It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable time going through all these films, and for once actually forcing myself to be critical of at least a few of them. I hope you, dearest reader, have enjoyed reading this stuff!
Fair warning – pretty much all of the reviews today (and, to be honest, all the other 18 prior) contain major spoilers!
5. The Living Daylights
It’s 1987. Glasnost and perestroika are taking the Soviet Union by storm, but there are still power mad generals running around! James Bond takes on another and jets from hemisphere to hemisphere in his pursuit of men who will stop at nothing, using Stradivarius cellos to seduce women whilst selling arms on the black market.
I was given this on DVD for Christmas in 2007, and so it holds a special place in my heart. That bias aside, it’s also just an excellent film. Timothy Dalton excels in his first showing as James Bond, and plays the character as he is in the books – a pretty serious guy with a dark and dry sense of humour.
The formula has changed a little. After boffing everything that moved in A View To A Kill, Bond is now a one-woman man. This was partly brought on by the rise of AIDS, but I just like to look at it as Bond being too busy for bangin’.
There is action from beginning to end in this film. It opens during a 00s vs SAS war game at Gibraltar, before shifting to Bratislava – glasnost, of course, meaning Bond can be behind the Iron Curtain without being disguised as a clown (see Octopussy). He aids a defector’s escape to England, which is in parts word for word out of the short story the sequence is based on and from which the film derives its name, and then there’s an exciting kidnap where it appears the KGB snatch their man back. Onward travels the action, to Vienna via a cool chase in the coolest Aston Martin since Goldfinger, and then on to Morocco and finally, Afghanistan.
It’s this last destination where the film falls down. Sure, in 1987 the mujahedeen were heroes in the West, fighting Soviet occupation. But here, in the 21st century, we’ve seen first hand what the long-term consequences of that period in history have been. Still, if you can blank that out, The Living Daylights is a pretty solid film. It has John Barry’s best score for the series since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s stylishly directed, and there’s not really any cringeworthy acting. This is possibly the best Bond film of the 1980s. Well done, Timothy Dalton.
James Bond is accidentally shot, and disappears off the radar for several months. After a terrorist deals the Secret Intelligence Service a crippling blow, he returns to action. He chases a vile cyberterrorist to the ends of the earth, but it’s in the past where he finally catches up to the present.
I had a hard time with this one. I wanted to rank it higher, but there’s just not room for four things in the top three of a list.
Skyfall could have been a disaster. Sam Mendes is another arty director, and we saw how well that went in Quantum of Solace. However, Mendes proved the doubters wrong and gave us what in Bond terms is a true work of art.
I wrote a review of it back in 2012 when it was first released, so I’ll link to that here. I don’t have much else to add – what little I have thought up since then is below.
In the old series, Q was a fairly old and sometimes doddery technological genius; a character which I think draws on post-WWII British scientific boffins. However, in the 21st century world of computers and electronics, Q’s game has become stereotypically the preserve of nerdy young guys. A brave new world indeed!
Finally, when I wrote my original review, the film was still in cinemas, so I didn’t have any pictures of my favourite scene in the whole movie. Now I can post one. Look at it. And then go watch this movie. In HD.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
GEORGE LAZENBY ONLY BONDS ONCE. James Bond continues his relentless pursuit of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It takes him from Portugal to Switzerland, discovering love on the way. But who will have the final shot?
This is a film that polarises critics and fans alike. As you may have guessed by its presence here at the giddy heights of the top five, I’m at the positive pole.
At the outset, we’re greeted with a suggestion this will be rather different to previous Bond outings. There’s a strange new sound in place of guitar during the gunbarrel; a twist composer John Barry uses to great effect throughout the score: the newly invented Moog electronic synthesiser.
There’s a nice bit of avant garde late 1960s experimentation with filmic conventions in the editing and cinematography – close-ups, slo-mo, shadows and lens flares all contribute to the visual and yet visceral nature of this film. Director Peter Hunt was denied You Only Live Twice and was given this film as recompense. One wonders what the former would have been like had Hunt been at the helm.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is probably the closest adaptation of its source novel, with only the sequencing of the storytelling changed in some places, plus a few additions (notably the Amazing Portable Safe-Cracking Photostat Copying Machine, delivered by crane). As the novel itself is one of Fleming’s stronger works, it provides a solid foundation for this excellent film. The love story, which plays out between Bond and Tracy de Vicenzo, is astonishingly believable. Diana Rigg as Tracy, who is certainly one of the most charming Bond girls, carries this aspect of the film. She captivates with her emotion and savoir-faire.
Finally, George Lazenby. He’s not terrible. At all. Yes, there are points at which you can detect his laconic Aussie drawl. Yes, the jury is still out after all these years about whether or not he was a jerk on-set. But his performance has just what it needs. Bond, to me, is not a hugely intelligent man. Shrewd and cunning, certainly, but a blunt instrument with a bonus bucket of charm. Lazenby gives his Bond that dimension. There’s a scene when he’s alone and on the run from Blofeld’s men in the Alps, and Lazenby gives us a man terrified and out of ideas. Further on, his brooding over Tracy’s kidnap, and utter heartbreak over her violent death just after their marriage, show us that Bond is a human being, not a Robot Death Machine a la Brosnan.
Briefly, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is also great time capsule of that odd period of design between 1967 and 1971 where purple and orange were everywhere. I’ve also included a couple of Bondian sartorial clangers, just to show that not everything in this film is perfect.
It’s a shame Lazenby and his agent were too arrogant to continue with the series. However, what we’re left with is a gem, full of emotion, and almost the finest film of the classic series.
