Archive for April, 2016

007 Gun Barrel

One thing you’ll never catch me doing on this blog is using star ratings. It’s not that I don’t believe in them. I just find them a bit too arbitrary for my own taste. Opinions can change so fast that you could give two or three stars to a film that you later realize is an all-time classic. I normally avoid making lists of rankings for similar reasons. Apart from how my own thoughts are subject to change, that’s nothing compared to how different others would think the same list should look. But then that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The subjectivity of it all?

Besides, when you have a series of films with the kind of history that the James Bond franchise has enjoyed… and the wide range in quality it has experienced over 50+ years… that makes it the perfect candidate for a list such as this. Never having the pleasure of watching the entire series back-to-back before now, it’s been quite a trip through time. There were at least two, possibly three which I’d never seen before. Others I hadn’t seen in a long time. There are those which I almost know by heart and love very much, and some which at times tested my sanity. Through it all, the most unexpected of events took place: The James Bond series has within the space of the last month or so turned into my favorite film franchise! Without any further delay, here they all are, ranked by level of my own personal enjoyment, counting from 24 up to Number 1.

24. A View to a Kill (1985)
View to a Kill

Having Christopher Walken as the main villain ought to make any film enjoyable on some level. Not so much with “A View to a Kill.” Watching Grandpa Bond (58-year old Roger Moore) hop into bed with women young enough to be his daughters is too depressing to think about. The plot doesn’t help matters either. Much of the early portion of “A View to a Kill” has something to do with horse steroids. That’s funny, because the whole thing makes me feel as though I’m on Ambien.

23. Octopussy (1983)
Octopussy

As a matter of fact, I DID have to show off another image of Roger Moore dressed as a freaking clown! It really puts into perspective just how bad “A View to a Kill” is when “Octopussy” can make Bond look this ridiculous and still manage not to be the worst film in the series.

22. Die Another Day (2002)
Die Another Day

Bad music. Bad CGI. Bad acting. Bad writing. Bad Halle Berry, too. Bad, bad, bad. The only good thing to come out of this frozen turd was that it eventually led to the hiring of Daniel Craig as the next James Bond.

21. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever

Yes, they are forever… and, sadly, so is this halfhearted effort from the guy who used to completely own the role of James Bond. That’s what happens when you do it all for the money. The only actual gem in “Diamonds Are Forever” is Charles Gray, who to this very day is still the best actor ever to play Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

20. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Spy Who Loved Me

This’ll probably be the one to raise the most eyebrows, seeing as how “The Spy Who Loved Me” is usually well-thought of, and considered by many to be Roger Moore’s best as Bond. Not by me. Moore and Barbara Bach don’t have near the amount of chemistry that their characters require, and the plot is way too familiar… something that’s probably less problematic if you’re watching this one as a stand-alone. I didn’t, so I can’t excuse it.

19. Moonraker (1979)
Moonraker

Stupid, bloody stupid movie. The first 2/3 are hard to watch under any circumstances. Jaws is brought back for a second go-round after “The Spy Who Loved Me,” only now he’s even more of a punchline than ever before. Poor guy belongs in a Road Runner cartoon. The outer space stuff in the last 1/3 is so beyond crazy that I actually end up liking this part of the movie… just because it had the balls to be this silly. Still doesn’t make “Moonraker” a good James Bond film.

18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Man with the Golden Gun

Hey! I know what let’s do! Let’s take the two very best things about “The Wicker Man”… Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland… put ’em together again and set them up to fail. We’ll even throw in Tattoo from TV’s “Fantasy Island”! Still not enough? How ’bout we bring back Sheriff J.W. Pepper? You liked him the first time, didn’t you? …Well no, damn it, I didn’t! Ekland ends up looking like a stereotypical dumb blonde. Someone should have done some hard time for writing her that badly. But Christopher Lee is up to the challenge and pretty much carries “The Man with the Golden Gun” all by himself. Almost makes up for the things the movie gets wrong. Almost.

17. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Tomorrow Never Dies

Pierce Brosnan’s second adventure as Bond is actually not half-bad. Certainly got a lot of help from his co-star, Michelle Yeoh. Bond’s cold-blooded murder of Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman is a true moment of fist-pumping satisfaction. But for whatever reason, Jonathan Pryce just isn’t all that threatening as the villain.

16. Quantum of Solace (2008)
Quantum of Solace

One of the only truly disposable Bond films. It’d be further down on the list if it weren’t for Daniel Craig. Also kind of wish we’d gotten more out of Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields (pictured with Craig) before her unfortunate demise.

15. You Only Live Twice (1967)
You Only Live Twice

So much build-up leads to such a crushing disappointment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld had existed only in the shadows for several of the preceding films, and all but the final twenty minutes of this one. “You Only Live Twice,” although it would never have been considered perfect, was pretty good right up until the reveal of Donald Pleasence (whom I otherwise love). Gone is the menace, replaced by a laughably defeatable wimp who can’t fire a kill shot at Bond when he has the chance to take it. Not that I’d actually want him to.

14. Dr. No (1962)
Dr. No

Another one that most fans would be likely to place higher. It’s a solid introductory chapter, but it’s just that there have been several others since with more high octane plots and Bond girls who have more to do than stand around, look beautiful and need rescuing.

13. The Living Daylights (1987)
Living Daylights

The series had begun circling the drain until Timothy Dalton gave Bond back his balls in “The Living Daylights.” He won’t turn big and green, but you still don’t want to make this guy mad. Explosions were the name of the game in 80’s action films, and this one was more than willing to oblige.

12. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
World Is Not Enough

Say what you will about Denise Richards, but man was she a hot one back in the late 1990’s! Still, Richards isn’t the big draw. That honor belongs to Sophie Marceau (pictured), the series’ second female main villain. As Elektra King, she’s also the only one to ever force Bond to kill an unarmed woman. That counts for a lot in my book.

11. Live and Let Die (1973)
Live and Let Die

Made in an attempt to cash in on the blaxploitation craze of the early 70’s, a few points are deducted for the needless creation of comic relief character Sheriff J.W. Pepper, played by Clifton James. I’m not gonna lie… The reason I love “Live and Let Die” as much as I do is easy to explain. Her name is Jane Seymour.

10. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
For Your Eyes Only

Without question Roger Moore’s best Bond movie, and the first true spy story in the series in quite some time. SPECTRE isn’t missed, not even after Blofeld (yes, we’re sure it’s him) is dropped down a smokestack in the prologue. Speak of the devil…

9. Spectre (2015)
Spectre

This is the only ranking I’m not entirely sure of, and that’s due to my only having seen it once. The good: some of the most spectacular action scenes of ANY Bond film. The mesmerizing: THAT dress! The so-so: the chemistry between James Bond and Madeline Swann. The not-so good: Bond and Blofeld’s familial connection, and the notion that Blofeld and SPECTRE were behind the plots of each of the first three Daniel Craig films. Still, all in all a damn good movie which I intend to see again sooner rather than later.

8. Thunderball (1965)
Thunderball

Claudine Auger (Domino) and Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe) provide the stunning eye candy, Adolfo Celi (Largo) provides the terrific Bond villain, and Tom Jones provides the ultimate Bond theme song. Could have gone higher on the list but for the the tedious underwater sequences.

7. Licence to Kill (1989)
Licence to Kill

Bond is out for revenge, and anyone he holds responsible is going through the meat grinder! Well, actually just henchman Benicio Del Toro. Bond has other methods for disposing of the rest of the slimy characters in this movie. The underrated “Licence to Kill” shows us a Bond without the pretense of professionalism, something we wouldn’t see to this extent again until the role was Daniel Craig’s.

6. From Russia With Love (1963)
From Russia With Love

In the end, for me, it’s all about the train. The fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw is such a classic that I need both hands to count the number of times it’s been redone… by the Bond series.

5. Goldfinger (1964)
Goldfinger

This was the one that introduced me to Bond… James Bond. It’s also the one that set up the formula which the series has followed through most of its run. Only thing that doesn’t fire on all cylinders for me is the finale aboard Goldfinger’s plane.

4. GoldenEye (1995)
GoldenEye

My favorite for a long time, it’s still a joy all these years later. Sean Bean made the most significant impact on me as the villainous Alec Trevelyan. Pierce Brosnan had one hell of a debut. But somebody else had a better one, and with the very same director…

3. Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale

Back from the brink and kicking ass like never before! “Casino Royale” brought a dark tone the series had been in need of for a while. Daniel Craig doesn’t look like a guy who was just settling into the role. Still, it takes two to create chemistry, and the other element I speak of is Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. An amazing beauty with the talent to match, Green aids Craig in creating a modern classic. But Craig had yet another one up his tuxedo sleeve…

2. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall

The dark tone from “Casino Royale” carries over into Craig’s third and best effort as Bond. It also made him my favorite James Bond. But, once again, he couldn’t have done it alone. Javier Bardem… What else can I say except that this guy is one outstanding actor! As the chaos-loving Raoul Silva, his vendetta against Judi Dench’s M turns Bond’s whole world upside down, and I kinda love him for it.

1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service

How could #1 possibly have been anything else? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bond films are always best when they are dark and emotional. How much darker can you get than by having Bond fall in love and get married, only to lose the love of his life in a drive-by shooting perpetrated by his worst enemy? Gut-wrenching, brutal, and bloody brilliant. Every time I watch “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” I’m reminded of just why I fell in love with actress Diana Rigg. As Tracy, Rigg takes full command of each scene she’s in, making damn sure that you hang on her every word. Nothing has and nothing ever will beat this one.

Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

A recurring line from “Skyfall” was “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” This was an observation which was backed up by several callbacks to previous films, as well as the simple method by which the major villain’s plot was finally put to an end. Taking a much less subtle, but at the same time far more traditional approach in telling its story is the 24th James Bond film, “Spectre.” As hinted by its very title, the criminal organization known as SPECTRE, makes its return after a 44-year absence from the franchise. There’s no hollowed-out volcano lair this time, but one should still have a pad and pencil handy to document all of the classic era references which are present, as “Spectre” more than any other Bond film is a movie made by fans for the fans. As such, it’s a fitting one to end a marathon with… just as I have done.

“Spectre” starts things off by giving us what will go down as the most spectacular prologue in the series’ history. James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in Mexico City carrying out one last order from the dearly departed M (Judi Dench). Unsanctioned by MI6 and the new M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond kills three men plotting a terrorist bombing, inadvertently demolishing an entire building by destroying the bomb and tossing the lead terrorist out the side of an airborne helicopter. Before doing so, Bond relieves the man of a sinister-looking ring with an octopus symbol on it. Additionally, although Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” pales in comparison with Adele’s “Skyfall,” the accompanying visuals are as striking a main title sequence as any that we’ve seen from this franchise, and somewhat creepy on top of it all.

