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Spectres of Bond

Revisiting the James Bond series from the great to the bottom of the barrel

Daniel Craig in No Time to Die (2022)

Like others of my generation, who perhaps may wish to remain nameless, a staple of my youth was the James Bond film series. Prompted by the sixtieth anniversary of Dr. No (1962), the first Bond feature from Eon Productions to be released in theaters and the film that made Sean Connery the first star ever to introduce himself as “Bond, James Bond,” I decided to revisit the series in chronological order. As I worked my way up to Daniel Craig’s final outing in the role with No Time to Die (2021), I was curious to observe the historical changes in the series over the past six decades and to see how my relationship to it has changed since the 1990s, the halfway point between Connery and Craig, which was where I came in. Here’s what I found.

Nobody Does It Better (Than Daniel Craig)

Eva Green kissing Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006)
Eva Green (left) and Daniel Craig (right) in Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale (2006), Skyfall (2011), Spectre (2015), and No Time to Die (2021)

With the exception of the borderline incoherent Quantum of Solace (2008, see “Serious Offshoots That Missed the Mark”), the Craig era delivered the best that the Bond series has had to provide. Not only does Craig out-act all of his predecessors, but he’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast: Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter; Ben Whishaw as Q; Naomie Harris as Moneypenny; Judi Dench and later Ralph Fiennes as M; Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner, M’s chief of staff; the sublime Eva Green and later Léa Seydoux as Bond’s great loves; Mads Mikkelsen, Javier Bardem, and Rami Malek as some genuinely creepy villains; and Christoph Waltz as Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, more enjoyable even than Donald Pleasence, who made the role famous opposite Connery in You Only Live Twice (1967). The quality varies from film to film (Casino Royale is the jewel in the crown and Spectre is the uncut gem, with Skyfall and No Time to Die gleaming impressively somewhere between them), but if full-throttle action is what one wants out of a Bond film, none of these disappoint in that respect.

What’s more, they accomplish something truly new in the series by telling a continuous story with a cumulative impact, bringing humanity to the characters through psychological depth and emotional weight instead of treating them as static symbols. Following the Bond reboot of Casino Royale, the Craig cycle has functioned as both prequels of and sequels to the preceding films in the series, resulting in a fascinating and sometimes moving negotiation between apparent contradictions: death and renewal; the feeling of time running out and “having all the time in the world”; the nostalgic desire to travel “back in time,” as Bond does in Skyfall, and the importance of “letting go of the past, getting rid of old things,” as he discovers in No Time (“in come the new,” affirms his hotel porter). Maybe the most provocative choice in this reimagining of Bond was not to update him for the twenty-first century, but to allow him to age into a ghost, a spectre, who exists in these liminal states.

Golden Years

Pierce Brosnan handcuffed to Michelle Yeoh on a speeding motorcycle in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Pierce Brosnan (front) and Michelle Yeoh (back) in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

After the one-two punch of GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, it’s no wonder a generation of ‘90s kids became enamored with the world of 007, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that this pair has held up better than any of the films made prior to Pierce Brosnan’s entrance in the series. Playing Bond with a cool elegance and an unusual measure of sensitivity, Brosnan helped the series hit its graceful stride in the middle of the decade. Somehow, he even makes ordering a vodka martini, “shaken, not stirred,” seem like a charming affectation instead of all-but-exhausted routine. Both films also feature stronger roles for women than the series had previously offered, with Famke Janssen as femme fatale Xenia Onatopp, Wai Lin as a Chinese spy skilled in martial arts (an ally of Bond’s who is also his equal!), and Judi Dench succeeding Robert Brown and Bernard Lee as the most magisterial head of M16 ever to go by the codename M.

