MM and I found ourselves re-watching the most recent James Bond film, No Time to Die. Our initial impression of the movie was disappointment. Yet as we were watching it again, it seemed that most of the movie held up until, roughly the third act. If, by chance, you find yourself reading this and have not seen the movie, stop reading here.
There’s three things we didn’t like about No Time to Die: First, too many recurring characters die (Felix Leiter, Blofeld and Bond himself). Part of the appeal of James Bond is that he can forever do things that would kill anyone else, and he doesn’t die. We live vicariously through him, but not if he gets blown up at the end of the movie. Second, the main villain’s motivations, and even what he wants to do, are unclear. Watching the movie again didn’t help. Third, that villain, with the forgettable name of Lyutsifer Safin (the Daniel Craig movies feature villains who, for the most part, have forgettable names, except those that originated with Ian Flemming)… anyway… he hardly shows up in the movie at all. Rami Malek plays the character with what’s supposed to be unnerving understatement, and I suppose he succeeds, but it seemed like his total screen time was about 15 minutes in a a two and a half our movie. And that’s all well and good except we don’t get enough time to invest in the character to really dislike him or think of him as worthy of being Bond’s final nemesis.
Does this mean that No Time to Die is the worst Bond movie? Far from it. Again, most of the movie holds up. It turns out that the worst movie in the Eon Productions Bond series is the one with a Bowie connection— 1985’s A View to a Kill.
A View to a Kill was Roger Moore’s seventh and final Bond movie. Most reviews comment on Moore, who at the time was 58, looking too old for the part. I don’t think he was too old, but the script doesn’t account for his age (unlike, say, 2015’s entry, Spectre, in which Bond’s physical decline is a plot point, or even Moore’s 1981 movie, For Your Eyes Only, in which Bond actually rejects the advances of a Bond-girl because she’s too young for him).
Instead of writing Bond as older in A View to a Kill, Moore is given less imposing henchmen to fight. At one point, he ineffectively hits an overweight, middle age baddie acting like he was Jaws or Oddjob. It’s a low point in the series.
The Bowie connection is that Bowie was offered to part of the main villain, Max Zorin. Bowie turned down the part, and so did Sting (humorously, the two differ on who was offered the role first). In the end, the part went to Christopher Walken, who turned out to be the best thing about the movie. A View to a Kill has many, many problems, but Walken’s performance was not one of them. It might have been interesting to see Bowie in the movie, but his presence alone wouldn’t have been enough to save it. And it might have been embarrassing. In a series of movies that are often derivative of one another, this one stands out as borrowing the plot of Goldfinger, substituting microchips for gold, as if microchips were a commodity like gold (and that what made Silicon Valley special is that it was where this limited resource was produced). Largely set in 1980s San Francisco, and featuring an American main Bond girl, it is the least exotic Bond movie. Grace Jones as a henchman is almost comical. The action sequences are too stylized and lack grit. The humor is unmemorable except as being memorably corny.
There is another Bowie connection of sorts. Duran Duran did the title song (that’s the video), and although Bowie was not involved, Duran Duran was certainly influenced by Bowie and would join Bowie on tour two years after the movie. So, I saw the band perform this song at the first Bowie concert I attended, in Toronto in 1987. Although I have never read that Bowie might have done the song had he taken the role, it isn’t too far fetched to think that (not unlike Madonna both having a role in and doing the song for Die Another Day).
OK, so this is my blog, and at this point I will move away from the Bowie theme and rank the Bond films from best to worst (as I feel today):
1. From Russia with Love, 1963. Still my favorite. The most spy-y of the entire franchise. Fairly faithfully adapted from Flemming’s book, which was one of JFK’s favorite books. An excellent time-capsule of Kennedy-era fantasy.
2. Casino Royale, 2006. Daniel Craig resurrected the series. Perhaps not a coincidence that this was both the last movie really based on a Flemming story but also the first, aside from fleeting allusions, since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
3. Goldfinger, 1964. Probably the representative sample of the series. This, the third movie, really established the formula both for future Bond movies and for most action movies going forward.
4. The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977. What can you do if you have Roger Moore as James Bond? You can do this. Endlessly entertaining, fast paced, exotic and just funny enough.
5. Skyfall, 2012. This one cemented Craig as a great choice to play Bond during the first two decades of the 21st Century. Excellent performance by Javier Bardem. Consequential ending. My only criticism is that the final sequence that takes place at Bond’s ancestral home is a far cry from ninjas versus henchmen in a secret volcano lair, which is to say it seems a little out of place in a Bond movie. But it’s still really good!
6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969. I read somewhere recently that this one was underrated at the time and overrated today. Maybe (Telly Savalas, not George Lazenby is the fatal flaw), but I really like the movie, and the end holds up as the most emotionally impactful of any Bond movie. This includes the end of No Time to Die, in which Bond actually dies— but even that movie directly references this one by repeatedly returning to On Her Majesty’s excellent soundtrack.
7. You Only Live Twice, 1967. Yes, yes, the series was beginning to show signs of staleness and Sean Connery was hinting at being bored. And yes, there’s the embarrassing sequence where he disguises himself as Japanese. That said, without this movie, it’s hard to imagine Austin Powers. It’s over the top in a series-defining way. Many of the subsequent movies either borrow heavily from this one, or are a reaction against it. Also, more than any other, this movie forever associates James Bond with the 1960s in my mind. Most importantly, it’s really fun.
8. Thunderball, 1965. Whether this is a good Bond movie or a great one depends on how you feel about the underwater fight sequences. On this day I feel OK about them.