Grounded by the new M for his actions in Mexico City, Bond hasn’t finished his old boss’s mission just yet, travelling to Rome to attend the funeral of the man he tossed from the helicopter. Bond seduces the man’s widow, Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) for the purposes of gaining information about the late terrorist’s employer, which turns out to be SPECTRE. At the same time, M is butting heads with C (Andrew Scott), who considers the 00 Agent program antiquated and means to replace it with an Orwellian global surveillance network which he calls Nine Eyes. Bond, wearing the late Mr. Sciarra’s ring, attends a SPECTRE meeting where the organization’s head, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) calls him out by name. Realizing his presence there has not merely been anticipated but planned, Bond escapes certain death at the hands of SPECTRE henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Afterwards, Bond enlists the aid of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whom he asks to look into Oberhauser, a man whom Bond recognizes from his own past… and whom he previously believed to be dead.

In the meantime, Bond looks up his old enemy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen),  who now is slowly dying from thallium poisoning. Bond promises to protect White’s daughter, Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux) in return for information. Prior to taking his own life with Bond’s gun, Mr. White tells Bond that Madeline will point him in the direction of L’Américain, which will then lead Bond to SPECTRE. Bond finds Madeline working as a doctor at a clinic up in the Austrian Alps… where one can only hope that no one is secretly plotting global takeover through germ warfare. The initial meeting between Bond and Madeline doesn’t go so well, and Bond is about to leave when he sees that Mr. Hinx has showed up to kidnap Madeline. Rescuing her, Bond introduces Madeline to Q (Ben Whishaw), who has used Sciarra’s SPECTRE ring to uncover a link between that organization and all of Bond’s previous tormentors: Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva. Finding Bond more trustworthy now, Madeline reveals that L’Américain is actually the name of a hotel in Tangier.

At L’Américain, Bond discovers a secret room where Mr. White had all kinds of information on SPECTRE’s operations, which includes the directions to a secret base out in the desert. Bond and Madeline travel to their destination by train, where they encounter Mr. Hinx one last time before Bond ejects him from the moving train car, apparently killing him. Afterwards, Bond and Madeline become intimate. Upon their arrival at the SPECTRE base, a few unsurprising facts are revealed. First,  SPECTRE is behind C’s Nine Eyes project. Duh! The ability to watch your enemy’s every move is just the sort of thing an evil criminal organization would spring for! Next, Oberhauser reviews his personal history with Bond. Oberhauser’s father served as Bond’s temporary guardian in the aftermath of his parents’ death. A jealous Franz would later kill his father over this and stage his own demise. This would allow Oberhauser to re-emerge with the identity of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and form SPECTRE.

*Sigh* You know, these movies always manage to do one aspect of the character of Blofeld poorly, and I think in “Spectre” it’s the reveal of his origin. It’s not a fatal flaw, mind you. In part because Mike Myers had already done the “he was your brother all along” angle with Dr. Evil and Austin Powers, it’s a little hard to take it seriously. There’s also a ridiculous device that Bond is hooked up to which can supposedly drill into and screw with parts of his brain. We see it working not once but twice, yet Bond is 100% fine afterwards. He and Madeline break custody and blow up the base (a magnificently HUGE explosion, by the way), and Blofeld is presumed dead. Of course he isn’t dead… just disfigured like the Donald Pleasence version of the character from “You Only Live Twice.”

While M and Q put a permanent stop to the plans of C, Blofeld captures Madeline and forces Bond to search for her through the ruins of the old MI6 building (abandoned after the attack in “Skyfall”), which Blofeld will thoroughly demolish with explosives in a matter of minutes. Though Blofeld insists that Bond must make a choice between saving his own ass and dying in the attempt to save Madeline, Bond gives those choices the finger by rescuing Madeline AND getting out of the building in time. Not only that, but Bond also shoots down Blofeld’s getaway helicopter. An injured Blofeld crawls from the wreckage. Instead of killing him as promised, Bond elects to throw away his gun and walk away with Madeline while MI6 takes Blofeld into custody.

The way that “Spectre” ends, it offers a convenient out for Daniel Craig should he indeed wish never to play James Bond again… an honor which none of the previous actors to play the role (whose tenures fizzled out) were awarded. I’ve already come up with my own shortlist for who I think should be the Bond girl for “Bond 25,” but I can’t even fathom who the next James Bond could be if Craig really is done. Replacing Sean Connery was tough enough, but Craig has raised the bar so impossibly high that I don’t envy whomever follows in his footsteps. Even Daniel Craig’s least effective entry, “Quantum of Solace,” is still a decent film compared to some of the turkeys of the 70’s and the 80’s.

I have my concerns about “Spectre,” but despite being the longest James Bond film, the pacing isn’t one of them. The whole thing is practically non-stop, grab-you-by-the-throat action. It loses a tiny bit of steam in the final act, but not a significant enough amount. Virtually abandoning the darkness that makes both “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” so attractive, Bond is more confident even in the face of an imposing threat like SPECTRE. You never for a moment believe that he won’t win the day, which makes this Bond more like Sean Connery than he’s ever been before. Likewise, Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of M is eerily reminiscent of Bernard Lee. Christoph Waltz is as terrific as Blofeld as I had expected him to be, and wouldn’t mind if he returned as he has teased that he might. Less effective is Léa Seydoux. She’s good, but I’m not sold on Madeline Swann as the girl that James Bond would consider leaving MI6 forever to be with.

A movie as big as “Spectre” pretty much demands repeat viewing. As this was my first, time will tell if my opinion on it changes at all. But I feel safe in saying that it’s one of the better films in the series despite not being in the caliber of either “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall.” As long as you’re not setting your expectations too high, anticipate no surprises and go in ready to have the kind of fun you had with the Bond of old, “Spectre” will not deceive you.

Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney

It has been said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, that you have to experience a fall before you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. For the James Bond franchise, on occasion, this has meant that the series has weathered a less-than-stellar entry just before being blessed by a magical one. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” followed the disappointing “You Only Live Twice,” “Casino Royale” stood the series back up on its feet after “Die Another Day” had knocked it down, and the forgettable “Quantum of Solace” was made up for by the mighty “Skyfall.”  This sentiment gets turned on its head when the same application is given to Bond himself. In each of the three superior films cited, Bond’s usual armor of invincibility is penetrated and he is forever changed by the experience.

After a breathtaking chase sequence from rooftops to a train in Istanbul, the prologue to “Skyfall” literally ends with James Bond (Daniel Craig) taking a fall, having been accidentally shot by Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). He’d been trying to recover a stolen hard drive containing a list of MI6 agents currently undercover in the not-so-nice parts of the world. Not the sort of information you want leaking out, but leak it most certainly will. With Bond presumed dead and the mission a complete bust, M (Judi Dench) is the one who must shoulder the blame. It is suggested by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) that she retire with grace and dignity. M would much rather clean up her mess first, but she’s got a long way to go before being able to do that. On the way back to MI6, M’s car gets caught up in traffic. She then receives a cryptic message on her computer just moments before witnessing an explosion at MI6 headquarters. Catching a CNN breaking news bulletin about the attack, a very much alive Bond resurfaces. Although he dismally fails the required physical and mental evaluations (which include a rather amusing word association test), M nevertheless restores Bond back to active service.

Following a lead provided by shrapnel removed from Bond’s shoulder wound, 007 tracks the hard drive thief to Shanghai where the man, named Patrice, is performing an assassination. Not only does Bond not prevent the murder, but the ensuing struggle leads Patrice to plummet to his death without revealing the identity of his employer. Among Patrice’s things, Bond finds a gambling chip, redeemable at a casino in Macau. Once there, Bond meets Séverine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a woman employed by the same person as Patrice. Séverine was curious to see who might be the one to cash in the casino chip. Working under duress and in fear for her life, Séverine promises cooperation if Bond agrees to kill her boss. Once Séverine has brought Bond to the private island her boss acquired for himself, the man reveals his identity as that of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a disgruntled former MI6 agent with a personal vendetta against M. Silva worked for MI6 from 1986 to 1997, until being captured by the Chinese while pursuing an unsanctioned mission in Hong Kong. Feeling abandoned and betrayed, Silva has plotted his revenge ever since. Silva shoots and kills Séverine, but Bond uses the radio transmitter given to him by Q (Ben Whishaw) to signal for backup and takes Silva back to MI6 as his prisoner.

All is not as it seems, however. It turns out that Silva had intended all along to be caught so that he could attempt to kill M. Bond realizes this when Q foolishly attempts to access Silva’s computer, thereby allowing it to hack into MI6’s mainframe and free Silva from his cage. Dressed as an officer of the law, Silva and a few other armed men barge in on a public inquiry regarding the stolen hard drive and opens fire. Thanks to resistance from Bond, Mallory and Moneypenny, Silva is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill M, but hasn’t given up on his goal yet. Knowing this, Bond drives away with M in his 1964 Aston Martin DB5 and heads directly for his childhood home of Skyfall in Scotland. Intending to end the chase once and for all, Bond tells Q to leave a trail for Silva to follow. Sure enough, Silva and his men show up and start shooting up the place. Unfortunately, Skyfall is not as well-stocked with weapons as it once was, and Bond sends M through a secret passage with Bond family friend Kincade (Albert Finney) while he remains behind and booby traps the house. Bond joins them in the tunnel just in time as the explosion destroys the house and takes with it Silva’s helicopter, the villain watching in shock from a safe distance on the ground below.

A confrontation between Bond and Silva’s men results in the ice beneath their feet giving way. Satisfied that Bond has either been killed by his henchmen, drowned or frozen to death, Silva presses on to the chapel where M and Kincade are hiding out. Upon arrival, Silva discovers that M has sustained a gunshot wound during the battle, and attempts to force her into using his gun to fire a single bullet through both of their heads. Quietly, Bond enters the chapel and throws a knife into Silva’s back, killing him.Despite defeating his enemy, Bond has arrived too late to save M, who succumbs to her earlier wound and dies in his arms. For the orphaned Bond, losing M is like losing his mother all over again. An epilogue shows off a more old school MI6… with Miss Moneypenny now a secretary, Mallory installed as the new M, and M’s office almost an exact duplicate of the one which appeared from 1962 until 1989.

If “Casino Royale” was Bond’s “Batman Begins,” then “Skyfall” is most certainly his “Dark Knight.” It isn’t just that Raoul Silva has a lot in common with Heath Ledger’s Joker (including his affinity for the creation of chaos), or that Bond bests his nemesis while failing to protect a woman he cares for. “Skyfall” is also just a hair better than “Casino Royale”… no small feat. There’s so much that “Skyfall” gets right that it renders any plotholes insignificant. Adele’s Oscar-winning title tune is the best piece of Bond music since Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” Javier Bardem, though not as menacing as he was in “No Country for Old Men,” makes Raoul Silva my favorite Bond villain. I also love the fact that Judi Dench is given a meatier role here than in any of her previous appearances, which date all the way back to “GoldenEye.” But the greatest of all is, of course, Daniel Craig. It was with “Skyfall” that Craig dethroned Sean Connery as my favorite actor to portray James Bond. I have nothing but love for a movie that can pull that off! To date, “Skyfall” is the only Bond film I’ve ever seen theatrically. My knee-jerk reaction to it at the time was to call it my all-time favorite Bond film. It’s not quite THAT good, but it’s brilliant enough to get closer than anything else the series has produced in years.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Director: Marc Forster

