Some weeks ago, WHISTLER IN THE DARK put together a night called Something Rotten, on which different companies each re-conceived an act of Hamlet. I got Act II and did it as a James Bond spoof. The show was well received and I got some encouragement to do a full version of Hamlet as James Bond, which I am happily embarked upon. To help, I’ve spent hours of serious “research” watching every Bond movie. 23 films so far (I’m counting the non-canonical Never Say Never Again) though I intend also to watch the parodic Casino Royale from 1967.
I have to say I have a deep place in my heart for Bond but hadn’t seen most of the films, at least not that I remember. I have a sense of watching Bond on my trips to Alaska as a child. For some reason when I think of Bond I think of my grandfather, which I think is both because we watched the films together and also because he was a bad ass with great wit. At any rate, this was my first time to see most of the films, certainly my first time as a grown man.
What amazes me the most is the inconsistency. For the longest running (and 2nd largest-grossing) series in history, it goes in many different directions from film to film. The best movies of the series (i.e. Spy Who Loved Me, Casino Royale) are often preceded or followed by some of the worst (i.e. Moonraker, Die another Day, respectively).
What I find most interesting however is the huge disparity in tones from one Bond actor to another. There have been 6 actors to play Bond in the Eon canon films, and each pulls their films in a totally different direction. In this, the role has an odd connection to Hamlet, which is often judged by the actor in the title role. Gielgud’s Hamlet, Branagh’s Hamlet, Jacoby’s Hamlet. Let’s face it, the core story of most Bond movies is fairly similar, the differences are in the details; quite a lot like Hamlet.
What holds the series together are the iconic elements, the “checklist” that each Bond film has: a great villain, a Bond Girl, gadgets, killer theme song, great action. A great Bond action sequence is like a great Hamlet soliloquy – you KNOW you’re going to see it; the curiosity is in how they’ll do it THIS time!
I’ve tried to do a “Top 5” for most of the key elements of the series: Film, Villain, Bond Girl, Theme Song, etc. Please note these are not in order (often I have trouble picking “the best” as they skew in different directions). I’ve also given an Honorable Mention note to a few key folks who didn’t make the list, as well as an analysis of what I think is the most overrated film in the series.
“Red Grant” – Robert Shaw (From Russia With Love)
“Frank Sanchez” – Robert Davi (License to Kill)
“Jaws” – Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me)
“Le Chiffre” – Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale)
Best Bond Girls:
“Domino” – Claudine Auger (Thunderball)
“Anya Amasova” – Barbara Bach – (The Spy Who Loved Me)
“Tatiana Romanovna” – Daniella Bianchi (From Russia With Love)
“Wai Lin – Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies)
“Aki” – Akiko Wakabayashi (You Only Live Twice)
Live and Let Die – Paul McCartney, Live and Let Die
Another Way To Die – Jack White and Alicia Keys, Quantum of Solace
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – John Barry, OHMSS (an instrumental)
Nobody Does it Better – Carly Simon, The Spy Who Loved Me
Diamonds are Forever – Shirley Bassey, Diamonds Are Forever. (she was told to sing it like she was singing to a penis and it shows)
Pierce Brosnan’s intro as Bond is full of great action. And the villain? An ex-MI6 agent and friend of Bond’s getting revenge against 007 and England. Simple. Can’t get better than that.
License to Kill, 1989
My only complaint with Dalton’s Bond is that he has no sense of humor. But the darkness works and in this one, matched up with a great drug lord from Robert Davi (whose henchman is Benicio del Toro – double win) and one of the hottest Bond girls of the series in Talisa Soto.
From Russia With Love, 1963
This one set the blueprint in many ways for the great movies in the series. Its fairly simple – most of the action takes place on a train. It’s just Bond, his wits, and his girl, against a villain who won’t stop. When that villain is the amazing (and blond) Robert Shaw, you can’t lose.
