By Rick Ferguson
Well, that’s a relief. After the ho-hum storytelling of Black Widow—a film that served largely to introduce new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) characters rather than deliver a deep dive into Scarlett Johannsen’s Natasha Romanov—I worried that Marvel Studios had finally jumped the shark. The decade-long Infinity Wars saga was such a monumental feat of studio-driven filmmaking that it’s likely Marvel will never come close to matching it again, let alone topping it. Too many variables—casting, scripts, direction, kismet—would have to go right for Marvel to keep its winning streak alive. Plus, with all the ancillary Disney+ shows, the forays into animation, and Kevin Feige’s promotion to overall Disney creative mastermind, the likelihood of brand dilution is high.
But I’m here to report that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a welcome return to form for Marvel. Does the film suffer from some of the same tropes and third-act problems from which many Marvel entries have suffered? Indeed, it does. At this point, however, you’re either on board the Marvel bus or you have no intention of riding. And if you’re on the bus, Shang-Chi provides a reasonably bitchin’ trip.
Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first superhero origin story since 2019’s Captain Marvel, a joyless entry that turned Carol Danvers into the most bloodless hero in the MCU. In Shang-Chi, the joy is back. From the charisma of stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung, and Awkwafina to the fast-moving script by Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham to Cretton’s sure hand in the director’s chair, the film slaps. It may not reach the top tier of MCU films in our overall ranking, but it’s a respectable showing for the MCU’s first all-Asian adventure.
Like most superheroes, Shang-Chi (Liu)—or Shaun, as he’s introduced to us in an opening that sees him working as a valet for a San Francisco hotel—has daddy issues. Shaun’s father is legendary Asian warlord and gangster Xu Wenwu (Leung), who centuries ago unearthed the mysterious artifacts known as the Ten Rings, and who now wields them to enjoy relative immortality and to drive his chariot wheels over the bones of his enemies. By the present day, Wenwu is a smartly dressed villain who leads his Ten Rings Army of spies and assassins to amass a global empire. When Wenwu sends his assassins to retrieve a pair of amulets from Shaun and his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) given to them by their deceased mother, Shaun must reckon with his own past as a super-assassin. Can Shaun prevent Wenwu from opening a mysterious portal behind which may hide soul-devouring beasties? Can he escape his father’s murderous legacy to become the hero he was always meant to be? To ask these questions is to answer them.
The film indeed relies heavily on tropes now de rigueur to the MCU. There’s the obligatory first combat scene in which we see the hero in action—in this case, a repeat of Carol Danvers’ bus fight in Captain Marvel. There’s the obligatory midpoint link to the larger MCU—in this case, an appearance by Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) and a few other surprises. There’s the obligatory scene in which the hero receives his official superhero costume and agonizes over whether or not to don it. Most egregiously, the finale detonates into the obligatory orgy of prolonged and confusing CGI. These third-act episodes of explosive pixelated diarrhea have become so ubiquitous that Marvel runs a real risk of fans tuning them out. We may at least be thankful that superhero films have finally stopped leveling major cities.
What can you say? That’s Marvel. Seeing a Marvel movie now is comfort food, like eating at Waffle House: You can order the hash browns smothered instead of scattered and substitute the country ham for bacon, but you’re still eating the same yellow food. The good news is that, within the constraints of the Marvel formula, Shang-Chi mostly works. The film’s most direct MCU antecedent is not Captain Marvel but rather Black Panther: Instead of T’Challa you get Shang-Chi; instead of Killmonger you get WenWu; instead of Shuri you get Xianling; instead of Wakanda you get the mystical hidden village of Ta Lo; instead of vibranium you get dragon scales; instead of armored rhinos you get giant Asian lions. It’s all executed so well, and the joy of its cast and makers is so evident on the screen, that it’s easy to just surrender to the flow. Plus, you have legends like Tony Leung and Michele Yeoh kicking ass, which is nice.
So much has been made of the film’s importance to Asian representation in Hollywood that it would be redundant to dwell on it here. Let the culture warriors dictate the terms of that debate; Marvel fans are more interested in good stories told well, stories that weave snugly into the increasingly expansive tapestry that is the MCU. Shang-Chi delivers. That’s good news for the future of Asian-themed movies in Hollywood, good news for Disney shareholders, and good news for MCU fans. Given the film’s theatrical-only release and impressive Labor Day box office, it’s also good news for the beleaguered exhibition industry. As we enter the Fall of our second year of pandemic horrors, political turmoil, and extreme weather, that in itself is a cause for celebration.
Ranking: As always, we place each new MCU entry into our overall ranking, which is true and inviolate. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings enters at number 13, the highest ranking for a new MCU entry since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. Thor: Ragnarök
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
9. Black Panther
10. Avengers: Endgame
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. Spider Man: Homecoming
13. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
14. Ant Man
15. Doctor Strange
16. Spider Man: Far from Home
17. Black Widow
18. Ant Man and the Wasp
19. Avengers: Age of Ultron
20. Captain Marvel
22. Iron Man 2
23. Iron Man 3
24. The Incredible Hulk
25. Thor: The Dark World
By the late 1980s, the James Bond franchise had reached another crossroads. After 1985’s pretty-good A View to a Kill cracked the Top Ten in US box office returns, the venerable Roger Moore finally hung up his fitted tuxedo for good. There was never any doubt that the franchise would continue post-Moore; the films still made money, after all. Creatively, however, the franchise had become moribund. A quarter-century in, Bond films no longer captured the public imagination, which had moved on to new breeds of action star: Swashbucklers like Harrison Ford, supermen like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, or comedic action stars like Eddie Murphy or Michael J. Fox. Bond films were now what Dad dragged the family to see.
