Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ranking 007

I rarely give more than half a hoot about "best of so-and-so" lists since they mean exactly jack shit, but now and again — depending on my mood, I suppose — I derive a little enjoyment from them, particularly when the subject matter is near and dear to me aging ticker. This morning, I came upon a best-to-worst list of James Bond movies, and while there were some entries with which I quite agreed, I mostly thought the thing pretty well out of whack. That's the beauty of lists, though; you can jump up and down in delighted agreement, swear the creators ought to be flayed for their audacious stupidity, or just avert your eyes because the whole idea is ridiculous. Said list this morning kind of made me want to compile one of my own. So... what the hell. Since the screen's Bond is 50 years old, Skyfall has surpassed the billion-dollar mark in ticket sales, and I've been on a bit of a Bond kick myself lately, for my first blog of 2013, I'm going to make me a list — not necessarily of my favorite and least favorite EON Productions' Bond films, but what I consider the best and worst of the series, starting at the bottom and working toward the top. Like most, I suppose, the list's middle entries are the most difficult to settle upon; the very best and very worst are easy. Your reaction may be one of the above or something altogether different, and that's just fine because, yes, I am gonna make me this list. And thus, with no further ado...

Damned Rodan's List of Damned Bond Films (Worst to Best): 

#23: Die Another Day
Pierce Brosnan's last outing as 007... easily his worst, and the series' absolute rock-bottom entry. It opens with some promise, despite Madonna's hideous theme song (second only to Jack White and Alicia Keys' song for Quantum of Solace for pure awfulness), but quickly devolves into second-rate science-fiction, loaded to the gills with poor CGI, and featuring the most idiotic of all 007's technological accouterments — an "invisible" Aston Martin.

#22: Moonraker
One of the most glaring examples ever of fabulous special effects going to waste on a stupid movie. And stupid it is — Roger Moore at his most fatuous, a plot recycled from The Spy Who Loved Me recycled from You Only Live Twice (all directed by Lewis Gilbert; a pattern, perhaps?), another cookie-cutter megalomaniacal villain in Hugo Drax (played without much panache by Michael Lonsdale), and the nadir of the series' plunge into sophomoric humor. John Barry's lush musical score, including the title song, sung by Shirley Bassey (her third and final Bond theme), tries hard to bring some gravitas to the proceedings; mais alas.

#21: The Man With the Golden Gun
Roger Moore as the lost Stooge. While Live and Let Die injected more comedy — mostly vapid — into the series than ever before, The Man With the Golden Gun plunges right into slapstick. Roger Moore is only slightly less wooden than in the previous entry, and even a dignified performance by Christopher Lee as the notorious hit man Scaramanga does little to make this almost-not-a-Bond-film palatable. John Barry's score is, as usual, high-grade, though the title song, with its inane lyrics and vocals by Lulu, who sounds like a chipmunk on helium, induces groans and uncomfortable chuckles. Not what you really want in a Bond theme song.

#20: A View to a Kill
Like so many of Roger Moore's outings, this film opens with promise — at least until the chorus of The Beach Boys' "California Girls" interrupts an otherwise reasonably engaging ski chase. Moore again at his witless worst, Christopher Walken and Patrick Macnee pretty much wasted, and Tanya Roberts as one of the least animated Bond girls ever to hit celluloid. Oh, and what's this? Yet more juvenile humor? Big sigh. Duran Duran's title song is high-octane stuff, though Maurice Binder's title sequence is the most gaudy, unappealing ever.

#19: Octopussy
There's actually a lot to like about Octopussy — particularly Louis Jourdan as the suave but treacherous Kamal Khan — but an equal or greater measure to loathe. It's one of Moore's better performances as Bond, but the constant, inappropriate insertion of juvenile humor spoils one potentially exciting scene after another. Maud Adams plays the intriguing character of Octopussy with far more aplomb than she did Scaramanga's girlfriend, Andrea, in The Man With the Golden Gun. A good John Barry score overall, but the title song, "All-Time High," moaned by Rita Coolidge, is one of the series' dullest.

