Delaying the next Bond film (again) till October may be a marketing coup in disguise – it can only prolong anticipation, while we kill time wrestling with the theme of a thousand pub debates: whose 007 was best, and which of the 24 films, above which others, have held up?
Even the Sean Connery die-hards would be unlikely to put his six films above every single one of the others; conversely, many wouldn’t distinguish too much between Timothy Dalton’s pair of entries, but we’ve put them 14 places apart.
Bigger budgets (sorry, Daniel) have sometimes had an inverse effect on amiability, while broader jokes (Roger, we’re looking at you) can mean drowning in silliness. Those two are at opposite poles of solemnity versus camp.
To be fair, there’s not one phase of Bond without its defining strengths – the general rule we’ve found is that they start up strong when a new actor arrives, then gradually curdle into a parody of themselves. And then it’s time for a replacement.
We’ve gone back through and pitted them head-to-head – Connery against Connery, not just against Moore (x7), Lazenby, a brace of Daltons, and four stints apiece of Brosnan and Craig. The results, which will make everyone furious in every possible direction, are here.
24. Die Another Day (2002)
Where to start? The invisible car? That 8-bit surfing on icebergs at the end? Madonna as a fencing instructor? (The song can stay.) The “read this, bitch” catfight with Roz Pike? So much goes wrong, in such exorbitant ways, you wonder what they were smoking when they made this. But hey, Halle Berry comes out of the sea in Cuba, and is beautiful.
23. Spectre (2015)
Sure, the Day of the Dead opener is a dizzying cracker. But Spectre systematically fritters away all promise; bungles Blofeld’s entire function in the mythos; gives Craig not a whisper of a fun or humorous moment; boasts lazy casting (ahem, Waltz), car chases with zero jeopardy, and a uniquely unsatisfying climax. 160 minutes. 10 are any good?
22. Moonraker (1979)
Surely Moore’s worst – despite an entertaining Michel Lonsdale, and a decent pre-Point-Break skydiving set piece – because the camp and cheese are pushed offensively high. Jaws even gets a girlfriend?! It’s hard to see how gondola chases and space-shuttle-theft could ever have nestled together happily, and they don’t.
21. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
It’s all too slick and, if we’re honest, soulless – it says a lot that the best bit is a BMW escaping from a concrete car park by remote control. Michelle Yeoh’s a sure-fire asset; Jonathan Pryce less so, as a feeble Murdochian tycoon gobbling up media rights. The stuff with his stealth boat looks so crummy. No one champions this much.
20. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974
Psychedelic hall-of-mirrors showdown? This isn’t what anyone wanted – and Britt Ekland barely gets out of a bikini as an embarrassingly dim tag-along secretary. Christopher Lee, outclassing Moore, deserved better than to be stuck in these circumstances, in what ends up playing like Bond-goes-to-Fantasy-Island, complete with its very own Hervé Villechaise.
19. The World is Not Enough (1999)
Big minuses here include Denise Richards’s Dr Christmas Jones – a lamentable joke – and having no idea what to do with Robbie Coltrane as he waddles through crap CG explosions. But it looks alive when Sophie Marceau comes into play, as a kittenish adversary with claws, whose motivations are genuinely unpredictable.
18. Licence to Kill (1989)
The nasty edge of this one – it was the first ever 15 cert – can stick in the craw, and it didn’t suit Dalton’s talents to make him so morose. But John Glen still lays on some nifty practical stuntwork – the desert tanker chase, say – and while Robert Davi’s just OK, there’s sneering fun to be had with Anthony Zerbe and Benicio Del Toro.
17. Skyfall (2012)
To have and then waste one of the best-played villains of the series: does Skyfall deserve brownie points for Javier Bardem, or black marks? His first three scenes are wicked. And yes, thanks to Roger Deakins, it’s absolutely the shiniest-looking entry. But the plot holes are absurd, the small roles poorly defined, and chasing Judi Dench up to Scotland just isn’t good enough.
16. GoldenEye (1995)
Whisper it: the video game’s better. This one is reliably overrated even while obviously having its moments. The flashier action bits and fantastic Famke Janssen contribution – a Lenya-level female baddie, rare! – can’t entirely make up for the cheesiness, including some positively shocking dialogue, and a not-on-form Sean Bean as a royally forgettable villain. The plot’s a drag, too.
15. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
A big hmmm for this one, the campiest of the Connerys, the one with cringey gay henchmen and the most vacuous female characters of its day, desporting themselves over the long, dull Vegas bit. It’s a wonder it works at all, but it does have the song, Charles Gray in his furry boudoir, and an absolute lack of any seriousness going for it.
