There’s a new James Bond film out! Not sure if you’re aware of it, there hasn’t been much written about it. It’s meant to be very good indeed and, it turns out, it’s actually the 24th in a series of films with a baffling and largely unaddressed connection to each other.
I’ve seen the Bond films before, sure – I’m a British male who has, at some point, been under the age of 11. Yet these snippets, two hours stretched over two and a half on a Saturday afternoon, broken up with commercials and fizzy pop refills, are no way to prepare for Spectre. No, the best way to prepare for Spectre would be to watch, without interruption, all 23 Bonds available for purchase with nothing but the odd break for sleep. So over three days that’s what I did: every second of each film devoured with varying degrees of frantic mastication. 48 hours and 42 minutes: more than two whole days of my life. Joke’s on you, Bond: I don’t have much of a life.
Day 1: Some Sean, a George and a Roger
It begins at 7:53am on the 22nd October, a Thursday. Technically I’m already 53 minutes behind schedule but hey, Bond didn’t play by the rules and a hastily scrawled plan of action (007am – wake ‘n watch / 12am – re-evaluate life) and dammit he got results. So here’s my take: Dr No and the birth of Bond.
Alrighty! Here’s the gun barrel, here he is! Here’s Sean Conner-that’s not Bond. Nope, the first 007 we see is actually a stunt man named Bob Simmons walking, jumping, stumbling and shooting. Well, there’s some pub quiz trivia at least. Turns out Bond didn’t get to do his own intro until Thunderball, so a 3500 word Wikipedia article informs me. This is interesting already! Unpause.
It actually takes seven and a half minutes for us to see Bond, eight to hear his voice and that “Bond, James Bond” which haunts my dreams the next few nights. He’s playing a game I fail to learn the rules of over the next 48 hours and he’s winning easily, of course. Unfortunately, there’s a bigger challenge on the horizon – rockets are being stolen and off he pops to Jamaica.
On re-watching Dr No, it’s actually incredible how much is already in place – much courtesy of Fleming’s source material – but the barrel, the theme, the car chase; it’s all there. And yet, balanced against the tough-guy super agent is a Bond who dips into solitaire to pass the time (he won’t do that again until Live and Let Die) and actually confesses his nerves. What’s more, with a villain that doesn’t appear until thirty minutes from the end, everything rests on Sean Connery’s not inconsiderable shoulders. What shoulders they are. That’s why Sean Connery is the best James Bond there is.
From Jamaica, to Russia, From Russia with Love. James Bond is dead! Oh God, he’s dead! Oh, it’s a training exercise. Rather than Bond, we’re introduced to Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, stalking a man in a Sean Connery mask by the light of the moon and taking him out with George H W Bush’s CIA watch. The tone is suitably set for what turns out to be the most stripped back and non-Bond-y, nondy? (no – ed.) film of the entire franchise.
From Russia builds on that to which we were treated in Dr No. We get a proper Bond theme with the name of the song in the title, even if it is played at the end of the film, and we’re introduced to the fabled SPECTRE. Lest we forget at any point, SPECTRE stands for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion which is… brilliant. There’s Number 5 with the plan to tempt MI6 into stealing a Russian encryption device; there’s Number 3 with the knife in her shoe and the suitable agent to carry out proceedings; there’s Number 1, who we won’t see for another few films and when we do, well, let’s wait.
Everything zips along and, an incredibly dated dalliance in a Gypsy camp aside, From Russia holds up brilliantly, matching Connery’s effortless super spy with a worthy counter. Shaw, the man who downed Jaws (the shark, not the Bond baddy) stalks Sean like a blonde shadow, silent until he unleashes the sharpest of cut-glass accents to trick Bond into believing him a viable MI6 contact. Of course Bond triumphs, of course, but he’s genuinely nervous in Red’s presence, attempting to buy his way out of trouble and relying on that ol’ theatrical staple – Chekhov’s throwing knife, introduced early on as part of the first “Q-gadgets” he’s blessed with – to cap a fantastic, frenetic struggle.