To reinvigorate the franchise, Eon Productions turned to Welsh stage star Timothy Dalton. Dalton wasn’t the producers’ first choice; that honor went to Bond-in-waiting Pierce Brosnan, who was forced to turn down the role after NBC renewed his contract for his detective series, Remington Steel. A conflicted Dalton eventually signed on, because money. Gone with Moore was Louis Maxwell as Ms. Moneypenny (she had played the role since 1962’s Dr. No), while Desmond Llewelyn carried on as gadget-maker Q, providing some continuity.
Here’s how I rank Dalton’s two entries (the Ultimate Bond Ranking will appear at the end of this article):
1. License to Kill (1989): As both Connery and Moore proved, it can take more than one film for a new Bond to feel comfortable in the role. For Dalton, the second time was the charm. For all that the The Living Daylights ill-served the Welsh actor with a tired plot and faceless villains, LtK features one of the tighter scripts in the franchise, long on action and short on implausible plots. The stakes are also uncharacteristically personal for Bond, who embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge against Robert Davi’s drug lord after the latter kills his old CIA pal Felix Leiter’s wife. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier is a top-five Bond girl, spending much of her screen time fighting alongside Bond rather than swooning over him. The climax, featuring numerous runaway and/or exploding tanker trucks, is also a top-five Bond climax. A fitting end to Dalton’s short tenure as Bond.
2. The Living Daylights (1987): A reluctant Bond Timothy Dalton opted to play against Roger Moore’s wisecracking playboy 007 with a grimmer, more stoic take on the character, one that takes some getting used to. Dalton is perfectly serviceable as Bond, certainly a step up from the wooden George Lazenby. But Dalton’s stoicism is here taken to extremes—he arguably speaks less in Daylights than any Bond has spoken in any other entry. The film’s plot does Dalton no favors; it’s a tired Cold War thriller with yet another mountain ski chase and three different villains, none of whom register as interesting. Maryam d'Abo’s Russian cellist Kara Milovy likewise fails to make a mark. On the positive side, Bond’s Aston Martin makes a welcome comeback, and the climactic fight on a dynamite-laden cargo plane holds up. Mostly forgettable.
After just two Dalton entries—1987’s mostly forgettable The Living Daylights and 1989’s mostly terrific License to Kill--the Bond franchise entered a prolonged legal purgatory that left the series dormant for six years. When 007 finally returned in 1995’s Goldeneye, Dalton had bequeathed his Walther PPK to Irish actor Pierce Brosnan, the longtime Bond-in-waiting. Unlike Moore and Dalton, Brosnan needed no one-film tryout to step into 007’s fitted tuxedo; in Goldeneye, his debut, Brosnan’s Bond appears in medias res, fully formed and assaying the role as if he had already been playing it for a decade.
Brosnan’s four entries are mostly competent, even if none crack the top ten in the overall ranking. Brosnan’s Bond is easily the most murderous, taking his license to kill literally—he shoots bad guys in the head, mows them down with machine-gun fire, runs them over with cars and tanks. Compared to Brosnan, the four previous Bonds were models of restraint. The films also take product placement to new heights, with BMW cars and motorcycles featured so prominently that the German automaker should have received a producer credit.
Here’s my ranking of the Brosnan entries:
1. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Brosnan’s sophomore effort features Jonathan Pryce as a hammy Rupert Murdoch-style media tycoon who attempts to jumpstart World War III to secure broadcasting rights in China. This plot rivals Roger Moore’s A View to a Kill in sheer implausibility. The action, in contrast, is often innovative—the film’s central car chase features Bond piloting a remote-control BMW against the bad guys. The true standout here is Michelle Yeoh as Chinese spy Wai Lin; in a first for the franchise, Yeoh is fully as deadly an asskicker as Brosnan. Yeoh was already an established star in China, and it’s to Brosnan’s and the filmmakers’ credit that she’s given plenty of opportunities to show off her action chops. Yeoh is an electric presence, second only to Diana Rigg as the best “Bond girl;” that she wasn’t given her own spinoff film is a missed opportunity. Yeoh’s performance alone makes TND Brosnan’s best series entry.
2. Die Another Day (2002): Brosnan’s swan-song franchise entry is very nearly his best—and, just as Michelle Yeoh elevated Tomorrow Never Dies above its cockamamie plot, so too does DAD benefit from the presence of his female lead. As NSA agent Jinx Johnson, Halle Berry shines as a rare person of color to lead a Bond film while also kicking ass alongside 007. Yes, she’s forced into a gratuitous bikini shot, but what’s a Bond film without a little light sexism? The plot, in which a rogue North Korean operative seizes control of the “Icarus satellite” to start a war between North and South Korea, is serviceable enough. The stakes are also once again personal for Bond, who is captured and imprisoned by the North Koreans in the pre-credits opener and tortured for 18 months before emerging bearded and longhaired, as if Brosnan was starring in a Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. The film is marred by truly terrible CGI effects that were bad even for their time, and which prevent it from earning the top spot in the Brosnan rankings. Features the only appearance of John Cleese as Q, which is a shame, because Cleese rocks the role. Of a piece with the other Brosnan films: Enjoyable but immediately forgettable, like a bag of off-brand potato chips.
