Here’s what happens when you watch every James Bond film consecutively.
Shaken, not stirred. That’s a little how my brain feels at this moment. Yes, I did the unthinkable — and probably unadvisable — by watching all 25 James Bond films in chronological order over the course of eight days. (Yes, I included the non-canonical Never Say Never Again.)
Why subject myself to this kind of madness? Partially because I’m a glutton for punishment, to which my wife can firmly attest. Partially because I’ve never had a formative experience with any part of the franchise aside from, like most kids my age, the hours upon hours spent playing the classic N64 game GoldenEye. I was watching most of these films for the first time. Partially because you can troll any bookstore, entertainment website or magazine for any number of think-pieces, documentaries and essays about any aspect of the James Bond mythos — including the excellent work my friends and associates have put forth on this very website.
Sure, I’ve seen each film in the series since Die Another Day — a viewing experience still seared into my brain — and I have fond memories of tuning in to SpikeTV’s annual James Bond marathon every Thanksgiving in the early 2000s. But I’ve never had the firsthand familiarity of understanding what makes the exploits of Mr. Bond so enduring and endearing.
Any franchise that has been around for almost 60 years is bound to wear out its welcome at some point, and what has struck me throughout this experience is Bond’s ability to bounce back from failure more often than not. The Roger Moore era may be regarded as the series’ low point in some regards, especially near the end. But even between the undisputed turds that are The Man with the Golden Gun and Moonraker, there’s The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the better entries in the entire series and one of my personal favorites.
James Bond may be the most malleable protagonist in film history, which makes each entry so subjective: Until the Daniel Craig films, the beginning of each new installment essentially resets with little to no continuity or lasting stakes about which to worry. If you were to poll 1,000 people to give their top-10, or even top-five James Bond films, you would likely get 1,000 different permutations. The same could be said for the public’s favorite actor to embody the iconic role. You may love the rugged charm of Sean Connery. You may love the smug assuredness of Moore. You may prefer Timothy Dalton’s dark side or Pierce Brosnan’s high-class suaveness or Daniel Craig’s brooding physicality. George Lazenby, while fun in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, wasn’t around long enough to really make Bond his own. Nobody would fault your choice.
The Bond series initially grew and leaned heavily on Cold War paranoia, and it was striking to see how many plot points revolved around those fears of global superpowers teetering on the brink of annihilation. More and more frequently, Bond finds himself fighting against an eccentric madman whose Evil Plan™ involves setting off some superweapon (usually a nuclear bomb) that will provoke the Russians and the Western allies into an all-out war. Even Tomorrow Never Dies recycles this plan well after the Cold War had ended. Regardless, for as much mockery as the series’ villains receive for goals of world domination or destruction, the root of their cause is most frequently to sow chaos, to put it simply.
Fun fact: The longest hiatus between Bond films was from 1989’s Licence to Kill to 1995’s GoldenEye. Sure, part of that hiatus was due to casting a new Bond — Pierce Brosnan would eventually replace Timothy Dalton — and the development of a script. But is it any coincidence that the Cold War also ended in the intervening years?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets some flak for being formulaic, but those films are Hitchcockian in their complexities compared to most of the Bond franchise. See one Bond film, and you essentially know how the rest of them will play out. The two Dalton films (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) begin to introduce new elements, but those mostly stick to the same formula, too. Even the Craig series, which has rightfully been praised for giving the character of James Bond new depth and insight, still manages to tick off almost every box for which the series is known. Plenty of bullets, overly confident and hospitable villains, girls with plunging necklines, chilled Bollinger, badly dubbed audio of girls with vaguely European accents, visually stunning opening-credits sequences, groan-inducing quips, explosions (lots of explosions) and, for some strange reason, skiing. These are only a handful of hallmarks in the James Bond franchise, and no era or reincarnation is immune to them.
Although it’s easy to say that the Bond films have been influenced by the changing landscape of action films and popular culture at large, I remain optimistic that those days are over now. Audiences are demanding more auteur-driven work from their big-budget franchises, which is partially how the studio managed to rein in the likes of Sam Mendes and Cary Joji Fukunaga. Plus, the argument of other films influencing Bond’s style doesn’t hold much weight. Not only are many of the early films based on Ian Fleming’s novels, but surely there are innumerable films and franchises that owe an even larger debt of gratitude to Bond — if not in style, then definitely in sensibilities. To name just a few, that includes Mission: Impossible, Get Smart and the Jason Bourne films. Surely none of these franchises would exist in a world without James Bond.
So how do I feel about the series now that I’ve essentially gone through it, exposure-therapy style? I thought I knew for sure going into it how I would feel when I was done — desensitized and numb, eager to never hear that iconic John Barry score again. But I don’t think that’s what’s happened. Sure, I may have lost a brain cell or two in the process. Those Moore films really felt like they would never end. But I came out of it with a deeper appreciation for what makes a worthwhile Bond adventure.
Some films distinguish themselves by their villains or sometimes their henchmen (Goldfinger, Moonraker, Skyfall), some by their gadgets or stunts (Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice or the car flip in The Man With The Golden Gun), and some by the leading women (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore or Jane Seymour as Solitaire). But some I’ve almost completely glossed over on even now, less than a week after watching. Seriously, put a Walther PPK to my head and ask me to describe anything from For Your Eyes Only or Diamonds Are Forever, and you might as well just pull the trigger.
Your mileage on the James Bond films probably depends on how much lowbrow camp you can tolerate, a factor that came to define the series throughout the first half of its run. As Roger Ebert put it in his Quantum of Solace review: “James Bond is not an action hero! … He exists for the foreplay and the cigarette.” While those statements may sound a bit reductive at first, there is a kernel of truth at their heart. After all, audiences can find spy thrillers or action heroics in multiplexes without searching too hard, so why turn to James Bond to scratch that itch? Again, the imitators and wannabes came out in droves after the massive success of the early Bond films.
To put it simply, there’s just nothing like the real thing. Bond’s incredible world-building mixed with its inventiveness and ability to satisfy are only part of what has helped it to last for 59 years, with no end in sight. No other protagonist has the right balance of bravado, machismo and sex appeal as James Bond, which only becomes more evident when consumed in such large quantities. And that’s part of what makes Bond so malleable. The monolithically perfect version of James Bond doesn’t exist. He’s truly a man for all seasons. Whether you’re looking for a sex machine or a spy extraordinaire or, yes, an action hero, the right Bond film is out there just waiting to be discovered. Just don’t do it all at once, or you may not remember one from the other.
Seriously, though, why is there so much skiing???