Goldfinger continues the hot streak, a series now fully assured of itself. I pat myself on the back for deciding to watch the entire franchise in a row; there’s no way I’ll regret this idea. Look! There’s Pussy Galore and a crotch-hunting laser and “do you expect me to die?” and a plan so crazy it just might work. Bond strikes to stop the irradiation of all the gold in Fort Knox with a little help from Galore, switching nerve gas for harmless…well I’m not sure it’s ever really explained but who cares? It works, and the US is free to continue the policy of convertibility until 1971 (yeah, Wikipedia again).
In the background, however, there’s so much going on that it’s easy to overlook how high the stakes are. Here, after two relatively straightforward missions is a case where Bond’s reputation does more harm than good. He’s seconds from death at several points, saved by the actions of an unlikely ally and, at the incredibly climactic finale, he has no idea what to do when faced with a nuclear device. Obviously the answer is to disconnect it, as a bespectacled CIA agent demonstrates just as the timer ticks to the remaining time until detonation: 0:07. Just like his code name!
That’s two great ‘uns after one good ‘un but the next, Thunderball, not so much. Another shady SPECTRE meeting introduces us to our villain, Largo, and his plan to steal nuclear warheads and hold the world to ransom. It’s easy to forget, after so (so) many Bonds just how important SPECTRE was to begin with. After Diamonds Are Forever, they pretty much just disappear. I guess there’s no way back after one of your leading figures is caught in drag but, then again, the Conservative party is still going strong (warning: humorous attempt at satire dependent on knowledge of UK politics circa 1994).
For the first time, Connery looks a man out of time. It’s a relative misfire compared to the rest of his offerings: some pace-sucking underwater sequences offset a great villain (eyepatch, superyacht, global ultimatum) but there’s also a fantastic sub-aquatic fight scene that starts to addle the mind. At certain points the camera drifts off from the frantic bubbles filling in for geysers of blood to instead film the sea life. Harpoon in the face, lobster, cut oxygen lead, fish.
I yawn. That’s lunch, please. Then onto You Only Live Twice.
YOLT was my favourite when I was a wee babber. A terrifying setup, in which a spaceship is swallowed by another, zips into Bond seemingly shot dead after questioning why Chinese girls taste different, “like Peking Duck is different from Russian Caviar”. Things continue all the way to a frantic battle between ninjas and boiler-suited henchmen. Great! This’ll take me back! Oh wait, this is the one where they make Sean freakin’ Connery “appear” Japanese thanks to the miracle of fake eyelids, a shaved chest and front-combed hair. We can rebuild him, we have the technology, but I don’t want to spend more than, ehh, fifty quid?
We do finally meet Number One though: Blofeld. After over seven hours of franchise fun, the man behind the white cat is revealed. He looks like a scarred testicle playing North Korean dress up, but Donald Pleasance still ensures it’s a memorable turn as ol’ Ernst, wrinkling himself up in agitation as a gang of ninjas take on his subterranean base, practically spitting, “goodbye Mr Bond!” in ever growing desperation.
Where I would once sit watching with my toy Walther in hand, shooting along with Bond on screen, I now sit barking “Scorpio you’re completely mad” and other offerings from one of the legions of imitations and parodies. Maybe I should have watched You Only Move Twice instead and conveniently misplaced Lazenby’s only offering. It’s time for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: an entire film about James Bond working his way through the patients of a psychological facility-cum-evil base before deciding to marry Dame Diana Rigg.
I always thought Lazenby’s singular outing was probably an under-appreciated dash of greatness with a real emotional gut-punch, something around which you could convincingly structure an argument in favour of Lazenby’s place atop the pantheon of Bonds, and that’s why George Lazenby is the best James Bond there is. In reality, it’s pretty much the erotic adventures of a man with Playmobil hair, romping about with the most English of English accents to prevent Kojak from… something about super soldiers, maybe mind control? Plus the whole thing feels like a TV movie, right down to the opening song’s visual recap of former films. Previously on The Televisual Adventures of Jimmy Bond…
Shot by Peter Hunt rather than Terence Young, who can claim credit for four of Connery’s five first-batch outings, there are three fast-paced fight scenes in the opening twelve minutes and an attempt to wring some tension out of Bond making photocopies. There’s a Bond who seems more isolated than ever up there in the Alps, sneaking about a fancy chalet with the accented equivalent of a cucumber sandwich spouting from his mouth each time it opens. This Bond is a joke for the majority of his ample screen time.
