50 Hours of James Bond
In the build up toward the 24th (!) installment of Ian Fleming's James Bond, I decided that I wasn't especially well-versed in the Bond franchise. Don't get me wrong, I love the series for its absurd escapist fantasy value, and, like so many, felt like I understood James Bond well enough to be an arbiter of the series. Everyone knows his traits by now, his phrases ("Shaken, not stirred", "Bond, James Bond"), his virility, violence, and vodka-dependence, that we judge new Bond films not on their qualities as films, but on how close they come to the platonic ideal of Bond-ness. During a Bond year (every three to four, lately), "Who's your favorite Bond?" is not far behind "How about that weather?" in idle chitchat.
Everyone knows Bond's virility, violence, and vodka-dependence.
I thought I knew the lay of the land: Connery as the OG badass who laid the foundation for all to come, some Australian guy who didn't really factor in much, Moore as the one who represented the excess of the 70s and 80s, Dalton as... I think I saw one of his movies once? Brosnan as the video game one, and Craig, the "dark and gritty" reboot one. But I came to realize that I barely knew Bond at all. I had seen a few Sean Connerys, but never the first, Dr. No. I had never seen the one with George Lazenby, could only vaguely remember a few scenes with Roger Moore, and thought that I had seen the Dalton ones (but that turned out not to be true). Ultimately, I was only really familiar with the ones that I came of age with: Those of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.
Had I done the math, I would have realized that I would be watching over 48 hours of martinis and explosions.
So I committed to what I thought was a good idea at the time: Watching every James Bond movie, in order, before going to see Spectre in theatres. Had I done the math, I would have realized that I would be watching over 48 hours of martinis and explosions, not including the latest.
Welp, here goes nothing.
While Dr. No laid the groundwork for the James Bond film dynasty and introduced many of the secret agent's famous qualities, it's more fascinating to look at what wasn't there at the very start: No major gun battles, no crazy gadgets (just a run-of-the-mill geiger counter), no sexy enemy spies, and no Aston Martin with rocket launchers. Connery was just a spy doing spy stuff: Sneaking around, asking questions, trying to figure out what was going on. What was going on? A bad dude with a robot arm was trying to screw up the American space launch from his secret fort in Jamaica.
This film also feels pretty low budget, because it was. It's refreshing to go back and see Bond doing his thing before the series got bloated with crazy special effects and absurd villains. Yes, Dr. No is absurd, but he's pretty tame when you compare him with what was to come.
Riding on the tails of Dr. No, this one had a bigger budget, more hype, and gave birth to a lot of the Bond hallmarks that were missing in the first one: boat chases, large-scale gun battles, romantic trysts with the enemy, and most importantly, Desmond Llewelyn begins his decades-long run as Q — though he only brings a briefcase with a few simple tricks up its sleeve.
This is probably the iconic Bond film of the Connery era, and the one that truly cemented the framework for the rest of the series. Q really amps things up in the gadget department with toys like a grappling gun and the famous Aston Martin DB5. Goldfinger also has just the right balance of exciting action and all-out camp. Let's not forget, this was the film that included a stunt pilot by the name of Pussy Galore.
I just got engaged before setting off on this fool's errand, and by this point in the series my fiancée was already feeling a little left out so she decided to watch this one with me. That proved to be a mistake. She was asleep well before the halfway mark.
Thunderball has some great elements to it, but it's really drawn out and slow going. The primary culprit is an underwater battle between to huge gangs of scuba divers. The cinematography is beautiful, but it turns out that watching identical-looking dudes in wetsuits harpoon each other over and over again gets old pretty quickly.
Of note, this is the one where Bond escapes a fight by using a jetpack, and it also features a shark-obsessed villain, giving Mike Myers plenty of ammo for his spoofs that would come years later.
Written by Roald Dahl (yes, the guy who wrote James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka), this is an immediate improvement over the last outing, but it's too late — the lady is out and I'm on my own for the rest of the series. We've got some classic Bond plot devices at play here: A villain causing American and (usually) Russian vessels to mysteriously disappear by swallowing them up with a larger vessel. The two great world powers blame one another and almost descend into war until 007 swoops in to save the day. Highlights include an epic helicopter dogfight and Mr Bond training to become a ninja in Japan.
Sean Connery was getting a little ragged at this point, so the producers decided to gamble on George Lazenby, an Australian model to fill his shoes. It was an odd choice that caused an uproar at the time and Lazenby didn't stick around. Sure, the acting is a little rough at times, but the film has actually held up pretty well over the years. It's certainly campy, but that's half the fun of watching vintage Bond. Lazenby was a good looking fella though, and added a certain amount of animal magnetism to the character. The worst part? That damn frilly shirt that became Austin Powers' signature.
After the Lazenby fiasco, Connery is back! But he didn't have the same mojo as the first three films and proved that he was not the guy to carry the series into the Seventies.
How many more movies are left? A lot? Oh, boy.
For Roger Moore's debut, the series tried to get hip and basically made a Blaxploitation film. It's really bad, but at least the theme song by Paul McCartney was good.
After a rocky start, Roger Moore takes a pretty good turn in this one. The plot line is fresh and the villain, Francisco Scaramanga, is excellent. The Moore-era films are all pretty campy, but this one does it right and is a very enjoyable film. Unfortunately this film contains one of the all-time low points of the series when Bond jumps a canal during a chase and a slide whistle plays while the car does a somersault. A goddamn slide whistle! What is this, the Dukes of Hazzard?
