by XDL, Filmmaker; illustration by oldredjalopy…
Why do particular films and actors succeed when many believe they’re undeserving? You’d be surprised how many people in Tinseltown lose sleep over that question.
My answer: Hollywood is a branding and marketing mechanism, and once the gears get moving, it’s there to perpetuate content. The trick is to get the gears moving, and therein lies the art of it.
Every now and then the mechanism takes steps to protect itself. An example: Avatar. This was not a particularly good movie. It wasn’t horrid, but the film industry was losing ground to TV and the Internet, and its costs were going up. Theater chains needed something new — in Avatar’s case the 3D technology that your Samsung 60-inch at home couldn’t compete with. It also needed a grand money-making event, and James Cameron’s remake of FernGully provided it. More to the point, no one stood in the way. Reviewers either voted positive or abstained.
You could argue the artistic and technological merits of 3D, but in this case mediocrity got the engine to move. It’s not the only time.
The latest James Bond film, Spectre, has enjoyed nice critical votes and decent audience scores, but while I don’t want to go into a full review, I would say it’s not Bond’s best work. Neither would a lot of people. Sure, there’s lovely camera work, but let’s just say that Austin Powers (or more to the point, Doctor Evil) really haven’t done 007 any favors. I also found the theme song a bit unfortunate — Carly Simon, Duran Duran, and Nancy Sinatra have nothing to worry about.
So why is the film doing somewhat well? Because just like the stock market corrects itself, so does the box office. And Hollywood needed a success after Steve Jobs, Bill Murray, and Jem and the Holograms all flopped like a freshman Senator.
Believe it or not, this Bond isn’t enjoying runaway success, having underperformed versus his previous outing. But it’s doing just enough to keep things moving. Thus, we have either encouraging reviews or absent ones, despite the real word of mouth being a whole lotta “meh.”
Still, watching our favorite “sexist, misogynist dinosaur and relic of the cold way” is not only a jaunt through cultural history and gender roles, it’s also a journey through cinematic history. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they missed the target. The mechanism then tees up another offering a few years later.
That said, markets and needs will shift, and in the end a film will be remembered for its merits.
The 007 Hit List
Some of the Bond films were very good, and as I try to explore in this ranking, some will not age well at all.
24. Die Another Day — A villain storyline that borders on racist (a recurring theme in Bonds), an unfortunate cameo by Madonna, and a CGI-fest that miraculously made the Aston Martin Vanquish look very uncool, this was the series low point. It will not age well.
23. Diamonds Are Forever — Proof that Connery indeed made bad Bond films. Honorable mention to Jill St. John, whose Bond-girl single-handedly set the women’s movement back 25 years. It will not age well.
22. Live and Let Die — A purple long coat in Harlem? It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to give the Austin Powers people something to work with a few decades later. How Bond survived the 70’s is a minor miracle. Clearly a great theme song does not save a bad film. It will not age well.
21. The Man with a Golden Gun — Marketing and branding are more powerful than logic and common sense. How Roger Moore made it past his first two films is mind-boggling. Counterpoint: it did have one of the best stunts in the series with the barrel-roll car jump. There are no wires and there was no CG back then — a car actually did that.
20. Tomorrow Never Dies — An example of how Bond films are more reactive than proactive. This time the production team tries Hong Kong action cinema ten years after the Hong Kong cinema boom. And this sucks because the cast, particularly Jonathan Pryce and a very well shot Teri Hatcher, put forth a game effort. It will age OK.
19. Octopussy — A Bond that checks all the right boxes but somehow fails to be memorable in any given area. It also falls victim to the occasional Moore foolishness (a Tarzan yell, pure stupidity). Another great soundtrack by John Barry, though, the India setting was lovely, and it was neat to hear Louis Jourdan say, “Ock-Toe-Pooo-say.” It probably won’t age well, though.
18. Moonraker — The John Barry score and a decent third act keep this from being at the bottom of the list. It can however be silly at times. Also, whatever was going on with the Jaws storyline was just plain weird. Counterpoint: Dr. Holly Goodhead. Very special note: the production design of Ken Adams was so beautiful it deserves its own coffee table book.
17. The World is Not Enough — Good opening sequence and first act along with a lovely exit scene of Desmond Llewelyn. Sophie Marceau’s performance and David Arnold’s score are also good, but Denise Richards’ casting is painful and classic Hollywood marketing.
16. A View to a Kill — A great theme song and awesome first act keep this film memorable. Much has been said about Moore’s age at the time and none of it is inaccurate — it kept him looking silly even when he didn’t want to be. It also had the pacing of a Pinto with a broken head gasket. But after years of being creepy, Christopher Walken was an excellent, maniacal bad guy.
15. License to Kill — At times a boring revenge film punctuated by Timothy Dalton’s helmet-head. Much can be said about the filmmakers at least trying to push different boundaries. Also, Benicio Del Toro’s scene stealing debut.