OHMSS is just plain confusing. While it sidesteps the whole Bond regeneration thing without going all Doctor Who, it asks some questions like “why does Blofeld not recognise Bond if they’re the same people, just one film removed from You Only Live Twice?”, “if Bond wants to stop Blofeld, why doesn’t he… stop him?”, “why does Bond wear this and this and this?!” I’m getting annoyed, I need to get to Roger Moore and an entirely new tack. But no, I’ve forgotten… Diamonds Are Forever.
Diamonds Are Forever is a literal crapfest – only partly on account of the table games. While Sean’s back, looking greyer than ever against the bright neon of Las Vegas, the story’s weak and uncaring for any kind of continuity. Blofeld returns to be “killed off” inside fifteen minutes and reappear thirty from the end – “you killed my only other double I’m afraid” – for he plans to wipe out the earth’s nuclear weapons! Oh no?
There is one thing that sets Diamonds apart from all other Connery Bonds. Sean Connery, bruised and almost broken, does a different accent. Oh, it’s incredible, it’s amazing, it’s fantastic. The man who “passed” as perhaps the only Japanese native with an Edinburgh brogue attempts his best impression of a Dutchman at an early point in proceedings. Little else matters. Sure, he meets a character named Plenty O’Toole, offs two of the worst henchmen (Mr Kidd and Mr Wint), and even escapes a quasi-government facility driving a Moon buggy but it pales to that accent. With that, Sean calls it a day. I don’t. Roger Moore is here! It’s Sir Roger!
Older than Connery, unbelievably, but still injecting some dynamism into things, Roger Moore takes the reins of his seven film run/jog/potter with Live and Let Die. The amazing, the awful, the incredible Live and Let Die.
There’s an island in the Caribbean linked to the heroin trade and there are dead agents abound; is there a connection between the Prime Minister of San Monique and the mysterious Mr Big who controls the US streets and spouts witticisms like “names is for tombstones, baby! Y’all take this honky out and waste him, now!” I’ve been watching a screen all day and even I can spot they’re the same fella underneath some dodgy latex.
Live and Let Die is a troublesome beast for so many reasons, not least its twist. On the one hand it’s admirable that the franchise wanted to move with the times – the first Bond woman of colour, a kind of “contemporary” blaxploitation plot, some physicality to test Moore’s prowess – but, wow, is there so much more which is brain wrinklingly awful. Jane Seymour’s Solitaire is a whole 25 years younger than our eyebrow-raising hero when he tricks her into sleeping with him, and the portrayal of San Monique locals makes The Wicker Man’s villagers look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. There is, however, something more stomach-churning than everything else: Sheriff J W Pepper.
As the James Bond wiki states, “mostly used as comic relief, [Pepper] is most memorable for his somewhat bigoted attitudes, his continuous spitting and his tendency to speak loudly about whatever is on his mind.” Succinctly, Pepper is an escapee from an episode of Looney Tunes, a mangled, stumpy combination of Fudd, Leghorn, Sam and Duck. He appears only to sap the pace out of an otherwise entertaining boat chase across the bayou, soundtracking it with a frequent “hoo eee!” or “tarnation!”. He appears again in The Man With The Golden Gun (and Superman II, weirdly enough) but I’ll spare you the details.
Right, done, bed. I had toyed with the idea of marathoning this whole thing with a ration of 007 hours sleep, but I’d rather have Paul McCartney echoing through my brain than what is to be my wake-up call: “He has a powerful weapon! He charges a million per shot!” Thanks Lulu.
Day 2: Moore Roger and Timmy time
It’s 6:45am and there, under a fetching blue tracksuit is the late, great Christopher Lee and his superfluous nipple stalking his prey through a house of mirrors. The stakes? Bond’s life. Oh wait no, that was a ruse by Maud Adams. Bad Maud Adams, your punishment is to return for Octopussy, just four films away. Bond decides to kill Lee anyway, to capture some magic solar technology which could alleviate the energy crisis. Jimmy Carter was right!
