Bond set the standard for secret agents on screen, and the film franchise has stood the test of time. But don’t jump in just anywhere.
There’s a new James Bond film on the way: No Time to Die. It’s now due to arrive in theaters — yes, theaters — in April 2021, following the latest coronavirus delay. For those of you keeping count, it’s Bond 25 in the canon, another milestone for the pop culture powerhouse. It’s also expected to be the final film for Daniel Craig, the latest embodiment of secret agent 007.
Even if you haven’t ever seen a Bond movie, it’s likely you have something from the 007 franchise stuck in your trivia brain. A man in a tuxedo holding a pistol. Sean Connery’s accent. Roger Moore’s arched eyebrow. Adele’s slinky Skyfall theme. That catchphrase: shaken, not stirred.
And you’re thinking, maybe you should watch one of the movies or even indulge in a Bond binge. Well, here you go: This is your beginner’s guide to Bond, who has long defined a certain type of style and swagger. Or if you’re already a confirmed 007 fan, it’s a chance to weigh in on Connery’s quips, Moore’s merits, Pierce Brosnan’s best or the one-hit wonder that was. Movie fans have strong feelings about who played Bond best (and worst).
The big-screen Bond franchise certainly has staying power. Over the years, six actors have stepped into the role. The movie series got going way back in 1962 with Dr. No, starring Connery, who’s indelibly associated with Bond. That’s well before the Star Wars saga (1977) and even the start of the Star Trek ecosystem (1966).
It was just a month ago that we got the latest, which will mark Craig’s fifth appearance and likely his last. That means we’re in for renewed debate about who should be the next James Bond. Idris Elba? A woman? If you watch even just a few of the Bond movies from the last six decades, you’ll be in good shape to weigh in on that movie-making moment.
Here are two places for you to get started with the iconic spy from MI6. Take your pick: the modern Bond or the original.
Start with: Casino Royalea
Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond is a terrific spy/action movie, period. It’s that heart-poundingly good. But Casino Royale (2006) also did what no previous Bond movie could do: It completely rebooted the franchise, blowing up a formula that many saw as played out, with far-fetched gimmicks and belabored puns, even as it remained a steady box office draw. It’s based on Ian Fleming’s very first Bond novel and gives us Bond very much as he was introduced to the world. It stays true to that original story in many essential ways (not a hallmark of Bond movies in general) while at the same time updating it for modern audiences.
Craig himself delivers all the muscle and menace the character deserves, in keeping with Fleming’s depictions and as measured against Connery, still the standard by which all other Bonds are invariably judged. There’s nothing glib about this Bond, and if he does look good in a tuxedo, you always know there’s a brute inside ready to battle the baddies. You learn right off the bat how he earned his double-0 (license to kill) rating, then it’s off to a spectacular chase and gunfight. That’s just in the first 18 minutes.
High points, too, for a nasty villain in Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, Judy Dench as Bond’s no-nonsense boss M and Eva Green as Bond’s female foil.
Casino Royale also opens the door to the strong series of movies that follow — Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), with No Time to Die waiting in the wings. There’s more than just action here: There’s an arc that leads us deeper into Bond’s past and how it drives him in the here and now.
Start with: From Russia with Love / Goldfinger
This whole franchise got going with Connery, so you can’t go wrong starting there. But for now let’s skip the very first movie, Dr. No. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but the two movies that followed are more definitive — they’re often the top two in lists of the best Bond movies. Pick either of these and you’re getting absolutely top-shelf Connery, the man who defined Bond and who was the heart of the franchise when it exploded into a phenomenon.
From Russia With Love (1963) gives you an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned spy story, with no tech wizardry to speak of and no evil plan to destroy the world. It’s Bond on an intimate scale, a character-driven tale of our spy, the woman sent to seduce him and the assassin (a buff and square-jawed Robert Shaw) assigned to take him down. (It also gives us our first glimpse of Blofeld, the recurring uber-villain.) In the finest Bondian tradition of exotic locales, this one cozies up to Istanbul and takes a memorable ride on the Orient Express. The fight scene in the train compartment is rightfully a classic.
Then along came Goldfinger (1964), the third movie. This one ratcheted things up and pretty much set the splashy tone for all the movies up till Craig arrived — the outlandish plot (set off a nuke to irradiate the gold at Fort Knox), the over-the-top villain and henchman, the Aston Martin DB-5 sports car tricked out with machine guns and ejector seat, the laser with which Goldfinger memorably threatens 007 (“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die”). Plus: One of the greatest theme songs of the series.
Connery is dashing, virile, devilish, supremely confident — everything you’d expect from a modern action hero, in part because he was the template.
I’d recommend getting a handful of Craig and/or Connery movies under your belt before venturing out more widely. Best to watch the Craig installments in sequence, but the Connerys (like the Moores, Daltons and Brosnans) you can watch in any order. Stick with the five Connery films from the 1960s before looking toward his two comeback efforts. The early movies are very much of their time, of course, so while you might chuckle at the quaintness of the tech and the fashions and the cinematography, you may cringe a bit at some of the ethnic depictions and sexual mores.
Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan are the two horses besides Connery and Craig. Moore brought a lighter touch to Bond over the course of seven films throughout the 1970s and halfway into the 1980s. They’re mostly romps, really, never too dark and often veering into the downright silly, with ever more outlandish stunts and situations — he even makes it into space, in 1979’s Moonraker, at the start of the space shuttle era. A good Moore vehicle to start with is For Your Eyes Only (1981), which is one of the more grounded stories from his run.
Brosnan picked up the baton in the mid-1990s and starred in four films. More muscular than the Moore movies, they continued the tradition of ultra-spectacular stunts and groaner puns. It was steady work and enduring box office appeal, if not quite at peak levels. Your best bet: Goldeneye (1995), Brosnan’s first outing.
More in the footnote category are Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby. Dalton made two movies in the late 1980s, and it was a bit of a grim turn. Flip a coin, but hope that it turns up The Living Daylights. For a more intriguing entry, try Lazenby’s one go at it, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the producers’ first stab at casting a different actor as 007. It’s the one in which Bond gets married — to Diana Rigg, no less.
Branching out: The spoofs
Once you’ve seen a few Bonds, especially the ones from the Connery and Moore eras, you’ll have a rich lode of references for the many, many Bond spoofs over the decades.
How powerful a hold has Bond had on the Hollywood imagination? It brought Mike Myers to the peak of his fame with the Austin Powers movies, which got started in 1997 but drew heavily on the ’60s and ’70s Bonds. The first Johnny English movie, with a comically inept Rowan Atkinson, didn’t come till 2003. You’ll find homages to Bond in everything from the Kingsman franchise to the Despicable Me movies (especially the first one) to 2019’s Spies in Disguise, an animated comedy with Will Smith as a tuxedo-wearing, gadget-equipped secret agent (who gets turned into a pigeon).
For a deeper album cut, look out for a pair of movies from the 1960s — Our Man Flint and In Like Flint — in which James Coburn gives a goofy-brilliant turn as a very Bond-like secret agent. That era brought a whole host of TV shows that very entertainingly mined the same soil — The Man From UNCLE, Get Smart, I Spy, The Wild Wild West — and then served as fodder for movie reboots in more recent years.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger got into the game, in the James Cameron-directed True Lies (1994).
Branching out: The books
James Bond got his start in a series of novels by Ian Fleming — 12 of them, plus a smattering of short stories. The first novel, Casino Royale, came out in 1953, less than a decade after the end of World War II, during which Fleming gained first-hand knowledge of spies and spying. It’s worth picking up one or two of the books if only for the comparison with the movies — which diverge anywhere between a little and “lose everything but the title.”
Try Casino Royale for sure, or maybe From Russia With Love (President Kennedy famously was a fan) or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Note: The books are all a lot less flashy than the films, and they’re of a very different era, the last ones having been written by about the time Goldfinger (movie No. 3) was hitting the screen.
Branching out: The documentary
The Hulu original documentary Becoming Bond is a quirky and absolutely fascinating biopic about George Lazenby, who came out of nowhere to become the man who took over for Sean Connery. You get a good look at how On Her Majesty’s Secret Service fits into the franchise, but more than that, a riveting picture of Lazenby himself — through sometimes truly moving reminiscences of a 70-something Lazenby and through re-enactments of his early years that have something of a Drunk History vibe.
The full rundown of the movies
In the official Bond canon — the films made by Eon Productions, starting with Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, and continuing with others in the Broccoli clan — there are 25 films, including the upcoming No Time to Die. Because of licensing issues, there were two other, non-canonical movies, including (confusingly) one starring Connery, for a grand total of 27.
- Dr. No (1962)
- From Russian With Love (1963)
- Goldfinger (1964)
- Thunderball (1965)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- Never Say Never Again (1983) — noncanonical
David Niven, et al.
- Casino Royale (1967) — noncanonical (see below)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Live and Let Die (1973)
- The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- Moonraker (1979)
- For Your Eyes Only (1981)
- Octopussy (1983)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Licence to Kill (1989)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
- The World Is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Casino Royale (2006)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Skyfall (2012)
- Spectre (2015)
- No Time to Die (2020)
The other Casino Royales
There have been three versions of Casino Royale, all radically different. We’ve already gone over the Daniel Craig version, a strong contender for best and most definitive Bond movie ever.
Don’t confuse it with the 1967 version of Casino Royale that’s both a spoof and a god-awful big-budget mess of a movie. It’s an odd blend of Bondian motifs, old-time Hollywood stars and then-trendy psychedelia. The plot, such as it is, involves trying to fool the bad guys with a number of different people claiming to be James Bond, including David Niven (the real Bond), Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and former “Bond Girl” Ursula Andress.
Then there’s the true footnote, and totally not a Bond movie, the 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for an American TV anthology series called Climax! It’s a roughly 52-minute episode in which American actor Barry Nelson plays the hero as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond,” an agent for the “Combined Intelligence Agency” whose delivery tends toward watered-down Sam Spade. The highlight: Peter Lorre plays the villain, a sad-eyed and shopworn Le Chiffre.