3. Goldeneye (1995): Brosnan’s first Bond film set the template for his four entries: relentlessly middlebrow, surprisingly violent, unspectacular but uniformly competent. Bond squares off against Sean Bean’s agent 006, an MI6 traitor who fakes his own death to head Janus, a SPECTRE-like crime syndicate attempting to gain control of a Russian satellite weapon code-named Goldeneye (named in homage to Ian Fleming’s Jamaican vacation home). This first entry features several franchise debuts: Dame Judi Dench as the new M, Samantha Bond as the new Moneypenny, and Joe Don Baker as CIA Jack Wade (Felix Leiter apparently still recovering from his shark mauling in License to Kill). Desmond Llewellyn’s Q, meanwhile, provides a modicum of continuity. The centerpiece chase featuring Brosnan driving a tank through the streets of St. Petersburg is fun, but the climax features yet another battle set in secret fortress/laboratory filled with minions. Izabella Scorupco’s Russian computer programmer Natalya Simonova is, like the film, competent but forgettable. The standout is Famke Jannsen’s femme fatale Xenia Onnatop, who can crush men with her thighs, and who seems imported from a wilder and more interesting film. Fun but unmemorable.
4. The World is Not Enough (1999): The high point of Brosnan’s third franchise entry is the opening—a bitchin’ action setpiece featuring a speedboat chase along the Thames. From there, the picture is mostly a letdown. Kudos to the screenwriters for featuring the first female Bond villain: Sophie Marceau as oil heiress Elektra King, who plans to destroy Istanbul in order to corner the global oil market. Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle features as Renard, Elektra’s henchman, who is introduced with a terrific setup: A bullet lodged in his brain has rendered him impervious to pain. Unfortunately, the script gives Carlyle precious little do to. The film also features the sixth (!) Bond ski chase, which, come on. Denise Richards earned a Razzie award for her taking on nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, but the fault is less hers than the producers who cast her in such a ridiculous role. Film also features the final appearance of Desmon Llewellyn’s Q; the plan was to replace him with John Cleese as “R,” but the conceit did not outlive the Brosnan entries.
After 2002’s Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan completed his four-film deal and declined to re-enlist for another tour of duty as 007. Faced with recasting the role yet again, Eon Productions opted for another franchise first—a full series reboot. Instead of continuing with fitful nods to continuity, as previous films had done, the next Bond film would function as sort of a Batman Begins for the series by showing 007 at the beginning of his career. Moneypenny and Q were both recast, while Dame Judi Dench returned as M simply because she was so good in the role. Rebooting Bond was an inspired move, one that gave the producers the opportunity to wash the series clean of tired tropes and bring 007 into the 21st Century.
As for the casting: The choice of Craig was controversial amongst the Bond faithful, who felt that he was too thuggish and plain to play the suave 007. Fortunately, the faithful were wrong. Craig’s Bond is thuggish; instead of appearing as if born in a fitted tuxedo, he carries himself as a man from a working-class background who has willed himself into existence as a globetrotting secret agent. He also convincingly plays a stone killer—unlike Brosnan, who never quite pulled off the coldhearted assassin role, even as he sprayed bad guys with machine-gun fire. Craig’s Bond suffers from a classic internal struggle: He doesn’t want to be a killer, but it’s the one thing he does well.
With Eon Productions’ 25th Bond film, No Time to Die, languishing in Limbo due to pandemic-related delays, we’ll have to wait to determine where Daniel Craig’s last turn as Bond falls in the overall franchise ranking. Whether the Bond franchise will continue beyond Craig is an open question—but, as long as there’s money to be made, you can bet 007 will return.
And yet, we must acknowledge that James Bond the character has reached yet another crossroads. Should Bond remain a cisgender, straight white man shooting and snogging his way around the globe? Should Bond be recast as a Black man, or should James Bond become Jane Bond? Or, has pop culture finally moved beyond “shaken, not stirred?” We’ll see. In the meantime, we can continue to revisit Bond as an exercise in history and nostalgia, and as a means to study the evolving definition of the masculine ideal. During a pandemic, there are worse ways to pass the time.
Here’s my overall ranking of the Craig entries:
1. Casino Royale (2006): By rebooting the franchise, the producers gave their screenwriters, director Martin Campbell, and star Daniel Craig the freedom to craft the best Bond film. Produced over forty years after the debut of Dr. No, Casino Royale stands as the platonic ideal of a James Bond movie. The plot, which hews close to Fleming’s original novel, is gripping and mostly realistic, eschewing gadgetry and effects for old-school violence. Craig’s Bond is modeled closely after Fleming’s original character, a merciless killer with a heart. Mads Mikkelsen is terrifically slimy as arms dealer Le Chiffre, while Jeffrey Wright is a welcome addition as returning CIA agent Felix Leiter. To the role of Vesper Lind, Bond’s money handler and love interest, Eva Green brings both glamor and intelligence, placing her in the top five of Bond girls. The chemistry between Craig and Green is both palpable and rare for a Bond film; when Lind suffers the same fate as Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you feel Craig’s heartbreak. With Casino Royale, Eon Productions pulled off the impossible—they made the best film in the series, eclipsing even the glory days of Sean Connery.