9. Dr. No, 1962. The first is still really good. Other than dated special effects, there’s nothing really worth criticizing about Dr. No and if I were to rank these movies on a different day, it might find itself higher on the list.
10. Quantum of Solace, 2008. Although this is probably the least popular Daniel Craig Bond film, I like it. It’s brutal, largely plausible and as serious as these movies get. To me, those are all assets.
11. For Your Eyes Only, 1981. The most serious Roger Moore Bond movie actually works quite well. It also settles some loose threads such as whatever happened to Blofeld (who appears without being named). With references to events in past movies (Bond visits Tracy Bond’s grave), it is the last movie to suggest actual continuity with its predecessors (we can save an argument about a scene in Die Another Day for…another day…)
12. Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997. Pierce Brosnan seemed to be a great fit as Bond for his run, and this, to me was his most entertaining movie. While it doesn’t really leave any memorable impact on the series, it moves along at a fast pace and never descends into abject silliness.
13. Spectre, 2015. On its face, this is a pretty good movie, but for Bond fans (or, for me) it somehow seemed a little anticlimactic. Much as the case with No Time to Die, it’s a little tough to discern what the villain’s plot is meant to achieve— Blofeld (Blofeld!) seems less bent on world domination than the ability to snoop on anyone. While maybe that plays off a real-word fear (or actual reality), that, to me seems more like a means to an end— so what’s the end goal? Also, there’s a scene where Bond powers through a kind of lobotomy. Not even James Bond should be able to power through a lobotomy. Why not make it some other form of torture?
14. Goldeneye, 1995. Brosnan’s first Bond movie is pretty good and holds up well. This is another one that might rank higher on another day. Great cast, too.
15. Octopussy, 1983. While in many respects this movie is just silly, it is weirdly entertaining throughout and never slows down. That said, Bond should never, ever have been put in a clown suit.
16. No Time to Die, 2021. See— it’s not the worst! Not by far.
17. Diamonds Are Forever, 1971. Presaging the Moore era, Sean Connery seems slightly miscast in this goofy welcome to the 1970s. That said, with the right mindset, the movie can be fun enough. Charles Gray is another bad casting choice to portray Blofeld, but paradoxically he’s not bad a a villain per se, and he has some great lines.
18. The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974. This was one of my favorites as a child…because in many respects this is a childish and silly movie. But it features Christopher Lee as the bad guy, so the movie’s greatest flaw is that he’s not in every singly scene.
19. Never Say Never Again, 1983. One of two non-Eon films on this list, although it marks Connery’s return to the role, it really hasn’t aged well. An actual remake of Thurderball, its soundtrack really underscores how much the simple presence of the James Bond theme serves as a connecting thread (it’s absent here). Still, not actually bad, with good performances by the supporting cast, its just lacking…something…
20. The World is Not Enough, 1999. Similar to the above, this one also isn’t actually bad but is lacking in some intangible way. Actually, it’s slightly boring, which is a truly fatal flaw for a Bond movie.
21. Live and Let Die, 1973. Who could have thought a good way to introduce Roger Moore as James Bond was to make his first time in the role into a blaxploitation movie? (It wasn’t a good idea). There’s much wrong with this one, however it has the great Paul McCartney song, and actually the cavalcade of comic book villains is kind of fun.
22. License to Kill, 1989. It’s one thing to think about a real-world international drug kingpin like Pablo Escobar as like a James Bond villain. It’s another thing to model a James Bond villain after Escobar, or at least someone like him. It’s slightly off. While not a fatal flaw, this movie is made worse by taking one step toward grittiness and realism with Timothy Dalton playing it straight in a plausible (by Bond standards) revenge story, and several steps away by the inclusion of cartoonish Q scenes, casting Wayne Newton and other tendrils seemingly connected to the Moore-era Bond. Dalton was not Moore and we never got to see the most that could have been made of him in the role.
23. Die Another Day, 2002. The best thing that can be said about this one is that it seemed fun at the time. It took Daniel Craig to point out that the custodianship of Pierce Brosnan had gone off the rails, at least by the third act of this movie, which became far too cartoonish. At least it’s not boring.
24. The Living Daylights, 1987. Timothy Dalton’s first movie failed to make the most of his talents. Perhaps most memorable because of its sympathetic portrayal of the Mujahideen, what really kills this movie is the casting of Joe Don Baker and Jerome Krabbe as co-villains— the worst two of the entire series. They tank this one for me. We have now crossed into the territory of actually bad Bond movies.
25. Moonraker, 1979. Often mentioned as the worst Bond movie, Moonraker’s biggest problem is that it is repeatedly good up to a point before becoming cartoonish. It happens again and again— an action sequence starts off well but ends with childish slapstick. Michael Lonsdale as Drax almost saves the movie with his deadpan delivery of some pretty good lines, but that’s not enough to save Moonraker from trick gondolas, James Bond in space and Jaws in love. But it’s still not the worst.
26. A View to A Kill, 1985. See above for the most part, but I will add that this stands out as the only Eon Bond movie that’s tough to sit through all the way. No, Bowie couldn’t have saved it.
27.Casino Royale, 1967. A parody based on the actual plot of the Flemming Book (and as such has a recognizably similar storyline as the 2006 movie), this is possibly the worst movie ever made. Despite a great, ensemble cast (part of problem might have been that it was far too crowded), this film is a mess. And it’s not funny. And, despite the familiar plot, it manages to be hard to follow. What makes this worse than, say, an Ed Wood movie, is that its hard to believe anyone would have high hopes for something like Plan Nine From Outer Space, but this could have been so much more. Nonetheless, it qualifies as a James Bond movie and so it makes the list— albeit it bottom of the list. And no, Bowie couldn’t have saved this one, either.