#18: Live and Let Die
I actually enjoy Live and Let Die more than my ranking might indicate, but objectively, I have to place it pretty far down the list for Moore's sincere but awkward attempt at taking on the role for the first time and the film's frequent lapses into ill-timed comedy. Yaphet Kotto as Mr. Big/Dr. Kananga has his moments, though, in its time, the film moving into blaxploitation territory seemed a bit of a shock. The title song by Paul McCartney & Wings proved to be one of the series' most memorable, and the score by "fifth Beetle" George Martin, while a bit dated, stands out as one of the best non-John Barry efforts.

#18: The World Is Not Enough
Neither a terrible nor superlative entry in the series, The World Is Not Enough (the Bond family motto) offers a few decent plot elements, an engaging female villain (Elektra King, played by Sophie Marceau), and Pierce Brosnan comfortable and confident in the Bond role. It also features the rather dull antagonist Reynard (Robert Carlyle), who is unable to feel pain because of a bullet lodged in his brain, and Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones. Say no more. An unremarkable score by David Arnold, though the title song, performed by Garbage, is agreeably, thoroughly Bond-ish.

#16: Tomorrow Never Dies
Probably Pierce Brosnan's best performance as Bond. Media mogul Elliott Carver (Jonathan Pryce) looks to start World War III so his news network can get the big scoop. This improbable scenario at least offers a number of exciting moments, with some daring stunt work. The very appealing Michele Yeoh appears as Chinese agent and Bond ally Wai Lin. David Arnold's score offers a few distinctive moments. The title song by Sheryl Crow is nothing to write home about, though K. D. Lang belts out a much more Bond-like — and far more satisfying — tune ("Surrender") over the end credits.

#15: You Only Live Twice
Most reviewers and fans rate Sean Connery's fifth outing as James Bond much higher, but I can't get past the film's excessive inanities, plot holes, and visual gaffes. While there's a lot to like about Roald Dahl's screenplay, director Lewis Gilbert mucks up detail after detail — not unlike in his later directorial efforts. Donald Pleasance exudes cartoon menace as the quintessential Bond villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but his diminutive stature is quite at odds with Fleming's imposing literary character. Connery sleepwalks through the production, clearly tired of the role that for many years defined him as an actor. A pleasant John Barry score and melodic theme song sung by Nancy Sinatra.

#14: Goldeneye
Pierce Brosnan's first outing as Bond is among his better ones. He plays the character with some of the same darkness that Timothy Dalton brought to the role but appears far more comfortable handling the necessary humor. Sean Bean, despite his considerable talent as an actor, seems oddly lifeless as MI6-agent-turned-villain Alec Trevelyan. Izabella Scorupco, as Russian weapons system expert Natalya Simonova, and Famke Janssen, as Russian assassin Xenia Onatopp, both play refreshingly strong female characters. Tina Turner provides the vocals for a striking theme song, though the score by Eric Serra, while oftentimes atmospheric, is too low-key to get very excited about.

#13: The Spy Who Loved Me
A much more straightforward, oftentimes exciting Bond adventure than many from the Moore era, The Spy Who Loved Me still lapses into horrid humor too frequently to be wholly palatable. Roger Moore does turn in one of his better performances, though not without several cringe-inducing moments. Barbara Bach isn't bad as Russian spy Anya Amasova; her acting is competent at best, but the character makes for a stronger than customary female lead for this era of Bond movies. Marvin Hamlisch provides a mostly lackluster, sometimes irritating score, and Carly Simon performs the reasonably agreeable title song, "Nobody Does It Better."

#12: Quantum of Solace
This film, Daniel Craig's second as Bond, takes up where Casino Royale left off, and while Craig hones his skills as 007, the movie never comes near the level of excellence achieved by its predecessor. Its best moments are all Craig's, especially during his more emotionally charged scenes, such as the death of Inspector Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). Villain Dominic Greene isn't terribly exciting, though Mathieu Amalric plays the part with enough bile to raise a little shudder or two. David Arnold turns in one of his better scores, though the title song by Jack White and Alicia Keys is the most repulsive piece of shit ever to play over the title credits.

#11: The Living Daylights
Timothy Dalton brings some much needed Fleming to the character of James Bond. After Roger Moore's tenure, which ran a bit past its prime, the series certainly needed some reshaping. Dalton did capture the darker essence of Bond but appeared worse than uncomfortable with the moments of levity required of the screen character. The plot is among the series' most dated, in which Afghani mujahideen team up with Bond to foil a plot by mad mercenary Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) and rogue KGB agent Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) to profit from illicit arms and drug deals. John Barry's score shines, with electronic augmentation to his traditional orchestrations, and while A-ha's effective title song mimics the style of Duran Duran's A View to a Kill, it never achieved nearly as much commercial success.

