For as long as I can remember, the holiday season means more than just family, friends, and goodwill toward men; it means James Bond marathons on remote cable channels. TNT and then Spike TV used to pick either Thanksgiving or Christmas and bombard the week surrounding it with nothing but 007. The resulting days-long fever dream of different actors and different eras, scheduled hopelessly out of order and interrupted by commercials and punch breaks, leaves one with a hungover appreciation of James Bond as an uneven, unchanging and ever-adaptive whole.
But good luck keeping the movies straight if you don’t already have them committed to memory. Perhaps this is why, to this day, my favorite Bond movies are routinely the most reviled in the franchise, a fact my brother and I joke about every year when we voluntarily watch A View to a Kill, The Man With the Golden Gun and Diamonds Are Forever. Seeing a revolving door of Bonds dance to twenty-plus melodies that hit the same notes yet all sound slightly different blurs the line from one mission to the next, from Connery to Craig.
So I’ve put together this handy guide to the franchise to help you and yours identify, appreciate and — should the situation call for it — avoid your way through the entire James Bond series.
Dr. No (1962) — The Budget Bond. In 2017 dollars, the inaugural 007 adventure cost about as much as a single episode of Stranger Things. Sean Connery manages to cement the character into modern legend, despite only getting to run around a beach and a prototypical evil lair. The iconography doesn’t date. The yellowface villain does.
From Russia With Love (1963) — The Pivotal Bond. The critical darling that turned a fluke into a franchise. Everyone and that movie guy their brother knows lauds this as the high-water mark, which is why half of all other Bond movies riff on it. Perhaps the most grounded espionage of any entry. A game of cat and mouse on the grim and gritty streets of Istanbul, with one of the best cats the franchise ever had in Red Grant (Robert Shaw).
Goldfinger (1964) — The Blockbuster Bond. The one that made the mold, for better or worse. Eccentric villain with a walking gimmick of a right-hand man. Half-fanciful, half-absurd gadgets like ejector seats and cigarette-size tracking devices. Needlessly but deliciously drawn-out death traps like the infamous groin laser. An over-the-top grand finale set to the beat of a literal ticking time bomb. Between Russia and Goldfinger, the two extremes of the franchise were set: the gritty and the gonzo.
Thunderball (1965) — The Slow Bond. These movies are never short – only six out of 25 come in under two hours – but few feel as slow as this. Goldfinger 2, for the most part, with sea substituted for sky and the languid pace to match. Trying to spot Bond in the half-hour of underwater fights is harder than a Where’s Waldo and half as fun. A familiar flavor of overblown adventure, but it’s hard to get past the scene of Bond blackmailing his nurse for sex.
You Only Live Twice (1967) — The Parody Bond. Freshens the formula with space-age lunacy. Almost every ingredient is grist for the parody mill; Austin Powers pulled most of his tricks from Twice, down to the exact appearance of Dr. Evil. Giant spaceships that look like up-ended coffee pots. The gold-standard of evil lairs, hidden within a fake volcano. But if you look too hard, you can see Sean Connery get bored in real time, even under the regrettable prosthetics that “turn” him Japanese.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) — The Hip Bond. Formerly the black sheep, now the one-hit wonder. George Lazenby’s first, last, and only mission has aged considerably better than its contemporaries. Ahead-of-its-time action courtesy of series editor-turned-director Peter R. Hunt. A Swiss location that doubles as a breathtaking travelogue. And the surprise that changed the franchise – Bond gets married. Considering he’d never acted before, Lazenby does a better job with the newly vulnerable Bond than he has any right to.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971) — The Campy Bond. The first Bond of the 1970s, and boy does it show. Sean Connery returns with bushier eyebrows and slightly more enthusiasm for what should’ve been a Roger Moore movie. Homosexual hitmen, an attempt to get with the times, land like cast-offs from Adam West’s Batman without the knowing wink. The moon landing is casually confirmed fake just so Bond can steal a floppy-armed buggy. Country singer and sausage czar Jimmy Dean appears. Worth it for the trip to old Las Vegas.