14. Thunderball — Connery phones it in.
13. For Your Eyes Only — Another great song plus a decent espionage plot, a solid Bond-girl (Carole Bouquet!), and the best kill by Roger Moore (he kicks the bad guy’s car over a cliff). Counter-point: Lynn Holly Johnson — it’s not her fault but her character was painful to see on screen.
12. You Only Live Twice — Watch this after seeing Austin Powers and you realize how preposterous this film is. Counterpoint: John Barry’s best score and the Toyota 2000GT — it kicks the crap out of the Aston Martin DB5 and might just be the coolest car ever made. Best line: “For a European, you’re remarkably well cultivated.”
11. Goldeneye — Solid female leads and a nice balance of humor and action. This film was a good relaunch of the franchise. They also drove a tank through St. Petersburg Square! Low point: the BMW Z3. Overall this film will age well.
10. Quantum of Solace — Yes, a stupid title. But this film might end up in the top five (or the bottom three) in a few years because of its cinematic moodiness. It’s the most art-house Bond film we’ll ever get, shot, framed, and edited gorgeously (particularly the opening car chase). Olga Kurylenko is shhhhhh-mok’n hot, and the cinematic mood broke many Bond conventions. Unfortunately, the story was painfully dull, no one would call the film fun, and the action would’ve been stellar had Jason Borne not come out a year before it. Quantum was also the most gratuitously violent film in the franchise — and not in a good way.
9. Skyfall — Javier Bardem and some nicely paced action keep this film moving, along with fantastic performances by the female leads — most notably Berenice Marlohe who raises the acting bar — but the film is not fun. Bond also loses, and what’s that about? It’s a state-of-the-art Bond movie, but after the hype it will not age well.
8. Never Say Never Again — This film was a hoot! Sure it didn’t have a lot of the elements we’re accustomed to, like the theme music or the regulars in their roles, but everyone seemed to be having so much fun that you can forgive it all. Best line: “I’ll be expecting to see a great deal of gratuitous sex and violence from you, Mr. Bond.” This film will age well.
7. The Living Daylights — The Aston Martin Oscar India (that’s actually the name!), Maryam d’Abo (one of the loveliest leading ladies), and a nice return to the Ian Fleming roots, this is one of the more mature Bond films and the one that ushered the character into the modern world. John Barry’s final Bond score was a little flat. Still, this film will age well.
6. Casino Royale — The film closest to Ian Fleming’s character, it had relentless yet inventive action (the opening construction site chase is an example), a great Bond girl in Eva Green, and a fresh take on a sixty year-old character (if you include the literary career). It suffers from a lack of pacing. It also could be more fun. It probably won’t age much better but it certainly won’t age much worse.
5. Dr. No — Ridiculously cool on many levels. The only reason it’s not number one is because it’s neither a great spy film nor a great action film. But it is a great James Bond. The cinematic introduction of Connery as Bond is also iconic. Bad news: the character of Quarrel isn’t going to defeat any stereotypes. The good news: Ursula Andrews’ “Honey Rider.”
4. From Russia With Love — great title, great villain, and great performance from Connery, this was Bond’s most successful espionage offering. The concept was simple: escape Russia with the girl and the goods. Another contender for best Bond film, it only falls short because although it did much to establish Bond it did not yet change the course of cinema.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me — Out of all the Bonds, this was the most fun. Moore’s timing was great and he serves as an excellent action lead. Barbara Bach was crazy hot in her role as Triple X, and of course the submarine Lotus Esprit! It was also equal parts outlandish as well as grounded, although it couldn’t escape the era’s silliness. In the end this proved that Roger Moore made great Bond films too. This film will age extremely well.
2. Goldfinger — The one movie ahead of the cinematic curve, it redefined how movies were made. Great cast, great script, and great execution, there is little to find fault with this offering. Fun sequence: the golf scene, particularly how Bond lays the gold brick down at the bad guy’s feet — great use of the cinematic language. This film cannot age any better. So why isn’t it number 1? Because it’s ultimately the “I need more cowbell movie.” After a few years of modest budgets, the studios threw wads of cash at this emerging property. It’s kinda like the early millennial Yankees: they didn’t happen upon greatness, they bought it.
1a. Casino Royale (1967) — If you haven’t seen this film, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I believe this is one of the most 60’s films you can see, and if your parents were young back then, it will explain a great many things.
1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — This forgotten Bond was close to greatness. It provides more impact than Skyfall and without the product placement. The action sequences were done the old-fashioned way: hanging from aircraft, girders, riggings, etc. The love story was also effective, and much to many people’s consternation, George Lazenby was quite good — he looked the part in a 60’s Mad Men-sort-of-way, yet he possessed a believable vulnerability that no other actor has since portrayed. The main reason this film is so noteworthy is all the chances it took — an emotionally resonating Bond, a new actor with virtually no thespian chops, and a pronounced departure from all the successful gadget elements that had just preceded it. Someone took a cash cow, and instead of squeezing it for more, went searching for another, iconic level. Bravo to them because this is not the Hollywood norm.