This is basically You Only Live Twice but underwater and not as good. The villain's underwater hideout is pretty sick, though, and Jaws is in this one — one of the best henchmen of the series.
In an effort to keep Bond relevant, filmmakers have continuously tried to apply Hollywood's latest trends to the series, which is how this one essentially ended up as "James Bond in Space". The other trend at play here is product placement. Lots and lots of product placement. Sure, the series has always been a (very effective) vehicle for selling stuff, but this one made it pretty obvious. I'm not sure why, but I really want to drink a 7-Up and smoke a Marlboro right about now.
This one's a little more subtle, though it does manage to pack in an escape from an aircraft AND a ski battle AND an underwater fight AND a harrowing rock climbing sequence. All hallmarks of the series, but rarely packed into one film. This might be my favorite Moore film after The Man with the Golden Gun.
Everyone knows the name, but how many people have actually seen this one? The title is the most creative part of the film.
More nukes? Yawn.
Bond ends up saving the world while dressed like a clown. How fitting.
Given my current home in the San Francisco Bay Area, this one was pretty entertaining. Christopher Walken plays a psychopath set on destroying Silicon Valley by inducing a massive earthquake, making his personal supply of microchips infinitely more valuable in the process. Bond stops the earthquake and then knocks Walken's character off of the Golden Gate Bridge when he tries to escape. It's not good, but it's fun.
I'm not sure why, but Timothy Dalton seems to get shit on by a lot of people as being a lesser Bond. Not true, I say! Sure, maybe his run as Bond isn't the highlight of the series, but after seven Roger Moore films in twelve years, this is a breath of fresh air. Dalton is a little more "cool" and anti-establishment than previous Bonds and this film feels more grounded and gritty.
I've been watching a couple Bond movies a week for what feels like ages, and yet I've still got nine to watch in one weekend if I'm going to have a chance at getting the series done on time. Why did I think this was going to be fun?
This is the darkest film in the series so far, although Daniel Craig takes things even further in that direction later. You know what's amazing? How many times 007 can go rogue and still get his job back at the end of the movie. I guess there's no "three strike" rule in MI6. Anyways, Bond's vendetta gets a little depressing here, but I still prefer it to the more absurd episodes of Roger Moore's time in the role.
In my mind, this is officially the beginning of the modern era of Bond, although that's probably because this is the first one I can actually remember (The Living Daylights premiered three weeks after I was born) and because it was immortalized as a groundbreaking video game. It's also a damn good movie and injected a lot of life back into the series after it lay dormant for six years.
It's a little absurd (what Bond movie isn't?) but it just might be Brosnan's best. Most importantly, Pierce proves that he's got good "squinty eyes," an essential characteristic for any Bond.
For some reason this one feels more like a Batman movie than a Bond movie to me, and not in a good way. Things are about to get worse.
Having gone out on this note, it's easy to see why people like to hate on Brosnan. Things started off pretty well for him, but this movie is just so, so bad. I'll leave you with this screen shot, since it sums up everything that was wrong with this movie pretty effectively:
Yes. Daniel Craig. The reboot we had all been waiting for. No insane plot devices, no over the top special effects, no absurd fortresses, just good old fashioned swagger and fight scenes, with just enough classic Bond DNA to keep things recognizable.
I love this movie, but to be totally honest, I've been watching so many movies this weekend that by the time Le Chiffre starts crying blood, I feel like doing the same.
OK, so the last one took things back to the roots, but no gadgets at all in this one? This is basically just one extended fight scene with the tiniest amount of plot to break things up. Meh.
Now we're getting somewhere. The story is thoroughly modern, but essential characters like Q and Moneypenny are reappearing, the Aston is back in the mix, and the movie is exciting without taking itself too seriously. In retrospect, it still feels like it's cheating a little (not every movie gets to be "the origin story" after all), but this one definitely put the fun back into the series.
Don't worry, no spoilers here.
With Spectre, we (probably) bring the Daniel Craig era to an end and things fittingly come full circle. Starting with Casino Royale, Bond has been brought back to the beginning, reborn, and now brought back into full Bond-ness. What does that even mean? Between his first run and Skyfall, Daniel Craig's Bond has been taken back to square one. It makes for a great movie experience, but it can't happen every time a new actor steps into the role. It took nearly 50 years to get to the point where we were ready to go back to the beginning, deconstruct everything we knew about 007 and build him back up. Now he's ready to be released back into the wild. That is to say, this is a pretty average Bond film. The pace is uneven, and there's no chemistry with the main love interest, but the action is good, and there are some pithy one-liners, beautiful locations, and suitably quirky bad-guy henchmen. Not every Bond movie gets to be "the best one ever", but that doesn't mean they're any less fun.
Don't have time to watch 'em all?
3. The Man with the Golden Gun
1. Die Another Day
2. Live and Let Die
And so, what have I learned through this whole process? Not a lot, except that there's a lot of Bond out there.
And so, what have I learned through this whole process? Not a lot, except that there's a lot of Bond out there. Nobody ever expected Bond to live so long. Not his enemies, not his friends, not moviegoers. Not even the filmmakers, if all of the "I'm getting too old for this" and "You're a Cold War relic" jokes are any indication. But he just keeps going and going, always managing to adapt to the times. And that's just fine by me. I won't be bingewatching the movies again anytime soon, but you better believe I'll be in line at the theater when the next one comes out. [H]