Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 006 (Bond, Essential Bond)

(Screencap courtesy of MGM.)

With this year marking the 60th anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise, I’m ranking all 26 Bond movies (and the Bonds!).

These lists aren’t meant to be definitive — how could they be? — but to be a fun look back at an iconic series… and maybe engage in some not-too-heated discussion over my worst picks.

Welcome to Part 006: Bond, Essential Bond.

These are the very few movies — minus two I’m holding in reserve for a very special Part 007 — that for me define a James Bond movie.

License to Kill (1989)
Bond Movies - License to Kill
Bond goes dark. (Screencap courtesy of MGM.)

There was a lot of hemming and hawing on my part before admitting a movie from the second-least successful Bond into this list.

But it came down to this: License to Kill is stripped-down Bond — he’s gone rogue on a very personal mission, using all of his skills and spycraft to kill a bad guy in desperate need of killing.

There were also two oh-so-very ’80s touches. The Big Bad is a South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (played with equal parts cool cruelty and brains by Robert Davi), working in cahoots with a smarmy American televangelist (Wayne Newton!) to launder his illicit gains.

The film opens with the usual pre-credit action sequence, but with a twist.

Bond and CIA agent/best friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) are on their way to Leiter’s wedding when their Rolls is intercepted by DEA agents in need of Bond and Leiter’s particular brand of assistance.

Sanchez is in town on some personal business of his own, and it’s up to Bond and Leiter to capture him. Indeed they do, with one of the franchise’s most exciting practical effects: Using a Coast Guard helicopter to pluck Sanchez’s plane out of the sky.

Somehow, Leiter and Bond manage to barely rumple their morning coats and parachute into the wedding just in time — much to bride Della Churchill’s (Priscilla Barnes) relief.

It is a Bond movie, after all.

But then LTK turns dark.

Sanchez is sprung and returns to South America. But his henchmen — one played by a babyfaced Benicio Del Toro — rape and murder Della and leave Leiter for dead, minus a leg and maybe an arm.

Bond uses all of his skills — detective work, theft, stealth, going undercover, and more — to avenge Leiter and Della. And he has to do all of it alone after MI6 suspends Bond for engaging in unlicensed killings.

A Double-O rating can be stretched only so far.

Some critics complained that LTK took Bond too dark, but after a dozen years of increasingly flippant Roger Moore flicks, I found it to be a welcome change. Bond was always an assassin happy to serve Queen and Country, but what would happen if circumstances forced him to pursue his own cause?

That’s the question LTK answers, and it’s a question I hadn’t even known needed an answer.

That earns it a spot in my Essential Bond list.

You Only Live Twice (1967)
You Only Live Twice
Creepy unpleasantness from Donald Pleasence. (Screencap courtesy of MGM.)

As noted in Part 005, I’ve criticized other Bond movies for being too big — for relying on big budgets, big special effects, big sets, and unbelievably big plots by unbelievably rich and powerful supervillains.

But the very first time all of that happened in one Bond movie, audiences were thrilled.

You Only Live Twice was the second time, and audiences were thrilled anew.

The opening sequence snagged audiences already thrilled with the ongoing real-world Space Race. An American capsule is captured in orbit by another spacecraft of unknown origin, looking something like an evil uncle to Elon Musk’s prototype Starship.

Are the effects dated? Sure, but not so much that you won’t feel a real pang of loss when the spacewalking American astronaut is sent adrift.

The same ship later hijacks a Soviet space capsule. Cold War tensions run hot as the US suspects the Soviets have sabotaged our space program. But MI6 somehow learns that the mysterious spacecraft splashed down in the Sea of Japan. Bond is sent to investigate, but he requires the kind of cover only death can supply. So he fakes his own death — quite convincingly — right down to being buried at sea.

I’ll never forget watching this on TV as a very young kid, staring at the screen in disbelief. “They killed BOND?”

This one really does have all, including Bond’s miraculous resurrection on board a British submarine.

There’s an escape from a doomed airplane, a rocket launch, death by poison, a mini autogyro, a helicopter battle, ninjas, a possible nuclear war, a space launch facility inside a (mostly) dormant volcano, and then that volcano erupting.

And of course, Blofeld and SPECTRE up to no good at all.

Connery is in top form, showing none of the boredom that would creep into his last two outings.

If there’s a weakness to YOLT, it’s trying to suspend disbelief while 6’2″ Sean Connery, wearing eye makeup and a wig, tries to pass for Japanese.

Getting a couple of over-the-top Bond flicks like Thunderball and YOLT in a row was great fun, but it might have given EON Productions the idea that Bond would always have to be that big. Maybe that’s how we ended up with special-effects heavy disasters like Moonraker and Spectre.

In any case, the big-budget thrills of YOLT hadn’t yet overshadowed the pure Bond-ness, and that makes this one Classic Bond.

