With James Bond about to return to cinemas in Spectre, it’s the perfect time to look back on the long-running cinematic adventures of Agent 007. For more than 50 years, Bond has brought fans back to the movies time and time again thanks to thrilling adventures, slick style, cool gadgets, and the magnetic allure of the character himself. While some things never change about the dashing MI6 agent, part of his continued appeal is the character’s constant evolution through the many actors who have played him. While some have come to define the character more than others, each man has brought something unique to the role.
Through highs and lows, cheesy camp and gritty darkness, and the constant push and pull between keeping a series both rooted and the past and current with new trends, James Bond and the actors who have played him have brought many different elements to the hero across the decades. Everyone has his or her own favorite Bond, but is one necessarily better than the other? Do the best and worst films dictate the impact of the actor upon the character? How does someone have a lasting impact on a character that will outlive the men who played him?
By taking an in-depth look at each iteration of Bond, we can see how the character has both progressed and regressed over time. Whoever may be playing him, the adventures of James Bond are some of the defining moments of big budget action cinema.
Defining Characteristics: It’s clear why Sean Connery was chosen as the first big screen version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. He’s got the charm, wit, and style needed to be 007 while having the brutishness and violent streak needed to make the character a formidable agent. While not every Connery film is a must see, his portrayal mixed with the formation of the series set the tone for the character and his adventures. Every classic element of the character is here in Connery’s portrayal, with each following iteration choosing to either increase or decrease their focus on these various pieces for a different take that was still true to the essence of the character.
Impact on Bond: Connery is the Bond that all other Bonds are measured against. While the character had already been formed in Ian Fleming’s novels, it was Connery that brought them to life on the big screen. His mix of roguish charm and penchant for brutal violence was filtered through a great on-screen charisma that quickly connected with audiences. If Connery hadn’t done the character justice, it’s likely that Bond would not have become a more than 50 year old franchise.
Best Movie: From Russia With Love – Dealing with the fallout of 007’s first film, Dr. No, Bond has been targeted for assassination by SPECTRE and must unravel the plot against him before he’s killed. With lots of great set pieces, many wonderful villains, and Connery’s take on Bond as great as it ever was, this is the encapsulation of everything that is great about classic Bond movies. While Goldfinger was the film that established the true James Bond formula (and has plenty of classic moments), From Russia With Love is a truly fun and exciting Bond film that has the strength of a film that has ironed out the kinks without getting stuck in a rote formula.
Worst Movie: Thunderball– While not all of Connery’s films were classics, none reached the utter depths of the Bond cannon’s lowpoints. However, it’s clear that formula and some sense of staleness had crept in by the second half of Connery’s tenure as Bond. While Thunderball may not be an outright bad film, it suffers from the worst thing that a Bond movie could be: being boring. Too many slow underwater sequences, too long of a running time, and a general lack of anything really special means that Thunderball is far worse than the mildly offensive You only Live Twice or the wacky Diamonds are Forever.
Defining Characteristics: While Lazenby was a model who had not acted before his role as Bond, his physicality and suave demeanor won him the role and they are most certainly on display in his one go as Agent 007. However, his Bond is the least differentiated of the lot, as he’s mostly modeling his performance after Connery, which is understandable given his limited acting experience and brief time in the role. But he’s a suitable stopgap, with the quality of his film being more notable than his performance. But that ruffled collared suit is to die for. Just ask Austin Powers.
Impact on Bond: Lazenby showed that Bond could be recast and people would still come to see the character on film. While he would only play the character for one film (he left on his own accord), it was enough to show that Bond could survive beyond Connery. As a younger Bond, he also proved that the character could be timeless in a way, which has been a major aspect of the series’ use of loose continuity and continual updates to match the current times without giving explanation to the character travelling through time from film to film. There’s no need for explanation or some larger story behind it, James Bond is simply timeless.
Best Movie: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Most people dismiss OHMSS as “that film with the guy who only played Bond once,” but the film is really one of the better early films of 007. While Lazenby may not be as good as Connery in the role, he serves as a decent replacement. Most importantly, it’s the strength of the story and it’s supporting characters (most notably Tracy, who is one of the film’s most memorable elements) that make it great. Its tragic ending gives the narrative even more strengths and a memorable nature missing from a surprisingly large amount of Bond movies.
Worst Movie: Seeing as OHMSSis actually a solid movie, Lazenby is the only Bond who’s batting 1.000.
