): Quite possibly the best Bond film ever, or perhaps the best film that also happens to be a Bond film. A great Bond, a great narrative structure, an effortless manipulation and resistance to the Bond legacy. In 20 years, I may look back and say this really is the greatest one.

3) Goldfinger (1964): Not my personal favorite, but unquestionably the definitive Bond film, with everything in place--great Bond, great names, great villian, great car, great henchman. And truly iconic moments.

4) From Russia to Love (1963): The best Bond story from beginning to end, and quite possibly the greatest villain (Red Grant), perhaps the only true counterpart to Bond himself, though he doesn't often get enough attention for it. You could have built a whole franchise just around him and Bond.

5) Dr. No (1962): A wonderful mix of the incongruous elements that define Bond films--deadly serious nihilism with outlandish environments and characters. Bond films are at their best when they work within that schizophrenia, and do not attempt too much of one or the other. If I were making a Bond film today, Dr. Nowould be my narrative and affective model . . .

6) Licence to Kill (1989): Invariably, one's childhood plays a key role in an attachment to a long term franchise. And I suppose that was never more true with Bond for me than in my deep love of Timothy Dalton's work, given that he was the first Bond I saw in the theatre, and I can still remember all three times I did (I saw Daylights twice). But his work still more or less holds up for me. I think Licence to Kill is excellent for some of the same reasons that I noted with Dr. No above. Licence to Kill is bleak to be sure, but its also a much weirder film than it gets credit for. And I think that's good for a Bond film. Also its one of the few Bond films post-1960s to tell a meaningful story with resonance beyond just the isolated text with Felix Leiter.

7) Goldeneye (1995): Probably not deserving to be this high, but its the only Pierce Bronsnan film that still holds up well for me. Its greatest credit is that it took Bond back to the classic formula and didn't screw it up, while also providing a nice wink here and there to the changing times.

8) Living Daylights (1987): When I was 12, this was my favorite Bond film. A really damn good spy movie, featuring a great new Bond, for about the first two/thirds, and then it gets to Afghanistan and gets really silly, and even more so now when we think about the political climate there and then being represented.

9) Die Another Day (2002): Not as good on a second viewing, but I don't think its silliness gets enough credit. Its a true patische Bond film, not only in its over-the-top-ness but in its self-referentiality. And a welcome relief from the dreadful World is Not Enough.

10) The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Moore's best film, but that's not saying much. I used to love this one the most as a kid, but it hasn't aged well for me. Kind of slow and undercut constantly by Moore's foolishness. There's literally a moment in this film where he rolls his eyes at what's happening. It is okay for a Bond movie to not take itself too seriously, but if Bond himself doesn't take it seriously, the movie is a lost cause. I appreciate that Moore's overall work essentially cemented Bond's longevity beyond Connery. But his take on Bond is just unbearably cheeky (and not even funny). When people crack on the cliches of how awful the Bond films can be, I always picture Moore's work in the 1970s and 1980s and kind of agree with them. That to me is Moore's Bond legacy in a nutshell.

11) You Only Live Twice (1967): Not a bad Bond film, but Connery's and company on autopilot here. Redeemed only by the first full appearance of Blofeld, one of the best Bond songs (Nancy Sinatra), and the infamous Volcano lair!

12) Man With the Golden Gun (1974): Actually the only Moore film I like increasingly as time goes by. Not terribly good, but a lot of good Bond elements in place, in particular a great villain (Christopher Lee's Scaramanga) and a great lair. And Moore hadn't yet packed it in (in more ways than one--sorry that was mean).

13) Thunderball (1965): Used to be my favorite Connery film as a kid. Amazing how underwater scenes that used to be so awesome are, 20 years later, painfully boring. But it has its moments. The jet-pack. Q's greatest entrance. Decent villain.

14) Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Like Thunderball, this one hasn't aged well. I used to like it more than Goldeneye--mainly I think because I used to really love the motorbike sequence. I still do, but the rest of the movie is pretty DOA now. I agree with Will that Rupert Murdoch is a great idea for a villain, and Price has his moments, but it don't quite work for me overall.

