The spy who taught me

Twenty-three movies. Five Actors. Our writer watched every single James Bond flick. In order. Here’s what he learned.

Me, watching <i>Octopussy</i>: Sean Connery escapes via ‘standard issue’ jetpack in <i>Thunderball</i>.

Me, watching Octopussy: Sean Connery escapes via ‘standard issue’ jetpack in Thunderball.

My first exposure to the James Bond series was probably some “Women of Bond” feature in an early ‘80s Playboy magazine I found tucked away in my dad’s filing cabinet. It was there that I learned the core tenets of the franchise: beautiful women, fast cars, high-tech gadgets, globe-trotting espionage and expensive taste. According to Playboy, I was supposed to emulate this man. I was supposed to ask, What Would James Bond Do?

Fast forward to last year, when I realized that I’d made it to my mid-30s without ever seeing a single Bond movie besides 1995’s GoldenEye.

I took a cold, hard look around my life, and I saw no tuxedos, no gizmos, no license to kill and no martinis. I didn’t even own a car, let alone one with a rocket launcher hidden in the trunk, but I had a bunch of remastered Blu-rays and a lot of free time.

Now, with a new Bond film, Spectre, in theaters, I knew I had only one course of action: watch every James Bond movie in chronological order.

From 1962 with love

The series starts strong with the hard-nosed Bond of Dr. No and realpolitik espionage of 1962’s From Russia With Love. But with Goldfinger, released a year later, something happened—they established The Formula: a rigid set of rules that would constrain the next 17 movies. It forces each film to adhere to a strict recipe, demanding that each benchmark must be hit. Playful banter with unspoiled secretary Miss Moneypenny? Check. A visit from gadget-master Q? Check. Super-specific gizmos that inevitably prove to be useful in a situation that no reasonable person could have predicted yet are still referred to as “standard-issue”? Check. Many of these films end with a scene where M and a bunch of military leaders watch Bond have sex. Make of that what you will.

After Roger Moore’s first entry, 1973’s excellent Live and Let Die, the series quickly devolves into nonsense, with the producers’ apathy and outright contempt for their viewers coming into sharper focus with each passing film. For example, the bad guys in Thunderball (1965), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) all have the same exact same evil plot, which basically boils down to “Use a giant submarine/boat/space shuttle to capture regular-sized submarines/boats/space shuttles, then create a new world order somehow.”

Sean Connery is turning Japanese in <i>You Only Live Twice</i>: only about the 4th or 5th most racist thing Bond has ever done.

Toss in the fact that Moonraker was rushed into production to capitalize on Star Wars mania (a worthy goal, yet one that they failed at spectacularly), and you start to get the feeling that quality control was slipping. At one point, I became convinced that the producers and writers of these films actively hated me, and were taunting me from just beyond the screen.

“Hey kid, what if I told you that The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) stars Christopher Lee as a deadly circus-trained assassin? Cool, right? Well, the fun doesn’t stop there—turns out he’s got a third nipple!”

Somebody please do it better

I did not care for Roger Moore’s time in the tux. I’d been moving through the series at a swift pace—about two Bonds a week—until Moonraker stopped me dead in my tracks. When I started back up two months later, it seemed as if any vitality the series possessed had now congealed into a thick, campy sap from which neither fun nor excitement could escape.

What Would James Bond Do? In Moonraker, he’d drive a gondola-car through the streets of Venice, eliciting double-takes from tourists, a drunk and, tragically, a pigeon.

The complicated sexual politics of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to the complicated geopolitics of the ’80s, with Timothy Dalton teaming up with the Afghani mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in The Living Daylights (1987), and infiltrating the inner circle of a Latin American drug lord in the satisfyingly violent Licence to Kill (1989). Only the former really feels like a Bond movie, with the latter coming off more like a straight-ahead ’80s action movie that takes full advantage of its PG-13 rating (surely the most limbs ripped off by sharks and machinery of any Bond film).

Next came Pierce Brosnan, whose tenure as Bond was hotly anticipated by those who found Dalton’s grim take on Bond off-putting. Why, people must have asked, isn’t this secret agent eating more caviar? Turns out Brosnan was the right man for the job—1995’s GoldenEye was 10 times the film I remembered, crackling with modern action and crisp editing. The film received a lot of attention for its self-aware tone, going out of its way to point out that Bond is, in the words of MI6 director M, “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” Of course, the film also stars Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp (UGHHHHH), as assassin who derives sexual pleasure from crushing men with her powerful thighs.

So, Bond the character is a sexist, misogynist dinosaur—not the writers and producers of this film. Got it.

This was also the era of Austin Powers, which satirized the series’ more fantastical elements and tropes, like Blofeld’s descent from malevolent criminal mastermind into “some guy in a wheelchair and a Nehru jacket,” or Bond’s probable patient-zero status for more than a few STDs.

What Would James Bond Do? He’d have unprotected sex and then jump on a plane.

Brosnan’s Bond was done in, however, not by a murderous shark or medieval torture device, but by The Formula. His slide into Roger Moore-style campiness is almost unbearable to watch.

By the time Denise Richards shows up in The World Is Not Enough to help him fight a terrorist whose superpower is an inability to feel pain—I remember that plot point because they referred to it about a thousand times—I was begging for mercy.

Denise Richards as Christmas Jones in <i>The World Is Not Enough</i>. Sample dialogue: “The world’s greatest terrorist running around with six kilos of weapons-grade plutonium can’t be good. I gotta get it back, or someone’s gonna have my ass!”

Fortunately, relief arrived in the form of Daniel Craig. Here, finally, was my Bond, a 5-foot-10-inch murder machine cut from the same cloth as Timothy Dalton but with better editing, writing and music. When he runs through a whole slab of drywall in 2006’s Casino Royale’s intense opening chase scene, I knew that I was feeling the same elation that young men before me had felt when Sean Connery wrestled a shark in Thunderball. There is no doubt in my mind that this man could kick Jason Bourne’s ass with one hand tied behind his back.

What Would James Bond Do? In Skyfall (2012), he’d take a sniper’s bullet if it meant getting his man.

Never let them see you bleed

Fifty-five hours of viewing time, 376 dead henchmen and 51 women bedded later, I find myself actually looking forward to the release of a Bond film for the first time. My hopes are high for the 24th film in the series, Spectre, featuring Christoph Waltz as a character rumored to be Blofeld, and Monica Bellucci as the first age-appropriate Bond love interest in, well, ever.

The film finds Daniel Craig and his legacy at a turning point: will he remain a dead-eyed killer, or will the gradual reintroduction of elements from The Formula (Q, Moneypenny, etc.) drag him down to the same fate as Connery, Moore and Brosnan?

In 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, Q retires, but not before imparting a bit of wisdom to Bond: “Never let them see you bleed.”

It’s more than a poignant line for Q to go out on, it’s the moral of the entire series and Bond’s mystical superpower: just be cool. It’s the thing that’s made him such a resilient cultural figure—it doesn’t matter whether he’s playing baccarat, riding a motorcycle down a bobsled track or saving the world, nothing ever seems new to him. When he walks into a room and there’s some guy with an eye patch or a robot hand behind a table and he says, “Ah, Mr. Bond, I’ve been expecting you,” the camera cuts to Bond and he’s got a look on his face like, damn right you’ve been expecting me. It’s that confidence that captures our attention, because we all want to believe that when the going gets tough, we’ll be able to stay calm and save the day.