The Man With The Golden Gun – despite the ridiculousness of the titular’s tit and his sparkly pistol – is surprisingly enjoyable. It rattles along and features a secret MI6 base in the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, slowly rusting in Hong Kong’s harbour and basically screaming: “Look! An empire metaphor!” Lee’s Scaramanga, suitably menacing with an understandable endgame, sees a familiar in Bond – a warped reflection. You can guess where their final confrontation takes place. And who triumphs.
Onto The Spy Who Loved Me, arguably Moore’s finest two hours, with 007 forced to work alongside the mysterious agent Triple X, who is, unfortunately, not Vin Diesel. Am I disappointed? Nah, Barbara Bach’s pretty good. The film’s appropriately Bondian and more like Connery’s offerings than any other in the Moore oeuvre, boasting a villain with webbed hands, an underwater henchbase, a climactic battle and a memorable theme. Clang. Clang-alang Alang-alang Alang-alang. Clang Alang…. Clang clang clang…
Perhaps nobody does it better than Roger Moore in an underwater car, and in the end maybe that’s why Roger Moore is the best James Bond there is. What is surprising, on the rewatch, is to what extent TSWLM is a sort of medley of previous films. There’s the vessel swallowed by another, the ski chase, the death-by-shark, the Russian agent you can’t quite bring yourself to trust; it’s a James Bond Greatest Hits album, but one you’d happily pick up from the shelf and take to the counter before you realise it’s 2015 and you absolutely wouldn’t.
If repetition starts to become more prevalent in the franchise, it’s faintly ridiculous the amount Moonraker resembles a CTRL+C/CTRL+V job from the previous installment’s script. Sub out the underwater civilisation for a space colony and Stromberg for a Peter Dinklage-alike and the rest rings one too many bells. Hell, there’s a point in both films where Bond emerges from water (in The Spy Who Loved Me’s Lotus Espirit and Moonraker’s gondola) and an unwitting bystander does a double take at their bottle of alcohol in bemusement. One film apart!
Unfortunately, Moonraker is also the tipping point into peak Bond: the beginning of the quips that sound like they were recorded in a booth somewhere far removed from a film set and reality. Moore’s age, too, is problematic. It’s incredible to think Sir Roger was 45 when he started, four years older than when Connery retired, and by For Your Eyes Only we’re witness to the 54-year-old as the unrequited object of affection for a 23-year-old? No. Just no. Please?
Just as marathon runners need to hydrate, I decide I do too. And, without Bond’s classic drink to hand (Heineken apparently) I decide to nurse a bottle of wine through to the end of the day. It lasts the length of For Your Eyes Only.
Eyes is the only Bond I’ve ever read the source material of, yet all that springs to mind is the assault on a mountaintop fortress. Turns out there’s a fair bit packed into an otherwise stripped back bit of spyfare. The stakes are set at a missing nuclear submarine and Bond gets to do a whole lot of skiing in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. There’s double-crossing, a siege, and an actress playing the part of Maggie Thatcher. Huh.
4.30pm seems as good a time as any to watch Octopussy, in that if I position the TV just right I can get maximum glare and miss out on much of Moore’s poorer, more uninterested offerings. The theme serves as a first warning; the tracks for Moonraker, FYEO and Octopussy are some of the series’ most forgettable and, by and large, the films match them. From the soft-jazz saxophone that sounds like it’s heralding Channel 5’s late night programming block in the ’90s, Carly Simon’s All Time High drifts into the ears. Hang on, this isn’t terrible (but don’t take my word for it!). Turns out, neither is Octopussy.
Yes, Moore practically creaks as he saunters around and the script features a few supremely uncomfortable moments – “keep you in curry for a few weeks, won’t it?” offers 007 as he pays off a hotel worker on arriving in India – but sometimes it remembers that Bond can be fun. He and Q float in to save the day aboard a Union Flagged-hot air balloon and a villain carries a spinning buzzsaw that can only be loosed from directly above. Oddjob’s hat has never looked so practical. This isn’t really James Bond anymore, but it’s passable snoozy afternoon fare.