#10: Licence to Kill
Dalton's second Bond film is the better of the two, though it often feels more like Die Hard-noir than a typical Bond film. The film's dark, serious tone, featuring the drawn-from-life villain Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) foreshadows the style of the Daniel Craig entries in the franchise. Timothy Dalton seems far more comfortable as Bond, and Carey Lowell as CIA field agent Pam Bouvier capably handles both levity and substance. Gladys Knight provides vocals for the excellent title song, which echoes strains of Goldfinger, but "lackluster" is too kind a term for Michael Kamen's deadly dull musical score.

#9: For Your Eyes Only
Easily Roger Moore's best performance as Bond and the best film to be made during his tenure. There's actually some Fleming to be found in the screenplay, which, during the Moore era, was a rarity indeed. Mostly eschewing juvenile humor and far-fetched plots, the story harkens back to the style of From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, though it still falls short of these particular landmark films. Sadly, a well-staged opening finishes with one of the series' single stupidest moments; in fact, it's so bad, getting past it to appreciate the rest of the film is actually an effort. Carole Bouquet as vengeance-driven Melina Havelock has some good moments, though, on the whole, she isn't one of the series most outstanding Bond girls. And another negative in the midst of so much positive: Lynn Holly Johnson as young nymphomaniac Bibi Dahl, a character so pointless that every scene with her could have been excised without impacting the film. Bill Conti offers a mostly unremarkable score, though a few of the tracks provide effective atmosphere. Sheena Easton sings the romantic title song to Maurice Binder's best title sequence since the 1960s Bond films.

#8: Diamonds Are Forever
Sean Connery's final appearance as 007 (until Irvin Kershner's Never Say Never Again in 1983) is actually one of my personal favorites — it was the first Bond film I ever saw — though in good conscience I can't rank it higher here. While the movie draws inspiration from some of the earlier, better Connery films, its lapses into zaniness uncomfortably foreshadow the tone of the Roger Moore Bonds. Charles Gray plays Ernst Stavro Blofeld with more charm and humor than either Pleasance or Savalas — which can be jarring, given Fleming's description of Blofeld as a "scarred, asexual monster" — but his sharp lines and personal charisma make the character memorable. Jill St. John as Tiffany Case may come off as a bit dizzy, yet she possesses enough wit and will to present Bond with a somewhat challenging female lead. Jimmy Dean, as reclusive millionaire Willard Whyte, provides some of the series' best comedic moments, and Connery's one-liners are sharper than ever. Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as gay assassins Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, respectively, each bring an engaging quirkiness to their characters, mostly bouncing amusing one-liners off each other. John Barry composes one of the franchise's best musical scores, including the title song, sung by Shirley Bassey.

#7: Doctor No
The very first Bond film isn't the best of them — it seems at times outright amateurish — but it's reasonably true to the novel and sets up a respectable tone for the films that follow immediately. Connery immediately stands out as the consummate Bond, and while he isn't exactly Fleming's Bond, he absolutely nails most of the qualities that distinguished the literary character. As the title villain, Joseph Wiseman is perfectly cast; again, a departure from his literary counterpart, but every bit as imposing, if not more so.

#6: Skyfall
The most recent Bond film showcases Daniel Craig's talents to an even greater degree than the previous two. Also, the character of M (Judi Dench) gets more than customary screen time and development. Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent seeking revenge for having been abandoned on a deadly mission, in some ways mirrors Sean Bean's Alex Trevelyan in Goldeneye, though he is a much more engaging antagonist. The stunt work may be a little more over the top than in Casino Royale, but it's also better staged than the too-frenetic action of Quantum of Solace. Like many of David Arnold's scores, Thomas Newman's lacks distinctiveness and cohesiveness, but the title song by Adele is appealing.

