With the James Bond adventure No Time to Die delayed by the pandemic, lifelong 007 aficionados Ethan Vestby, Will Sloan, and Randy have passed the lockdown months by reacquainting themselves with Bond’s 59-year screen history. In this roundtable discussion, they compare notes on their re-immersion in all things Bond. Who is the best Bond? Do the classics hold up? Is there a place for her majesty’s secret servant in our modern world?
with Ethan Vestby, Will Sloan, & Randy
Ethan: What were everyone’s first memories of the Bond series? My first trip to see one in a theatre was Die Another Day, but being Scottish on my mother’s side, the Connery ones loomed large. My grandmother had Goldfinger on VHS at her apartment in Winnipeg, so that was the first one I saw. This was before there was a plethora of superhero movies, so as a child I mostly had the relatively grown-up James Bond adventures.
Randy: I learned everything I know about sex from the James Bond movies.
Will: That reminds me of seeing Teri Hatcher’s bare back in Tomorrow Never Dies, which was probably the most erotic image I had ever seen at age 8.
R: I remember I was not allowed to see GoldenEye—I would have been six or seven at the time—but I think my parents bought Goldfinger on VHS and I watched that a lot. During the Brosnan era, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough were big family events, and I was still really into it when Die Another Day came out. I wore out the VHS copies of Goldfinger and Thunderball, and I had taped copies of Octopussy and A View to a Kill from TBS – those were my two big Roger Moore ones.
W: Goldfinger was the first one I saw because my dad said it was the best one. I remember the tape opened with a commercial for the whole James Bond series on video. It opened with a black screen, and the narrator said, “Looking for a little peace and quiet? … We didn’t think so!” Then the Bond theme music started blaring and there were people skiing off cliffs, things blowing up, etcetera. Then I actually watched Goldfinger, and it was incredibly boring to me as an eight-year-old.
The first one I saw theatrically was Tomorrow Never Dies, and I think I loved the Brosnan ones because they were “grown-up” action movies. It was a spy who talked in government lingo, and played poker, and had sex, and drank vodka martinis… all of that was very exciting. I’m sure I didn’t follow the plots of any of them, but the Brosnan ones and some of the Moore ones at least delivered action beats every 20 minutes or so.
R: I’m having trouble following the plots now. They seem, a lot of times, unnecessarily convoluted, or barely alluded to in between action set pieces.
E: And the dialogue scenes are so uninteresting you kinda have to zone out.
W: I find the first hour of all these movies just agonizingly boring.
R: A lot of expositional scenes—like, any time Bond walks into M’s office, and they’re like, “Well, this is your mission, Bond…” and he makes a few quips, but that’s 10 minutes of every movie.
E: As an adult, are there films you feel fondly towards? Going through them again, I personally still enjoy them, but it’s hard to overlook that they’re mostly boring. It’s difficult to imagine how I managed to sit through the Roger Moore ones as a kid.
R: Well, we had fewer options when we were children. Over the holidays I was with my niece and nephew and they were just constantly on their iPads, not even looking up. We didn’t have that—we just had TVs and would watch whatever was on.
W: I do still feel fondly towards the Bond movies, and I think a lot of that is just having been programmed as a child to feel that way. I always get excited when a new one comes out, but it is a small percentage of Bond movies that I actually really like. When I watch them now, I keep thinking about how there was so much popular cinema all over the world that was better. So many of these Bond movies were made when Hong Kong action cinema was at its peak, and you look at Roger Moore pretending to ski down a cliff against rear projection, and then you look at Jackie Chan falling from a clocktower —there’s no comparison. I look at these movies now and their cultural centrality feels to me like western chauvinism.
R: That’s the text and the subtext, really.
W: Yeah, I think it is fair to call these colonialist films…
E: Something I think we can agree on is that this series does have impressive production values. For example, even a truly terrible movie like Diamonds Are Forever, which is probably the worst of the series, is still lit beautifully. Also, probably every entry has at least one impressive stunt. Do you find even watching the worst films in the series that there’s one thing that wows you?
W: I like the scenery in a lot of these movies.
R: Yeah, the travelogue quality is nice. I think that was also a marketing ploy that started with the Moore films—they had to do something that would top the last movie, which kinda reached its apotheosis in Moonraker, in which Bond literally goes to space.
W: There’s a quality control in the franchise that I sorta respect. Even though most of them aren’t very good, they are very dependable. The same company, Eon Productions, has been doing them since 1962 and has enforced such consistency on them, including the glossy sheen and high production values. Even though it limits the franchise in some ways, and perhaps contributes to why so few of them are really good, it is also, paradoxically, one of the reasons I stay loyal.
