Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Best of Bond

With the release of the 23rd entry upon us, here is my personal list for the best Bond flicks. I've dropped a few of the more obvious ones, and tried to keep it focused on the rather broad mandate of Bond films that make a more than valiant attempt at being 'good films' with characters and stories rather than rigid adherence to formula. Enough from me. I can already hear the howls of outrage at the absence of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE's volcano, MOONRAKER's space marines, OCTOPUSSY's circus, and TOMORROW NEVER DIES's remote controlled car. Read on!

FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE

DR. NO may have gotten the ball rolling but FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE is where the key creatives learned how to score. 

Considering the direction the series took, it's amazing to see how different FRWL is from the films which follow it. In contrast to the increasingly predictable plot structure adopted by the films post-THUNDERBALL, Connery's second stab is a relatively small-scale spy thriller, spiced up with a few trappings (gadgets, sex, action) that would soon come to overwhelm the series.

Darker, tougher, sexier and funnier than DR. NO, FRWL would come to represent the promise of a different direction for the series. From the introspective OHMSS, to the grounded FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and CASINO ROYALE, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE's focus on the hero's vulnerabilities and wits, rather than gadgets and puns has been emulated but, arguably, never bettered. 
Signature scene: The fight on the train. Still Bond’s toughest, nastiest brawl.
GOLDFINGER

The most iconic of the early Bonds, this is the one movie where everything works. The cast are at the top of their game. The score is awesome. The technical standards are high and the direction combines stylish panache with a fast pace. It could only go down from here.
Signature scene: While the film is filled with terrific scenes, for me it doesn’t get any better than the divine bit where Bond blithely lights a cigarette while a bomb goes off behind him. 
OHMSS

Probably, along with CASINO ROYALE, the only Bond movie that steps out of formula and manages to come into its own as an honest-to-goodness great movie. With one of the best Bond Girls, and the best version of perineal foe Ernst Stavro Blofeld, OHMSS manages to be both faithful to and (way) better than its source material, and most of the films which succeeded it. An underrated gem.
Signature scene: That ending.
LIVE AND LET DIE

After the rather ramshackle DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, Bond got his mojo back in a movie that ignores most of the classic Bond hallmarks and still manages to feel like a very good Bond movie. While it lacks the strange atmosphere of Fleming’s novel, it makes up for it with a better plot, a great villain and some cracking repartee. Great theme tune as well.
Signature scene: While I could go for the alligator two-step or the boat chase that follows it, I'm going to go with a brief scene which highlights the best aspects of Moore's Bond: I am referring to an early scene set in a bathroom, in which Bond avoids death by a poisonous snake. Tense, atmospheric, and tinged with dark wit, this sequence highlights the rather unique tone of this rather idiosyncratic and supernaturally tinged entry, while playing to the strengths of the actor portraying Britain's Finest.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME is fun, but if you’re looking for a Roger Moore Bond movie that won’t elicit groans, this is the place to start. A complex plot, a darker tone and a more mature, measured performance from Moore ensure this is the best ‘spy’ Bond since OHMSS. From the memorable pre-credit sequence in which Bond dispatches an old foe, director John Glen establishes the more visceral, down to earth tone which would define the Bond films of the 80s. The gadgets and tired gags are retired in favor of a Cold War-tinged mission in which Bond has to survive by his brains and physical force. There's even some thematic back bone to the whole thing, as each of the main characters is forced to deal with the consequences of their violent pasts.
Signature scene: In a marked shift from Moore's established persona, Bond avenges a friend's death by kicking her killer's car over a cliff.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS

Preceding CASINO ROYALE by 20 years, the Bond producers take a back-to-basics approach that re-ignites the series (albeit briefly), laying the groundwork for the ethos behind the films of 90s and 00s. Featuring a plot filled with twists and turns, suitably nasty antagonists and a more believable relationship between Bond and the girl, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS represents a real turning point in the portrayal of Bond and his world. 
Signature scene: A toss-up between the assault on the safe house (complete with exploding milk bottles) and the vertigo-inducing battle between an outclassed Bond and blonde giant Necros out the back of an airplane.
GOLDENEYE

Marking a clean break with the markers of the 80s (a trick Dalton could not avoid), GOLDENEYE still feels as exciting, sexy and cool as it did back in ’95. Shot and cut with real panache, it marked a return to the high style of the 60s Bonds while setting its hero out from the other blockbusters of the Bruckheimer/Bay era.
Signature scene: While I could go with tank chase, instead I’m going with the brief sequence in which Bond is surprised by a sailer onboard the yacht. Combining fast, brutal action with ingenuity (he beats him with a towel) and wit (wiping his brow with said towel), it epitomizes the Bond of the 90s at his best: Smart, suave and cool.
CASINO ROYALE

One thing about the films that followed GOLDENEYE is that while they never sank to the level of MOONRAKER or MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, they failed to maintain the high standard GOLDENEYE had set. TOMORROW NEVER DIES was a solid action picture, but lacked the freshness to be anything other than a solid action picture. It also made the mistake of most of the later Moore Bonds by giving the game away early, reducing Bond’s battle with the villain to the level of pantomine. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH tried to combine escapism with a more character-based narrative but ended up as an unsatisfying (though intriguing) mishmash of the two. DIE ANOTHER DAY opened well, but quickly veered back to formula, turning into a cynical retread of past glories which reaped plenty of gold but left no-one happy.

So with this law of diminishing returns in mind, I was somewhat dubious when I sat down to watch CASINO at the end of 2006. Thankfully my fears were annulled. GOLDENEYE director Martin Campbell proved he really was the man with the golden touch, David Arnold made up for the repetitive nature of his last few soundtracks, and Daniel Craig proved the naysayers wrong with a combination of icy control and brutish violence. 

While his portrayal has turned off certain corners of Bond's traditional audience, Craig's portrayal is perfectly tailored to this origin story. Managing to blend elements of an action thriller with a character study is a hard thing to do (see OHMSS for a successful example; see THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH for the opposite), and overall CASINO succeeds. It lacks most of the gadgets, conventions (Q and Moneypenny) and lame puns of the latter Brosnan films, allowing the filmmakers to focus on Bond and his story (hewing it far closer to the perspective of Fleming's original stories). The action scenes are exciting, the relationship with Vesper well-handled and the overall atmosphere is tense and engrossing. It's also rather sexy, which a Bond film hasn't been since GOLDENEYE.

While QUANTUM OF SOLACE has laid open the flaws of the new approach (hopefully remedied by this year's SKYFALL), CASINO ROYALE remains a prime example of how Ian Fleming's creation can be mined for more substantial thrills than armies of henchmen and invisible cars.
Signature scene: That phone call. That suit. That gun. That line. That theme. Nuff said. 

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