2. Skyfall (2012): Director Sam Mendes takes over the helm for Craig’s third go at 007, and the results give Craig his second entry in the Bond Top Ten. Whereas Quantum of Solace traded spectacle for story, Skyfall gives Bond his most personal story since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film focuses on Bond’s most long-lasting relationship: With M, played once again by the inimitable Dame Judi Dench. The central love affair between these two characters is maternal rather than romantic; M’s (SPOILER ALERT!) death at the hands of Javier Bardem’s rogue MI6 agent Raoul Silva robs 007 of his only familial relationship. As Silva, Bardem serves as a Joker-like inversion of Bond—the secret agent as psychopath, obsessed with M as the mother figure who abandoned him. Continuing the series reboot begun in Casino Royale, Skyfall also reintroduces two iconic supporting characters: Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), now a field agent, and a young Q (Ben Whishaw). The film’s action set pieces are relatively scant for latter-day Bond, but the cinematography, by Mendes collaborator Roger Deakins, renders the film the most flat-out beautiful of all the Bond entries. With a billion-dollar box-office haul, Skyfall remains the highest-grossing Bond film—and rightfully so.
3. Spectre (2015): Sam Mendes returns in Craig’s most recent turn as 007, making him the first returning series director since the days of John Glen. Spectre tries mightily to maintain the quality established by Casino Royale and Skyfall, but to middling effect. After a long legal battle, Eon Productions regained the rights to use the criminal organization SPECTRE, first established in the Connery films, along with the organization’s Number One, Blofeld—played in this entry by Christoph Waltz. The film also tries to retcon the previous Craig films by making Quantum and the previous films’ villains all part of SPECTRE. This plot twist is clumsily handled, as is the film’s climax, an homage to the deadly-maze finale of The Man With the Golden Gun. As Dr. Madeleine Swan, French actress Léa Seydoux hasn’t much to do but brood; on the positive side, Ralph Fiennes lands as the new M, and Dave Bautista is the best Bond antagonist since the days of Jaws. Bond’s brutal clash on a train with Bautista—another homage, this one to Connery’s battle with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love—is the film’s high point.
4. Quantum of Solace (2008): Named after an Ian Fleming short-story title, Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale, beginning literally where the last film ended—with Bond capturing the elusive Mr. White, an operative in a mysterious SPECTRE-like organization called Quantum. In many respects, the film lives up to the high standards of CR. Whereas Craig’s first film dialed down the action set pieces, Quantum dials them back up—with car chases, speedboat chases, aerial dog fights, and brutal Bourne Supremacy-style hand-to-hand combat filling most of the screen time. Olga Kurylenko is appealingly tough and vulnerable as Bolivian agent Camille Montes, while Mathieu Amalric is fittingly suave and slimy as eco-terrorist Dominic Greene. Unfortunately, the film’s short running time leaves the climax rushed, with Green morphing from omnipotent mastermind to axe-wielding lunatic in short order. Film also features an homage to Goldfinger, with MI6 agent Strawberry Fields found dead and coated head-to-toe in black oil instead of gold paint. A worthy sequel, but a step down from the perfection of its predecessor.
And, to wrap up our look at the Bond filmography, here's my Ultimate Ranking of Bond films.
The Ultimate Bond Ranking:
1. Casino Royale (Craig, 2006)
2. From Russia With Love (Connery, 1963)
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Lazenby, 1969)
4. Goldfinger (Connery, 1964)
5. Thunderball (Connery, 1965)
6. Skyfall (Craig, 2012)
7. Dr. No (Connery, 1962)
8. For Your Eyes Only (Moore, 1981)
9. License to Kill (Dalton, 1989)
10. The Man with the Golden Gun (Moore, 1974)
11. Never Say Never Again (Connery, 1983)
12. You Only Live Twice (Connery, 1967)
13. A View to a Kill (Moore, 1985)
14. Tomorrow Never Dies (Brosnan, 1997)
15. Spectre (Craig, 2015)
16. Quantum of Solace (Craig, 2008)
17. Die Another Day (Brosnan, 2002)
18. Moonraker (Moore, 1979)
19. Goldeneye (Brosnan, 1995)
20. The Spy Who Loved Me (Moore, 1977)
21. The World is Not Enough (Brosnan, 1999)
22. The Living Daylights (Dalton, 1987)
23. Live and Let Die (Moore, 1973)
24. Diamonds are Forever (Connery, 1971)
25. Octopussy (Moore, 1983)
And, as a bonus, some random Bond stats:
Read Ranking Bond Part I
Read Ranking Bond part II
1983 may have been the year of Peak Bond. That year, not one, but two Bond films duked it out at the box office—Roger Moore’s Octopussy, his sixth outing as 007, versus Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again, an “unofficial” entry that nonetheless marked Connery’s seventh turn in the role. After the underwhelming coda of 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, Connery had said goodbye to Bond until producer Kevin McLory, who owned the film rights to the Ian Fleming novel Thunderball, backed up the money truck and coaxed Connery back into Bond’s fitted tuxedo. Hence the film’s title, which winked at Connery’s vow to never again play the role.
Octopussy beat Never at the box office, which secured Moore’s status as the decade’s alpha Bond; for Gen-X kids who grew up in the 1970s, Moore was Bond. George Lazenby had already assayed his one-and-done entry in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when Eon Productions heads Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli offered Moore the role; fresh off his stint as Simon Templar in television series The Saint, the debonair actor had long been seen as a Bond in waiting. Over Moore’s seven entries, his 007 would morph from ruffian to playboy, and the series from serious adventure to overt camp. Few fans consider Moore the best Bond—but he certainly had the most fun with the role.
Here’s how I rank the Moore/Lazenby entries, with Never thrown in for good measure.
