With the U.S. release this weekend of “Skyfall”, the 23rd James Bond film and one of the best in the series thus far, I decided it was about time I deliver my rankings of all the films in the series. This proved an extremely tricky task to complete as more than half the films on this list I would thoroughly recommend and I adore practically all of them for different reasons.
In fact to finally settle on something I was satisfied with, I had to break the Bond films down into seven different tiers, and I will state upfront that within each tier the ordering will vary wildly depending upon my mood and sentiment. The ordering of the tiers themselves I’m quite comfortable with, especially as I consider the top four tiers have minor differences between them quality wise. Things then go off a cliff somewhat as from #13 or lower (Tiers 5-7) you start hitting the kinds of films only the hardcore fans can appreciate. Still, I enjoy those a lot more than they probably deserve, albeit with one or two notable exceptions.
I’ll go into further explanation after the infographic. Here’s the rankings:
As I said in my “Skyfall” review, I’ve found the divide amongst Bond fans over the good and bad entries in this series has often been a disagreement of tonal absolutism. Some vehemently insist a gritty, grounded, bleak spy thriller interpretation of Bond is the only way that works. Others like the hyper-real, big spectacle, fun first approach and can’t tolerate a dark and grim Bond. Most understand that the best Bond films usually find that perfect balance between said approaches, and by and large they enjoy almost all of them.
The franchise’s longevity has always been due to its ability to adapt and change course whenever it drifts off too far in one direction, and I’ve appreciated the various places it has taken me. Being born in 1978 and growing up with Bond first on video, then in the cinema starting with “Licence to Kill,” nostalgia does color my opinion somewhat. While for most film geeks it’s “Star Wars” or Marvel films that are their so-called ‘holy grail’, for me Bond is my true passion and I would take his Walther PPK over a lightsaber any day. So be aware that objectivity is something that’s near impossible for me to display when it comes to this series. Shall we begin:
Tier 1: Goldfinger, From Russia with Love
Pretty much faultless cinematic masterpieces, both represent the two kinds of James Bond films at their best. On the one hand there’s the more dramatic and grounded spy thriller antics of ‘Russia’, on the other the formulaic thrills and smart fun of “Goldfinger”. The villains, the stories, the performances, both of these films are so note-for-note perfect that frankly there’s nothing to criticise and everything to praise.
Tier 2: The Spy Who Loved Me, Skyfall, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale
Not entirely faultless, nevertheless these Bond films get so much right that frankly they may as set the standard. All four strike that balance of the serious and the silly just right – ultimately yielding excellent pieces of entertainment.
Both ‘Spy’ and ‘Twice’ are big formula Bond movies that, even with their world ending plots and master villains, manage to stay just the right side of the equation. They’re also amongst the relentlessly entertaining entries in the series – pure escapist fun with flavour, ambition and scale. The “serious Bond only” fans generally don’t click with these, which is a shame as an appreciation of both these films I find to be a good indicator as to whether I share similar cinematic tastes with someone.
In contrast ‘Royale’ and ‘Skyfall’ are much easier films to love because they’re more recent and still very much in the public consciousness. They’re also just great movies which both reboot the franchise in their own ways and steer it back on course after the previous outing almost brought the series to its knees. Both feature great performances and interesting character exploration, a grounded though never relentlessly serious or dour tone, beautiful visuals in exotic locales, fun action and a true hearkening back to Ian Fleming’s literary creation. ‘Skyfall’ has the edge in dramatic setup, character and true Bond flavour even if the plot is a bit rickety. ‘Royale’ is tighter, more emotionally accessible and more casually re-watchable.
Tier 3: Goldeneye, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dr. No, For Your Eyes Only
Almost all of the compliments for the two Daniel Craig films in Tier 2 apply to “Goldeneye” as well. Brosnan’s first and only truly great outing remains an excellent franchise rebooter and one of the most fun entries of the series. The action is excellent, the dialogue cracking, a great villain and villainess, a good performance from Brosnan, and a lot of style. For years it was in my second tier, but recently the cracks have started to show as the blundering bombast of the 90’s blockbuster mentality has taken off the polish a little bit. It’s still one of the most re-watchable films in the series for me, and my personal connection to and nostalgia for it glosses over some of its more visible flaws (like Alan Cumming’s annoying character).
