The James Bond Reviews
Now that James Bond month approaches its end here at emagill.com, it is time to go through the entire pantheon of Bond films. It has been a long fifty-six years since 007 first appeared on the silver screen, but the James Bond brand has never been stronger. The twenty-fourth entry in the franchise, Spectre, just released on DVD and Blu-ray, and the twenty-fifth will no doubt be rushed into production before much longer. Before we see where he goes next, though, we need to revisit all the places he's been, and to do that, we have to start somewhere in Jamaica...
The Sean Connery Era
The original actor to play James Bond is still considered the best by a large proportion of Bond fanatics. We are lucky that Sean Connery was the man who was chosen to set the mold, because even if I don't consider him the best, he is certainly the most influential and important James Bond. He plays the character as a charming psychopath, a physically imposing brute who treats women as disposable sources of information but also doesn't mind enjoying fine wine, fancy gadgets, and a good pun. Though he's ostensibly a spy, he's neither stealthy nor delicate, though he is impossibly smooth. His run as James Bond (interrupted once by George Lazenby, who we'll get to in a minute) is the golden age of James Bond, full of his most famous adventures and his most iconic exploits.
Theme Song: N/A
Villain: Dr. No
Bond girl: Honey Ryder
THE JIST: While investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent in Jamaica, James Bond uncovers a hidden island lair and a secret plot by the nefarious Dr. No to sabotage Project Mecury during a launch at Cape Canaveral.
THE VERDICT: The first James Bond movie is surprisingly average, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It drags a little, but compared to other films of the time, it's not slow. Dr. No cements many of the tropes that would continue throughout the entire series, including a fun, exotic locale (Jamaica, in this case), an evil villain with crazy plans and seemingly inexhaustable resources, a strong-willed and mildly idiotic romantic interest who is much too young for Bond, and a spy who actually kind of sucks at espionage--he succeeds more by blunt force and dumb luck than by sophisticated spycraft. It also sets the tone that only seems to work for Bond movies: a whimsical, unapologetic, and occasionally brutal action film with technicolor characters, silly gadgets (though I'll admit Dr. No's "dragon" is just plain dumb), outright sexism, and outrageous set pieces. I can see why it was successful enough to spawn a phenomenon that continues more than five decades later.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE|
Theme Song: "From Russia With Love" by Matt Monro
Villain: Number 1 (Ernst Stavro Blofeld)
Henchmen: Rosa Klebb, Donald "Red" Grant
Bond girl: Tatiana Romanova
THE JIST: Leaping at the chance to acquire a soviet cryptographic device, James Bond finds himself caught in a web weaved by the mysterious head of SPECTRE as a means to enact revenge for the death of Dr. No. With a cold-blooded killer on his tail, a female spy in his bed, and the Lektor device in his hands, Bond must fight to survive a fateful trip aboard the Orient Express.
THE VERDICT: As a counter-point to Dr. No, this is more of an actual spy movie, with a much more sophisticated plot and much better action sequences. The pacing is a little awkward, Bond's puns don't make sense, and some of the subplots never pay off, but the characters and situations are more interesting and less straight-forward. As an espionage thriller, it's better than its predecessor (and most Connery-era Bond flicks), though it never feels quite as entertaining. In retrospect, From Russia with Love is a template for the grittier, slightly more realistic Bond films that would come many years later with Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig.
Theme Song: "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey
Villain: Auric Goldfinger
Bond girls: Jill Masterson, Pussy Galore
THE JIST: While surveilling Auric Goldfinger, a gold smuggler, James Bond is captured and learns of a sinister plot to destroy Fort Knox with a nuclear weapon.
THE VERDICT: Goldfinger is the most stereotypically mockable Bond flick, but as long as you're prepared for the silliness, it's quite good. Indeed, many Bond fans consider it to be the greatest Bond film ever made, and given the high rankings I've given its theme song, villain, henchman, and Bond girl, I can't argue too much against them (though, as you will learn later, I don't consider Goldfinger the best Bond movie). The frankly ridiculous plot is offset by some dark moments (like the two sisters getting killed early on); the puns actually make sense; and though Bond spends practically the whole movie in captivity, it's a lot of fun to see him use his skills to stay alive, unravel the plot, and win in the end. Unfortunately, there are some painfully bad moments--such as the gathering of mob charicatures and the amazingly convenient hollow map that Bond uses to spy in on it at exactly the right time--and the action scenes are pretty lackluster. It's not a perfect Bond movie, but it is one of the most iconic.
Theme Song: "Thunderball" by Tom Jones
Villains: Number 1, Emilio Largo
Henchmen: Fiona Volpe, Vargas
Bond girls: Patricia Fearing, Domino Derval
THE JIST: After SPECTRE steals two nuclear weapons and holds the world ransom for 100 million pounds in diamonds, Bond tracks a lead to Nassau, where he meets Emilio Largo, SPECTRE's Number 2 and the man responsible for carrying out the ambitious plot. With the clock ticking down to a major city's imminent destruction, 007 must work with Largo's mistress and find SPECTRE's nuclear weapons, leading to a fierce underwater battle unlike anything he's ever faced before.