All the same, I need a change of scenery. Thank God for A View To A Kill. In his final outing, Moore gets his teeth into another global megalomaniac while Grace Jones gets her teeth into him. Oh that Grace Jones. This is the ’80s, as if it wasn’t obvious enough (Zorin was meant to be played by David Bowie) and from Duran Duran’s nonsensical but brilliant “meeting you with a view to a kill” onwards, AVTAK sinks into it. Zorin (ChrisTOPHER WalKEN) wants to cause a massive earthquake in Silicon Valley, destroying the area and giving himself a monopoly over microchip production. So contemporary, so fresh. Much unlike Roger Moore’s seemingly permafrozen hair.
Sure, it opens with Bond snowboarding to California Girls but the camp is sustainable, the villain captivating and the repartee (especially with Patrick McNee’s Sir Godfrey Tibbett) genuinely amusing. Ah, how can I stay mad at Roger Moore? I find him informative and witty. But now, it’s the chance to book my tickets to Timmy Time.
Really, Timothy Dalton was always my favourite Jimmy B. More well-adjusted than his predecessors (he’s even best man to Felix Leiter in his second outing) but perhaps hardier than them all. Dalton is a Bond whose parachute is camouflaged, not embroidered with a union flag and who, having landed on a boat whose sole occupant appears to be a scantily dressed woman doesn’t offer a pun like “sorry to drop in”, “why don’t we chute the breeze” or “boaty boaty lady sex”. Instead he snarls “I need to use your phone”. Make no mistake, Bond will still stay for a drink, but there’s something satisfying about Dalton’s straight line thinking after a 007 who dipped into parody and the opposite sex a little too much. In The Living Daylights, Dalton, doing many of his own stunts, is a pre-Craig Craig. Utilising his stage background and his impressive skills as a fun runner there’s a full-bodied physicality to his actions. Also he looks like a wolf. And I love him. And that’s why Timothy Dalton is the best James Bond there is.
The same nuBond vibe continues into Licence to Kill, my final for the night. Here, accompanying Leiter to a wedding, 007 decides to take down Franz Sanchez, a notorious drug lord played by Robert Davi. Now, Davi played Agent Johnson in Die Hard, and one of the agents on his interrogation detail, played by Grand L. Bush, was the other Agent Johnson in Die Hard! I smell an origins story spin-off, but next thing I know the drug lord has escaped, Felix has been half-eaten by a shark and Bond has left MI6 to hunt down the perpetrators and put an end to Sanchez’s operation. He succeeds.
There’s a darkness to Licence to Kill that only rears its jug-eared head again when Craig takes up the Bond mantle. From Leiter’s remark that “he was married once, but it was a long time ago” to Benicio Del Toro’s seedily threatening henchman, Dalton’s Bond has edge and definition to match his jawline. Even now, Licence to Kill is the only Bond film to carry a 15 rating, courtesy of buckets of blood of an antagonist’s headsplosion. That part was, unsurprisingly, always cut out of TV syndication when I saw it, so it’s more than a little surprising. Well worth a watch though.
Day 3: A piece of Pierce before Daniel beganiel
On the wind I feel his breath: Pierce Brosnan. It’s morning and having woken up with Tina it’s time for the franchise’s last throw of the Cold War dice in GoldenEye. Shiny gun barrel and an opening titles sequence that’s one of the best ahoy, I sit back and think… “damn”.
After six years without a new Bond film, it’s impressive how so much of the new has seamlessly replaced the old: there’s a new Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) to replace the far too glamorous Caroline Bliss; there’s a new M, “the evil queen of numbers”, Judi Dench, and there’s a new windswept Bond played by a man with the name Pierce. Yes, the age of Bronhom has begun and GoldenEye sets the new tone from the off: here’s a Bond as dangerous as Connery, smooth as Lazenby, quippable as Moore and physical as Dalton. That’s why Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond there is. There’s a tank chase, Xenia Onatopp, “for England” – so many moments that have provided the introduction for so many to the franchise, the series’s natural evolution. It’s sure to set up a run of almost certain brilliance. Not quite.