Perhaps the single hardest film to rank of all the Bond films, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” represents the series at its most dramatic and most loyal to Fleming. Many of the elements are amongst the absolute best in the series such as Diana Rigg’s Bond girl, a clever storyline, the stellar locations, the focus on character, some strong action and the game-changing drama. It is, however, letdown by some odd editing and directorial choices, a bloated runtime, and a distracting overuse of rear projection (“Dr. No” has the same issue). The crucial failing however is George Lazenby who delivers a performance I find so teeth-gratingly bad it frequently pulls me out of the narrative and pulls the rest of the film a good few places lower on this list than it deserves to be.
“Dr. No” and “For Your Eyes Only” remain two of the stronger straightforward dramatic Bonds. Both contain a good deal of Fleming in their stories, but also make some crucial changes albeit not always for the better. Both are focused on practical and believable goals, both feature two of the coldest killings in the series (the geologist, The Dove), and both have a workman like efficiency to them. ‘No’ edges out with some of its more memorable scenes and better villain. It is a deserved classic, even if it is only mid-range Connery. ‘Eyes’ has advantages in the case of more impressive action, a better storyline, and Moore’s best performance in the series. Yet, there a few flies in the ointment be it the dated synth soundtrack to the woeful Bibi subplot.
Tier 4: Thunderball, The Living Daylights
The last two truly good Bond films include the most overrated of the Connery Bonds and one of the most underrated of all the series. While for the most part “Thunderball” is still a lot of fun, especially in its first hour, the producers also give us the first sign of an issue that would plague the franchise in the future – over indulgence. At 130 minutes, a good half hour of the film is spent on underwater battles that start out enjoyable, but quickly become repetitive and too drawn out. The plot similarly starts strong and then loses all steam by the second hour. Luciana Paluzzi’s ruthless Fiona and Molly Peters’ frustrated masseuse prove far more memorable than the villain and the main Bond girl. Connery looks bored and spends much of the film in outfits even gay pride parade performers would find too overtly crotch-centric. Still, the scale is impressive, and there’s some interesting hints of the darker side of Bond himself at times be it the sexist gags or the moments where he’s an absolute prick.
On the flip side is Timothy Dalton’s first outing in the role and, like Pierce Brosnan after him, it remains his best. Following on from the lethargic silliness of “A View to a Kill,” ‘Daylights’ proved a minor-reboot with a robust and real world Bond that took itself seriously. Dalton delivered a solid performance his first time out in a complex adventure of spy hunting, defection, counter-defection, opium smuggling and arms dealing. While Dalton’s Bond lacked any real sexuality, this first outing at least plays it serious whilst still holding on to its Bond identity from the exotic locales to a wicked sense of fun – two things distinctly lacking in Dalton’s next outing. That said there are definite issues here that keep it from the upper tiers including a lackluster supporting cast and an awkwardly paced second half.
Tier 5: Octopussy, Diamonds are Forever, Moonraker, Licence to Kill
The most contentious tier of all of them – the cult films. Any one of these films can be, and frequently are, labelled amongst the worst or THE worst of the whole series. One can understand the reasoning as all represent the Bond films at their most extreme.
The first three are arguably the most outright campy entries in the series and contain many of its silliest moments. The latter is the darkest, most violent and most “American” of all the Bond films. There is, however, a fearlessness to all of them. Each has at least one or two redeeming features strong enough to make them more memorable and engaging than some of the other run-of-the-mill bad entries below.
Along with ‘Daylights’, “Octopussy” is an underrated Bond mostly because it is so uneven and something of a tonal nightmare. The sillier elements are cringe-worthy such as the Tarzan cry, the fourth-wall breakage, the clown and gorilla costumes, Steven Berkoff’s outlandish performance. Yet, if you can look past the goofy bits, there’s also a fairly complex plot tying in jewellery smuggling with nuclear disarmament. There’s also a strong setup, excellent opening, several truly great action and suspense sequences, enjoyably droll performances from both Moore and Louis Jordan, exotic (if stiff) Bond girls, beautiful locales and good humor.
“Diamonds are Forever” and “Moonraker” have no such unevenness. Both are essentially outright farce and are thoroughly enjoyable on that level as neither can be remotely taken seriously. ‘Diamonds’ features a kind of mean-spiritedness and cynicism that’s so unique to that particular entry. Never have the quips come with more bite, the sexism more outright brazen, the dialogue laced with more venom. Yet even with Connery phoning it in, there’s all sorts of high camp appeal from some truly memorable one-liners to distinct characters be it Charles Grey’s flamboyant Blofeld, the sinister Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, and the sheer fun of Bambi and Thumper beating up Bond.