1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): Former male model George Lazenby was a competent if forgettable Bond, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a terrific entry in the canon. The third act alone has enough action for three Bond movies, let alone one: Bond finds himself in a downhill ski chase, a car chase, a mountain avalanche, and a climactic bobsled chase against Telly Savalas, no less! The “Angels of Death” conceit of twelve beautiful but dim women brainwashed by Savalas’s Blofeld hasn’t aged well. On the other hand, Diana Riggs’ Tracy di Vincenzo is among the best Bond girls—she gets to drive point in a car chase and beat up some bad guys during the climax. The film’s tragic ending was echoed decades later in Daniel Craig’s first entry, Casino Royale.
2. For Your Eyes Only (1981): FYEO is, for my money, peak Moore-era Bond, the one film in Moore’s oeuvre that stands with the best films in the canon. After the campy excess of Moonraker, Eon opted for a leaner, old-school approach to the follow up, eschewing hidden fortresses and jump-suited minions in favor of simple Cold War espionage. The result is a film that hits nearly all the right notes: genuinely exhilarating action, real tension, clever homages to earlier Bond films, and a plot that mostly avoids insulting your intelligence. The film winks at Moore’s age (he was 53 at the time of release) by having a jailbait figure skater throw herself him, then having Bond offer to buy her ice cream instead of bedding her. Carole Bouquet’s Melina Havelock is a top-five Bond girl—deadly with a crossbow and able to pilot a clunky Citroën 2CV through a bitchin’ car chase. We even get Topol (Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof) as a Greek smuggler and Bond ally. Still, the franchise had, by this point, become a bit long in the tooth. Released the same year, Raiders of the Lost Ark transformed action filmmaking and left Bond in the dust.
3. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974): TMWTGG is generally regarded as one of the weakest franchise entries—but for my money, it’s still better than most of Moore’s entries. Its ranking here is due primarily to the presence of Christopher Lee as Bond’s arch-nemesis Francisco Scaramanga, an assassin attempting to steal a “solex agitator,” a MacGuffin that can “harness the sun’s power.” Lee was a British Special Forces officer during World War II, a true baddass, and you can sense his bemusement throughout at having to lose a fight with a dandyish actor whose neck he could most likely snap with little trouble. Set mostly in Asian locales, the film features a pointless kung-fu scene designed to capitalize on the popularity of Bruce Lee, a big star at the time. Maude Adams makes the most of her first franchise appearance (she would return in 1983’s Octopussy), but Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight was the most insipid Bond girl since Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love.
4. Never Say Never Again (1983): At 52, Sean Connery was actually three years younger than Roger Moore when he donned 007’s fitted tux after a twelve-year absence. What a difference those three years made. While Moore’s competing entry Octopussy is a tired mess, Never is a lean and muscular entry centered around Connery’s supremely confident and wry take on 007. The plot is indeed a remake of Thunderball, with Bond squaring off once against SPECTRE as the terrorist organization kidnaps a pair of nukes with which to demand ransom from the world. The film is aided immeasurably by its cast, surprisingly strong for a Bond film: Klaus Maria Brandauer as nutty villain Maximillian Largo; Barbara Carrera as scenery-chewing femme fatale Fatima Blush; a young Kim Basinger as the Bond girl; Bernie Casey as an African-American take on CIA agent Felix Leiter; even fucking Max Von Sydow shows up as Blofeld. In the minus column, the soundtrack is wretched; the producers couldn’t use the iconic Bond score, and its absence is painfully obvious. A welcome coda to Connery’s legendary take on James Bond.
5. A View to a Kill (1985): After the wretched failure of Octopussy to breathe new life into the Bond franchise, fans might have been forgiven for expecting the worst from Roger Moor’s swan song as 007. The franchise was over two decades old, Moore was pushing 60, and Hollywood audiences had moved on to Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, and Axel Foley. Fortunately, AVTAK is a welcome, if lukewarm, return to form. The plot, in which a very blond Christopher Walken tries to corner the microchip market by flooding Silicon Valley, is so ludicrous that it could only have sprung from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. But Walken and Grace Jones’s femme fatale May Day bring so much energy to their parts that they seem to have wandered in from another film altogether. There’s a terrific action centerpiece with Bond and Tanya Roberts trapped in a burning elevator shaft, and a gonzo climax featuring a dirigible, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Walken swinging an axe. A ridiculous but fitting capstone to Moore’s career as Bond.
6. Moonraker (1979): Following the mega-success of 1977’s Star Wars, “James Bond in space” was a no-brainer for Eon Productions. While a box-office success, Moonraker has since been largely dismissed by critics as the moment when the Bond films entered the realm of pure camp. Most of the big action scenes are played for laughs, Richard Kiel’s returning villain Jaws is given an inexplicable redemption arc, and the third act assault on yet another fortress (albeit, a space-fortress) filled with jump-suited goons passes beyond cliché and into parody. I’d long dismissed the film as hopeless junk, but watching it again reminded me that it arguably offers the most fun of any Moore entry. Moore seems to be having a blast, and Lois Chiles’s Holly Goodhead at least possesses agency—even if Chiles’s acting is no better than Barbara Bach’s. Michael Londsdale’s deliciously dry and droll Hugo Drax remains one of the better Bond villains, too. Worth reevaluation.
7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): A box-office hit, TSWLM was regarded in its day as a return to form after the underwhelming and underperforming The Man with the Golden Gun. For my money, the film has aged badly, with a terrible disco-infused soundtrack and a performance by Barbara Bach, as Soviet agent Anya Amasova, that can charitably be described as “wooden.” The plot is essentially a rip-off of You Only Live Twice, with a third-act climax—an assault on the villain’s fortress filled with jump-suited minions—that had already become a cliché. It’s also the third Bond film to feature a shark-filled pool. On the plus side, Moore finally appears comfortable in the role. The mid-film car-versus-helicopter chase, featuring a Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine, is pretty great. Notable for introducing the 7-foot-2 actor Richard Kiel as Jaws, who would return in Moonraker.
