WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: The James Bond Movies
Not many international secret agents have a cinematic shelf life of 52 years. Actually, there’s only one: Bond … James Bond. The suave super-spy better known as 007 has been foiling plots for world domination since Sean Connery made the role so iconic back in 1963. Since then, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig have served queen and country, but not all Bond films are created equal—and lest you spend several days plowing through them all nonstop (like I did), you should choose wisely.
But with a little bit of guidance, you can maneuver the two dozen movies with the skill that Bond uses to command a Baccarat table. We’ll take you through the surefire hits, the excruciating misses, and the underappreciated gems that only seem to get better with time, like a ’53 Dom Perignon. If you’ve got the license to kill some time, our guide won’t steer you wrong.
The James Bond Franchise
Number of movies: 24
Time Requirements: When you throw in the non-canonical Never Say Never Again—which we will here because it’s Sean Connery playing James Bond, so enough said, really—it’ll take you a little over 50 and a half hours to watch the first 24 films. And once you get to the theater for Spectre, keep in mind that its reported 2-hour, 28-minute runtime makes it the longest Bond movie ever, so you’re gonna want to grab a vodka martini and get comfortable.
Where to Get Your Fix: iTunes
Best Character to Follow:
Bond, James Bond. Sure, suggesting the titular character of the series isn’t original, but in this case it’s a byproduct of both his commanding screen presence and the lack of overly charismatic secondary characters. But if you need to step away from 007, you do have choices. “M,” the head of British intelligence, and Miss Moneypenny, his Bond-smitten secretary, are always good sources for witty banter and double-entendres. Felix Leiter, Bond’s American friend with the CIA, shows up often and is almost always played by a different actor (most recently Jeffrey Wright).
But for pure Bond chemistry, your best bet is always “Q”, head of the Q Branch and MI6’s resident gadget guru. Desmond Llewelyn played him in 17 films, and though he went by “Boothroyd” in his first appearance in From Russia With Love, he’s always just called Q. And when he comes on screen and pleads (in that always slightly defeated and exasperated tone) for Bond to “please pay attention, 007,” it’s sound advice for the audience as well.
Movies You Can Skip:
Not every Bond movie has been treated with the same attention to quality. Make the wrong pick and you’re likely to come away more shaken than stirred.
Thunderball (1965) The first serious misfire of the series, though some will swear by it. Sean Connery’s fourth turn as Bond in two-plus years and he was already starting to show some wear. Lots of good Bond films revolved around Spectre, the shadowy criminal organization led by the bald, cat-stroking, evil mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but this ain’t one of them. A scheme to ransom two atomic bombs for 100 million British pounds gives way to a third act that features underwater fight scenes that slow the movie to a crawl. Maybe any Bond film was going to suffer in following up Goldfinger—a top-three Bond film for just about anyone—but Thunderball crumbles into the sea under the weight of expectation.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971) It’s so obvious that Eon Productions tried everything they could to replicate the magic of Goldfinger—Connery is back as Bond, Shirley Bassey again sings the opening number, and Guy Hamilton directs—but it doesn’t work the way anyone intended. The plot (revolving around diamond thefts, a reclusive Las Vegas billionaire, and space lasers) is uninspired and Charles Gray’s Blofeld is a significant dropoff from Telly Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A disappointing sendoff to the Bond who started it all.
Live and Let Die (1973) As much as I’d like to recommend Roger Moore’s first foray as Bond, the problem is that he’s about the only thing that’s above-average. (The other being Paul McCartney and Wings’ rendition of the title track.) The movie may as well be subtitled “James Bond Meets Mid-’70s Urban America” but the whole ham-handed effort feels clunky and especially outdated. There’s no Q, so no cool gizmos. Jane Seymour is miscast as a mousy medium. Yaphet Kotto is an incredible actor but his talents are wasted as a Caribbean drug lord seemingly devoid of personality. And George Martin (filling in for John Barry and better known as the Beatles’ preferred producer) delivers a largely forgettable score. There’s a lot to like about a Bond film centered in New Orleans, but this is a misfire. Moore would have much finer days as Bond.
Moonraker (1979) Push up a Bond movie to capitalize on Star Wars fever? What could possibly go wrong? In fairness, there are some elements working well here—Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) has the menacing and unctuous vocal affect of a 1970s Tyrion Lannister, Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) holds her own as a Bond girl, and the set pieces are, at times, impressive, if somewhat goofy—but the whole enterprise feels muddled and doesn’t hold up as well as older franchise entries. There’s a neat, not-so-subtle musical homage to Close Encounters halfway through, but for a film meant to capitalize on the public’s interest in space, it takes an awfully long time to get there. (Regardless, it became the highest-grossing Bond movie, at least for another 16 years.) Not the worst Bond flick, but not an essential one.