No Time to Die (2021)
No Time to Die
Everything he touches dies. (Screencap courtesy of MGM.)

I went into No Time to Die with serious concerns.

There had been reports of production drama and troubles that had become commonplace during the Daniel Craig era. Then the seemingly endless release delays due to COVID lockdowns. And of course, while Craig was still filming his last outing, all the talk was about who would be the next Bond. Would it be a black woman, a gay black woman, or a handicapped gay black woman?

I exaggerate, but not by much.

There was also the foul taste still left in my mouth from 2015’s Spectre, that had burned all the good feelings and high expectations left by Skyfall.

I loved NTTD.

The fifth and final Craig movie is still recent enough that I’ll keep this spoiler-free. But if License to Kill was the movie that asked (and answered) the question of what would happen if someone made it personal for Bond, then NTTD asks (and answers) a very different question.

What if Bond could finally find happiness and fulfillment… but only for one fleeting moment?

The question is premised on something of an outrageous plot device, courtesy of creepy villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).

Léa Seydoux as Madeleine and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld are both back from Spectre but without all of Blofeld’s cheesy backstory elements that helped ruin that movie for me.

NTTD opens with Bond laying his past to rest, ready to find that elusive happiness and fulfillment with Madeleine until events occur that make Bond believe she’s betrayed him.

We flash-forward five years to find Bond retired from active duty. Then Felix Leiter returns in need of Bond’s help locating a kidnapped scientist in possession of deadly nanobot technology.

The nanobots can be programmed to kill based on particular genetic patterns and spread invisibly. This is definitely the COVID-era Bond.

Needless to say, Bond’s adventures bring him back to Madeleine, her young daughter, the evil Safin, and the nanobots.

More than that, I’d rather not give away. But I will say that if the producers hadn’t had Craig’s Bond’s particular closing in mind from the very start of his era, it certainly plays that smoothly.

NTTD isn’t perfect. It’s too long, needing one action sequence cut down and another action sequence to be cut entirely. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga seemed to be a little too in love with his fights and escapes, even when they drag or do nothing to move the story along.

But Bond’s losses, and the resulting emotional payoff for the audience, will have me coming back to this one again and again.

And that’s what Essential Bond is all about, isn’t it?

From Russia With Love (1963)
From Russia With Love
Connery makes it look easy. (Screencap courtesy of MGM.)

I have to start this one on a tangent.

The reason the first season of Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 was so good was that it was a very personal story set at a human (as opposed to superhuman) level.

Jack Bauer has 24 hours to stop the bad guys from breaking one of their own out of prison.

That’s it. Sure, there are plenty of twists and turns and double agents and secret agendas, but the main plot is one that audiences can relate to. We care because the good guys are well-drawn, well-acted, and have moral centers.

Then Season 2 came out and — BOOM! — there’s a nuke going off in Los Angeles, totally wasting the original premise of human beings fighting human-level battles.

I call it Escalating Stakes Syndrome. Producers seem to think that the plots need to get bigger and more outrageous with every outing.

The truth is, we don’t always need nuclear-level scares or spaceships that eat other spaceships. Sometimes we just want a simple story with characters we like.

And that’s From Russia With Love: Get the girl with the stolen MacGuffin to safety.

The setup and the execution are more complicated than all that, involving SPECTRE seeking revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No, an evil chess master, Cold War tensions, a super-trained super-assassin (Robert Shaw as Donald “Red” Grant), the Orient Express, a boat chase, and more.

But in the end, it comes down to an innocent woman (the lovely Daniela Bianchi
as Tatiana Romanova) being used as a pawn in a global battle, forcing her to come into her own, and the warm affection Bond comes to feel for her along the way.

Sadly, Bianchi never had much of a career, with only 16 IMDB credits — most of which you probably haven’t heard of. But she’s glowing in this role as a sharp young woman who only thinks she understands what she’s getting into.

Shaw is particularly good in his role. Perhaps with aspirations to be more than a thug, Grant suffers class anxiety that the suave and worldly Bond can’t help but highlight. The scenes on the train where they get to know one another — before trying to kill one another — are a genuine highlight of a very good movie.

From Russia With Love isn’t just a classic Bond movie. It’s a classic movie, period. It’s also a great example of ’60s cinema as it was starting to loosen up, but before the filthy hippies took it over.

That’s it for Part 006.

Sharp Bond fans are probably aware that there are just two movies left to go, and which ones they are.

Look for those in Part 007 later this week.

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 001 (The Bonds, James Bonds)

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 002 (The Ones That Really Blofeld)

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 003 (Neither Shaken Nor Stirred)

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 004 (Popcorn Thrills)

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 005 (Shaken and Stirring)

Also: Ranking the Bond Movies: Part 007 (The Best of Bond)


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