Thursday, July 31, 2008

Which Bond Movie ISN'T the Best Worst Bond Movie?

Those who provided such great comments on my James Bond posts might enjoy checking out (if you haven't been there already) I Expect You To Die!, a blog entirely devoted to the James Bond movie series; the author is reviewing each of the films in order. (Via Jason Bennion.)

He's up to Live and Let Die now, toward which he is rightly merciless. (I liked it as a kid, but even as a kid I thought there was something a little discomfiting about the film's racial politics. Though at that age I probably wouldn't have called it "racial politics.") But that brings me to my last Bond-related point: it's not just Live and Let Die that doesn't hold together as a movie, and it's not just Diamonds Are Forever and it's not just Moonraker, it's almost every Bond film ever made.

The Bond series followed the normal pattern of any series of movies. The first four movies were very strong, with maybe some falling-off in the fourth movie when the series was trying to cope with its own popularity. (Thunderball has its weaknesses, but it has a good story, Connery's last fully-involved performance, and some of the best female characters in the series. It's not as satisfying as the two before it, but it's a good strong movie.) The fifth movie, You Only Live Twice, saved a weak story with great production values; the series tried something a little different in the sixth film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That's a very good run, but OHMSS showed an awareness that they'd done most of what they could do and the only thing left was to explore Bond a bit more as a character. Then they decided, for the most part, that exploring Bond as a character was something they wouldn't do again. You'd think that that would have meant a series of stumbling attempts to recapture the early '60s magic, and that's pretty much what happened.

By the '70s, the Bond series was where you'd expect a series to be after turning out many films, several of them very good: it had used up most of Fleming's material, most of its ideas, and its cultural moment had passed. And that was reflected in the quality of the films. Except maybe The Spy Who Loved Me, which works great on its own terms, I think of every post-'60s Bond film (up to the Casino Royale reboot, anyway) as a "yes, but..." movie. Yes, it's entertaining, but the story goes off the rails (The Man With the Golden Gun) or Bond is way too old and the secondary characters aren't very good (Octopussy) or the comedy is really lame (For Your Eyes Only) or it's just a little drab (The Living Daylights) or it just flat-out sucks (Die Another Day). It's kind of amazing that this series survived so long, despite hardly ever turning out a movie that was a fully satisfying whole. (That's my opinion, obviously, not fact.)

I don't actually lament the decision not to do something else like On Her Majesty's Secret Service because I'm not as sold on that movie as everyone else. (And not because of Lazenby. It's because it's too long, a little slow in parts and seems to rely on editing tricks to compensate for some less-than-great action setpieces.) But it is one of the last Bond movies that is an actual movie, telling an actual story. For decades after that, Bond movies were like revues, a series of acts with a story sketched in between them. And the thing is, it worked. It kept people coming back, and kept the series profitable for a long time. I can't actually object to that, I just find it kind of astonishing that in movies, a storytelling medium, the Bond series managed to keep itself alive by more or less rendering storytelling and character irrelevant for years.


Edward Hegstrom said...

I think THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is one of the most underrated Bond entries--it does tell a story (incredibly convoluted though it may be) and, Denise Richards aside, the performances are way above average and relationships between the characters are vividly realized. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY has some of the same qualities, but winds up sidetracked by all the silliness expected from the Moore years.

Maybe what keeps the series popular is that, even in darkest days of the seventies and eighties, they seemed like pleasant remnants from another era of filmmaking--foolish and outdated in so many ways, but with a level of old-school craftsmanship you couldn't help but admire.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Your analysis on Bond films is pretty much correct though I think you overlooked the Dalton era. Timothy Dalton was closer to the literary James Bond then anyone who came before him. Unfortunetly, his films were not up to par with his caliber of acting. They should have dumped John Glen after A VIEW TO A KILL and get a far better director. Also as much as a fan I am of OHMSS, I'll agree it has flaws. I thought Lazenby was some times convincing and the film does drag a bit but overall, I can overlook those faults and see a great film. Regarding the series as whole, I just wish that the Bond series kept the colour of GOLDFINGER but had intelligence of DR.NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. After seeing CASINO ROYALE though and the info on QUANTUM OF SOLACE, I think things are finally getting back on track after 40 years overall mediocrity.

Edward: I strongly disagree with you on TWINE. That was one the worst Bond films ever made. Robert Carlyle was wasting his time with that piss poor script. There was just WAY too much action, Everyone, including M and Bond, were acting far too sentimental and stupid. The only good thing about TWINE was Desmond Llewellyn's final preformance as Q.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

One more thing, I was watching GOLDFINGER recently and I must now confess that I like first half so much better then the secound. Until Bond is sent Auric Stud, the film is tightly paced and has some nice action sequences. Also the grit was present. Then the secound half, it almost, not entirely, gets boring. If I was in charge of the film I would tried and stuck with the orginial book but keep the plot twist on Goldfinger's scheme. That may have been a bit difficult but it was possible.

Anonymous said...

GOLDFINGER is the best, but it's an oddly constructed film: Bond wins the first two confrontations with Blofeld and then is taken prisoner and pretty much kept inactive for the rest of the film (though I love the scene after his escape attempt when they put a dozen p.o.ed Korean guards in his cell to keep an eye on him; reminds me of the time I first me my wife's Korean family...). It's the first "real" Bond movie insofar as DR. NO lacks the style, pacing, and punch of subsequent films and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE has such a radically different look to it (a blessing of its low budget, BTW)

I think FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is the best Bond "movie" in that it's got a different kind of plot and didn't rely as heavily on action set pieces and Ken Adam's great designs. It holds together as a film better than the other movies which really need to be part of the franchise in order to fully work.

I don't understand the hate-on for DIE ANOTHER DAY. I thought it was the best Bond since Connery stopped making them and the only one where Brosnan really seemed to fit in the role.

Anonymous said...

"Goldfinger" not "Blofeld" in the above post; the typing finger, having writ, punches "enter" and moves on... :(

Anonymous said...

The reviewer who hates Live and let Die just hate Wings. Paul McCartney did the film's score. Maybe the guy has never heard the dramatic theme song. #1 1973 hit!

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Anon: George Martin did the score. I wish he came back because he is the only one who ever got a Bond score 100% correct outside of John Barry. I also wish EON would fire that hack David Arnold.

Anonymous said...

There are many sites that review the Bond films, and some films that are on the top of some people's lists, are on the bottom of others. Clearly it's all matter of opinion. Personally, i never liked Goldfinger; while it a well constructed story, of all the Connery films, it just seems to be the most cartoonish to me. In my opinion, the tone of From Russia with Love makes it the best of the Connery films, followed by Thunderball. Timothy Dalton was a much better Bond than Roger Moore, and i put License to Kill in the top 5 of Bond films. Daniel Craig will reinvent the franchise and Casino Royale is also in the top 6. Here's my list, giving each Bond (except Lazenby) at least one film on the list.

1. From Russia with Love
2. Casino Royale
3. Thunderball
4. License to Kill
5. Tomorrow Never Dies
6. THe Spy Who Loved Me

Brian Leverenz