There are certainly people out there who know of my love of the film blog Antagony and Ecstasy, and let it be known now that I didn’t decide to do a Bond retrospective simply because Tim Brayton is (his is going to be better than mine anyways, rest assured). I’ve been a fan of the Bond films since the age of 11, when I first played GoldenEye on the N64 and saw Tomorrow Never Dies in the same year. After that, I was totally hooked, watching and rewatching the six movie VHS set I received for Christmas the year after. Since then, I’ve seen nearly every Bond film, sometimes in multiple formats. And obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity to celebrate something so iconic in its 50th year and with a fucking fantastic-looking movie (Skyfall) on its way in November.
Obviously, there are a number of significant issues with Bond from a critical perspective. I’m not the first to note the films’ hypermasculine, sexist, often casually racist themes, their oversimplification of geopolitical conflict, their belief in the corrective power of secret intelligence, etc. etc. I don’t intend this space to be an apology for those things. But the way that Bond does these things, I think, is inextricably tied to the period in which the films were made, offering a fascinating insight into each era, warts and all. Plus, nearly every film is so silly, which makes all of this a lot easier to swallow.
I’m also not the first to note that Bond films hardly operate on a similar trajectory as “normal” action movies. They’re beholden to their own formula, and the real pleasure as a Bond fan is to see that formula play out over generations, with epochal changes coming very slowly (the difference between Moore’s last outing and Dalton’s first one, besides the differences in actor of course, is pretty minute) or incredibly quickly (Daniel Craig says hi!). It’s very easy to get into the rhythm of a Bond movie, and while some argue that that formula can be stale and unwelcoming to new viewers, I say it’s what makes Bond such an iconic franchise, and I wouldn’t want to change any of it. (That’s ultimately what makes Quantum of Solace a little bit underwhelming, but I’m getting WAY ahead of myself)
So here’s how this is going to work: in addition to my normal reviews (my other three retrospectives - Zelda, Final Fantasy, David Lynch films - are still ongoing, by the way), you’re going to be getting a Bond movie review every second weekday, going in chronological order. I’m going to be mostly sticking to EON productions, though Never Say Never Again will be getting reviewed. The reviews are going to be based on actor generations rather than decades of Bond or whatever. So when a new actor is introduced as Bond, I will be doing a full review of that particular Bond movie, like any other review on this site (starting with Dr. No later today).
After that, however, comparing Bond movies is a bit like comparing wines, and the “flavour profile” can really be broken down into a few different categories. So starting on Friday, when I do From Russia With Love, I’ll be reviewing the films in the following categories:
The unrelated action opener: every Bond movie has a cold open before the title sequence that is usually (though not always) unrelated to the events that follow, and are designed to show us just how badass Bond can be, divorced from a real plot.
Title sequence: besides the work of Saul Bass, the Bond movies have, and continue to have, some of the most iconic title sequences in films. Basically, how awesome are they? Are they classy and crazy awesome, like the Dr. No sequence? Or are they dogshit, like the Die Another Day sequence?
Theme song: most Bond movies have their title sequences set to a pop song written for the movie. Again: some are great (“Diamonds are Forever”!) and some… not so much (“The Living Daylights”!).
Performances from M and Q Branch: unlike the actor playing Bond, the actors playing M and Q (or R, in later films) rarely changes. So, how did they do? Is Judi Dench being all steely and stuff? Is Desmond Llewllyn bringing his A-game?
Performance of Bond: pretty self-explanatory. Is the actor bringing it home, or is he phoning it in (late period Connery and Brosnan say hello!)?
One-liners: some of Bond’s one-liners are hilarious; some are surreal; some are just plan awful. How’d the writing team do at capturing his sweet quips?
Bond girl(s): obviously, the concept of a Bond girl is a pretty sexist one, but it is a part of the fabric of these films, and again, some can be legitimately great (Michelle Yeoh, Ursula Andress, Diana Rigg) and some… oh boy. (Grace Jones! GRACE JONES DAMN YOU TO HELL.)
Gadgets: again, self-explanatory. Are they cool, or are they an invisible car.
Other weapons: in Dr. No, Bond pretty much only uses his Walther PPK and a silencer; in You Only Live Twice, he’s upgraded to a freaking unfolding death helicopter. If Bond’s toting a bazooka or rocking a blowdart gun, I’ll let you know.
Casual racism: just to make note of it. It’s either of the “we didn’t mean to offend anybody!” variety, where Bond will “become a Japanese man” (You Only Live Twice) or it’s of the “holy shit, we’re actually going to treat people like this” variety, a la Live and Let Die.
Casual sexism: obviously built into the fabric of the films themselves, but I’ll point it out nonetheless.
Villain: the obvious place where actors and actresses actually get to shine in a Bond movie is when they’re playing the villain. Some are great because they manage to actually invoke fear in the audience (think back to the torture scene in Casino Royale); some because they have great one-liners (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, I expect you to die!”); some because they are just scenery-chewing megalomaniacs. And some are just so, so dire.
Henchman/Henchmen: the villain’s henchman or henchmen have a lot less to work with, usually. Sometimes they can be folded in with the concept of “Bond girl,” a la Famke Janssen in GoldenEye, but most often they’re stoic, silent types who are supposed to be Bond’s main physical threat (think OddJob, Jaws, etc.)
Villain’s plot: what are they actually trying to accomplish? Is it something relevant to the era and at all terrifying (Dr. No is a pretty good example of this, what with its legitimate Cold War conflict)? Is it impressive through sheer megalomania (melting the Earth in Diamonds are Forever)? Or is it something just completely asinine (something with computer chips in A View to a Kill)?
Bond allies: Bond is often teamed up with CIA agents or the like. Are they cool like Felix Leiter, or annoying like later incarnations of Felix Leiter?
Exotic locations: Bond movies, right from the very beginning, have been set in far-flung locales, and it’s often a testament to the quality of the film when these locations can be used well.
Action: is it cool-looking and flashy (Tomorrow Never Dies)? Is it slow-moving but effective (From Russia with Love)? Is it ridiculous (Moonraker)? Is it incomprehensible (Quantum of Solace)?
Director quality: while the Bond movies are generally the place of workaday hacks, they can sometimes put out something special and with their own stamp on things. Or they can be Lee Tamahori.
Production design/soundtrack quality: after watching Dr. No, I decided to put this category in because the production design of a Bond movie is really the unsung star of the whole thing, giving every single ounce of the film its coolness or its grittiness or what have you. So I’ll be paying special attention to that area of filmmaking as I go through this retrospective. As for soundtrack quality, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, though I’ll get this out of the way right now: Monty Norman’s main Bond theme is totally unassailable, and when it’s not being tampered with, it’s just perfect.
Overall ranking: yes, in contrast to all of my other reviews, I’ll be attaching a kind of “rating” (even if it is more relative than a star rating or a percentage or what have you). The first ranking, and the one you’ll see as you read through these reviews, will be a ranking within the pantheon of that particular actor’s turns as Bond. After I’m done all of the Bond movies, each film will be assigned an overall ranking within the Bond canon (again, I’ll be including Never Say Never Again here).
I’d suggest if you’re not a fan of Bond that you stay away from my blog for a month or two, though hopefully we can rectify that quickly enough.