At the start of last year, I had seen one James Bond film: No Time to Die, in late 2021. Even though I loved it, I felt like I was missing out on so much context. James Bond felt like a huge black hole in my cinematic knowledge, too big to know where to begin stitching it together. Everyone I know, it seemed, grew up watching Bond movies—and has a particular actor they instinctively consider “their” Bond—leaving me without a model of how to get into Bond in the first place, at least without a time machine. At times, I used my preconceptions about Bond movies as a shield justifying my ignorance: Bond is misogynistic trash, anyway. British imperial propaganda. Cheesy and embarrassing besides.
Seeing No Time to Die with my dad, mostly because it happened to be on, I determined that I needed to get around to watching some James Bond films, misogyny and imperialism be damned. Then, because 2022 marked 60 years since the release of Dr. No, all the Eon-produced James Bond films were re-released in Ireland and the U.K., one each Wednesday.
I watched all of them, from Dr. No to No Time to Die (again). Bond was an unerring fixture of my week for the guts of 2022. And I was amazed by the gulf between what I expected and what I got.
Here is my year of James Bond:
Sean Connery was the original, if, like any right-thinking person, you don’t count the American TV adaptation of Casino Royale. (Which is, to be fair, a useful watch if you want to learn the rules of baccarat, a key knowledge set for watching Dr. No.) Connery’s films had to establish what a Bond film is, practically creating a genre from scratch. Sure, there were the novels to base the scripts on, but the novels didn’t tell you to project your title sequence on a lady’s midriff. Every Bond actor has to distinguish himself, but Connery had to build the character of James Bond on-screen: A psychopath and a (mostly) functioning sex addict. In Dr. No, he causes Jamaican Chernobyl to prevent interference with NASA experiments towards the moon landing. He’s terrible, I love him.
He is, significantly, Scottish. This is in part, I guess, because Connery, like many a Bond to come, couldn’t do an English accent very well, but it adds a wrinkle to the portrayal of the British Empire—a wrinkle that’s endured since. In real life, Connery was a staunch supporter of the Scottish National Party and of Scottish independence. Though it seeks to portray itself as an equal union between its constituent nations, the U.K. is dominated by England, and the south of England in particular. Yet only two Englishmen have played Bond: Roger Moore and Daniel Craig. Four of Connery’s films were directed by Terence Young, an Irishman. In From Russia With Love, the—possibly Irish—villain holds Bond at gunpoint and asks for his “word as an Englishman.” Something complex and inscrutable plays across Connery’s face.
The Connery films also establish the world around Bond: M, his superior; Moneypenny, M’s secretary; Q, head of the technology branch; Felix Leiter, his CIA equivalent, who flirtily tells a scuba-clad Bond in Thunderball that he “makes everything look good.”
All of Connery’s Bond films are good, but Goldfinger is the best—and possibly the best Bond film, period. I love Pussy Galore and her troop of lesbian fighter pilots, and I love that Bond spends basically the whole movie trapped by Goldfinger while MI6 and the CIA assume he’s got it under control and it’s all part of the plan. The rest of Connery’s run is spent trying to recapture that high: They were clearly really excited about Thunderball’s underwater shots, which I can only assume seemed a lot more impressive in 1965.
Mostly, it struck me as absurd—almost unimaginable—that they continued to make Bond films without Sean Connery. The audacity!
When Connery didn’t want to play Bond anymore, Albert R. Broccoli scoured the Commonwealth for a replacement. George Lazenby, a model who had acted in some advertisements, impressed him by going to Sean Connery’s barber, wearing Sean Connery’s uncollected Savile Row suit, and punching a stunt coordinator.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Lazenby’s only outing as 007, should be great. It has every right to be great. Between Connery and Moore’s lothario antics, Lazenby’s Bond falls in love. He weds. And his bride is murdered.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, unfortunately, much too long: The amount of screentime devoted to winter sports is absurd. And though it’s the heftiest dramatic material in a Bond movie so far, that just makes it more the shame that Lazenby is both barely an actor and kind of a vacuum. It’s hard for him to come after a charisma machine like Connery, admittedly, but sometimes when I was watching Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I had to jolt myself and go, “Remember, he’s James Bond now.” He’s an empty suit in a way that Connery’s Bond never was.
He’s great as the bad guy in The Man from Hong Kong (1975) though. Brian Trenchard-Smith forever!
I wanted to take against Roger Moore from the jump. After Connery left, Lazenby made one movie, then they brought Connery back, then he left again, so it’s pretty weird that they decided to continue to make Bond movies. Recasting was a failed experiment—we cannot try again.
But now I am prepared to nail my colors to the mast: Roger Moore is “my” Bond. His films are silly and fun and delightful—full of villains whose plans are “everyone should live underwater” or “I want to repopulate the earth with a race of hotties descended from the people on my spaceship”—even as he carries Lazenby’s grief heavy in his heart. Heavier than it weighed on Lazenby, honestly.