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench

Among the many differences between the James Bond film series and its original source material penned by Ian Fleming, there is the fact that the plots of the novels tended to all be interconnected. The only real continuity that ever existed between Bond films were passing references to previous gadgets and deceased characters. But the stories which each film told were otherwise self-contained… that is until “Quantum of Solace.” Fans of the books who had hoped that “Casino Royale” might be followed by the second filmed version of “Live and Let Die” (since that was the second Bond novel) were in for a disappointment. So was anyone looking for Bond to move on to an entirely new mission.

“Quantum of Solace” picks up in Siena, Italy, mere minutes after the end of “Casino Royale.” James Bond (Daniel Craig) leads a bunch of would-be attackers in a high-speed car chase, with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) locked away inside the boot. Back at MI6, Mr. White is interrogated about the organization he works for, known as Quantum. Mr. White laughs, noting that Quantum has influence everywhere. With that, M (Judi Dench)’s bodyguard attacks her and Mr. White escapes. Bond pursues and kills the bodyguard. A search of the dead man’s flat reveals a lead which Bond follows to Haiti. A hitman has been hired by businessman Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric)… a truly pathetic individual… to kill Greene’s girlfriend, Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko). Greene is also plotting to help install an exiled Bolivian general named Medrano as that country’s next president, one whom just so happens to have also been responsible for the death of Camille’s entire family. Bond prevents Camille’s murder, but inadvertently also prevents her from exacting revenge for her loved ones… a subject to which Bond can relate.

Bond tracks Greene to an opera in Austria, where members of Quantum are meeting in secret. Bond sneaks in and snaps a few key photos before he’s discovered and a gun battle begins. At the end of it, Bond drops one Quantum member off the side of a building, a man who turns out to be a bodyguard to an adviser of the British Prime Minister. Although the fall doesn’t kill him (despite landing on the hood of a car), Greene has him shot and killed to make it look like Bond did it. M takes the bait, and revokes Bond’s credit cards and passports when he won’t report in. Instead, Bond heads back to Italy to contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), whom he has forgiven for his perceived betrayal at the Casino Royale, and persuade Mathis to accompany him to Bolivia.

Upon their arrival, Bond is confronted by Ms. Fields (Gemma Arterton), who is under orders to bring Bond back to the UK. Naturally, it won’t work out that way, as Bond persuades her to jump into bed with him instead. Fields’ first name is never uttered on-screen, but her full name is listed in the end credits as Strawberry Fields. The second Beatles-inspired name in the series’ history (after the title for the movie “Tomorrow Never Dies”), Strawberry Fields shows how far we’ve come since Sean Connery’s Bond deliberately badmouthed the Fab Four in “Goldfinger.” Speaking of “Goldfinger,” Strawberry Fields will sadly meet a fate similar to that of Jill Masterson, the difference being that Fields is covered head to toe in crude oil, not gold paint. Mathis also is killed by the Bolivian police working for Medrano. Bond goes with Camille and discovers that Quantum is damming the Bolivian water supply. CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) tells Bond about the meeting place between Greene and Medrano. Bond kills the Bolivian Chief of Police in revenge for Mathis’s death, and gives chase to Greene while Camille confronts and kills Medrano. Bond catches up to Greene and leaves him stranded in the desert, only to learn later that Greene’s body turned up with two fatal bullet wounds.

An epilogue finds Bond in Russia where he has tracked down Vesper Lynd’s former boyfriend, the one for whom she was blackmailed by Quantum. It turns out that the creep is a Quantum member himself, and that his specialty is the seduction of women with connections in high places. He’s in the middle of seducing his latest mark when Bond interferes. Turning the bastard in to MI6 custody rather than kill him, Bond finally finds it in his heart to forgive Vesper.

In the decades-long run that the James Bond franchise has enjoyed, there has been only one film which truly called for a direct follow-up… and “Casino Royale” wasn’t it. Perhaps in some way Bond needed to forgive Vesper, but we didn’t, and we didn’t need a whole movie devoted to that subject. Daniel Craig is still in top form as Bond, but he’s surrounded by a less interesting story and faces off against a decidedly weak sauce villain. You could probably skip this one entirely, jumping from “Casino Royale” straight into the 23rd Bond film, and not even miss a thing. Still, although James Bond has participated in his share of bad movies, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t one of them. It’s more that type of ‘okay’ movie that is completely disposable despite still being fun to watch.

Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench

The James Bond series has taken many risks over the years, but waited until crossing into the 21st century to make its biggest gamble yet. After the sub-par “Die Another Day,” I welcomed the news of a complete series reboot. I also chose not to join the crowd of objectors to the hiring of Daniel Craig, noting that once upon a time even Sean Connery was doubted at first. That “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell was returning only added to my enthusiasm. The consequences of failure could have been a permanent retirement of the character. But “Casino Royale” didn’t just ensure the series would survive. It gave us the best James Bond since Connery and the best film in the franchise since the 1960’s.