Bond’s six-year absence between License to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye confronted the Brosnan years with the question, “What do you do with a Cold War spy after the Cold War?” Fortunately, his first two films responded with inspired answers. GoldenEye reunites Bond with a former “00” (compellingly played by Sean Bean), who, seeking revenge against England, has joined forces with a syndicate of Russian arms dealers to take control of a space weapon left over from the Soviet era. The closest the series came to social satire was with the superior Tomorrow Never Dies, which gave Bond his most contemporary enemy in a Rupert Murdoch-type media mogul (played by Jonathan Pryce, relishing in an over-the-top performance). Among the most well-paced installments in the series, both films up the ante on action set pieces; to cite only two, Bond drives a tank through the streets of Saint Petersburg in GoldenEye and, in Tomorrow Never Dies, he outruns a helicopter and two Range Rovers in Bangkok while handcuffed to Wai Lin on a motorbike. Beautiful staging and virtuoso stunts combine with seamless editing and special effects for what might be called a pure cinema of movement.

Intermittently Entertaining

Timothy Dalton waving from a car window, sitting next to Maryam d'Abo, in The Living Daylights (1987)
Timothy Dalton (left) and Maryam d’Abo (right) in The Living Daylights (1987)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), The Living Daylights (1987), and The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The Brosnan cycle was set back about twenty years with The World Is Not Enough, a better film that its reputation suggests if only because it serves as a reminder of how appreciating the best Bond films of the 1970s and 1980s was always about accepting a series of trade-offs. Plus, it’s hard to hate a film that gives Q (Desmond Llewelyn) such a poignant farewell. Like For Your Eyes Only with Roger Moore and The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton, it moves at a fast clip for the first hour only to run out of fuel as the plot thickens during the second half. Female characters Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) in World and Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) in Your Eyes have interesting back stories and command the screen, but these films are also burdened with cringe-inducing female counterparts: in the former, Denise Richards plays Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist akin to a Baywatch lifeguard, and in the latter, Lynn-Holly Johnson plays Bibi Dahl, a teenage figure-skater with an ardent crush on Bond. It doesn’t help that neither Richards nor Johnson (a real-life figure-skater) has the acting chops to salvage her role.

World’s Renard Zokas (Robert Carlysle) is a Bond villain in the classic tradition of The Spy Who Loved Me’s Karl Stromberg (Curt Jürgens), nothing to take for granted after the forgettable Kristatos (Julian Glover) in Your Eyes and the just plain stupid Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) in Daylights. Yet, neither World nor Spy fulfill their promises, interleaving moments of robust action with the juvenile humor that Moore brought to prominence and Brosnan seemed to inherit. Brosnan was still suavely holding his own by 1999, but it’s Moore’s co-stars who steal the show in Spy. As KGB agent Anya Amasova, a.k.a., XXX, Barbara Bach has a lot more to do than previous “Bond girls” Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die (1973) and Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Still, she really deserved her own spin-off as compensation for playing Bond’s rival-turned-partner-turned-damsel-in-distress-turned-overcome-lover (never mind that he killed her boyfriend at the beginning!). The filmmakers were wise enough to realize they had a good thing with Richard Keil as Stromberg’s metal-toothed henchman Jaws and kept him around for Moonraker (1979). If only it were a worthy film (see “Bad Bond Movies with Good Bond Villains”).

Serious Offshoots That Missed the Mark

George Lazenby looking sad in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), License to Kill (1989), and Quantum of Solace (2008)

Although noted for its more serious approach to the character, in some ways closer to the tone of Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels, the Craig era was not the first time the series reset Bond in a “realistic” universe. The first attempt was with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which, following the events of You Only Live Twice (1967), focuses primarily on Bond’s continued pursuit of Blofeld (this time played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas). Richer material lies in the uniquely adult subplot centered on Bond’s romance with Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the doomed countess whom he eventually marries, but the film never seems to know what to do with her—even as it meanders through a bloated running-time of 140 minutes, the longest for a Bond film by 1969. Australian model George Lazenby, Connery’s temporary replacement, makes for the blandest Bond of the entire series, while Rigg, best known as Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, is the real star and sorely underused.

Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore’s immediate successor, also played Bond straight, but to a much greater effect than Lazenby—he’s equal parts brooding intensity and leading-man charisma, especially in the otherwise uneven The Living Daylights. The fault of License to Kill is not in its star, but in its drabness and unnecessary brutality. Latin American drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) whips his girlfriend when he catches her in bed with another man. Sanchez’s cartel rapes and murders Felix’s new bride before lowering Felix into their shark tank, where he loses a leg. One of Sanchez’s henchmen gets locked in a decompression chamber without oxygen, which causes his head to explode, and another (played by a young Benicio del Toro) falls into a cocaine shredder. Has there ever been an uglier or more generally unpleasant Bond film?

Maybe Quantum of Solace, a direct sequel to Casino Royale. If Quantum taught us anything, it’s that a darker, grittier Bond does not guarantee a meaningful intervention in the series. Completion of the script was interrupted by the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, leaving Craig and director Marc Forster to do on-set rewrites while filming, before turning the script over to a new writer after the strike as writing and filming continued simultaneously. Even more disjointed than the story is the editing, which makes hash out of the action sequences and compounds the messiness of the whole film. The dramatic conflicts of Casino Royale never reach a satisfying resolution—indeed, none have a chance to develop further—as the film careens towards an abrupt ending, clocking in at 106 minutes, the shortest running time for a Bond film.

Vintage Bond That Has Lost Its Chill

Sean Connery, holding a champagne bottle, in bed with Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger (1964)
Sean Connery (left) and Shirley Eaton (right) in Goldfinger (1964)

Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and You Only Live Twice (1967)

Received wisdom tells us that Sean Connery was the greatest Bond, and that his tenure in the 1960s represented the series at its peak. So commonplace is this assumption, at least among Bond fans, that it has become accepted as one of the undisputed truths about the series. Even to question it seems unthinkable. I myself long adhered to this party line, which I now can only attribute to the power of uncritical nostalgia when it is collectively held and institutionally supported. When I say that I was surprised how badly these films have dated, I’m not referring to their notorious sexism and racism (I braced myself for this going in), but rather the sheer slog of sitting through them. The most exciting parts to watch are the stylish costume changes and displays of Ken Adam’s outré sets, enough to keep someone like me entertained if the dull espionage stuff didn’t keep getting in the way.

To be sure, the major legacy of the Connery years isn’t Connery himself, whose sixties-playboy-brand of middle-aged hyper-masculinity reads as the one joke the films aren’t “in” on. Nor is it the high-tech gadgets, sports cars, or cosmopolitan locations that remain equally synonymous with Bondian luxury and sophistication. It’s the theme music. Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Jones (okay, he’s slightly out of his league here, but who doesn’t still smile when they hear him belt out “Thun-der-ball”?). Nowhere else in the series was there such a consistently fine musical run, and only a few standouts would emerge in the years that followed: Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” A-ha’s “The Living Daylights,” and Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye.” I may not watch Goldfinger again anytime soon, but I still won’t get rid of my vinyl soundtrack album.

Bad Bond Movies with Good Bond Villains

Christopher Walken standing next to Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (1985)
Christopher Walken (left) and Grace Jones (right) in A View to a Kill (1985)

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Moonraker (1979), and A View to a Kill (1985)

Roger Moore always seemed too old and too stiff to play a convincing Bond, but if nothing else, some of his silliest entries created opportunities for his co-stars to leave their marks as memorably theatrical villains: Christopher Lee as Francisco Scaramanga, the titular assassin with three nipples in The Man with the Golden Gun; Michael Lonsdale as billionaire-industrialist Hugo Drax in Moonraker, whose company builds shuttles for NASA, giving Bond an excuse to go to space; and Christopher Walken in a blonde wig as Max Zorin in A View to a Kill. The problem is that Moore’s films were so eager to capitalize on existing movie trends and recycle established Bond formulas that these distinctive bad guys just got swallowed up by gimmicky action sequences (kung fu fights in Golden Gun, Star Wars-style special-effects sequences in Moonraker), not to mention tedious, convoluted plots.