R: I do want to push back against that a little bit, because it does seem that once they lost Connery there was a period of the series trying to find its footing; there’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with Lazenby, then they got Connery back for one, then the two Roger Moore that followed were tongue-in-cheek movies where he wanders through a blaxploitation plot and a Hong Kong movie plot, then they return to the You Only Live Twice formula of megalomaniacal villains and giant Ken Adams sets. It doesn’t really settle into the formula you think of until For Your Eyes Only.
I think a lot of that was because Bond was something of an anachronism at that point. He was very popular in the ‘60s, but by the ‘70s he was kind of outdated and they had to find a way to comment on that but still embrace it.
E: Yeah, audiences were flocking to Smokey and the Bandit.
W: This is actually one of the things that’s interesting about the series. Even though there is a lot of consistency and quality control, it is also hopping on the trends of the day. For example, Moonraker is a response to Star Wars; Licence to Kill is like a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer film; and Skyfall is obviously a response to Christopher Nolan’s Batman cycle. So, even though there’s a timeless quality to the series in some ways, in other ways each movie looks like an awkward high school yearbook photo.
E: It’s interesting looking at that through the theme songs: A-ha and Duran Duran did songs in the ‘80s after all of these torch-singer themes throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
R: Yeah, all that Shirley Bassey-type stuff. “Live and Let Die” and “Nobody Does It Better” are probably the two best Bond songs.
W: Not “The World is Not Enough” by Garbage?
R: That was a good one for my dad, who said, “They’re called Garbage, you say…?”
E: I don’t know if this is a hot take, but I think the Brosnan ones have better theme songs than the Craig ones.
W: I would agree with that. Better than Sam Smith? Sure.
E: I think it’s interesting to pinpoint the series in the year 1983. Famously, this was the year of the two entries going head to head at the box office: Octopussy with Roger Moore and Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery. This was in the midst of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era, and Never Say Never Again had the opportunity to really separate itself from the Moore films by casting a younger, stronger Bond, to counter 56-year-old Moore. But instead they brought back a slumming Connery. So, is Bond essentially an old-man franchise resistant to change?
W: I think when Never Say Never Again was made, the Connery era was fresher in people’s memories. Now you watch the Connery movies and they all look a little bit dated, particularly with some of the gender stuff. I think the series very plainly has had to evolve over time, particularly in the Brosnan and Craig eras.
R: I just finished watching Octopussy and Never Say Never Again today, and it’s curious to me that even though Roger Moore was older than Connery, age is never a factor in the Moore movies. In Never Say Never Again, Connery is called old—both in terms of his body, and also thematically, he is a dinosaur in a new technocratic era. Q complains about the bureaucracy and budget cuts at MI6. I thought that was kinda funny, because that’s the kind of thematic idea that follows through to the Brosnan movies, and I think to the Craig movies. Is there talk of him being a dinosaur in Spectre?
W: Very much so. Spectre has a character who believes that agents like Bond can be replaced by satellite drones, and M has to make the case that a satellite drone can’t look a man in the eye before he pulls the trigger.
R: One of the things this makes me think about is another of my favourite subjects, which is cultural stasis. We had the same themes in the Bond movies almost 40 years ago that we do now, and I bet that this is going to come up again in No Time to Die.
E: We’d be remiss not to get into what it’s like to watch these films from a 2021 lens. They’re obviously overtly racist and colonial, like in You Only Live Twice when Sean Connery is literally turned into a Japanese man to go undercover. In terms of colonial narratives, Live and Let Die is basically a Caribbean community being massacred to protect a white woman. And then there are the anxieties of the crumbling British Empire represented in the Craig movies. Has watching these films made you think about history in a way you haven’t before? I felt the opening credits of GoldenEye illustrated the End of History with the typical naked Bond women destroying the relics of the just-fallen Soviet Union.
W: In Skyfall there’s that scene where Q gives Bond his gadgets, and the gadgets are very modest. Bond says something like, “Well, it’s not exactly Christmas, is it?” and Q says, “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore.” Skyfall is addressing an audience that knows that shadowy government agencies and “humanitarian intervention” are not to be trusted. The movie is saying: “Actually, you need to trust these things. Yes, they sometimes do bad things, but we live in a bad world. But as penance for the bad we do, we’re no longer giving you invisible cars. It can now no longer be fun, because we now know this stuff isn’t fun. It’s very serious.”