The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977
The whole series is known for its opening action sequences, but this one has the crème de la crème. Bond leaves a cabin in the Austrian Alps on skis, and is pursued. He kills one of the chasers, and escapes by skiing off a cliff and parachuting with a Union Jack. He’s then sent to find missing atomic submarines. En route he meets the gorgeous Barbara Bach, a Russian agent on the same mission who just happens to be the lover of the man Bond killed in the opening. It’s nation vs. nation, with a star crossed lover’s revenge thrown into the mix. All this so they can stop a man who wants to destroy the world and build a new civilization undersea.
Casino Royale, 2006
Oh god how the series needed a reboot and this was the perfect way to do it. This film starts from the beginning of Bond’s career and essentially follows his first official mission as a 00 agent. Craig is brilliant. The story is simple and brutal: Le Chiffre manages the money of terrorist organizations and he loses it when Bond foils him. Le Chiffre sets up a high stakes poker tournament to make back the money before the terrorists get him, and Bond has to out play him. Add in the gorgeous Eva Green and an honest to god love story, and you’ve got a Bond that is tough, brutal, funny, ballsy (dude re-starts his own heart!), and incredibly human.
Pretty much all I remember about Live and Let Die is the killer theme song and that Jane Seymour was smoking hot. She got a cast as what was a good idea for a character, but stuck in a lame movie as the lover of an even lamer villain. If she’d been given a half-decent role in a better movie, she’d be a classic Bond Girl.
Played Q in 19 of the films (starting with FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE up to THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH). The stalwart actor practically held the series together in the 80’s, always brought a great sense of fun and spry to the part, even towards the end when he was noticeably reading his lines off cue cards. Watching the entire series back to back, the one moment in the full oeuvre that truly choked me up wasn’t Tracy Bond’s death, but Q’s farewell in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Thank god they knew they were losing him in time to sign off properly. And thank god the producers found the only man on the planet who could replace Llewellyn without pissing everyone off: John Cleese.
George Lazenby got a raw deal. Poor kid never acted before and he gets to fill Sean Connery’s shoes. That’s like someone having to take over Harry Potter just for the final film. He’s not a great Bond, but he’s GOOD, and so is this film. History footnote: a 22 year old Timothy Dalton was offered the James Bond role in 1968 when Connery bailed out. OHMSS would have been his first outing. Given how dark his 80’s Bond was, and that OHMSS is one of the more cynical of the lot (Bond falls in love on his mission, marries the girl, who is killed by nemesis Blofeld minutes after the wedding), you can easily see how the 70’s would have been much different if Dalton had said yes.
Judi Dench as M
Hands down the best casting choice of the series. After the unspeakable horror which was Die Another Die, Dench was really the only reason this series should have continued. And thank god it did. With Daniel Craig as her sparring partner / wolfhound, one of the two might eventually win an acting Oscar for a Bond film. They are fantastic together. In the 90’s Dench gave the series more balls than it knew what to do with. Now that Craig’s in on things, the rest of the film has balls to match her.
The Most Overrated Bond Film:
I’m gonna be completely blasphemous and say that GOLDFINGER is entirely overrated. Good Bond film? Absolutely. Top Three (as it is consistently ranked)? No way!
Gert Frobe plays Auric Goldfinger, the main villain, like the Swedish Chef.
Pussy Galore is a great Bond Girl in name only; Honor Blackman does what she can with a poorly fleshed out role. Her fight with Bond in the hay is classic, but otherwise she’s just a pawn for Goldfinger. Her one strong character choice in the film happens off screen, when she betrays Goldfinger.
And then there’s her Flying Circus, which is a laughably bad idea, but also sadly the inspirations for the Angels of Death in OHMSS, as well as Austin Powers’ Fembots.
A poorly drawn Bond girl, plus a silly villain with a kooky idea to take down the world, plus an overemphasis on gadgets… this one isn’t a classic, it’s the blueprint for all the bad Bond movies to come. They just did this one with a bit more taste.