15) For Your Eyes Only (1981): No film has fallen further for me since childhood than this one. I used to love this one, but now I watch it and I find nothing particularly interesting. The revenge themes could be developed much more, as could the Cold War angle. Moore does some of his best work here, in fairness, but I find it overall kind of unengaging today.

16) Diamonds are Forever (1971): "Hi, my name's Sean Connery and I am here for my check." Actually, its not as bad as I remember, but still too silly (and more than a little homophobic). What does it say for the film when the only thing I find fascinating about it today are the cinema-verite-like moments of early 1970s Las Vegas--the moment right before it was transforming into the big corporate giant strip?

17) Moonraker (1979): This was the inevitable result of an actor and a persona that increasingly comes to resent itself and becomes more and more detached and campy. Just about the only time when the sheer silliness of Moore's Bond almost goes far enough to redeem itself. But not quite.

18) The World is Not Enough (1999): The kind of Bond film I guess I should like, but a textbook example of how awry a Bond film can go when it takes itself too seriously, but doesn't have an interesting enough story to maintain itself. My greatest fear for Quantum of Solace is that it will end up like this one (and look out because they do have the same screenwriters and they both feature directors who do not seem to be a good fit for Bond).

19) Live and Let Die (1972): Probably not as bad as some of these others, but the unapologetic racism of it--even by typical Bond standards--is unforgivable. Even worse when you think about the context in which it was made, particularly in America.

20) Octopussy (1983): "You Humans are all . . .

21) View to a Kill (1985): "...Stupid, Stupid, Stupid."


Scott Balcerzak said...

But View to a Kill has Grace Jones!

jason sperb said...

Yes . . . who immediately disrobes for a 60 year old Roger Moore.

And that's my point.

dave_mcavoy said...

Gotta say: before the latest Casino Royale, my favorite Bond film was The Man with the Golden Gun. I think I love it for exactly the opposite reasons that I love Casino Royale: whereas Craig's Bond is timely and blends seamlessly into the background (even as he charges through a wall), Moore's Bond in this film is a dinosaur that is totally obsolete in his current world, too old and curmudgeonly for the mod style dominating his outings. Golden Gun finally paired him with a villain who was equally out-of-date, a freak with his own island and a little person he kept around to test him like Kato in the Pink Panther movies. That one reminds me of the Adam West Batman movies more than anything else (incidentally, I find it interesting that Batman and Bond get a similar reboot at around the same time).

Also, I still don't think you're giving Marc Forster quite enough credit. Stranger than Fiction isn't exactly an audition tape for a Bond movie, but it proves he can make a clever film with wit and heart. And Stay is completely underrated: incredibly atmospheric stuff that *wouldn't* be out of place in a Bond movie.

jason sperb said...

Hi Dave,

Yes, Man with the Golden Gun is moving up on my list, and I can see a lot of what you find in it. I do remember watching it many, many time when I was a kid. I know I had it at #12, but I'm with you on a lot of that. It may only be my preconscious resistance to Moore that keeps it higher.

I think I might blog about how *untimely* the Best Bond films might be--that the funnest, most interesting, ones may be in some way anachronistic. That they resist the period rather than--as film scholars usually go--"reflect" them.

I confess I have not seen Stay, so I may feel differently. However, I think Stranger than Fiction is terrible--and I really wanted to like it.

But as David Spade would say, "I liked it better the first time . . . when it was called Adaptation!"

Scott Balcerzak said...

When my grandchildren someday ask me 'Grandpa, what were the 1980s like?' I think I'll show them the scene of Grace Jones disrobing for a 60 year old Roger Moore. Either that or a clip of Paulie's robot in Rocky 4. (In short, the 80s were lame.)
I actually enjoy Golden Gun very much, mainly because I have some love for Christopher Lee. (Big surprise, Scott likes an old movie horror actor).
Dave, I am with you about the Bond/Batman reboots. There is something about a Bush-era America embracing these conflicted retoolings of the hero mythology. It feels like a cinematic 'moment' of some sort. It feels post-post 9-11, to me - whatever than might mean.