“Casino Royale” establishes its gritty tone by beginning with a prologue shot in black and white. Here, we see MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) acquiring his 00 status by performing his first two kills. The first one, inside a public restroom, is as sloppy as it is brutal. The dead man is an accomplice of a traitorous MI6 section chief named Dryden, Bond’s second target. Bond gets the drop on Dryden in his office and, before Dryden can finish assuring Bond that the second kill is easier, Bond puts a bullet right between Dryden’s eyes. Bond later botches an assignment in Madagascar where, after a long and dangerous chase on foot, he kills the target he was supposed to apprehend for questioning. Chiding him for his recklessness, M (Judi Dench) speaks to Bond like a mother reprimanding her insubordinate son.

At the same time that all this is going on, a meeting takes placein Uganda between freedom fighters and Mr. White, a man from the same criminal organization as the man Bond killed in Madagascar. Mr. White introduces the freedom fighters to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of terrorism. It will be Le Chiffre’s job to look after the Ugandan warlord’s money. To this end, Le Chiffre is going to gamble the money on the failure of an airline company, which he means to ensure by blowing up the company’s new plane. Bond heads for Miami, where he is able to put a stop to the bombing just in the nick of time. The loss of the Ugandans’ money forces Le Chiffre to set up a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. In an effort to force Le Chiffre into accepting help against the Ugandans from the British government in exchange for information, MI6 sends Bond to Montenegro to beat him in the poker game. On the train ride Bond meets his banker, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a woman who is about to change Bond’s life forever.

As the game gets underway, Bond believes he’s learned the signs to look for to tell when Le Chiffre is bluffing, and gains confidence. During a pause in the game, Le Chiffre is accosted in his suite by the Ugandan warlord. Bond eavesdrops nearby, and is spotted by the Ugandan, whom Bond chokes the life out of with his bare hands. When the game resumes, Bond incorrectly assumes that Le Chiffre is bluffing and blows all of his money. When Vesper refuses to front him any more money, a furious and impulsive Bond decides instead to kill Le Chiffre, but is stopped at the last minute by a fellow player: CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Felix notes that his own odds are not improving, and agrees to trade the money Bond needs in exchange for custody of Le Chiffre when it’s all said and done. Bond’s luck begins to change almost immediately, prompting Le Chiffre to have Bond’s vodka martini poisoned. Bond nearly succumbs to the poison, but is resuscitated by Vesper. Determined to win now more than ever, Bond ultimately cleans Le Chiffre out with a straight flush.

A sore loser now in fear for his own life, Le Chiffre baits Bond by capturing Vesper, leaving her in the middle of the road so that Bond will be forced to swerve to miss and then crash his car. Le Chiffre reveals that Bond’s MI6 contact, Mathis, actually works for him. Le Chiffre then tortures Bond for his account password (which is V-E-S-P-E-R), but Bond refuses. Having completely and utterly failed, Le Chiffre is shot and killed by Mr. White. As Bond recovers in a hospital, MI6 takes Mathis into custody. Bond expresses his love for Vesper, and sends his letter of resignation to M. After Bond and Vesper arrive in Venice, M calls Bond to inform him that Vesper has stolen the poker winnings. Bond spots her as she meets with the intended recipients of the money. They kidnap her and lock her in an elevator inside a building under renovation. Bond kills Vesper’s captors, but the battle causes the building to collapse and sink. Bond attempts to free Vesper from the elevator, but she allows herself to drown. Mr. White then takes possession of the money.

Feeling betrayed, Bond rejoins MI6. M tells Bond of the true nature of Vesper’s involvement in the scheme. It turns out that Vesper had a boyfriend whom the mysterious criminal organization had captured and threatened to kill if she didn’t cooperate. Vesper’s love for Bond was real, however, and it was that love which saved Bond from being killed by Mr. White along with Le Chiffre. Checking his cell phone text messages, Bond discovers that Vesper had left him Mr. White’s name and phone number. The movie ends with Bond tracking down and arresting Mr. White.

You would think that a Bond movie revolving around a high-stakes poker game would be a tough sell to a modern audience. If that were all there was to “Casino Royale,” then it’s conceivable there might be a problem. However, the incredible action sequences (which draw inspiration from “The Bourne Identity” and “Batman Begins”) coupled with the dazzling chemistry between Daniel Craig and Eva Green (the best Bond girl since Diana Rigg) make “Casino Royale” a modern classic. Far, FAR greater than I remembered, it is in my opinion one of the absolute best films in the series. I love seeing Bond at this early point in his career: more violent than the Timothy Dalton Bond, yet also more vulnerable than the George Lazenby Bond. The producers were wise to bet the series’ continued longevity on Daniel Craig, and even smarter to ask him to return. As if I wasn’t already sold on Craig as Bond, after “Casino Royale” I was all in.

Die Another Day (2002)

Director: Lee Tamahori

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench

Diamonds have never been a friend to James Bond. Generally a valuable commodity, the highly sought-after mineral has only been a symbol of mediocrity for the 007 film series and of time wasted to many of its fans. Like the disappointing “Diamonds Are Forever” before it, “Die Another Day” frustrates more than it entertains. Both films also signaled the end of an era. “Diamonds Are Forever” ended Sean Connery’s run as Bond not with a bang, but with a whimper. Thanks to “Die Another Day,” the Pierce Brosnan era closes out with an exasperated sigh.

