Who’s the best James Bond? This will be a debate that will be had until the end of time. It doesn’t matter if Eon Productions is long out of business, or if anonymous authors stop putting out semi-authorised 007 adventures, or if cinema itself has become a figment of the past — someone, somewhere, somehow will still be making the argument for Timothy Dalton as the most authentic Bond.
Really, your favourite Bond will ultimately come down to a number of qualities. Do you like your pasty white British spies goofy or steely? Did you read Ian Flemming’s books, and do you require a characterisation that fits that version of Bond well? What are your feelings about hairpieces? As is the case with most facets of life, saying your favourite Bond ultimately says something about you as a person as well.
Today, we’re looking at each of the six James Bond’s that have graced theatres over the past 60 years and deciding which of their respective capers and adventures were the best. Each Bond brought a different sensibility to the character, and each film varies in quality. The best Bond performance from an actor might not be in the best film they’ve starred in as 007. Today we’re looking strictly at films as a whole, not just the actor’s performance as James Bond.
Also, to anyone who might be a stickler for details, we’re not including David Niven’s turn as 007 in the non-Eon produced spoof Casino Royale. Niven’s characterisation is broad and humourous, fitting with the campy and psychedelic tone of both the film and the times. Niven would likely have made a great Bond had the films began shooting a decade earlier, but his purposefully hammy performance doesn’t feel appropriate to compare to the more serious turns from the Eon Bonds.
Below, we’ve got the best film from every James Bond actor to help you make your choice.
The best film from every James Bond actor
Sean Connery — Goldfinger
From the very first shots of Dr. No, Sean Connery fully embodied the character of James Bond as it was introduced to a large swath of individuals. Connery remains “the true James Bond” to those who both grew up with him and appreciate his films over some of the bigger, campier, sillier, or more serious films and actors that would follow. Everything has to start somewhere, and Connery immediately projected the best of James Bond.
But there was still room for the films themselves to grow. Going back and watching both Dr. No and From Russia with Love reveals choppy editing, questionable musical choices, and bizarre plot pacing. It was only when the cast and crew hit their third Bond feature, Goldfinger, that everything clicked.
Goldfinger is probably the first 007 film that anyone should see. It has a stellar performance from Connery, a great villain, fantastic gadgets, witty dialogue, a great theme tune, and pretty much every hallmark of the James Bond series that would be replicated for the next 55 years. After half a century, Goldfinger remains an incredibly fun and exciting film, and it very well may be the quintessential Bond adventure.
George Lazenby — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Yes, George Lazenby only has a single Bond film to his name. Halfway through filming, Lazenby decided that he wasn’t interested in continuing with the role and is now mostly a footnote in the extensive universe that is James Bond.
But I will go to bat not only for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as one of the best and most underrated Bond films, but also for Lazenby as an actor. For someone who had no on-screen experience prior to being cast, Lazenby handles himself with a fair amount of grace and skill, plumbing emotion and tragedy from a character more known for stoicism and stiff-upper-lip Britishness. The death of his wife Tracy at the film’s conclusion is acted superbly and had Lazenby chosen to stay, I believe he would have been a celebrated Bond.
The script probably shouldn’t have forced Lazenby to play Bond playing someone else in disguise, and the vocal overdubs are terribly produced, but Diana Rigg’s turn as Tracy di Vicenzo, Telly Savalas turn as Blofeld, the cinematography (especially in the skiing scenes) and fourth wall breaking in-jokes all make On Her Majesties Secret Service a really enjoyable film from start to end.
Roger Moore — The Spy Who Loved Me
I’ve ummed and ahhed over what film to put here. I happen to really enjoy Roger Moore’s take on Bond — slightly less serious, suaver, a bit goofier. But his films do suffer from a campiness and looseness that hinders the overall quality, and some of his outings including A View to a Kill and The Man with the Golden Gun, are truly bottom-tier Bond films.
Still, there are a lot of Moore films that are highly entertaining and even fairly well-acted. Live and Let Die is silly ’70s blaxploitation fun, Octopussy is a surprisingly captivating spy thriller (despite the whole “Bond dressed up like a clown” angle), and For Your Eyes Only lets Moore bring more palpable emotion to the role.