“Moonraker” is nowhere near as grim in its outlook. It has the dumbest and most utterly ridiculous plot of all the Bond films, it’s unabashedly goofy and all too often sloppy in execution. Yet, maybe because it is so bad, it’s also highly entertaining and so has more re-watch value than the entries further down the list. It boasts some decent action scenes (I always enjoy the final ‘stop the globes’ sequence), a better than average Bond girl in Lois Chiles, a distinct villain, and John Barry’s most underrated Bond film score. Outlandish and stupid maybe, but it isn’t dull.
Though I hated “License to Kill” as a kid, as an adult I have come to appreciate it a little better, especially in the wake of the unofficial remake that was “Quantum of Solace”. Both feature Bond going rogue to get revenge, both are overtly influenced by the action films of the time, and both are unrelentingly dark and dour with Bond turned into a generic Rambo-esque action hero. ‘License’ at least boasts a stronger story, a far better villain in Robert Davi’s Sanchez, and more impressive action. Still, it has more than its share of issues from the whole “Miami Vice”-ness of it all, to the lacklustre Bond girls, and a considerable lack of any sensuality or humor even as it over indulges on bloodletting and violence.
Tier 6: Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough
The two mid-Brosnan entries have great elements that never quite come together, resulting in decent films full of wasted potential. Both have great standalone opening sequences, while the central story and villains are interesting in concept. Both, however, are let down by decidedly ordinary execution.
“Tomorrow Never Dies” comes out on top with a great turn by Michelle Yeoh, some good action beats, and a couple of strong moments from Bond’s BMW car park sequence to Brosnan’s cold slaying of Dr. Kaufman. The film’s appeal is considerably deflated by Jonathan Pryce’s god awful media baron villain, Teri Hatcher’s dull ex-flame, a tedious last act which mostly consists of gunfight after gunfight, some woeful dialogue, and a terrible theme song.
Michael Apted was obviously trying a more grounded approach with “The World is Not Enough” but it didn’t work. Getting M more personally involved in the story was a good move, and the oil control subplot is actually one of the more underrated of the series. However, both villains (Elektra, Renard) are let down by bad performances, Denise Richards’ Bond girl is pretty much the worst of the series, and even the action feels very generic. I like the song though.
Tier 7: Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun,
Quantum of Solace, A View to a Kill, Die Another Day
Now we come to the bottom of the barrel. “Live and Let Die” is a product of its era and the blaxploitation angle you will either go with or not. I used to be able to as a kid, as an adult though I can only cringe. The film does contain a solid first 007 performance by Roger Moore, a decent Bond girl in Jane Seymour, a fun boat chase sequence, some colorful henchmen, and an iconic theme song.
‘Live’ has more going for it than “The Man with the Golden Gun” where the only redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga. The concept of this particular villain and Lee’s performance are both superb, and the drawn-out duel between him and 007 is an excellent final act sequence. The trouble is everything else about the film is so dire, I really can’t be the only one out there who wants to shoot Britt Ekland every time she appears on screen can I?
Try as a might I can’t see “Quantum of Solace” as anything but an utter, abject failure. The opera sequence, the scenes with Mathis and the final scene with Vesper’s ex are all great stuff, but they are only 10-15 minutes of the film and might have worked better had they been slotted onto the ending of ‘Royale’. Weighing them right down is 20-25 minutes of incomprehensible action sequences, and a 50-minute poor man’s Steven Seagal movie about beady-eyed criminal industrialists with a hard-on for South American aquifers. Kurylenko, Almaric, Arterton are all letdowns, while Craig is still strong in the role even if the character reverts back to being a generically violent and guilt-ridden action hero. I understand the reasoning why the character was portrayed this way, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it. If anything ‘Solace’ should’ve been a thematically much darker affair with him learning to become a smarter, more precise, efficient and lethal precision instrument rather than the ‘blunt’ one he started off as in ‘Royale’.
While ‘Quantum’ demonstrates how bad a serious Bond film can go, both “A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day” are the worst examples of Bond in the other direction. With ‘View’ it’s overall tedium including a full hour spent exploring equine doping, a late 50’s Moore finally indulging Bond’s gay sexual side as he gets into bed with the muscular Grace Jones, a far too drawn out run time, and even an ex-Nazi genetic experimentation subplot. ‘Die’ on the other hand is just utter ridiculousness. A solid opening sequence and a fun sword fight scene devolves into ice palaces, Halle Berry double entendres, piss poor mugging villains, awful direction and dialogue, an utterly atrocious story, and the twin travesties of both an invisible car and a CG tsunami wind surfing scene.