The movie begins excitingly enough, with James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) on a dangerous mission where he’s investigating the rogue Colonel Moon in the North Korean army. Inside the belly of the beast, Bond poses as an illegal arms customer paying in African conlict diamonds (which Bond has booby trapped with C4). The deal goes south when Moon’s aide, Zao (Rick Yune) figures out Bond’s true identity and passes along the information. An attempt to kill Bond is thwarted and he sets off the C4, leaving several soldiers dead and Zao with a face full of diamonds. The North Koreans give chase to Bond, who leads Moon to a long drop and apparent demise. Oh yeah? No body, no death. The adrenaline-filled prologue ends with Bond captured! Whoa! 007 is a North Korean POW?! How’s he gonna get out of this one? Well, first the audience has to survive the opening credits. Madonna’s technopop song “Die Another Day” is far and away the worst piece of music in any James Bond film, ever. If you haven’t decided to just hit fast forward during this part, the visuals of the North Koreans using their harsh interrogation techniques on Bond perfectly match the torture that your poor ears are going through.

The momentum of the prologue sufficiently killed, we reconvene to discover that Bond has been a prisoner in North Korea for 14 months. He’s finally bailed out when M (Judi Dench) trades for him with the recently captured Zao. M’s displeasure with the trade and her reluctance to welcome Bond back into the fold at MI6 is not at first clear. It comes out that Bond is suspected of having leaked information under duress… something he vehemently denies… which has led to the deaths of a few agents. Bond suspects that he’s been set up by a mole working within MI6, breaks custody and heads first for Hong Kong for information, and then to Havana, Cuba to find Zao. Up to this point, nothing particularly offensive other than the main theme song has been inflicted upon us. Then SHE happens. Emerging from the water Ursula Andress-style is NSA agent Glacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson, whose nickname couldn’t possibly be more appropriate. Jinx is played by Halle Berry, she of “X-Men” and “Catwoman” fame. From here on out, both the actress and her character will be referred to as Franchise Killer.

Bond and Franchise Killer both locate Zao inside a gene therapy clinic, but neither is able to capture or kill the wanted terrorist. Zao was at the clinic trying to acquire a new face and identity. But the procedure was halted, leaving him with blue eyes but the same diamond-scarred Korean face he started with.  Zao inadvertently leaves behind a pendant with African conflict diamonds inside it bearing the brand of British entrepreneur Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a man who has mysteriously built himself up from nothing in no time flat.  Bond goes to introduce himself to Graves in London, where he also meets Graves’ lovely assistant, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike). M restores Bond to full 00 Agent status and allows him to investigate the matter further, also revealing that Frost is an undercover MI6 agent tasked with digging up dirt on Graves. But I’ll go ahead save you the trouble and tell you that she’s the turncoat who sold Bond and MI6 out, since the eventual reveal offers no shock value whatsoever.

Bond gains admittance to Graves’ ice palace in Iceland, where he becomes the second Bond villain after Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga to demonstrate a solar-powered energy weapon, an orbital satellite which Graves calls ‘Icarus.’ Franchise Killer shows up and starts snooping around. She’s captured by Zao, who elects to strap her down and have his inept guard kill her with a slow-moving laser… “Goldfinger”-style… rather than kill her himself with the gun in his hand. Zao’s presence at the base means that Graves is really *GASP* Colonel Moon in disguise! After rescuing Franchise Killer from Zao, Bond waits in Graves’ office and has his gun trained on him when he arrives. At this point, I’m once again screaming at my TV, “Just shoot him!” Of course, if Bond does that, then Frost can’t have her big entrance where she outs herself as the traitor, and the fact that she emptied Bond’s gun shortly after their tryst the night before. The villains turn the Icarus toward the facility, leaving Bond and Franchise Killer to die. But, of course, they don’t. Bond still has his handy invisible Aston Martin, a gadget so over-the-top that it belongs in a Roger Moore movie. Franchise Killer almost drowns, though.

Bond and Franchise Killer stow away on board the plane carrying Graves and Frost. After Graves kills General Moon, his father, Bond confronts Graves while Franchise Killer and Frost duke it out. You know things have gotten bad when I’m rooting for the henchwoman against the Bond girl. Thanks entirely to turbulence caused by the Icarus, Franchise Killer gets the upper hand and stabs Frost through her cold heart. Bullshit! Bond doesn’t need that kind of unfair advantage, electing instead to open a departing Graves’ parachute prematurely and watch Graves get eaten up by one of the plane’s engines, his death also disabling the Icarus satellite.

For all that is wrong with “Die Another Day” (bad acting, bad writing, goofy gadgets, awkward editing, and the overabundance of unconvincing CGI among them), if I am to adhere to my own rules, I cannot label this as the worst James Bond film. I never once look at my watch during the movie, something which the later Roger Moore films are guilty of causing. Likewise, I can’t call Franchise Killer the worst Bond girl even though she’s the only one that’s ever legitimately annoyed me. She still serves her purpose and even holds her own in a fight. What I can’t understand is how she almost got her own spin-off movie. Thank goodness MGM saw reason.

The film itself, released during the series’ 40th anniversary, offers too many references to the films of old to be considered truly unique, and insults the memory of some of the earliest ones just by trying to emulate them. If they really wanted to pay tribute to the classic era of Bond, they should have cast Rosamund Pike as the lead Bond girl. So traditional a Bond girl is Pike that she wouldn’t seem out of place if paired with Sean Connery. With almost every James Bond film comes the proclamation that he “will return.” For the second time in the series history, that was no longer a certainty. But the worst of the Roger Moore era couldn’t kill off James Bond, and neither would the wretched “Die Another Day.”