Octopussy (1983) A tepid and empty effort from Moore, who seriously starts to show his age in his sixth Bond film. Everything feels forced to type (Bond ends up on an exotic island full of beautiful women) or downright stale (yet another plot revolving around nuclear weapons). It’s not subtle, either. I mean, the pre-credits set piece features (wink wink) Cuban missiles. Bond, at various points, disguises himself in a gorilla suit to escape a sword-wielding goon on a train and as a clown to disarm a nuclear bomb. Bottom line is that there’s too much camp and not enough groundedness. This feels like Bond on a bad vacation rather than a mission to save the world.
A View to a Kill (1985) Moore, who was 57 when the film was released, goes out with a whimper more than a whopper. The movie starts off with Moore snowboarding down a mountain, dodging gunfire to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” and it only gets more unrealistic from there. The action scenes come off as gratuitous, and Christopher Walken, as a maniacal, genetically modified, blimp-loving French industrialist bent on destroying Silicon Valley so he can corner the microchip market, is surprisingly toothless. From start to finish, it’s loud ’80s action at its most banal and (outside of a catchy Duran Duran opening song) adds nothing to the overall Bond mystique.
License to Kill (1989) A movie that marked the end of several Bond eras. It was Dalton’s second time as 007, John Glen’s fifth time as director, and Richard Maibaum’s 13th Bond screenplay—and none of them would return by the time 007 resurfaced (and was recast) six years later. This offering, which finds Bond going AWOL to hunt down those who tortured his CIA friend and frequent collaborator Felix Leiter, is darker and downright depressing. Dalton, Glen, Maibaum, and legendary title designer Maurice Binder (who did 14 Bond films) all certainly deserved better than this grim tale to go out on.
The World Is Not Enough (1999) Brosnan’s third go as Bond and that sense of familiarity creep starts to set in. The title comes from a scene 30 years earlier in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Bond’s family crest is translated from its original Latin, and the plot (centering on an international terrorist out for revenge) feels just as old and well-wore. Robert Carlyle is menacingly excellent in the role, but there’s no support on the margins. Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards are arguably the weakest tandem of Bond women in any film. If anything, pop in for the scenes with Desmond Llewelyn, who makes his final appearance as Q, and the insane pre-titles boat chase down the Thames. Those sequences alone are more than enough.
Die Another Day (2002) Probably the low point of the entire franchise. The action is tired and the movie feels interminable. The film starts off with Bond surfing with special forces off the North Korean coastline and only gets more outlandish from there. All you need to know is the plot involves diamonds, genetic engineering, a super-laser, and a weaponized satellite, which would seem overtly familiar to anyone who’s seen almost any Bond movie. The opening song by Madonna is worse than the act of shoving gravel in your ear canals. Bond would live to see another day, but this installment almost killed the whole franchise.
Quantum of Solace (2008) Much as Thunderball flailed in the wake of following Goldfinger, so too does this lackluster, by-the-numbers revenge fantasy that succeeded Casino Royale. It’s pretty dreary as Bond flicks go, picking up right after the devastating finale of the previous film, and director Marc Forster, though plenty experienced, gives us a Bond that’s all heat and no heart. Craig is pissed off as all hell from the get-go, but there needed to be some counteracting force. Revenge Bond has never worked well as it should in theory, and this movie (the shortest of the franchise, at 1 hour, 46 minutes) repeats that same mistake, but at least it’s over quick.
Movies You Can’t Skip:
Dr. No (1963) From this one, all other Bond movies flow. 007 needed a banger of an introduction to have any long life beyond this one and Connery delivered right out of the chute. The script revolves around a mysterious Chinese entrepreneur/recluse in the Caribbean who is plotting to take out the American space program. So much of the Bond mythos is established in this film—the attitude, the evil villain archetype, Monty Norman’s iconic theme, and so forth—and yet it’s astounding how well this film holds up more than five decades later. There are Bond installments in the ’70s and ’80s that feel immensely more dated than this one. Maybe it’s about sticking to the basics. As Bond quips to Dr. No: “World domination, that same old dream.”
From Russia With Love (1963) Arguably the sexiest Bond movie of all time. Released the same year as Dr. No, this film introduced Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and viewers got their first glimpse of a faceless Blofeld. Connery and Daniela Bianchi have steaming-hot chemistry throughout the film; though Bond would go to have many (many) more love interests, this may have been the most compatible pairing of them all. But ultimately it’s Robert Shaw, playing a laconic assassin tailing Bond across Europe, who steals the show. The Bond franchise was a solid 2-for-2 out of the gate—and about to make it a trifecta.