Take, for example, A View to a Kill, Moore’s final Bond film at the age of 57. Zorin is a psychopathic businessman, born from Nazi experimentation and trained in the KGB, attempting to corner the market of the electronics industry by creating an earthquake that would destroy Silicon Valley. During his off hours, he cleans up at horseraces by implanting microchips in thoroughbreds that release adrenaline…or something like that. One feels as tired as Moore looks just trying to follow it. Grace Jones earns the film some extra credit in the villain category as Zorin’s badass henchwoman, which is more than can be said of the other two films. Moonraker brings back veteran henchman Jaws, but inexplicably sets him up with a love interest, and Golden Gun subjects Bond to a scuffle with Scaramanga’s diminutive henchman (Hervé Villechaize of Fantasy Island fame) in a scene that achieves such a level of self-parody, it practically renders the Mini-Me jokes in Austin Powers superfluous.

Bottom-of-the-Barrel-Bond

Roger Moore nervously straightening his tie in Live and Let Die (1973)
Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), Octopussy (1983), Die Another Day (2002)

Whether he’s hiding in a gorilla suit or a crocodile-submarine, driving a moon buggy or an invisible car, swinging through vines while giving a Tarzan yell, or kitesurfing over a poorly CGI’d tsunami, Bond has endured some embarrassingly clownish moments onscreen—perhaps none more so than when he literally dresses as a clown in Octopussy. That Connery and Brosnan both made their last official appearances as Bond in these films—in Diamonds Are Forever and Die Another Day, respectively—only adds to the shame of it all. The villains don’t fare much better. In a bit of whitewashed casting, Octopussy’s Louis Jourdan plays an Afghan prince, but in Die Another Day, a North Korean military colonel assumes a new identity by becoming white through the aid of gene therapy technology (his laser-equipped ice palace has to be the most ridiculous lair a Bond villain ever inhabited). And because Bond villains apparently love disguises, Diamonds Are Forever gives us a straight-out-of-plastic-surgery Blofeld, played by Charles Gray. That’s right, the Criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Were it not such a deadly bore, the film might have actually been campy fun; this new Blofeld runs a diamond-smuggling operation, employs two gay hitmen, and—in case we missed the queerness-as-villainy coding—even shows up in drag at one point!

But the worst offender of the bunch has to be Live and Let Die, the Bond-meets-blaxploitation disaster that introduced Roger Moore as 007, whose mission leads him from Harlem to the Caribbean and finally to New Orleans, where tangles with a drug lord (Yaphet Kotto) involved in voodoo. The chase interlude through the Louisiana bayou, with the English-gentleman spy running afoul of a redneck sheriff, anticipates the likes of Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazard. By 1973, it signaled a new low for the series.

Where Bond goes after No Time to Die remains to be seen, but if we are to believe the film’s promise that “James Bond Will Return” (familiar words to anyone who stays through the end-credits of Bond films), the definitive closure on the Craig cycle leaves the future of the franchise more open than ever. According to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, Craig’s successor has not been determined: “We’re working out where to go with [Bond], we’re talking that through. There isn’t a script and we can’t come up with one until we decide how we’re going to approach the next film because, really, it’s a reinvention of Bond. We’re reinventing who he is and that takes time. I’d say filming is at least two years away.”

From a practical standpoint, Broccoli’s vision only makes sense given the events of the most recent film, and if Bond is to be reinvented, figuring out “who he is” should take time. Personally, I’d be more optimistic about a film that establishes a brand-new character and story-world than an attempt to fold Bond into the recent trend of legacy sequels for Gen. X franchises. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Written by Will Scheibel

Will's day job is teaching film and screen studies at Syracuse University, where he is an associate professor in the Department of English. He is the author of GENE TIERNEY: STAR OF HOLLYWOOD'S HOME FRONT (Wayne State University Press, 2022) and, with Julie Grossman, co-author of the "TV Milestones" volume TWIN PEAKS (Wayne State University Press, 2020).

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