8. Live and Let Die (1973): LALD, Moore’s first entry in the series, is essentially a “blacksploitation” film with a white man as the hero—which, by today’s standards, makes it the most problematic entry in a franchise filled with problematic tropes. On the one hand, it’s pretty great to see Black actors Yaphet Kotto and Gloria Hendry rock the villain and femme fatale roles, respectively; not until Bernie Casey took over as CIA agent Felix Leiter in Never Say Never Again would a Black actor feature so prominently in a Bond film. On the other hand, you have a lot of dreadful New Orleans voodoo shenanigans that have aged terribly. You also have Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a racist caricature who calls all the black characters “boy.” As fortune-teller Domino, Jane Seymour is beautiful but remote, little more than window dressing. The film may be a mess, but we’ll always have Paul McCartney’s baddass title track.
9. Octopussy (1983): By his sixth entry in the franchise, Roger Moore had been playing Bond for a decade, and it was clear that both he and the producers were running out of steam. Hopes were high after the superior For Your Eyes Only; alas, Octopussy is mostly as ridiculous as its name. The action sags, the Indian location gags are borderline offensive, and the screenwriters somehow see fit to disguise poor Roger Moore in both a clown costume and a gorilla suit. To add further indignity, Moore is dubbed with a Tarzan yell as he swings on vines through the Indian jungle. As the title character, Maude Adams is a game presence, but the film saddles her with a flock of female minions dressed like Things One and Two from The Cat in the Hat. The climactic fight on the outside of a flying prop plane is fun, but over too soon. Sadly forgettable.
Read "Ranking Bond" Part I
Read "Ranking Bond" Part III
Editor's Note: With our new web site and expanded audience hungry for content, we're reposting some of our most popular content from the old version of Phabulousity. This James Bond movie ranking series was originally posted in November of 2020. Please enjoy!
As we all know, eight months of COVID quarantining takes a toll: On your mental health, on your physical well-being, on your stress levels, on your social life. We’ve been lucky; my wife and I both already worked at home, our son has adapted well to virtual learning, and we’re all (knock on wood) safe and healthy. Perhaps least among our worries, but worrisome nonetheless, is that we’re running out of fucking television to watch. The wife and I blazed Mad Men early. Then it was on to seasons 1 and 2 of Fargo. Then we revisited the Sopranos; other than the cell phones and Tony’s propensity for print newspapers, the series has aged well. Now, we’re reduced to Schitt’s Creek and HBO’s The Vow. In other words, it’s getting desperate at Castle Ferguson.
So, it befell to me to talk my thirteen-year-old into working our way through the James Bond filmography: twenty-four films, ranging in quality from pretty great to mind-bogglingly awful. Why revisit Bond, when the entire conceit of a hyper-masculine white male snogging and shooting his way around the world has become such a toxic trope? Because Bond is cinema history—and, as a Gen-X dad, it’s my duty to give my son a proper pop-culture education.
Because it’ll take a while to work our way through the entire filmography, I’m breaking my ranking into distinct periods based on the lead actor. First up: The Connery years.
1. From Russia With Love (1963): From Russia With Love established the James Bond cannon. Its influence reaches throughout the Bond filmography; Daniel Craig’s 007 is essentially an homage to the character Connery creates in this entry. Iconic character tropes include Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebbs, the butch German villainess; Pedro Armendariz’s Ali Kerim Bey, the sidekick who dies in the second act to raise the stakes; and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, the deadly superhuman assassin whom Bond must vanquish in the climax. As Grant, Shaw is outstanding; you really believe he wants to murder Bond, and their brutal clash on the Orient Express stands as a top-five Bond fight scene. The attack on the gypsy camp also remains one of the best Bond set pieces. But Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova is a most insipid Bond Girl; she spends the entire film mooning over Connery, admiring herself in the mirror, and trying on lingerie (plus, her dialogue was dubbed). Russia features the debut of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, Bond’s gadget supplier; Llewelyn would play the role until 1999’s The World is Not Enough.
2. Goldfinger (1964): The most iconic and stylish of the Connery Bond films, if not the best. The (certainly misogynistic) image of a dead and naked Shirley Eaton covered head-to-toe in gold paint is arguably the most indelible image from the entire canon; the scene established the trope of a Bond sexual conquest dying in the first act. Goldfinger also cemented the final set of Bond tropes: Opening set-pieces distinct from the main plot; sexist female character names (Pussy Galore, anyone?); pop-star-sung songs over the opening credits; and of course, the silver Aston Martin, one of the most famous cars in cinema history. The third-act Fort Knox robbery is a deflating letdown, but the first two acts of Goldfinger are classic Bond. Harold Sakata’s Oddjob remains a top-three Bond antagonist.
3. Thunderball (1965): Bond at the height of his 1960s prowess. Chasing a pair of missing nuclear weapons stolen by the infamous terrorist organization SPECTRE, Bond finds himself racing to and fro across the Bahamas in a truly impressive collection of short-shorts. Notable primarily for the badass underwater speargun battle at the climax, as well as for villain Emil Largo’s shark-filled swimming pool, a conceit later parodied in Team America: World Police. By this third entry, the series wasn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s still good fun.