But when it comes to his best, there’s no competition: The Spy Who Loved Me is a top-tier Bond film. Pairing Moore with Barbara Bach lets him finally have a Bond girl who plays as his equal, Richard Kiel makes his iconic debut as Jaws, the action set pieces and car chases are phenomenally executed, and the film just flies by before you realise two hours is up. Bond films can often drag but The Spy Who Loved Me could have gone on for another hour and a half because it’s that captivating and that compelling.
Timothy Dalton — License to Kill
Timothy Dalton, in my professional opinion, got absolutely shafted when it comes to James Bond. Dalton was a necessary addition after Moore aged out of the role, and he did diligent research to bring a far more faithful version of Ian Flemming’s Bond to the big screen. No Connery smirks or Moore zingers for Dalton, as this would be the steely, stoic, always facing death 007 that the world needed.
Unfortunately, no one else listened, because pretty much everyone else working on Dalton’s first Bond film, The Living Daylights, signed on thinking it was going to be another Roger Moore Bond film. Whenever Dalton is forced to drop a hammy one-liner, you can feel the cognitive dissonance emanating from the screen. It would take one more film for Bond to be tailored to Dalton’s talents.
License to Kill is a major improvement, not just because the filmmakers played into Dalton’s intensity and edge, but also because the film was written and paced better as well. The silly elements of Bond are still there, but with killer action scenes and a go-for-broke sensibility, it really did feel like Dalton was just getting comfortable as 007 when poor business decisions and legal wrangles forced him to leave before the next film was produced.
Pierce Brosnan — GoldenEye
After a six-year hiatus, during which Timothy Dalton left the central role and producer Cubby Broccoli stepped down from his leadership position at Eon Productions, there was never a better time to call for the funeral of cinematic James Bond than 1995. It would take a stellar film to resurrect the world of 007 and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the modern-day.
The perfect man to do it, it turns out, was Pierce Brosnan. Able to channel the swagger, charm, slight goofiness, and menacing edge that James Bond requires, Brosnan was perhaps the one and only actor who could have saved the Bond films from the brink of death. It didn’t hurt that the film that he broke through with, GoldenEye, was fantastic as well.
Filled with highly entertaining villains, including a great turn from Sean Bean, some captivating action, and an embrace of the end of the Cold War, GoldenEye is a breathless and eternally rewatchable adventure that would signal a turn to a newly bombastic ’90s cinematic Bond. There would be diminishing returns from here, but for Brosnan and Eon, it was pitch-perfect from their very first film.
Daniel Craig — Skyfall
Daniel Craig’s era of Bond is truly strange to me. To say that he has starred in two of the greatest 007 adventures of all time is not at all a controversial opinion, and my only trouble was in picking which one would come out on top. But just as well, Craig has starred in two of the worst Bond movies, Quantum of Solace and Spectre, that really drag the franchise down (I’m excited to see which side No Time To Die will tilt his overall track record towards).
But it’s worth saying again that both Casino Royale and Skyfall are two of the best Bond films of all time. Both have the best action of any 007 films up to this point, with the more broken and haggard version of Bond played by Craig actually working wonders for these two outings. He’s flawed and old and doesn’t always win, but it always still feels like you’re watching James Bond, the world’s greatest secret agent. Every Craig Bond film walks a tightrope due to its more serious tone, but for these two films, it really works.
Skyfall, just in my personal taste, is slightly more entertaining than Casino Royale. The free-running scene, the poker scene, and the torture scenes in Casino Royale are all better than the best scenes of Skyfall, plus Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva isn’t the best Bond baddie, but as a complete film, Skyfall is superior. Going from Bond’s initial supposed death to his return, the travels through Macau and the Scottish Highlands, the music (that theme!), the pacing, the action, it’s all there.
Skyfall is probably the most crowd-pleasing of all the Bond films, and it has a cohesion and style that lets you watch it multiple times without ever getting sick of it.