In the pre-title sequence of For Your Eyes Only, he lays flowers on her grave—her headstone is inscribed “We have all the time in the World,” the title of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s Bond song. When Agent XXX mentions his late wife in The Spy Who Loved Me, he cuts her off, bruised. She says he’s sensitive, and he says, “About certain things, yes.”
These glimpses make it feel like Moore is, if not the same man as Lazenby or Connery, a splinter universe version of those men. It reframes his relentless search for pussy as something more than itself: The one woman he loved is dead, so why try to form a meaningful relationship again? It’s too painful.
And yet he does. The Spy Who Loved Me’s opening cuts between James Bond being called into action from the arms of a lover and his Soviet equivalent being called into action from the arms of a lover. But his Soviet equivalent is a woman: It’s the first time the Bond girl feels truly like Bond’s equal, both in their lives and in the story. What plays out from there is, essentially, a screwball comedy, and it’s wondrous. It’s something Connery never could have done.
Moore’s films eventually lurch into self-parody. Remarkably, this isn’t with Moonraker, the one where he goes to space. Moonraker rules. It’s got a whole plotline about Jaws—the metal-toothed giant henchman—getting a tiny girlfriend, and doing a face turn when he realizes that supporting eugenics is probably going to backfire, what with his gigantism and all. But with Octopussy, which already sounds like a porn parody of itself, Moore starts to feel like a dinosaur. The silliness starts to feel more than a little out of control. He’s a relic of a time past, stubbornly refusing to change.
Timothy Dalton had been asked to audition for the lead role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but declined, saying, at 23, he was too young for the role. After Moore’s departure, Broccoli wanted to cast Pierce Brosnan, who was available after NBC cancelled Remington Steele. But the announcement that Brosnan would play Bond caused a ratings surge for Remington Steele. It got renewed, and Brosnan was contractually obliged. And so Dalton—despite, like so many Bond actors, publicly saying he would hate to play Bond—got the role.
A brilliant if short-lived Bond, Dalton’s films went down a much more serious path, which is only natural, given that Moore had reached a level of silliness impossible to maintain. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like an attempt to reset to the Connery era. Instead, The Living Daylights breaks new ground by asking: What if a James Bond movie was just a really solid spy thriller?
It seems like the first route they’d have gone down when it came to making James Bond movies. And yet. Despite James Bond being an MI6 agent, he does precious little spy stuff, generally. He walks into a room and people say, “Mr. Bond, I presume!” Not Dalton: He’s clandestinely gathering information, playing his own cards close to his chest, and doing detective stuff. It’s very Hitchcockian. Much more like what you think of when you think “Cold War spy thriller” than any other Bond movie.
License to Kill, Dalton’s second and final appearance as Bond, is more like a 1980s cop movie. It’s a Shane Black movie with fewer jokes. Bond’s license to kill is revoked, and though you’d think that would cause him to re-evaluate his shoot-first approach to espionage, he, if anything, kills more people. There’s a sense of an ending to it, too, that creates a retrospective tinge of melancholy: It’s the last Bond of the Cold War—released just months before the Berlin Wall fell.
Every Bond’s first film establishes an ethos, an aesthetic, a vibe. GoldenEye does this with one simple idea: What if it was the 1990s? Nearly a decade after Remington Steele’s second and final cancellation, Pierce Brosnan got to be James Bond in a very different world then the one in which he was first cast. Every second of GoldenEye is more ‘90s than the one preceding it, thematically (in its self-reflexive scramble to figure out how James Bond exists after the Cold War) and stylistically (in everything about it). It brought Bond bang up to date in a way that’s extremely dated.
Brosnan is a great Bond, let down by less-than-great films—or certainly, films that steadily decline in quality. Tomorrow Never Dies is a critique of Rupert Murdoch whose specifics feel presciently Facebook/Big Tech-ish. The World Is Not Enough—which is, strangely enough, directed by Michael Apted of all people—has a level of silly puns that gives Moore a run for his money, including the bad guy saying “welcome to my nuclear family” as he loads a nuke.
But Die Another Day is the dumbest movie ever made. The basic machinations of the plot hinge on a North Korean guy getting a DNA transplant to become a white guy who launders blood diamonds. It’s got an invisible car and a second sun. But whereas the silliest Moore films had a wacky, jokey tone, the bone-deep nonsense of Die Another Day just does not have the appeal of a villain wanting everyone to live underwater. They truly had not yet figured out what post-9/11 culture looked like.