Defining Characteristics: A total lothario, Moore’s Bond is often more interested in getting some quality time in with the ladies than saving the world. He’s also handy with a quip at a moment’s notice, whether it be for a kill or a post-coital embrace. While he’s a big man, Moore is certainly not the most imposing Bond, as he’s more likely to use his wits than brute force. Not that his plots ever really needed much violence. Moore is also the oldest Bond, starting at 45 (3 years older than Connery at the time) and ending age 58. It sure did show by the end.
Impact on Bond: Moore had the longest tenure as Bond at 12 years from the debut of his first film to his last one, which often makes him the first Bond that generations think of when considering the character. His time as Bond ranged from the fairly straightforward to the incredibly campy, showing off the strange cycle that Bond moves often experience over time as they become more and more heightened, only to snap back to a more grounded approach after having gone too far. Moore’s Bond is a true lothario, bedding seemingly every woman that will make eye contact with him and generally not sweating the machinations of the bad guys he fights. It’s a aspect of the character that has been there since the beginning, but Moore’s version took it to its greatest extremes. Moore’s films often show how far the character can stretch before he breaks in terms of cinematic quality, but Moore is always great fun in the role, even when he’s a sweaty senior citizen huffing and puffing his way up a set of stairs.
Best Movie: Live and Let Die – Bond’s trip to Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean heavily cribs from then-popular Blaxploitation films, but is still a whole lot of fun. Moore is incredibly fresh in the film and injects the loads of energy that were missing from Connery’s later performances. The zany plot and outlandish developments marked the far more heightened style that would inform most of Moore’s films, but they are not yet eye rolling here. There’s a faster pace, great action, and plenty of thrilling moments throughout Live and Let Die, which is a far more solid film than most of the very uneven movies that would follow.
Worst Movie: Moonraker– This is simply the encapsulation of everything that is wrong with the Bond franchise. The desire to pump out new entries and keep up with cinema trends was the impetus behind Moonraker. Due to the massive success of Star Wars, EON Productions decided to put James Bond in space, which resulted in a plot that was a complete recycling of previous film The Spy Who Loved Me. Instead of a maniac with an underwater base who wanted to wipe out humanity in order to restart it from his own genes, it was a maniac with an outer space base who wanted to wipe out humanity in order to restart it from his own genes. Oh, and toothy henchman Jaws was in both, but was sort of a good guy this time. Bad jokes, bad action, and a bad time at the movies all around.
Defining Characteristics: Dalton’s Bond is easily the most rage-filled of the character’s iterations, even more so than Craig. It’s clear that this is a Bond who has suffered due to his violent job and is quick to take out his aggression on his target. Dalton is far less quippy than the other Bond’s and rarely relishes his kills. There’s far less charm on display as well, which makes him a hard break from both the Bonds that came before and Pierce Brosnan’s following tenure as the character.
Impact on Bond: Dalton’s time as Bond was a hard shift away from the Moore era in its portrayal of the hero and the tone of the films. In a time of AIDS awareness and general STD paranoia, Dalton’s Bond cut way back on the sexy time. In addition, Dalton wanted to be authentic to the character found in the Fleming novels, who was much more rough around the edges and frequently at his breaking point. This sudden departure from the lighthearted fun of Moore’s Bond was a hard pill to swallow for many fans, which led to many complaints about the new version. In retrospect, Dalton is much closer to Daniel Craig’s modern Bond in his dark and brooding nature. However, Dalton’s films struck a strange balance due to the many campy elements that surrounded its more grounded hero, such as random ninjas and winks to the camera. It’s a combo that doesn’t always work, but Dalton’s time moved the character forward.
Best Movie: The Living Daylights – Dalton’s first of two is more in line with the traditional Bond film while being more modern and grounded than most of the previous. Part Cold War mystery and part romance, Bond rescues a cellist who is tangled up in a Russian plot to kill Bond and his fellow spies, leading to an adventure around the world that includes sledding on a cello and a fight while handing out of a cargo plane. Sure, the team up with Al Queda may be a bit faux-pa by today’s standard, but Rambo did it, too. It plants the film firmly in its time, but it’s still a thoroughly fun Bond adventure with a far more deadly and driven hero.
Worst Movie: License to Kill – A far darker turn than before, Dalton’s second Bond adventure sees Agent 007 swear revenge on the drug kingpin and tortured and mauled his friend Felix Leiter. This is a much more brutal and grim film, filled with mean deaths and a bloodthirsty protagonist. However, Bond producers still kept in some campy moments, which clash hard with the darker elements, which leads to some tone deafness. Still, some amazing stunts and a generally solid story idea mean that License to Kill is exciting, if not completely solid.
