The best and worst James Bond movies: a ranked list
In celebration of the new Skyfall, we return to all 22 official James Bond films in search of the perfect spy cocktail, rating the best and worst Bond girls, 007 theme songs and leading actors with the licence to kill.
Tue Nov 6 2012
It’s been 50 years of James Bond: five decades of gadgets, glamour and the coolness of a concept that shows no signs of dying. But does one installment tower over them all? Time Out’s film critics have revisited childhood memories and six swarthy, eyebrow-arching actors—from Sean Connery’s iconic pioneer to Daniel Craig’s tough remodel—to consider all 22 of the official Eon entries (we’re omitting 1967’s intentionally silly Casino Royale and 1983’s independently made Never Say Never Again, a semiremake of Thunderball). How do all the Bond girls stack up? How about those syrupy theme songs? (Delve into our Spotify playlist for an aural taste.) We give these components a shaken-not-stirred “Martini rating,” as well as an overall ranking for the movie itself. Join us as we count backward toward number one with a bullet. And if your favorite spy hasn’t gotten enough love, tell us in the comments.
Die Another Day (2002)
Pierce Brosnan bids farewell to Bond with a stinker that can fairly be called the franchise’s Batman & Robin. There’s a kernel of an interesting idea in the plot, about a North Korean general—who remakes himself through surgery as a white Anglo businessman—with plans to harness the sun’s rays for a destructive laser. Actually, no: There’s nothing not ridiculous about that, whatsoever. Ceaseless digital spectacle (parasailing on a tidal wave is a series nadir), barrel-scraping gadgets (an invisible car?) and quite possibly the worst Bond girl ever make this a cringingly tough sit. When Madonna is your most likable performer (she cameos as a fencing instructor), you know something is majorly off.
Theme song: A few eye-rolling lyrics aside (“I’m gonna avoid the cliché”—more like milk it, hon), Madonna’s blood-pumping title tune is one of the film’s few saving graces.
The Bond girl: Halle Berry’s Jinx, a sassy NSA agent, is 100 percent arch line readings and calculatedly sensuous poses without a shred of genuine allure.
The killer moment: Moneypenny consummates her flirtatious relationship with our polyamorous secret agent using Q’s virtual-reality simulator.—Keith Uhlich
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The second Brosnan Bond was a troubled production, with numerous script rewrites, openly unhappy performers (Teri Hatcher took her frustrations to the press) and the absence of hands-on producer Albert R. Broccoli, who’d recently passed away. So it’s kind of a miracle the movie is as watchable as it is, even though it’s still a pale shadow of Brosnan’s inaugural GoldenEye. Monomaniacal media mogul Jonathan Pryce is a splendid villain—an unholy amalgam of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates—who’s out to use his headline-blaring influence to start a war between Britain and China. And there’s a terrific central action scene, just the right mix of comedy and thrills, involving a motorcycle-helicopter chase through Saigon’s slums.
Theme song: A bizarre mix of torch song, soaring ballad and coffeehouse improvisation, the lackluster title tune by Sheryl Crow immediately dies, and not tomorrow either.
The Bond girl: Hong Kong martial-arts superstar Michelle Yeoh is more equally matched with her male counterpart in terms of brain and brawn than past heroines, and she’s got a hell of a roundhouse kick.
The killer moment: Bond and his leading lady descend the outside of a skyscraper with the aid of a behemoth billboard of Pryce’s baddie.—Keith Uhlich
A View to a Kill (1985)
How do you screw up a Bond film in which both Christopher Walken and Grace Jones plot to flood Silicon Valley by blowing up the San Andreas Fault? Here’s your blueprint. The constant quips of 58-year-old Roger Moore come off like ossified shtick, and his chemistry with Bond girl Tanya Roberts is nonexistent. Then there’s Walken’s bleach-blond Nazi superman, Max Zorin, who’s more of a petulant child than a terrifying psychopath. Aside from a vertigo-inducing climax involving a zeppelin and the Golden Gate Bridge, the action scenes are a mishmash of shoddy stunt-doubling and eyesore rear projection. Not the best note to go out on, Rog.
Theme song: The only Bond theme to go No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” is a glammy, delirious piece of ’80s cheese.
The Bond girl: Roberts’s bland geologist pales next to the snarling, statuesque Jones, who can kill with a camptastic glare as much as a poisoned fishing rod.
