Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Top 5 James Bond Movies

There's not much I can say about Skyfall that hasn't already been said. As a moviegoer, I have to think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark to find another film that was so universally embraced. This has gotten me musing about the James Bond series as a whole--a series that, until recently, I thought was completely dead in the water. Yes, the 50 years since Dr. No hit theaters have contained many moments of thrilling cinema, but also an awful lot of phoned-in performances and by-the-numbers plots. Yet Skyfall has got me excited about what's coming next. It's fun, extravagant, and compelling, It feels fresh, and that's quite an accomplishment for a franchise that is a half-century old. Director Sam Mendes and the talented cast deserve a lot of credit for pulling this off.

Now, for your edification, here is my completely subjective list of the top five James Bond movies. I expect, and hope, to be hotly debated on these selections.

5. Licence to Kill (1989). This will certainly be my most controversial choice, but I stand by it. I tend to prefer Bond stories that have a more personal angle and a stronger emphasis on character. Our protagonist "goes dark" in this one--both in terms of tone and the fact that he conducts his revenge mission outside the purview of MI6. At times the movie doesn't quite know what it wants to be: the ratio of humor to drama is not always calibrated to perfection. And, unlike most of the other entries in the series, it has a shabby, low-budget feel. Still, I appreciate Timothy Dalton's brooding take on the character. He, and the movie, deserve a second look.

4. Casino Royale (2006). (Daniel Craig version). Craig comes in with a similar mandate to Dalton's, but pulls it off with greater focus and conviction. In general I'm not a fan of reboots, but this is the exception that proves the rule. Here the tired jokes and formulaic set pieces are jettisoned, replaced with realism and urgency. For the first time in a long while, we believe in the danger. We believe that any of these characters could die at any moment. I have to think that Ian Fleming would have approved of this back-to-basics, take-nothing-for-granted approach.

3. Skyfall (2012). See comments above. I will add here that Javier Bardem's Silva is one of the strongest villains in the series: menacing and flamboyant in the classic mold, but, unlike Blofeld and some of the others, motivated by legitimate grievances.

2. From Russia With Love (1963). Of the early movies, this one does the best job of balancing the absurd with the sublime. It's Connery at his finest: a definitive performance by which all of his successors continue to be judged. Additionally, the stylish direction and pacing have the feel of a classic Hitchcock film.

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). An eccentric effort, to be sure (early on in the film, one-shot Bond George Lazenby breaks the fourth wall to exclaim, "This never happened to the other fella!") but it's also thoroughly mesmerizing. Though not on Connery's level, Lazenby is actually quite good as Bond--particularly in the action sequences. In the Craig era we've come to expect pathos in our Bond movies, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first to go to the dark places. The film boasts what may be John Barry's finest cinematic score--certainly his best among the many he did for Bond--and also the best actress--Diana Rigg--ever to assume the role of a "Bond girl." It's a movie I keep going back to, which is not something I can say for most of the others. 

There you have it. I realize a lot of people would substitute Goldfinger for one of these choices, but I had the opportunity to revisit that installment recently and came away disappointed. Yes, it has flair, and is definitely groundbreaking, but it bends credulity to the breaking point in a number of key scenes. We are asked to believe, for instance, that Pussy Galore would call off a scheduled nerve gas attack after having sex with Bond. While I don't doubt his prowess in the bedroom (or, in this case, the haystack), the arbitrariness of her evil-to-good flip induces whiplash. There is also the matter of a countdown timer on a bomb that mysteriously stretches sixty seconds into something like ten minutes. Perhaps I'm getting nitpicky here, but this is sloppy filmmaking. It wouldn't matter so much in a bad move, but Goldfinger is within sight of greatness--which makes the fumbles especially vexing. Mark it as a close runner-up.