Live and Let Die (1973) — The Blaxploitation Bond. Not as racist as you might think. Subtly implies the black villains use stereotypes to fool the profile-happy CIA, but doesn’t do much with it. First in a stretch of Bond movies contorted to cash in on cinematic trends. Roger Moore’s refreshingly light touch and inability to pronounce “Kananga” without adding an “-r” at the end keep everything from getting too murky. Yaphet Kotto’s performance and one of the greatest vehicular stunts of all-time make it a must-see.
The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) — The Kung-Fu Bond. Almost as racist as you might think. While Bond’s martial artistry stops at Moore’s signature neck chop, every Asian character would put Bruce Lee to shame. A big, sloppy mix of energy crisis paranoia, fake nipples, underwritten women and a beguiling villain, Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, that deserved a better movie. Still more fun than its reputation suggests.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) — The Platonic Ideal Bond. Stuck between derivative entries, a true original. Everything you’d want in a Bond movie if you happen to be me. Exotic locales. A leading lady every bit his equal. A tastefully grand evil lair. The first (and, to date, last) submersible Bond car. Rogerly wit in top form. About the only thing it steals is the name Jaws, but only to create the series’ most memorable heavy. Moore’s best and no slouch for the franchise.
Moonraker (1979) — The Star Wars Bond. Says enough that the producers rushed this to theaters instead of For Your Eyes Only, the movie promised in the end credits of the last one. As silly as Bond gets. When 007 pilots a hover-gondola through Venice, a pigeon double-takes through the magic of terrible editing. Jaws falls in love. The laser-tag finale is what everyone remembers, but most of the action on Earth is good enough to make you think they belong to other Bonds.
For Your Eyes Only (1981) — The Sober Bond. After a clumsy opening that starts with Bond visiting his wife’s grave and ends with him gleefully dropping a wheelchair-bound bad guy from a chopper into a smokestack, it gets pretty heavy. Most Bonds get a revenge-minded mission. This is Moore’s, and it remains a potent reminder that he was more than just an arched eyebrow. Taut, grounded and occasionally chilly. Come for the change of pace and nail-biting mountainside finale, stay for the funky synth score from Rocky composer Bill Conti.
Octopussy (1983) — The Saturday Matinee Bond. The first produced after Raiders of the Lost Ark, though by no means a rip-off. A jewel-encrusted MacGuffin. A safari for the most dangerous game in a jungle lousy with man-eaters. A breathless chase over, under, and around a circus train that beat Last Crusade to the punch by six years. The cliffhangers come fast and ludicrous, but the stunt work sells every minute of it. Maud Adams plays a great Bond woman with a terrible Bond name.
Never Say Never Again (1983) — The Cannon Films Bond. The infamous company that gave us Chuck Norris and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo had nothing to do with this, but it sure smells like it did. A knock-off with a lurid edge on its source material. Special effects that only sometimes are. Sets left over from that week’s MacGyver. A bankable star slightly past his prime and paid well for the privilege. But Sean Connery is having an obvious blast and Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner builds a better Thunderball. The late, great Bernie Casey deserved another go as Felix Leiter.
A View to a Kill (1985) — The Bond Too Far. A just-shy-of-60 Bond wouldn’t be so painfully noticeable if the story were tailored to him. Instead, he’s made to charm a 20-something Tanya Roberts, seduce a forever-ageless Grace Jones, and physically best a spry-for-Christopher-Walken Christopher Walken atop the Golden Gate Bridge. John Barry’s unexpectedly moving score belongs in a better movie. Moore admitted he should’ve stopped at Octopussy, and when he snowboards to “California Girls” by The Beach Boys, it’s hard to disagree.
The Living Daylights (1987) — The 1980s Bond. Cold War defections under cover of night. An AIDS-conscious lack of frivolous sex. The Russians are evil. The Taliban is good. There’s an A-ha song. For better or worse, Bond took a hard look at the world around him and grew up. The difference between Timothy Dalton’s take and Moore’s is the difference between a hitman and a game show host. An engagingly grounded and politically dated tangle of faked assassinations, delusional arms dealers, and refreshed stunts that haven’t lost any punch.
License to Kill (1989) — The Miami Vice Bond. Good guys and bad guys alike sweat through loud suits in the tropical heat, chasing money, narcotics, and each other in a tale of greed, betrayal, and red-hot revenge. Guest starring Wayne Newton. Besides the split-second appearance of ninjas, License remains a gritty and aggressive Bond adventure. It’s more than satisfying watching Bond tear down a drug lord’s empire brick by cocaine brick. Dalton does almost too many of his own stunts, especially in the staggering tanker chase. Q almost makes off with the whole movie.