Goldfinger (1964) Arguably the best Bond movie of all time. From Shirley Bassey’s unforgettable and iconic power ballad during the opening credits to Auric Goldfinger’s plan to irradiate America’s gold reserve at Ft. Knox, Goldfinger is a testament to the power of strong dialogue, perfect casting (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore is an all-time great Bond character), and creative plot twists. Eminently rewatchable by any standard, the film has an intrinsic wit that showed saving the world every time out needn’t mean you lose your sense of humor. It also contains perhaps the famous scene in Bold history (more on that later).
You Only Live Twice (1967) Connery’s final film for his first go-around as Bond (before not one but two comebacks) and it’s a satisfying movie with some risky subject matter, thanks to a screenplay written by none other than Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Spectre and Blofeld are back, stealing American and Russian spaceships with the help of a Japanese chemical corporation. For this, Bond goes undercover in Japan, trains to be a ninja, and gets married. The gadgets are more outlandish and the set pieces—one where Bond takes out four helicopters while piloting a one-man flyer particularly stands out—clearly have the highest production values thus far. And we finally see Blofeld’s face!
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) A misunderstood masterpiece in the Bond universe. George Lazenby, a relatively unknown 29-year-old former Australian model with almost no previous acting experience, was brought in to replace Connery after the fifth Bond film (You Only Live Twice). Immediate public reaction was not on Lazenby’s side, but history has been quite kind to his lone performance as 007 and it’s now recognized as one of the richest and most well-told stories of the entire run. Lazenby is a funny, smooth, and confident Bond in all ways, and the last 10 minutes is an emotional trampoline few other Bond films could equal. Featuring the greatest bobsled fight ever put to film, this movie (and Lazenby) deserved better praise in its own day.
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) Moore finally finds his sea legs in his second stint, exuding a confidence and gravitas mixed with the right amount of wit and humor. The film, Guy Hamilton’s fourth and final as Bond director, doesn’t take itself too seriously—the somewhat goofy final battle notwithstanding—and the plot surrounding solar cells and high-powered lasers has the right amount of Bond movie DNA and fresh narrative. Christopher Lee as psychotic hitman Francisco Scaramanga is one of the most terrifying, realistic, and perhaps still underappreciated Bond villains, but horror fans will still find that smile and voice all too familiar.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) Moore and Barbara Bach (as a Russian agent) are a delightful combo, even if they don’t exactly have the sexual chemistry that the film’s title innately promises. This entry does boast perhaps the most delightfully over-the-top villain’s lair, thanks to Karl Stromberg’s spider-shaped, sea-based compound. But the interplay between American and Russian operatives is what drives the plot, which involves two missing nuclear subs. Marvin Hamlisch stepped in for John Barry and earned two Oscar noms, for score (the first Bond film ever to do so) and song (Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” a valid choice for best opening track in Bond film history).
For Your Eyes Only (1981) A more understated and sober effort—the very first image is of Bond’s dead wife’s gravestone—but still a very enjoyable film, maybe even because it doesn’t adhere to the typical Bond formula. After a campy opening set piece where 007 dispatches of a faceless, wheelchair-bound Blofeld in a most efficient manner, Bond sets his sights on recovering an encryption device stolen from a British sub. The underwater scenes are everything Thunderball should’ve had, and Bill Conti’s score, which helped snag an Oscar nom for Best Original Song (sung by Sheena Easton), is dramatic and brooding, itself a departure from John Barry’s lush themes in past efforts. This was John Glen’s directorial debut—he would also direct the next four Bond films—and while later entries would stumble, this was a solid result for a newbie.
Never Say Never Again (1983) Fresh off of a little arthouse gem called The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner next slid into the director’s chair for this somewhat controversial film that also features Sean Connery’s one-off return as Bond, 12 years after the underwhelming Diamonds are Forever. Also somewhat odd is that the film, the result of a years-long court battle won by writer/producer Kevin McClory, is essentially a remake of Thunderball, which starred Connery 18 years earlier, but here we find an older, more contemplative Bond who’s grappling with the idea of his impending mortality. Considered non-canonical within the Bond universe—Octopussy, starring Roger Moore, actually hit theaters that same year, just four months earlier—Kershner nonetheless delivers a worthy product that also introduced the world to a young Kim Basinger.
The Living Daylights (1987) Timothy Dalton was not the worst Bond because he was bad. Dalton just wasn’t as good as the others (if that makes any sense). But if you’re going to see either of his contributions, make it this one, which finds 007 teaming up with a secretive cellist (Maryam D’Abo) to foil a secret arms deal that ties into the Afghan-Soviet War. The script is a little mushy and lousy character accents abound, Dalton’s arrival gives an undeniable energy to the film’s pacing (he was only 41 when he took over) and may have have refreshed composer John Barry, whose 11th and final Bond score is a far more creative composition compared to A View to a Kill. Oh, and Bond is driving an Aston Martin again for the first time in nearly 20 years, so there’s that.