4. Dr. No (1962): The first entry in a beloved canon of films is always special; that doesn’t mean it’s the best. Notable primarily for introducing several stations of the cross for subsequent Bond films: The “Bond. James Bond.” introduction; the “shaken, not stirred” martini; Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the first Bond Girl; M as Bond’s boss and Miss Moneypenny as his work-wife; and the third-act construct of an evil genius holed up in a fortress/laboratory surrounded by nameless minions. The film also began the unfortunate early Bondian practice of casting actresses for their looks and then dubbing their dialogue. No real standout moments, but the film established many core elements of the Bond playbook.
5. You Only Live Twice (1967): By this point in the franchise, Connery had soured on both the constraints of the Bond role and the fame associated with it. With a script by famed children’s author Roald Dahl, you might expect YOLT to be one of the strongest entries in the franchise—but you’d be wrong. Bond is a curiously inert protagonist, mostly wandering around Japan and observing the action driven primarily by Donald Pleasance’s villainous Blofeld (famously parodied as “Dr. Evil” by Mike Meyers). The climax doubles down on Dr. No’s third-act big battle within the villain’s underground lair/laboratory. This particular climactic battle features Japanese ninjas fighting Blofeld’s jump-suited minions with katana swords, so that’s cool.
6. Diamonds are Forever (1971): After a one-film absence with George Lazenby in a one-and-done performance, Connery returns to the franchise to make bank in his final appearance as 007. Too bad that the film is such a mess. Diamonds is nearly devoid of the spectacular set pieces that define the best Bond films, and the climactic battle on Blofeld’s oil rig is weak sauce compared to the best Bondian blowouts. Bond girl Jill St. John is ill-used, wearing a curly fright-wig and fairly bursting out of various bikinis and low-cut tops. Highlights include future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean playing a Howard Hughes-type reclusive billionaire, and watching Bond get his ass kicked by femme fatales Bambi and Thumper.
Read Ranking Bond Part II
Read Ranking Bond Part III
Gloomhaven is a cooperative Euro-style board game that functions as an entire role-playing campaign in a box. Phabulousity Adventurers Guild members can purchase Gloomhaven for a limited time only at over 20 percent off the list price!
In Gloomhaven, one to four players take the roles of fighters, wizards, rogues, and other character classes to assay an epic adventure centered around the mysterious town of Gloomhaven. Your characters travel across a vast continent, enter dangerous dungeons, fight a host of terrifying monsters and villains, and collect a dizzying array of gold, treasure, and magical artifacts. The legacy-style campaign play means that the order in and success with which you assay the game's quests permanently alters the map and subsequent gameplay. You'll enjoy 100+ hours of gameplay in a single box!
The game's tactical card-based combat is unique, challenging, and highly addictive. Will you wipe out the bad guys with your best combat moves right away? Or will you save your strength for that dungeon cavern you've yet to explore? Learning to use your abilities and powers effectively is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of game play.
Don't miss your chance to play Boardgame Geek's all-time top-rated board game. Click on the image above or the button below to purchase Gloomhaven at a deep discount!
**Phabulousity is an Amazon affiliate, and we may collect additional revenue from qualifying purchases.
Welcome to the new and improved Phabulousity-- this time with real chicken!
When I started Phabulousity Press in the Fall of 2018, it was a means to an end. I had written a novel, I had consciously chosen to self-publish rather than seek an agent and a publisher, and having my own publishing imprint seemed somehow more professional than simply uploading my book to Amazon.
Fast forward nearly three years later, and Phabulousity has developed a growing and engaged audience of heavy-metal fantasy fans (or "phans" as we like to call them). They not only hungry for more Elberon books--they're hungry for more writers who can craft epic ass-kicking fantasy, space opera, and horror novels. They're hungry to find more phans like them who can rally around a community of like-minded geeks. They enjoy reading the latest Phabulousity takes on geek culture. They are also, not coincidentally, some of the finest looking, most intelligent, and slamming folks anywhere.
Realizing we have an opportunity to fill a niche and feed this hunger, we took a few months to retool Phabulousity with a new web site, new content, and new opportunities to build and serve our phans. To that end, we're officially relaunching the Phabulousity Adventurers Guild newsletter with all new and regular content, contests, and opportunities to engage.
And a hearty hale and well-met to fantasy authors everywhere!
And, most importantly, we're opening up our publishing imprint to outside authors! If you are a fantasy or genre fiction author, or if you know one, then take advantage of our open submissions process and submit your book pitch to us! We're not a vanity or hybrid publisher--we pay advances and royalties just like the big guys. We'd love the opportunity to showcase your work.
So, if you have a novel ready to debut, then pitch us! Just click here to visit our submissions page for details.
In addition to publishing more authors, we'll also be stocking this bi-weekly newsletter with a veritable zombie apocalypse of new content:
We hope you like the new Phabulousity! In the meantime, check out our books page for all our latest published books. We'll see you around the gaming table!
"Skate," Silk Sonic
Earlier this year we were delighted by the release of "Leave the Door Open," the groovalicious debut single from Silk Sonic, a collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak. The track was soulful, melodic, playfully ironic, and recorded with real instruments--which made it the antithesis of modern pop music.
Months later, their mythical album has yet to drop, but the duo have released their second single, "Skate." It's a delicious slice of disco goodness and you should love it immediately or else you may need to examine your life choices.
Along with Dave Grohl's "Dee Gees" project dropping disco covers like coke spoons at Studio 54, "Skate" announces that the disco revival is in full swing--and we couldn't be happier. Enjoy!