THE VERDICT: More epic than any previous Bond film, this feels like a natural sequel to the original Dr. No; the stakes are even higher, the intrigue is even deeper, and the action is at a new level of intensity and preposterousness. The beginning is too convenient and schlocky--with Bond just happening to be at the same health spa as the bad guys who are using plastic surgery to inflitrate a bomber they somehow manage to land on the ocean surface--but once the movie settles into its second and third act, it becomes a more memorable Bond film. The eye-patched Largo is a good villain, Fiona is a great counterpoint to Pussy Galore (in that sleeping with Bond doesn't magically make her one of the good guys), the shark tank is fun, and the underwater stuff near the end is ambitious and impressive for its time (though it does go on far too long).
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE|
Theme Song: "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra
Villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Henchmen: Mr. Osato, Helga Brandt, Hans
Bond girls: Aki, Kissy Suzuki
THE JIST: James Bond finally meets the enigmatic Number 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, after SPECTRE hijacks both American and Soviet spacecrafts in the hopes of forcing the superpowers to declare war on each other. Tracking him to a hidden volcanic lair near the Sea of Japan, 007 relies on the help of the Japanese Secret Service and a team of ninjas to infiltrate the base and stop SPECTRE once and for all.
THE VERDICT: It's a bit too silly for its own good, with the space race plot, the volcanic lair, the goofy mini-copter, and a meandering story that seems to forget what it's doing from one beat to the next. The pacing is way off, and the movie overall needs to be trimmed down in the editing room. Even though I love Donald Pleasance, Blofeld is ultimately disappointing as well. As for the story itself, it's hard to tell if it's trying to honor Japanese culture or offend it with stereotypes until they put Sean Connery in terrible Asian makeup and have him training with ninjas, at which point it becomes clear they're doing the latter. Special effects are also notably bad. Granted, the reveal of Blofeld is a welcome climax to the saga of SPECTRE, the musical score is one of John Barry's best, and the battle inside the volcano is exciting and cool. However, in the final analysis, it's possibly the worst Connery-era Bond movie.
ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE|
Theme Song: N/A
Villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Henchmen: Irma Blunt, Grunther
Bond girls: Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Blofeld's Angels of Death
THE JIST: After courting the daughter of a crime boss who leads him to Blofeld's whereabouts, 007 disguises himself as a London geneologist and travels to an unusual allergy clinic in the Swiss Alps, where he uncovers yet another Blofeld plot to hold the world hostage, this time using brainwashed young women from around the globe and a biological agent that will sterilize the food supply.
THE VERDICT: I have grappled long and hard to understand why this movie is so well-regarded, but despite multiple viewings, I simply can't figure out what's supposed to be so great about On Her Majesty's Secret Service. George Lazenby, in his thankfully unique turn as James Bond, has the charisma of a bowl of soggy cornflakes; the genealogy ruse is stupid and goes on too long; Blofeld's scheme is unsatireably daffy, and there is no explanation given for why he doesn't recognize Bond immediately; the women are unflattering stereotypes of their respective countries; the action scenes are poorly choreographed and badly filmed; the cinematography and editing are awkward and confusing; and the plot-critical romance is unconvincing, no matter how much I like Dianna Rigg. It's a terrible Bond flick, is what I'm saying. The extremely depressing ending that adds flavor to much of Bond's future, along with another excellent score by John Barry, are its only high points.
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER|
Theme Song: "Diamonds are Forever" by Shirley Bassey
Villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Henchmen: Mr. Kidd, Mr. Wint
Bond girls: Plenty O'Toole, Tiffany Case
THE JIST: Following a trail of dead diamond smugglers, James Bond goes to Las Vegas, where he uncovers another plot by his nemesis Blofeld. Using diamonds to build a giant space laser, Blofeld intends to destroy the world's nuclear arsenal and then hold an auction for nuclear superiority.
THE VERDICT: On the surface, this is a fairly by-the-numbers Bond flick, which is actually refreshing after On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Unfortunately, the old formula has gotten a bit stale, and though it's nice to have him back for one last adventure, Sean Connery has clearly gotten too old to be James Bond. Diamonds are Forever doesn't quite know what to do with itself, as it is essentially just recycling previous Bond films and trying to hide its lack of originality behind a veneer of borderline screwball humor. I can't really forgive the moon buggy scenes. Still, the movie is fun and well-directed--with a good Bond girl in Tiffany Case, good henchmen in Wint and Kidd, and easily the best iteration of Blofeld thanks to Charles Gray--but it's largely forgettable.
-e. magill 2/10/2016