2. Casino Royale
The series goes back to square one. The Secret Intelligence Service is in pursuit of an organisation funding terrorism, and despatches its newest 00 agent, James Bond, to uncover the racket. Daniel Craig shows us with aplomb how James, the man, became Bond, the legend.
This was the most important Bond film in a generation. Faced with the challenge of topping the excesses of Die Another Day, the series producers at EoN Productions, Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, decided instead to drop Brosnan, ignore Quentin Tarantino, and reboot the series. Fortunately, they were ahead of the curve on that one – if they did it now they’d be laughed out of town.
The key things in getting Casino Royale right were three: getting a bankable but credible star, having a convincing plot, and keeping the public happy while completely changing the pace. And, after suffering through a torrent of repetitive jokes about James Blonde, it turned out that EoN had picked a winner.
Casino Royale was stylish. It was compelling. It still had incredible action, but the stunts were real. And, most importantly, Daniel Craig showed the haters that he was more than capable of filling the ample shoulders of James Bond’s dinner suit.
Eva Green as Vesper strikes all the right notes of mystery and coyness. This is the only other story where Bond legitimately falls in love and so his leading lady needed to be able to act. Green kills it. The chemistry between she and Craig when Vesper and Bond first meet on the train is utterly smouldering. It’s these little vignettes that really keep the film bouncing along between the action set pieces.
Even the supporting cast are incredibly good. Giancarlo Giannini as Bond’s contact in Montenegro, Rene Mathis, has the lovable rogue stylings of From Russia With Love’s Kerim Bey, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre is truly unpleasant without being a caricature.
David Arnold’s music very cleverly keeps the use of the Bond theme to an absolute minimum, instead merely hinting at it below the thematic motif of the film’s title song, “You Know My Name.”
This was the second time director Martin Campbell saved the series from certain ignominy, the first being GoldenEye in 1995. Despite the average follow up, (Quantum of Solace, #22 in this list, and not directed by Campbell), his efforts here still stand up extremely well now, eight years on.
With Casino Royale, the team beat a make or break situation and set themselves up for another 50 years of box office domination and stylish action excellence.
1. From Russia With Love
SPECTRE wants revenge for the death of their operative, Dr No. Seeing an opportunity to embarrass James Bond, they set up an enticing trap – a beautiful Russian agent and a Lektor decoding machine. Eventually becoming trapped aboard the Orient Express with a psychopath, will Bond escape with the girl, the machine, and his country’s reputation intact?
At last, we have reached number 1. When John F. Kennedy announced that From Russia With Love was once of his favourite books, the producers saw dollar signs and so From Russia With Love became the sequel to the surprise hit of Dr. No. Though this was one of the first sequels ever to better its predecessor’s successes, this film is no cash grab.
Interestingly, it is one of the grittier entries in the series, and actually dials back the scale after such highs in its predecessor as Dr No’s atomic reactor lair. Instead, we are given what is arguably one of the great Cold War espionage thrillers. Double agents, traps, sex, and claustrophobia abound, and each contributes to a cocktail of excitement.
The triumph of From Russia With Love is that it’s primarily a human drama. The whole situation is rather off-colour. Blofeld’s perverse desire to see 007 embroiled in a sex scandal, KGB/SPECTRE’s Rosa Klebb sexually harassing her junior officer, and SPECTRE henchman Red Grant’s eventual death due to his own greed all represent a dangerous and unpleasant world inhabited by thoroughly nasty people. Even 007 is more nasty than we would come to expect later on. The menacing air supplied by the presence of Red Grant in the background throughout, plus the knowledge that 007 is walking into a much bigger trap than he thinks, is a style of suspense left behind with Goldfinger but is constantly being sought for inspiration for the new series.
One of the more positive characters is the charming Kerim Bey, SIS’s man in Istanbul. Played by Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz, Kerim is my favourite character of the entire classic and new series. The Kerim of the novel is infused with joie de vivre, and Armendariz brings this to a fore in his performance. Considering he was at death’s door, this was no mean feat. Connery and he play their parts as best friends with a deep mutual respect, which make’s Kerim’s death much more surprising and harder to accept.
Daniela Bianchi as the naïve Tatiana “Tania” Romanova is a very enjoyable watch. As a character in way over her head, she manages to hold her own very effectively, being sufficiently cute and silly but also serious and at times, terrified.
Robert Shaw as Grant and Lotte Lenya as Klebb are magnificent. Both chew the scenery but still manage to be evil instead of lame. The claustrophobic fight between Grant and Bond in a tiny compartment aboard the Orient Express is one of the best fights in the series. Every single blow appears to be dealt with maximum power, with every intention to cause serious damage. It is brilliantly staged and filmed, and left music-free in a very, very sensible and effective decision by the production team.
The script is snappy and fun (to be honest, I could probably recite it word for word, I’ve seen it that many times). Istanbul as a filming location is used advantageously – there’s a sequence inside the St Sophia mosque where Bond and Tania are covertly exchanging information whilst the world’s most boring tour takes place in the background. This scene reinforces the idea that spying could be taking place in our background anywhere, at any time, while we’re stuck listening to tour guides.
John Barry, in his first official commission as the Bond series composer, serves up an understated by enjoyable score which complements perfectly all that happens on screen.
Casino Royale was certainly an important film, but I would say that From Russia With Love is even more so, but before its time. Suspense, drama, and thrills don’t date or tire, especially when they’re well written as they are here. From Russia With Love has endured as a classic of the genre and of its own series, and for as long as people are keen on spy films it shall continue to endure!
And, with that out of the way, it’s time for me to go watch all the films again.