GoldenEye (1995) “I think you’re a sexist misogynist dinosaur—a relic of the Cold War.” And with those words from M (Judi Dench), the first act of GoldenEye concludes and we are well underway in the Pierce Brosnan-as-Bond era. Not only that but director Martin Campbell (who would later direct Casino Royale) is addressing all the criticisms head-on, that Bond couldn’t possibly have relevance in a post-Cold War world. Thus, the onus is on Brosnan and the plot, which centers on a weaponized satellite and an ex-00 operative out for revenge, to sell us on Bond and his place in this new reality. GoldenEye, above all, is fun and cool, and Brosnan has the debonair presence of a young Connery. (But perhaps its greatest legacy is spawning the single-greatest FPS any video game-addicted college student ever binged on for, uh, days at a time.)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) The high-point of the Brosnan years, though it’s a close call after its predecessor. Everything in this film feels like it’s excelling effortlessly. Bond’s target is a Rupert Murdoch/Bill Gates-type hybrid who’s determined to start a world war in the name of revenue and ratings. The movie’s sensibility is very much rooted in the mid-’90s obsession with new media, but it doesn’t feel dates in that Reality Bites kind of way. The score by David Arnold is robust, original, and a welcome departure from Eric Serra’s electronic GoldenEye gobbledygook, and any movie where Ricky Jay is central to the plot is welcome in my world. But when Elliot Carver, the evil media mogul at the center of everything, says to his underlings, “There’s no news like bad news,” his words, even nearly 20 years later, feel downright prescient.
Casino Royale (2006) Almost anything would’ve seemed competent and worthwhile after Die Another Debacle, but Daniel Craig’s take on Bond is gritty, suave, cerebral, commanding but with fewer words, and damn near-perfect. Whereas the later Brosnan era became bombastic and cheesy, Craig and director Martin Campbell (who helmed GoldenEye) bring the whole enterprise back to basics, as Mads Mikkelsen plays a criminal banker terrorist with a keen eye detail. Co-star Eva Green has real acting chops that are full display and rounds the narrative arc’s rougher edges. Even composer David Arnold (much like John Barry with The Living Daylights) sounds reinvigorated by a new 007. This movie was well-received at the time it premiered and became the highest-grossing Bond flick ever, but its cachet has only increased over time since Mikkelsen became the scene-chewing star of Hannibal. At least here, he keeps his appetite in check.
Skyfall (2012) I’m gonna say it: a top-three Bond movie. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) takes the reins and brings along frequent collaborators like composer Thomas Newman and director of photography Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), who produces the best-looking Bond movie ever filmed. Craig shows no signs of slowing and the script from John Logan (Gladiator) is taut, gripping, and skillfully paced. With M (Judi Dench, in her final appearance) square in the action as she fends off a hacker-terrorist (Javier Bardem) out for payback, Bond has rarely been better, full of pathos and determination as he fights his way back from the brink of death in search of personal and professional meaning. With Adele nabbing the series’ first-ever Oscar for Best Original Song, the entire franchise hit a creative and critical high-point—putting all the more pressure on Spectre to deliver the goods.
Why You Should Binge:
Secret agents are the coolest people on the planet—getting to do things and go places us mere mortals could only dream—and Bond is the best of the bunch. When you consume the films in large doses, one after another, you seem how that coolness has evolved over time. The debonair government man of the ’60s becomes the anti-authority rebel of the ’70s becomes the tech-obsessed whiz kid of the ’80s and ’90s. In recent years, the franchise has come back to earth for a needed reset and imbued the series with humanity. Bond has always been a symbol of something bigger than what regular people can experience; he is, at his best, escapism made real. We needed that from our movies as much in 1963 as we do in 2015. And there are few cinematic characters who pull it off better than James Bond.
Best Scene: Goldfinger set the bar impossibly high for future films, with dialogue and production values and plot. But when Auric Goldfinger straps Bond to the lab table and starts inching a laser toward his lower regions, the scene is not only dramatic but humorous and even introspective. Bond: “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” It’s maybe the most beloved line of dialogue in Bond movie history, if only because we know of all the possible outcomes, that ain’t going to be it.
Bond drives the cars we wish we could, saves the day when other can’t, and never stops coming back for more.
If You Liked James Bond, You’ll Love:
The Bond flicks have inspired countless secret agent-centric imitators, both those rooted in homage (The Bourne Identity, 24) and parody (Austin Powers). While worthy of your time, do also search out the ones that are rooted in admiration more than ridicule and repetition. To me, that could only be “You Only Move Twice” from the eighth season of The Simpsons. Albert Brooks as Hank Scorpio is the best Bond villain outside of any Bond movie—self-obsessed, witty, and utterly consumed with world domination. His lair is (obviously) modeled after Blofeld’s in You Only Live Twice, so you know he has good taste. Plus he loves good hammocks and German beer, so how bad could he really be?
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