GoldenEye (1995) — The Revolutionary Bond. Few things could derail James Bond like the Cold War ending. Fortunately, GoldenEye made a blockbuster case for 007’s continued employ. Pierce Brosnan brings back a welcome dose of boyish levity just in time for Judi Dench’s M to have no patience for it. Smart script. Smarter direction. Not a bad character or forgettable set-piece in the bunch. The Cradle finale is a perfect marriage of jaw-dropping location, unbearable tension, and ferocious choreography. An exemplary Bond adventure.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) — The Bland Bond. GoldenEye was so successful that the sequel was given a hard release date and one directive – beat GoldenEye. The resulting mad dash turned out an almost movie. Almost interesting villain. Almost interesting plot. Even the stunts feel standard. The only bright spot on this generally dim stage is Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin. Best watched while you’re also doing something else. The too-good gif of Bond playing Mario Kart in the backseat of a swerving car comes from Tomorrow, and the original scene is a highlight.
The World is Not Enough (1999) — The Comic Book Bond. Pushes everything a wary inch past plausibility. The villain this time isn’t just crazy – he can’t feel pain. The gadgets aren’t just practical – they let him see through people’s clothes. The Bond woman isn’t just a rocket scientist – she’s Denise Richards. A low blow, but even the action sequences, including a chainsaw-wielding helicopter, toe the line of believability in the same pulpy way. The plot’s collateral damage, but it’s some kind of fun.
Die Another Day (2002) — The Video Game Bond. Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore’s least favorite Bond movie. That should say plenty. Combines ham-fisted darkness (North Korean torture) with dim-witted fun (CGI windsurfing) to ruinous effect. You know your Bond’s in trouble when the most creatively loaded name they can come up with is “Mr. Kil.” All the fun and hollow imitation of playing a lazy video-game tie-in. You’ll tolerate the cutscenes to play the fun parts, but when they still look rendered by a Playstation 2, you’ll wish you’d skipped it altogether.
Casino Royale (2006) — The Cold Bond. The unexpected one-two punch of Austin Powers and 9/11 forced Bond back to basics. Daniel Craig’s 007 is a walking hair trigger that doesn’t enjoy going off, even as he fears that’s all he’s built for. Casino Royale isn’t without its moments of levity – Bond electing to break through drywall instead of parkouring his way through an air duct comes to mind – but it’s really a gritty thriller with a dark heart. The Madagascar foot chase should be studied in film schools.
Quantum of Solace (2008) — The Sloppy Bond. Cut off at the knees by a writer’s strike and forced to crawl, Quantum of Solace is the shortest Bond of the bunch and still feels an hour longer than Thunderball. Even the simplest fist-fight feels overshot and fed to a blender. Its angle as a direct sequel chokes it in the monumental shade of its ground-breaking predecessor. At best, it feels like rightfully deleted scenes from Casino Royale. At worst, it’s a headache.
Skyfall (2012) — The Arthouse Bond. In time for the 50th anniversary of Bond on the big screen, Skyfall provided a visceral treatise on its hero’s impossible endurance by breaking as many rules as it followed. What begins as a standard mission brilliantly deconstructs 007 until he’s running down the halls of his childhood home with a double-barrel shotgun trying to save the only family he has left. Award-winning direction and cinematography. Judi Dench’s finest hour. Everything a modern Bond should be.
Spectre (2015) — The Modern Bond. Everything a modern Bond shouldn’t be. Retroactive ties to past movies are gracelessly shoehorned in by a villain who’s connected to Bond’s barren past for no other reason other than that’s what worked in Skyfall. And of course said villain planned for every little thing that happens to Bond, even if time, space, and logic would suggest otherwise. I haven’t named the villain because his identity is naturally a big twist that’s one quarter surprising and three pointless. 007 by way of the Cinematic Universe.
Twenty-five movies, six actors, 227 units of alcohol and a partridge in a pear tree. Happy Holidays. Hope you get a little Bonding in.
Jeremy Herbert lives in Cleveland, the setting of surprisingly few spy movies.