Martini rating for Jones:
The killer moment: Bond snowboards down a mountain to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”—a cheeky summation of the Moore era if ever there was one.—Keith Uhlich
Live and Let Die (1973)
Roger Moore started playing secret agent Simon Templar on TV’s The Saint in 1962, the same year that Connery ordered his first onscreen shaken-not-stirred martini. In fact, Moore had been suggested as a potential Bond from the get-go. So the London-born actor would seem like a wise choice to take over the reins—a notion that his disastrous first Bond film was apparently hell-bent on disproving from start to finish. Moore’s interpretation of 007 as a mobile cardboard cutout isn’t helped by the fact that the producers decided to turn his inaugural entry into a blaxploitation movie, spiced with offensive ooga-booga voodoo scenes and cringeworthy comic relief. We’d have been happy to let this one die, frankly.
Theme song: It’s ironic that one of the worst Bond films has one of the franchise’s best theme songs, courtesy of Paul McCartney and Wings in full pop-genius mode.
The Bond girl: Could Jane Seymour’s psychic tarot-card-reader Solitaire be any sexier? No. Could she be a little less bland overall? Definitely.
The killer moment: A fellow agent encounters a parade of New Orleans mourners: “Whose funeral is it?” “Yours!”—David Fear
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Having exhausted the novelty factor of a new 007 by this point, you can feel the producers straining to come up with ways to keep viewers interested in Bond 19: Here’s an even more extreme version of a ski chase, one with helicopters, too. Our oil-pipeline plot is torn straight from today’s headlines. Look, there’s a new Q, and it’s John Cleese. Pierce Brosnan brings a feline grace to the role, but even with Robert Carlyle playing an unfeeling terrorist—literally, as the bullet in his head means he can’t experience pain—this is a Bond film on autopilot. An above-average entry would have been enough.
Theme song: Garbage’s alt-rock take on what otherwise sounds like a typical Bond theme is passable but wanting.
The Bond girl: Sophie Marceau’s bad girl brings the right mix of exotic beauty and predatory danger; the less said about Denise Richards’s nuclear physicist (?!?), the better.
The killer moment: The precredits set piece has Bond chasing down a comely assassin via speedboats and an explosive hot-air balloon.—David Fear
The Living Daylights (1987)
Roger Moore recedes into a mild, safari-suited haze; Timothy Dalton arrives to fill the tux. There’s no denying the vigor Dalton brings to the action sequences (he did many of these stunts himself), and an aging franchise suddenly feels high-octane. But couldn’t the dour actor have found his way to a little charm? No one leaves the theater shaken or stirred. Real-life world events have since transpired to make this movie’s endgame laughable: Bond joins with heroic mujahideen forces in the Afghanistan desert (pay no attention to those long beards and terrorist intentions) to foil a Soviet counteragent.
Theme song: After the global success of Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” producers thought it wise to go with Norwegian pretty boys A-ha, but the resulting title number (composed with John Barry in a reportedly spiteful collaboration) sounds thin.
The Bond girl: Bobbleheaded Maryam d’Abo, playing a Czech cellist and bedroom pawn, never seems comfortable with Dalton’s hard-ass 007 (is it even possible?), plus she’s especially helpless during the chase sequences.
The killer moment: Bond and an evil henchman hang off the back of a cargo plane’s open hatch while soaring thousands of feet over the desert. Oh, and there’s a bomb onboard.—Joshua Rothkopf
Merely the idea of a movie named Octopussy proved more suggestive than watching the final product, a formative sexual disappointment for many ’80s teens. This was the vehicle that put Roger Moore’s Bond in a clown costume (redundant?) and also had him running around India searching for priceless Fabergé eggs and the jewel thief who might precipitate a nuclear war. Tennis pro Vijay Amritraj makes for an inert sidekick, while Gigi’s Louis Jordan brings such a swishy suavity to his villain that the whole movie threatens to cave in on its own masculinity. For the first time in franchise history, Bond seemed thoroughly exhausted on every front.
Theme song: Adult-contemporary crooner Rita Coolidge moans her way through series embarrassment “All Time High,” a song with lyrics so awful, Broadway legend Tim Rice should have returned one of his Tony Awards in shame.
The Bond girl: It’s a tribute to Maud Adams’s timeless glamour and good nature that this was her second Bond film, almost a decade after The Man with the Golden Gun. Still, her character is a relic of diaphanous female intrigue.
The killer moment: Undeniably, thrills arrive with Bond’s daring escape via personal mini-jet; he pilots it through an open hangar at 150 miles per hour.—Joshua Rothkopf
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