Daniel Craig is all the James Bonds. Five decades of lore feed into his collage of trauma and grief and violence and desire, from Brosnan’s M (Judy Dench) to Connery’s Scottish background. Casino Royale is the hardest reboot of the series, but never in a way that cuts him off from the series’ history. He doesn’t have Lazenby’s late wife, but all his films (Casino Royale and No Time to Die especially) are extended appeals to the centrality of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—to Bond’s basic make-up, an attempt to re-run this fixed point in history.
After the absurdity of Die Another Day, the Craig films plunge their fists deep into Bond’s foundational traumas. Craig’s Bond is tortured and guardedly vulnerable. Not a younger Bond, necessarily, but a Bond earlier in his career, a freshly minted double-0 without Connery’s feckless sociopathy or Moore’s Teflon. He is, for the first time, a sexual object: There to be looked at, not just the one doing the looking. He comes out of the sea, his swim trunks clinging to him, and suddenly he’s Ursula Andress.
In Skyfall, Craig’s best film, the series’ history is brought to bear, as Bond’s background is given a partial, fraught excavation. Skyfall sounds so “evil guy’s big weapon in a James Bond movie” that the reveal that it’s Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland, a big house with priest holes underneath, like proper old-timey Catholic aristocracy, made me gasp. Skyfall refuses to give us too many details: “What age were you when they died?” M asks. Bond responds, “You know what age I was.”
Skyfall raises questions not just about what happened to Craig’s Bond after his parents’ death—how close or far he became from the upper class he was born into—but about the backgrounds of all the Bonds: Are they all Scottish, with their accents reflecting where they were shipped off to after their parents deaths? Are they all Catholic, for that matter?
Craig’s films are uneven, alternately some of the best Bond films (Casino Royale, Skyfall, No Time to Die) and some of, if not the worst, then certainly some of the least memorable (Quantum of Solace, Spectre). But he is, as much as Moore, also “my” Bond. The first Bond I ever saw.
After seeing every other Bond film, No Time to Die felt like coming home.
And yet, in another sense, it was the opposite. In this series of films that is constructed to be infinite, No Time to Die is an ending. I knew that going in this time – had seen Bond die, had seen Felix Lighter die, had seen Bond gaze lovingly at his child – but it still hit like a ton of a bricks. Every James Bond film announces in block capitals at the end: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN. So does No Time to Die. But it felt, for the first time, like it came with a little bit of a question mark over it. Even if he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be seeing him next Wednesday. Not unless I got around to watching the 1967 spoof Casino Royale, I guess.
The Future of Bond
I expected James Bond to be a misogynistic, imperialist dinosaur. And he is, sometimes, at least. But nothing in me roared with disgust against him. Partly that’s because, as the series continues, his misogyny mellows into all-purpose bisexual-coded man-sluttery; partly it’s because, from the start, his relationship to the British Empire is made complex and contingent by his—take your pick—Scottish/Welsh/Irish/Australian/Catholic-ness. Over the course of 2022, he started to feel like an old friend. One I had a standing appointment to hang out with, firm enough that my mother knew not to ring me on a Wednesday evening.
They’ll make more James Bond films. They always do. But, if Barbara Broccoli is reading this, allow me one small request: Make the next Bond a silly one.
Watching the James Bond films in relatively short succession—across half of one year instead of 60—brought into sharp focus the way each Bond acts as a reaction to what came before. Craig was a reaction to the silliness of Brosnan, Brosnan a reaction to the seriousness of Dalton, Dalton a reaction to the silliness of Moore. Part of what gives the series its charm is its ability to shift direction at the drop of a hat. Tonal and plot consistency is for newbie losers like the Marvel Cinematic Universe; James Bond can be exactly as consistent or inconsistent as he wants to be. This has given it its longevity: James Bond can be a Cold War romantic melodrama (From Russia with Love) and James Bond can be a Rupert Murdoch satire (Tomorrow Never Dies). James Bond can be a screwball comedy (The Spy Who Loved Me) and James Bond can be an ‘80s cop movie (License to Kill). James Bond can delay production on For Your Eyes Only in order to shamelessly capitalize on the success of Star Wars (Moonraker).
And so: The seriousness of Craig—the first Bond to die—demands a silly Bond in turn. I suggest Dev Patel. He’s funny, charming, charismatic, and looks great in a tuxedo. Yes, he said he doesn’t want to do it, but so did Connery, and Moore, and Dalton, and Craig. (Brosnan did want it.) He specifically said he’d rather do a “comedy version,” and that’s exactly what the times require. I should know—I watched every James Bond film in 2022.
Ciara Moloney is a film and TV critic based in Dublin, who has written for Fangoria, Current Affairs and Crooked Marquee. She is a co-founder of pop culture blog The Sundae, and co-hosts The Sundae Presents podcast. Follow her on Twitter @_ciaramoloney if you enjoy musings on 2000s pop punk. She shares a birthday with Bob Mortimer.