Editor's Note: Before "Quantum of Solace" finally hit the theaters, we asked two of our critics — Beau DeMayo and Stephen Bell — to go into Total Bond Immersion. After all, there have been six Bonds (yes, six!) in this film franchise history. The mission given to Beau and Stephen was to decide who really does (or did) do it better. To level the playing field, they've taken these half-dozen Bonds back to their first missions. That's the Smack: who did it better the first time around?
The Smackdown. (Beau DeMayo & Stephen Bell) It's a name that has ignited decades of debate. A name spanning generations. A name that carries with it danger, sex, and a billion-dollar franchise. And, no, we're not talking about James T. Kirk. The name we have in mind: "Bond, James Bond." Whenever another actor assumes the role of the world's greatest spy, the question is asked — who is the best?
Dr. No. Sean Connery is often presumed to be the best James Bond. It helps that he is also the first actor who received the chance to define the character for audiences, and carries with him a certain nostalgia. In Dr. No, Connery's Bond investigates the death of a fellow MI-6 agent. Along the way, he meets the very first Bond girl, fights a mechanical dragon, and squares off against the steel-wristed Julius No and his army of candy-colored bubble soldiers (seriously). Despite its more fantastical elements, Dr. No's pulpy hard-boiled feel and Connery's dry, hyper-sexualized Bond set the standard for what would become cinema's longest and most profitable franchise.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Who is George Lazenby? A common question. Faced with the daunting task of filling in Connery's polished loafers, Lazenby finds a lucky comfort in what is essentially a new take on the Bond Connery had established over his first five films. In OHMSS, Lazenby's Bond abandons the pulp and fantasy of previous films and focuses instead on a misogynist spy who finds himself capable of settling down — albeit with a crime lord's daughter. However, all is not love and Louis Armstrong for Lazenby's layman Bond as arch-nemesis Blofeld returns with an army of hypnotized sex kittens, manipulated into unknowingly wrecking the world's economy. The film has the touch of a serious filmmaker, whose gorgeous cinematography and sharp editing highlights what is essentially the Winter Olympics of Bond films.
Live and Let Die. A gentle, slightly-aged Bond, Roger Moore brings a certain bored charm, a detached sense of superiority, to Double-O Seven's repertoire. Highly groomed and witty, Moore's Bond debuts in a plot similar to Connery's debut: Double-O Seven investigates the mysterious murders of fellow MI-6 agents. Ambling through a disjointed and campy plot, Moore matches wits with Mr. Big and his alarmingly-stereotyped army of superstitious black men dedicated to monopolizing America's drug trade. Moore also gets a chance to court a tarot-card-wielding Jane Seymour, whom Stephen refers to as, "a super, super sexy young Dr. Quinn." Who knew? Apparently, she did. She can read the future.
The Living Daylights. By the end of Moore's run, Bond had swapped his License to Kill for a License to Social Security. The franchise had reached a low-point, having already exhausted Bond creator Ian Fleming's original novels. Enter Timothy Dalton, a darker and somber Bond who finds himself embroiled in an international conspiracy after assisting in the defection of a KGB officer. A low-key thriller with no over-the-top villains or schemes, The Living Daylights suited Dalton's toned-down and funless Bond.
Goldeneye. Stephen perks up whenever we mention this movie. There's a reason. Pierce Brosnan jumps into Bond by bungee-jumping into a Soviet arms factory. With the Cold War done and over, Brosnan's Bond enters the modern era with an assertive female spymaster in Judi Dench, a treacherous Double-O agent, and a plot to sabotage the Western world's credit system. An unofficial reboot in both tone and style, Goldeneye offered Brosnan a clean foundation on which to build his confident, charismatic, well-acted, non-smoking Bond.
Casino Royale. Casino Royale relaunched the Bond franchise, taking the story back to the very first of Ian Fleming's novels. Daniel Craig inherits the Bond mantle, portraying the newly christened Double-O as an unsophisticated, brutal force that often times acts more instinctively than wisely. In Casino Royale, Craig's arrogant and untested Bond battles Le Chiffre, accountant-extraordinaire for a mysterious terrorist organization operating well beyond the reach of MI-6. Like OHMSS, this film showcases a vulnerable Bond who grows through tragic love.
The Scorecard. We both found Roger Moore's first turn as Bond a startling disappointment, instantly placing him sixth place.
Easily the weakest of the bunch, Moore's Bond is aloof one-note jokester who seems unable to have any emotional involvement with the insane, fantastical world erupting around him. Moore is often too stoic to convey the necessary danger or peril that is a franchise mainstay. What also impairs Moore's Bond is the outrageously racist overtones of the movie, which perhaps account for Moore's somewhat dead-eyed acting. An African-American on screen is an immediate red flag, it doesn't hel that the blacks depicted in the film fall into two categories: barbarically superstitious or absurdly criminal. Moore's ability to engage in physical action is hampered by his stiff, tightly-wound composure. Often times, we couldn't tell if Moore's Bond was unable or just too bored to fight. Stephen felt the entire movie seemed unable to sustain interest in itself, devolving into poorly-executed boat chase sequences that acted to showcase the bumblings of an inept, red-neck sheriff. Sadly, this good old boy's ten minutes of over-the-top, "tarnation" outbursts show carry emotional range than the entirety of Moore's two-hour sleepwalk. Plus, Moore also sports the most ridiculous outfit as Bond in one sequence, a chalk blue Village People get-up that makes his attraction to any woman a tad unbelievable.