Defining Characteristics: Brosnan’s Bond is more a pastiche of previous Bonds than a trailblazer in any new interpretation. He has the cheesy quips and lothario nature of Moore, the suaveness of Connery, and the deadliness of Dalton. Being an amalgam of everything that people equate with Bond means that Brosnan fits into the equation fine, but isn’t particularly memorable or unique.
Impact on Bond: While Brosnan’s casting may be the result of EON choosing an actor who was already predisposed to fit the role rather than casting an actor who could bring something new to Bond, the former Remington Steele did help usher 007 into a more modern era. The post-Cold War setting and more modern threats pushed the character past certain clichés that dogged him for decades, even if the general formula and tropes stayed firmly in place during the Brosnan era.
Best Movie: GoldenEye – Brosnan’s first outing as 007 is by far his best one and quite possibly his only truly good one. But it’s also a highpoint in the series as a whole, so that’s saying something. This is the film that propels Bond into the modern age as it’s the first to be set after the Cold War and actively discusses this issue, questioning Bond’s role in the modern world and his out-of-date sensibilities. Brosnan is also at his best here, being charming and deadly with a slightly more modern take on Bond while still being true to the character. Great setpieces, a strong villain in Trevalyan, and much needed changes for a modern Bond make this a must see for fans of the series. Director Martin Campbell is responsibility for two of the best Bond films ever – this and Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale.
Worst Movie: Die Another Day – Not only is this the low point of Brosnan’s time as Bond, it’s the low point of the entire series. It’s a bloated, misguided, cartoonish, and utterly dumb mess that temporarily killed the franchise. That’s thanks to its hot mess of a script, terrible villains (a diamond-studded-faced North Korean morphed into a British aristocrat (wait, what?)), extremely cartoonish plot, horrible Madonna theme song, and misguided attempt at setting up a spinoff for Halle Berry’s Jinx character, Die Another Day truly strived to be the worst it could be. Like the worst of the Bond franchise, this is a tone deaf installment that takes the series’ clichés to their extreme, but this time it’s not even fun in a so-bad-it’s-good way. The only thing good about it is the fact that it led to Casino Royale.
Defining Characteristics: Far more grounded and broken down than most of the other Bond incarnations, Daniel Craig’s 007 is a violent force of nature who is slowly morphed into the charming and suave hero the world has loved for decades. He suffers more, goes rogue frequently, and is much more likely to kill his way to the bad guy instead of charm or seduce. He’s easily the most dangerous Bond yet and shares a large amount of DNA with Fleming’s creation in the novels.
Impact on Bond: While Craig’s lasting impact is yet to be seen, it’s clear that in the time since he took on the role the Bond franchise has been given new life and a new level of prestige. Bond is a much more real world character and Craig’s dark yet charming take on the MI6 agent has been seen as rivalling Connery’s original take as the greatest version of Bond. While his films have been somewhat hit or miss, Craig’s Bond could be seen as the template for the character for the next 50 years.
Best Movie: Casino Royale – Craig’s Bond era will most likely always be most defined by his first film, thanks to its high quality and the way that it pushed the franchise into a new and fresh direction. Martin Campbell’s restart of the Bond series took a new look at the beginning of Agent 007 with an updated take on the character, with a focus on both character and realistic action. The lack of cheesy one liners and zany villainous plots may have been a drastic change for some fans at first, but it did wonders for the series. Craig’s Bond is more layered and interesting than any previous incarnation and the hero is finally a fleshed out character here. This is not just a great Bond film, it’s a great film in general.
Worst Movie: Quantum of Solace – If Casino Royale was a layered and nuanced new take on Bond for the modern era, then Quantum of Solace is the Bond producers forcing the character into the modern action movies made popular by the Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises. However, the focus on hard and fast action and a distinct lack of humor or fun means that Quantum is far less enjoyable than most Bond movies. It’s the perfect demonstration of the franchise going too far in one direction as it constantly swings between the gritty and cheesy. It also doesn’t help that the film was produced in the midst of the Hollywood Writer’s Strike, resulting in an undercooked script. However, the film does have some great action sequences and benefits from a pairing with Casino Royale. While it isn’t a bad movie, it’s forgettable, haphazard, and mostly a comedown from the vastly superior Casino Royale.