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
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.