R: Perhaps Skyfall is the capitalist realist version of Bond in which everybody knows that this is bad, and that Bond is probably not a good guy in a real-world sense, but we all have to sort of go on believing in this illusion—except now it’s stripped away of fantasy.
E: So where does the future of the franchise lie? Will they work overtime to put a progressive spin on it? I guess one thing that’s nice about the Craig films is that they have resisted the lame jokes and CGI spectacle of the Marvel films—yet I do realize that, especially in the case of Spectre, they were moving towards serialization. I think this is a bad thing, especially when there are four- or five-year gaps between the movies and you’re expecting Joe-and-Jane-Popcorn to know who Mathieu Amalric’s character from Quantum of Solace was. Do you think the series will have a Marvelization?
R: I don’t want to see that, but it could happen. There’s no other franchise that’s like James Bond, or was like James Bond up until about 20 years ago. Every other franchise would die eventually but Bond would just keep going. I dunno, if I were the Broccolis and I were interested in money, I would probably not think that the best way to make money is to release one movie every five years, which is what they’re doing now.
E: I think Daniel Craig being a sourpuss probably has a big part to do with the gap. And the pandemic.
W: I think that the Bond series will continue following whatever trends and zeitgeists are happening in blockbuster cinema at that moment. Spectre retconned the previous movies into a serialized plot because Marvel had become dominant at that moment. Before that, the Craig movies had already responded to the Bourne and Batman franchises. Marvel’s dominance has been going on for a while now but eventually this will change and something else will come and that’s where Bond will go.
I recently watched Die Another Day again and had a great time with it. I loved how stupid it was and how it leaned into all the most ridiculous parts of the franchise, and I hope eventually the pendulum swings in that direction again.
R: In favour of that idea is, I guess, the fact that we have moved on from the Christopher Nolan style of blockbusters. They are a lot more optimistic and zippier and less dark and gritty.
W: Die Another Day was the last End of History entry of the franchise. It’s the last one where planning would have started before 9/11. It’s the last big explosion from that go-go Clinton era.
R: Do you remember the Halle Berry character Jinx was supposed to get her spin-off?
W: Jinx was one of a long series of Bond Girls who was marketed as “Not the traditional Bond Girl – this is a Bond Girl who can fight for herself!”
R: Including “Dr. Goodhead.” (riotous laughter)
W: I did find Sean Connery a little bit disappointing upon revisiting his movies lately. I think his whole smug, leering sex-pest vibe has dated in recent years. He’s still very charismatic in some of the movies, but it’s hard to still think he’s the epitome of cool. Especially in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever where he’s clearly checked out.
E: My girlfriend watched a couple of the Connery ones with me and she completely agrees.
R: Part of the problem is probably that we’re adults, and he’s kind of an adolescent idea of what’s adult and cool. Knowing the different vintages of Dom Pérignon…
W: “That’s like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
E: Who is everyone’s favourite Bond?
R: Y’know, you guys have been bagging on Roger Moore in the group chat…
E: I like Moore!
R: I found his movies a lot more entertaining than Connery’s, to be honest. Moore’s eyebrows do a lot of work.
W: Too much, I would say.
R: It gets much less charming as it goes along, because he’s only really an appropriate age to play Bond in his first two movies. After that he’s clearly much too old, definitely dyeing his hair. His jawline disappears around The Spy Who Loved Me and it never comes back.
W: What’s funny is, Roger Moore is probably as old in those movies as Robert Downey Jr. is now, but stars were not yet expected to keep it tight. My favourite Bond? My head says Daniel Craig, as do most parts of me, but there’s a part of my heart that will always belong to Pierce Brosnan, who always makes me the happiest when I see him.
E: Yeah, the thing that’s nice about Brosnan is that I think he’s the only James Bond who really smiles. Every other one kinda smirks, but he actually has a full-on grin. It’s also interesting how he began his four-film run as the most svelte Bond and ended it as the heaviest.
W: Yes, even after Bond was supposed to have spent 14 months in a North Korean prison camp being tortured and starved every day. He walks into that hotel lobby with his shirt unbuttoned looking like a dad. Actually, I’m feeling increasingly comfortable calling Brosnan my favourite Bond. I just like him on screen, and isn’t that what a star is?
E: I think my heart does lie with Pierce Brosnan too, who just puts you in a good mood. Even in GoldenEye, which I think was a disappointing rewatch, a little too grey he brought the good vibes. I think that’s ultimately what you do want from James Bond.