#5: Thunderball
By 1965, Connery had Bond down to a tee, and the films' formula had become engraved in the film-going public's mind. Thunderball hits mostly high notes, though some of the gadgets were now becoming pretty far-fetched, the witty rejoinders timed like clockwork. Chief villain Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) possesses an imposing stature, much like Auric Goldfinger before him, and his Roman features convey quiet menace with just the slightest scowl. The climactic underwater fight proves quite the spectacle to behold. John Barry's score creates a somber, aquatic atmosphere, and the main theme, brilliantly sung by Tom Jones, accompanies a superb Maurice Binder title sequence.

#4: Casino Royale
A landmark film in many ways, Casino Royale re-invents James Bond, going back to his roots as an agent of MI6. Continuity in the Bond universe has never been much of a consideration, and it's easy enough to accept this contemporary rebooting. Craig creates a Bond clearly drawn from Fleming's original, though he is quieter, more introverted, and more darkly dangerous — very different from any other actor's portrayal of the character. Mads Mikkelsen plays the desperate villain Le Chiffre with just the right blend of humor and subtle malevolence. Eva Greene as Vesper Lynd possesses the ideal combination of vulnerability and coolness. David Arnold's score distinguishes itself a bit more than usual, and Chris Cornell's rousing title song, "You Know My Name" — the lyrics of which overtly reflect M's point of view — sets the perfect mood for the film.

#3: From Russia With Love
Sean Connery's second appearance as Bond and easily his second best. For the most part, the movie faithfully follows the novel, with some well-conceived alterations. It stands as the best honest-to-god spy thriller of the entire series, with atmosphere reminiscent of a Hitchcock mystery. Lotte Lenya as the brutal Russian SMERSH-turned-SPECTRE agent couldn't be more brilliantly repulsive, and Robert Shaw as the assassin Red Grant is very likely the most believable and dangerous of all the bad guys ever to menace James Bond. John Barry's score complements the action wonderfully, at least in most instances; a few ill-timed tracks occasionally mar its overall effectiveness.

#2: On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Choosing between OHMSS and Goldfinger as the "best" Bond film is indeed difficult. Both take the cores of the respective novels and in some ways improve on the original stories. OHMSS may be the most visually gorgeous of all the films, with much of the action taking place high in the Swiss Alps. The ski chases truly elevate one's adrenaline levels, particularly in conjunction with John Barry's score — also perhaps the finest of the entire series. The main theme is a rare instrumental and is all the better for it, played to Maurice Binder's most effective title sequence. George Lazenby is far from the best cinematic Bond, but he's an acceptable successor to Connery, particularly when it comes to handling the physical stunts. Had he continued in the role, I suspect audiences would have become quite comfortable with him. Telly Savalas is certainly "different" as Blofeld, but he does make for an effectively sinister antagonist. And Diana Rigg may be the best-drawn female protagonist of the entire series.

#1: Goldfinger
Goldfinger is a near-perfect Bond film, featuring excellent pacing, first-rate acting, gorgeous scenery, memorable women, and one of the sharpest theme songs/title sequences ever conceived for any film. Sean Connery turns in his best performance as Bond; in fact, this is very likely the film in which Connery truly became James Bond for millions of movie-goers. Gert Frobe plays Auric Goldfinger, the madman obsessed with gold, just a bit over-the-top, but with ultimate believability (and while his voice is dubbed, it's so perfect that most viewers don't realize it). The extraordinary Honor Blackman may also have the distinction of playing the most unforgettable Bond girl, if but for her character's name — Pussy Galore. Shirley Eaton is also memorable as Jill Masterson, the girl whose body is painted completely gold. Special props go to Harold Sakata as the iconic Oddjob, Goldfinger's mute Korean manservant, probably best remembered for his steel-rimmed top hat, which he uses to deadly effect. The gadgets are particularly novel this time around but never upstage Bond himself, as they tend to do in later films. A fine score by John Barry rounds out the superlative production.

1 comment:

James Robert Smith said...

I have never been a Bond fan. Oh, I have much enjoyed some of the films, and I have seen about ten or so of them. I've never been disappointed in a one of them--even the ones that are pretty bad. They were silly fun, and succeeded in entertaining me.

Of all of the Bond films I've seen, my favorite has to be the most recent version of CASINO ROYALE. I did not care at all for the followup, QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

I was ready to go see SKYFALL at the local theater and went over to do that...and they'd already gotten rid of it! Zounds! That's what I get for dallying.