We split on the fifth place choice. Beau felt that Timothy Dalton's efforts as Bond were admirable; his darker and more somber take hearkened back to that of George Lazenby. Nevertheless, Dalton seemed immensely uncomfortable with the lighter side of Bond, everything from his sexual antics to parting jokes seemed a tad strained. Stephen, however, felt that while George Lazenby was admirable as an unknown stepping into the shadow of Sean Connery, his everyman approach to the super spy only held water due to the skilled editing and cinematography. Unable to truly capture the sophistication that is inherent to the Bond persona, Lazenby inexperience as an actor becomes evident when he's forced to walk in high-class social circles or square-off against criminal masterminds. Simply put, for Stephen, Lazenby can't sell the world of Bond. We'll give this one to him.
So, so far, we have Moore in sixth place, Lazenby in fifth, and Dalton in fourth.
Now on to the heavyweights. None of these choices are easy to pick from, despite whatever nostalgia might make Sean Connery the presumed winner. Sean Connery's Bond is calm and collected, a suave hard-boiled razor whose sexuality hides an all-business attitude. We both felt that Connery's quintessential take on Bond is evident when he confronts the Professor Dent, awaiting the corrupt geologist as he plays solitaire beside his Walther PP7. After Dent fails to kill Bond, Double-O Seven quickly dispatches Dent with an eerie ease.
Pierce Brosnan's Bond ups the charisma and combines it with a certain cavalier attitude. Brosnan's Bond is also very well-acted, with the opening scene of Goldeneye showing a Bond that is both amused, scared, angered, and eventually pained in believable ways. Unlike Connery, Brosnan is introduced as a commando in black fatigues sprinting along a dam before bungee-jumping off. Moments later, Brosnan watches as his partner is brutally murdered. On the run, Brosnan commandeers a motorcycle, drives off a cliff, and free-falls into a plummeting airplane which he manages to gain control of and fly to safety. Ever the action hero, Brosnan contains this physicality inside the same charm that Connery mastered, making his Bond an unique combination of new school and old school machismo.
Then there is Daniel Craig, perhaps the most atypical Bond. We both feel that Craig's Bond is much more a blunt instrument, pointed by Judi Dench's M at whatever particular problem troubles Her Majesty. Casino Royale's Madagascar chase sequence defines Craig's Bond — a straight-forward assassin who combats an acrobatic, agile foe with bulldozers and blunt force. Yet, Craig translates this brutality into an emotional brashness and arrogance, which serves to round out a more complex, troubled Bond. Surprisingly, Craig also is able to act the sophisticated spy in a way that draws tension between his brutality and the world of espionage's elegance. Unlike Connery of Brosnan who just so happen to possess qualities that will benefit them in their mission, Craig is much more the chameleon who adapts to whatever situation he encounters — but always with a cruel disdain. Craig's Bond also sells his tortured love with Vesper Lynd, revealing a vulnerability to his character.
This was a close call. Brosnan has to take third place. While his Bond ushered in a modern take on the character, it nevertheless relies on the unforgiving charisma that Sean Connery had already mastered in Dr. No. Brosnan's Bond relies heavily on action sequences, having abandoned the hard-boiled aspects that allowed Connery to move slowly through a suspenseful thriller. Daniel Craig trumps Brosnan due to the simple fact of character growth. While both are skilled actors, Craig sells a complex and troubling transformation whereas Brosnan's character treads familiar, if updated, ground.
This leaves us with Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, two radically different Bonds. Sean Connery captures a hard-boiled detective/spy who is both charming and suave. He strolls through a world of danger and intrigue with a businessman's grace. However, Connery's Bond is largely a servant to the plot and situation. This is why Connery so easily established the Bond Formula to film. Connery has no vested interest in Dr. No's plans outside of a professional obligation. This caps the emotional range Connery can exploit in his Bond, and leaves him a rather static, if lovable, character.
Daniel Craig's Bond is a ruthless assassin first and foremost. Stephen feels he does retain a modern hard-boiled feel. Beau, on the other hand, is not entirely convinced this is so much hard-boiled as it is anti-hero — since typically hard-boiled characters do not change. However, we both agree that Craig's Bond is easily the most complex, a clashing of vulnerability, arrogance, and ruthlessness. Yet somehow, Craig sells that his Bond dislikes — on some level — killing in the first place.
We must concede that Craig is given an opportunity like no other Bond actor by virtue of the story: a chance to build Bond from the ground up, free of continuity and franchise baggage. However, Lazenby had this chance and what happened? An opportunity is not necessarily an advantage unless one knows how to capitalize on it — and this Craig does and more. He pushes Bond into uncharted territory that not only hearkens back to Ian Fleming's original troubled anti-hero but also makes Bond relevant in an international world where moral relativism is the currency of nations.
The Decision. Sixth place is Roger Moore with his bland, one-note Bond. Fifth place is George Lazenby, a noble effort hampered by inexperience. Fourth place is Timothy Dalton, a somber Bond whose hesistancy to have any fun distances him from fans. Third is Pierce Brosnan, the action hero spy who builds upon the groundwork of Connery for a modern audience. Second comes Sean Connery, the first and nearly the best with his self-assured sexuality and charm. Finally, first goes to Daniel Craig, a risky choice that tapped into the raw character of a complex man to show us how a spy named "James Bond" became "Bond."