Returning to Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s introduction to the Land and its deeply conflicted protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a surreal experience. We should probably start with Thomas Covenant himself, who remains the most unlikeable protagonist in the history of fantasy fiction. At the novel’s beginning, Covenant has recently been diagnosed with leprosy. He’s lost his wife, his career as a novelist, and two fingers on his left hand. He must come to grips with being an “outcast unclean” in polite society. After an encounter with a homeless man who delivers a strange prophecy to him, Covenant is nearly run over by a police car in the street. He hits his head on the pavement and finds himself transported to another world.
The central conflict in Lord Foul’s Bane is Covenant’s determination to disbelieve the reality of the Land, the fantasy world in which he finds himself. Covenant is seemingly the reincarnation of legendary hero Berek Halfhand, with whom he shares two key characteristics: He’s missing two fingers, and he wears a ring of white gold (his wedding ring), which allows him to harness “wild magic,” whatever that is. Covenant’s presence in the Land also seems to heal his leprosy, a cure which he cannot abide. If he accepts the Land’s reality, then he may forget how to live as a leper—which, when he finally awakes from this prolonged dream, could be a potentially fatal change.
It’s a great setup and a terrific psychological conflict for a fantasy protagonist. The problem? Thomas Covenant is a tremendous asshole, and he remains an asshole throughout the novel. The people of the Land treat him with deference as a powerful Lord and the reincarnation of one of their most legendary heroes. In return, Covenant treats them all like shit and acts like an unrepentant douchebag.
Covenant’s most heinous act is his brutal rape of Lena, an innocent teenager from a village near Kevin’s Watch, where he makes his first appearance in the Land. The rape is so brutal and gratuitous that it’s unforgivable, and we can never again root for Covenant even as an anti-hero. The scene, deemed acceptable to the book’s publisher in 1977, would never survive in a novel traditionally published today—nor should it. This scene alone makes the book hopelessly dated to modern readers.
The rape aside, Covenant spends the novel muttering “Hellfire!” at everyone and refusing to use his magic white gold ring. He’s constantly twitching and clenching his fists and moaning and groaning. Why the high lords of the Land who encounter him don’t beat his ass into the ground at every opportunity is beyond me. With Covenant, Donaldson pushed the notion of the anti-hero into proto-Tony Soprano territory—but Tony Soprano at least loved his kids and the baby ducks in his swimming pool. Covenant, in contrast, possesses not a single redeemable trait. He’s a leper who deserves his leprosy.
As for the plot, I had forgotten how little actually happens in this first book. The novel follows the basic tropes of the fantasy quest as established by The Lord of the Rings. Covenant is given a mission to deliver a message from Lord Foul, the series’ Sauron, to the high lords of Revelstone, the book’s Rivendell. From Revelstone, he joins another quest to retrieve the Staff of Law, the book’s MacGuffin, in the hope that doing so will allow him to wake from his dream. There are a few encounters with Ur-viles, the book’s orcs, and a showdown with Drool Rockworm, the book’s big boss. That’s pretty much it.
And then there’s Donaldson’s prose style, which, don’t get me started. To call Donaldson’s prose “purple” is to overload the color purple. The prose is heliotrope, amaranthine, violaceous—all words, by the way, that you might find in the book. So overburdened with similes is the prose that nearly every sentence contains the word like or the phrase as if—and, most often, those similes collapse from the weight they’re forced to carry. Donaldson chooses his verbs most often for their sheer inappropriateness. For some unknown reason, his editor allowed him to use the word clench so often that it appears on nearly every page of the novel. If you took a shot of tequila every time you encountered clench, you’d black out by the end of the second chapter.
And yet—despite the rape, Covenant’s assholery, the lame plot, and the bad writing, the book somehow remains compulsively readable. Since I finished it, I’ve pondered at length why this is so. How can a lazily plotted book with bad writing and a hateful protagonist still, beyond all reason, work? So doggedly committed is Donaldson to telling this story that this commitment carries the reader through. Donaldson believes in Thomas Covenant. He believes in the Land, in the power of wild magic and white gold and Kevin’s Lore and Bannor the Bloodguard and the giant Saltheart Foamfollower. He believes in it all with as much force as his protagonist denies it all. He believes in his turgid prose so forcefully that you sometimes gasp with delight at the sheer awfulness of his writing. It would be a gas to read the book on mushrooms.
So, do I recommend Lord Foul’s Bane? At the end of the day, I’d say yes! I recommend it the same way I recommend the Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse: as a work of art so audaciously bad that it becomes delightfully irresistible. The book exists beyond criticism. You either get on board and enjoy the wild ride, or you run for your life. Both choices are correct.
"You Should be Dancing," Foo Fighters
Being dads, we're unapologetic fans of "Dad Rock." Wilco? Yes please!
But we'll cop to being perpetually bored with the Foo Fighters, who make rock music for airport lounges and doctors' waiting rooms everywhere. Dave Grohl seems like a genuinely nice guy and an affable dude, but exactly when or why did Pop Culture anoint him as the Ambassador of Rock? Grohl's job is to remind millennials and zoomers that Rock has now joined Jazz as music that only the olds listen to.
But then the Foos release this truly badass cover of another dusty chestnut-- the Bee Gees' "You Should be Dancing," from their upcoming album of disco covers-- and suddenly we're fans. Enjoy!
Phabulousity has partnered with BookFunnel to offer our readers and site visitors access to a veritable cornucopia of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror ebooks. This month's promotion, "Face the Pages," runs now through August 18.
Rick Ferguson's own short story collection "Dungeon of Doom" is one of the featured free ebooks. Just click here or on the image above and you'll be taken to a landing page where you can peruse all the free ebooks your eyeballs can stand. See you there!
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.