Instead, it’s followed by Jonathan Pryce and his manic keyboard tapping in Tomorrow Never Dies. After a pre-titles sequence involving Bond actioning his way to save a set of nuclear weapons that could make “Chernobyl look like picnic” according to General Clichékoffski, Bond comes up against Elliot Carver (of the Carver Media group) a media tycoon who may be engineering World War 3 for… global media rights? Seriously?
Such “huh?” factor is much the same in The World Is Not Enough, primarily around the casting of Denise Richards. Denise Richards. As a world-leading physicist who dresses in short shorts and tank tops. At no point did anyone question that fine bit of casting? Or naming? Or costuming? I drift through lines like “I’ve always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey” and “I thought Christmas only comes once a year” with a shudder, and further into the mulch of Die Another Day. This was a stupid idea.
The invisible car, Madonna, the diamond satellite, the henchman named Mr Kil, Madonna, the tsunami-surfing, the surgery that turns a North Korean general into Toby Stephens, and Madonna. This is the nadir. I check the notes I’ve been occasionally jotting down for the last two hours to see if I offered any pearls of wisdom I can pilfer to fill a paragraph. I have nothing to draw on but a few “eugh”s and the occasional “tired”. I am, now more than ever, looking forward to Daniel Craig to save things.
What happened, Pierce? It all started so well with Goldeneye and, hey, even the setup to DAD is pretty good – Bond captured and tortured and broken for 14 months? Imagine that, Bond as a person rather than a man whose mouth snaps open with yet another one liner, resembling a hideously caricatured PEZ dispenser. To borrow Alan Partridge’s sentiment: stop getting Bond wrong!
Casino Royale begins at 4pm in stark black and white. I briefly wonder whether my TV has decided to spare me from what it expects to come next: a pogo stick chase through the streets of Berlin? Q branch’s latest gadget – an invisible plot? The seduction of a millionaire heiress named Shirley Swallowes? Titty Longstocking? Fanny Goodchops? It needn’t worry; James Bond starts by killing two men, earning his licence to kill and we’re at the mercy of a brave new world.
Daniel Kleinman’s titles eschew the usual cavorting lady folk at director Martin Campbell’s request, and Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” rouses me. Stakes so low – bankrupt a banker and offer him protection for information – allow the story to breathe amongst some fantastic set pieces. And look! Bond is gambling on something I actually understand. If Casino Royale was this good, just imagine how good the next one will be!
Look, it’s not that bad. Quantum of Solace isn’t remembered particularly fondly but that might be because it misprioritises Casino’s greatest strengths and tries to go back to the Bond formula in some not always successful ways There’s still no gun barrel, no Q branch etc. but Quantum is actually the most Bond-y of Craig’s films. Here’s a villain who works for a shadowy organisation and wants to control the water supply (well, 60% of it) of Bolivia in exchange for bringing a corrupt dictator to power!
Maybe I’m delirious, but I like it much more than I remembered; Amalric’s reptilian villain appears to spend the whole film sweating or scuttling about, while Dench and Craig’s always believable relationship is tested and strengthened over Quantum’s leanish runtime of 107 minutes. Good thing that’s something we can always count on.
Finally, Skyfall. The best? I wouldn’t fight you on it but then again three days without moving has meant I’m covered in bedsores and my muscles have atrophied. Come at me, bro.
Conventionally, Skyfall is a strong answer to those who criticise that Craig is the blunt instrument his Bond is mocked to be. He sleuths, he stalks, he stuns and in Bardem he has a fantastic antagonist of the mould Dalton and Brosnan could only hope for. Perhaps that’s why Daniel Craig is the best James Bond there is. Shot and stumbling back broken, the last time Bond was struck off was in The World is Not Enough and he managed to seduce his way back onto the force. Now? Well, he’s up against this guy and movie-philosophy 101: “I’d like to start with some simple word associations.” Fuck or fight aren’t options in this world anymore.
M remarks to Bond near the beginning of proceedings, “you know the rules of the game, you’ve been playing it long enough. We both have”. He responds “Maybe too long”. Too long? Not a chance. But as for me, I’m done with these binge watches. Good thing Hollywood doesn’t seem too caught up with franchises.
So, what have I learned?
Please do let me know.