Both as a spy and a film-series brand, James Bond is invincible. The franchise, celebrating its 50th anniversary with this week’s U.S. release of “Skyfall,” is the longest-lived in movie history. Adjusting for inflation, it’s also the most lucrative.
The Bond formula of exotic locales, exquisite women, elegant tailoring and extreme danger has spawned scads of imitators, but it’s outlasted them all through sheer evolutionary agility. The films regained their youth and topicality with each new leading man, from “Dr. No’s” echoes of the Cuban missile crisis to “Skyfall’s” cyber-terrorism. That potent cocktail of old and new enables Bond to span a multitude of periods, locales and adversaries. Jason Bourne, John McClane or Ethan Hunt could never fit as smoothly in 1962 Jamaica and 2012 Shanghai.
Bond’s wide appeal began with Ian Fleming’s Cold War spy novels, which cast his hero as a lethal mix of British gentleman and blunt instrument. Cary Grant was approached to take the role. Fleming was displeased when Sean Connery was cast, calling him “an overdeveloped stunt man.” But as audiences embraced Connery, the novelist was won over. In later books, Fleming even gave 007 a partly Scots ancestry.
In the years since, Bond has matured from a gadget-equipped action figure to a three-dimensional character. M has morphed from Bernard Lee to Judi Dench. The more times change, the more the iconic spy endures. Though his monomaniacal enemies hoped to control the world, it’s Bond who achieved global domination.
Best: Sean Connery and Daniel Craig
Six actors have played Ian Fleming’s lethal spy in the Eon Productions films. The best? It’s a tie between the man who launched the series and the man who rescued it. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig capture Bond’s ruthless cruelty and cold charisma.
Each knows that even an iconic role calls for some actual acting and when the scene calls for it, they get deep in the game. And both men have a potent physical presence. They look as if they could flatten an adversary without help from one of Q’s chloroform-emitting fountain pens.
Fate dealt each actor an advantage in this sweepstakes. Connery established the Bond brand, setting the competitive bar high for those following him. George Lazenby was more athletic, Timothy Dalton brought a classical actor’s dour focus to the part, Pierce Brosnan had the best feel for the devil-may-care humor. But they just weren’t Connery.
Craig’s casting ignited a firestorm of controversy (A blond Bond? Unthinkable!), but his brooding, muscular portrayal proved his critics wrong. His debut, the ambitious series reboot “Casino Royale,” introduced a stripped-down, modern, more thoughtful style to the franchise. Craig plays a spy who feels remorse when colleagues die, who sometimes blinks before he pulls the trigger and struggles with his violent impulses. He’s a Bond who can deliver a crisp right cross and a bruising emotional wallop. And he doesn’t give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred.
Worst: Roger Moore
Roger Moore is the longest-running 007 to date, and the least suited to the role. More lounge lizard than cobra, incompetent in action scenes, Moore faced lightweight, forgettable villains, shifting the films’ tone from drama with a dash of irony to self-mockery. Hard to decide whether Moore’s lowest point was donning a clown disguise in “Octopussy” or his drowsy, Austin Powers-quality sexytime with Grace Jones in “A View to a Kill.”
Best: Auric Goldfinger
He has the best henchman (silent, hat-flinging Oddjob), the coolest methods for snuffing enemies (paint them gold, crush them in a car-smasher), the clearest motivation (simple greed) and the greatest one-liners (“You expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”). German actor Gert Frobe spoke minimal English when he took the part, but his performance is full-bodied, by turns affable and chilling. And his laser-beam vasectomy machine? Sheer genius.
Worst: Ernst Stavro Blofeld
The ultra-diabolical villain of a half-dozen Bond films was overplayed to the hammy hilt by Telly Savalas, Charles Gray and Donald Pleasence. He inspired Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. Having a white pussycat, a Mao jacket and a secret volcano base full of minions in orange jumpsuits is not the same as having a personality.
Best: Honey Ryder
The central image of the original Bond movie isn’t the hero fighting Dr. No, or production designer Ken Adam’s striking, futuristic secret base. It’s surf-drenched Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) striding the Caribbean beach in her white bikini, all lips and stare and a big Bowie knife strapped to her thigh. She set the kiss-kiss-bang-bang template for the series’ women.
They offered more in the way of va-va-voom than coherence or character development, yet through their confidence and comfort with their sexuality, they represented a new kind of female freedom.
Honey was presented as a competent, resourceful, courageous, even dangerous woman, and her look became a classic pop-culture reference. Her appearance at the height of the Playboy era was rather tame, yet in a 2003 British TV opinion poll, it was voted the sexiest moment in screen history. Andress became an instant sensation and went on to become one of the most photographed women of her time.
Worst: Bibi Dahl
In “For Your Eyes Only,” this nymphet skating star (Lynn-Holly Johnson, 22) meets Bond and promptly breaks into his hotel room, showers and offers herself to the irresistible spy (Roger Moore, 54 and looking it). Fortunately, 007 refuses, making Bibi the only girl to be chased out of bed by James Bond.
Best: Aston Martin DB5
The ultimate tricked-out ride. Accessories include rotating license plates, machine guns behind lowering headlights and a passenger ejector seat. The dashboard mapping device predicted modern GPS systems, its rotating tire-slashers inspired the craze for spinny hubcaps, and its ability to lay down a trail of oil and smoke predated the Yugo by 20 years.
Worst: Crocodile mini-submarine
Plenty of competition here. There’s the missile-firing boombox from “The Living Daylights” (“a ghetto blaster,” Q explains). The invisible car from “Die Another Day.” The gondola/ hovercraft in “Moonraker” that elicits a double-take from a nearby pigeon. But nothing tops the croco-boat Bond uses to infiltrate Kamal Khan’s palace in “Octopussy.” Because if you want to escape notice, the best way is to motor up in an inert reptile.