14. A View to a Kill (1985)
Here we have a case of two great villains, neat Golden Gate Bridge use, cool song, shame about everything else. Moore was 58 and it shows – a majority of his role looks like someone else’s stunt work. The whole first half is marking time, but Grace Jones’s 180º flip is certainly arresting, and Walken’s having the time of his life.
13. Octopussy (1983)
Not by any means bad, Moore’s penultimate effort has its stodgy stretches, and certainly doesn’t make the best fist of being the only one named for a female character. Playing her, Maud Adams can’t hold a candle to Louis Jordan’s debonair Kamal Khan, or Steven Berkoff’s hilariously hammy General Orlov. The exoticism’s a bit naff.
12. Thunderball (1965)
All the underwater stuff – presumably hell to shoot – is actually... a wee bit tiresome? And though it was the most profitable of the series pre-Skyfall (adjusting for inflation), it feels like the most impersonal of Connery’s, with a hard-to-remember plot and middling characters. Sluggish? But with sharks.
11. Quantum of Solace (2008)
People hate this one, and the fluffed climax is a problem. But when it’s good it’s breathlessly compelling – the Siena rooftop chase is superb – and you can make a defence of it as a swift, angry side mission, intelligently picking up where Casino Royale left off, and featuring Craig’s most intense performance. Bond’s carrying one hell of a grudge here – best stay out of his way.
10. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
The best element here is a furious Carole Bouquet, as vengeful, crossbow-wielding Melina Havelock, but Topol is good, low-key value too, as a pistachio-munching sidekick. It was a return to slightly humbler post-Cold War realism, with a shrewd handle on the romance, and an evocative climax at that mountaintop monastery.
9. Dr No (1962
Ken Adam does damn well on an obviously cautious first-time budget. Other aspects haven’t been completely worked out yet – what, no title song? – and it sometimes plays like a dry run for a great Connery Bond film (the next two) rather than the real deal. Still, no one’s knocking Ursula Andress, and the thrills are solidly delivered.
8. Casino Royale (2006)
Two-thirds of it are great, and this certainly resuscitated the brand with its steely flexing of brawn, enabled by Martin Campbell’s headlong style. Everything goes swimmingly – with Le Chiffre and Vesper Lynd as marvellous additions – until they do That Thing that makes the bottom fall right out of the third act.
7. You Only Live Twice (1967)
If we were judging on sets alone, Ken Adam’s slide-away volcanic lair, thankfully containing a purr-fect Donald Pleasance, would ping this straight to the top. Connery’s yellowface and awful hair mar his performance quite a bit, and the story’s a trudge at first, but the aerial battles and finale save the day. Plus, piranhas!
6. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moore at full purr, in a justly popular outing with a pleasingly hissable Teutonic nemesis in Curt Jürgens. So much submarine action could have got clunky, but Lewis Gilbert does an elegant directing job – his cinematographer is an actual Renoir! – and there’s well-balanced parity with Barbara Bach as Bond’s KGB counterpart.
5. Live and Let Die (1973)
Received wisdom doesn’t always pick this as Moore’s best, but the blacksploitation angle makes it easily his most distinctive, and an especially bold choice for his debut. It has genuine flavour, great music, and kicky voodoo intrigue that should have dated much worse than it has. Yaphet Kotto is fantastic.
4. The Living Daylights (1987)
It’s high for a heap of reasons. Timothy Dalton deserves more credit for bringing a tough, nervy edge back to the franchise, and this glides from icy glamour to Moroccan swashbuckling with surprisingly durable skill. Full marks for the spectacular stunt sequence with Necros out the back of the cargo plane.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
You don’t even need to dock it marks for George Lazenby, who’s totally fine, albeit lacking Connery’s wicked instincts for innuendo. Christopher Nolan’s favourite holds up like gangbusters – the skiing scenes reach a peak of explosive action even when the plot’s slightly flimsy, and Diana Rigg’s Contessa stands tall as the least damsel-ish, most adult (and of course tragic) of all Bond’s paramours.
2. Goldfinger (1964)
The campy flair of Guy Hamilton’s direction made him a handy choice to vary the tone, and this feels archetypal, with both a villain and heroine for the ages. It’s teasing, brashly confident and just so much fun: we must doff a steel-rimmed hat to writing at an apex of wit here, gadgets exactly on the right side of daft, and a world-conquering masterplan on Gert Frobe’s part that was both sinister and outlandish.
1. From Russia with Love (1963)
Connery at his grittiest, production at its suavest. A superb quartet of co-stars: Robert Shaw; Pedro Armendaríz; Daniela Bianchi. Lotte Lenya! The whole train section, helped by its Hitchcockian sense of confinement, is a simmering masterclass. Only two films into the series, Bond peaked, because the formula fell in step ideally with Fleming. Terence Young kept a tight hold on spy thrills that were so classically tailored to Connery’s strengths, it’s as if the script came from Savile Row.