World Is Not Enough (1999)

Director: Michael Apted

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench

Even fossil fuel will have become a thing of the past by the time James Bond embarks on his final mission. By the end of the 20th century, Bond had outlasted SPECTRE, survived the Cold War, foiled the plans of many megalomaniacs, exacted vengeance, averted World War III on countless occasions, traveled the world and the seven seas, and even left the Earth’s gravity. Through it all, he’s sustained countless physical injuries. Being a secret agent, it comes with the job description. But if we’ve learned anything about Bond, we know that the real reason that 007 has lasted this long is that he’s limited the number of people he’s allowed to get close, friends and lovers alike. It always seems to take a terrible turn when he does.

When a booby trap inside MI6 kills Sir Robert King, oil tycoon and longtime friend of M (Judi Dench), the assassin elects to kill herself rather than accept James Bond (Pierce Brosnan)’s offer of protection, believing he would ultimately fail. As a result of his battle with the assassin, Bond suffers an injury to his shoulder. Bond feels responsible for King’s death, as it was he who had retrieved a stash of money (which was part of the booby trap) for King. He could not have been blamed, because the lapel pin that King was wearing had been switched out for one which served as the bomb’s activation device. The real culprit was the anarchist known as Renard (Robert Carlyle). MI6 had previously ordered one of its agents to put a bullet in Renard’s brain. The deed was done, but it didn’t kill Renard… at least, not yet. The bullet is slowly deadening all of Renard’s senses but, in the meantime, his inability to feel pain is an asset to him.

Fearing for the life of King’s daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), M assigns Bond to her protection detail but orders him not to say from whom she is being protected. Elektra had been abducted once before by Renard, who held her for a ransom which M advised her father not to pay. Bond finds Elektra in Azerbaijan where she is assuming the family business, personally monitoring the construction of a new oil pipeline. They are attacked while up in the snowy mountains. As Bond and Elektra flee on skis, you’re forgiven if you start to hear John Barry’s theme from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” in your head. “The World Is Not Enough” could have benefited greatly from a John Barry score.

Despite M’s advisement about providing a vertical shadow on this mission instead of a horizontal one, Bond enters into a physical relationship with Elektra. A visit with Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) at his casino reveals that Elektra’s personal head of security is working for Renard. Leaving Elektra behind, Bond kills the bodyguard and assumes the identity of a Russian scientist, boarding a plane for Kazakhstan. Once there, Bond meets nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards). Bond’s cover doesn’t last long, as Jones sees right through his fake accent. Inside the silo, Bond finds Renard removing the weapons-grade plutonium from a nuclear bomb, as well as its locator card. Bond moves to kill him, but Jones shows up and fingers Bond as an impostor. Overpowered, Bond is startled by Renard’s use of the phrase, “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive,” a sentiment which Elektra had previously shared with Bond. Additionally, Renard squeezes Bond’s injured shoulder.

Bond takes his newfound misgivings about Elektra’s true nature to M, presenting the locator card as evidence. An alarm goes off, and it is up to Bond and Jones to enter the King pipeline to try and stop an inspection rig containing the nuclear bomb from reaching the terminal. When Jones notices that half of the plutonium is gone, Bond decides to let the bomb explode after Jones removes the remaining half. This allows Elektra to go through with her plan to kidnap M, believing Bond to be dead. At Zukovsky’s caviar factory, Bond learns of the Russian’s deal with Elektra to borrow a submarine. Bond and Jones finally have all the pieces to the puzzle: Renard and Elektra plan to put the plutonium from the bomb into the reactor core of the submarine, the resulting detonation destroying Istanbul and making the King pipeline the go-to source of oil in the region.

One thing Bond hadn’t reckoned was that, when Elektra was kidnapped by Renard, it was Elektra who turned her captor to her cause… not the other way around. Bond and Jones both get nabbed, after which Jones is sent to Renard in the submarine. Elektra’s henchmen hook Bond up to a garrote, an execution chair to which the victim is bound and a metal band locked around his neck. A few turns of a wheel, and the victim is dead. Elektra is just about to turn the wheel for the final time when Zukovsky barges in. Elektra shoots him but, just before dying, he uses his cane gun to free Bond. After freeing M, Bond goes after Elektra. The chase ends with Bond ending Elektra’s life with a single bullet to the chest. It’s the first time he’s ever had to kill an unarmed woman, especially one he’d cared for. But you don’t piss off James Bond and expect to live. Down in the submarine, Bond puts a stop to Renard’s plans, impaling him with the plutonium rod, and escaping with Jones. Before killing his enemy, Bond manages one incredible feat: In revealing Elektra’s death to Renard, Bond proves that there remained one method by which Renard could still feel pain.

“The World Is Not Enough” is often a source of grief from a loud segment of the James Bond fan community. While certainly nowhere near Bond at his best, I actually see it as an improvement over “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Some knock it for the wacky science that explains Renard’s condition. Many more criticize the character of Christmas Jones and the quality of Denise Richards’ performance. Again, not the worst Bond girl ever… especially not in the looks department. For Christmas Jones to be the worst Bond girl, her inclusion in the film’s plot would have to have absolutely no point to it, which is simply not the case. As for her acting skills… yeah, she’s no Diana Rigg or Honor Blackman. This, I will grant you. “The World Is Not Enough” gets points for not only making one of its Bond girls evil but turning her into the film’s lead villain. Yes, you heard me. Renard is nothing more than the henchman. He gains nothing by carrying out the plan to increase the value of the King oil pipeline, especially since he is slowly dying. Everything that happens in this movie happens because Elektra manipulates it to her liking. Simultaneously, if “The World Is Not Enough” is actually enjoyable (and it is), it is because the chemistry between Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau wills it to be that way.