Creating a Great Bond Film

10 Jun, 2013 | Film

Originally published June 2013 on the now-defunct

I was disappointed with Skyfall. It’s not a bad movie, if you get past the half-finished visual effects (those Komodo dragons for a start), but it’s not a Bond movie. There was desperation to make it fresh and new, but it didn’t work because they got the basics wrong. I think part of the issue was that they tried to follow The Dark Knight Rises by physically and mentally crippling our hero at the start in order to make his success all the more heroic. It didn’t work because that’s not what we want from a Bond film (I realise the box office says different).

Having disappointed me with two films in a row (Quantum of Solace and now this) I thought it was time I laid down some ground-rules for how to make a great Bond film, while avoiding turning into pastiche (as many of the Brosnan-era films did).

What are the best Bond films?

Perhaps we can learn what makes a great Bond film by looking back at those deemed to be the best, but there’s no definite answer to that. I’ve looked at a number of surveys, both publicly voted and defined by the authors, and no two have the same top 10 in the same order.

Some of the surveys were conducted before Skyfall was released, but I’m inclined to think the more recent films benefit from being better remembered, not necessarily due to quality, but age.

Totaling up the scores, I found the top ten were:

  1. Goldfinger
  2. From Russia with Love
  3. Casino Royale
  4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  5. Dr. No
  6. The Spy Who Loved Me
  7. Thunderball
  8. GoldenEye
  9. Skyfall
  10. You Only Live Twice

Overall, not a bad list (note: if you discount Skyfall, the next was The Living Daylights). There’s quite a nice spread of actors portraying Bond too, though Connery obviously comes out top for number and ranking.

So what can we can learn from them?

It’s all about the villain

As with every superhero movie (and I include Bond in that scope), the villain defines how good it is. Don’t bring the hero down, we want Bond to be the best, to swagger around with self-assurance and dispatch armies of henchmen, he should be super-human. So you need to make sure you match him against a super-villain who is truly threatening.

These are titanic battles between two adversaries far above ordinary people, figures that would have filled myth and legend. We don’t want to give them human frailties unless they’re designed to provide empathy or a crowd-pleasing soft spot (love, for example, works because the hero has a weakness that a gleeful villain can exploit, some sort of PTSD or killer’s remorse, let alone old injuries, diminishes the hero without making him a greater man).

Quantum of Solace suffered because the bad guy (Dominic Greene) was a complete wimp. He was pathetic to the point he never posed a threat to Bond. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre was shown to get physical and that was after he had tried to poison Bond. He was shown to be a threat with no morals or remorse. Greene is also shown to have no morals, no remorse, but he doesn’t offer any threat either, choosing to run rather than fight. It’s not a big issue as long as you have a sufficiently threatening head henchman (think Jaws or Oddjob) to provide that physical threat or he organised suitably threatening situations (e.g. sharks, lasers, etc).

In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva starts off well, with plenty of implied menace, but goes off the boil for me, especially as his end goal is so small, so petty. Motivation is important.

It doesn’t have to be about world domination

While most Bond spoofs have the villain trying to take over the world, very few of his stories feature it. There have been a number of movies with big goals (wiping out civilisation, for example), but many are actually quite small.

Even organisations like SMERSH and SPECTRE, the latter designed purely to profit from crime, were usually only after money, via extortion or some other plot. Bond has fought drug runners, greedy capitalists (and communists), ex-spies and business magnates. All seeking wealth or destruction.

The reason the stories have been engaging is because they’ve featured the likes of Blofeld, Drax and Stromberg, who were served by henchmen such as Jaws, Rosa Klebb, Red Grant, Oddjob, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, May Day and Xenia Onatopp. Bond needs big, ambitious villains and lethal henchmen, all to provide the the sensation that his life, and that of many others, really is on the line.

The idea in From Russia With Love is to humiliate Bond (and MI6), while making money by selling back the Lektor, not exactly a huge conspiracy. Goldfinger is all about pushing the price of gold up, while in Thunderball they only want to ransom the nuclear weapons, rather than use them for terrorism. Invariably the stories are about money, usually gained through some audacious plan.

Don’t underestimate the Bond girls

They’re obviously famed for their beauty, but Bond girls also play a significant part in the story, and not just to be saved by our hero. Many save him (Thunderball), or undermine the villain (Goldfinger), or prove to be a plucky sidekick (You Only Live Twice).

Perhaps we should stop thinking of them as eye candy because most of them a prepared to kill or foil the villain and help Bond in some way, often at great personal risk. In fact, much of the character comes from the relationship Bond has with the leading lady, often providing impetus for his actions over and above his duty to Queen and country.

We want gadgets

In Skyfall, Q makes a quip about exploding pens, explaining they don’t go in for that sort of thing any more. Which is fine, and it was getting a bit ridiculous in the pre-Daniel Craig films, but Bond has always had gadgets, it’s been part of the appeal.

The issue is they need to serve the plot, not the other way around, and the filmmakers shouldn’t feel obligated to use them all. They need to take a back seat once they’re introduced, and preferably they need to be tech to help spies, not something anyone can pick up at their local electronics store.

While I appreciate the need to raise financing, we also need to get away from the movies turning into one giant catalog. The films may cost a lot to make, but they also make back a lot of money, way more than the cost of production, so financing should never be an issue (realistically, product placement in these films is about additional profit).

The films have always been forward-looking, with new technologies, but always used to serve his job as a spy.

Locations, fortunes and spies

The Bond films typically feature exotic locations, but many also have wealthy backdrops. To be fair, this has rarely been a problem, but, especially given the current climate, using the angst about the wealthy, especially where riches have been earned or kept unlawfully, could prove fertile ground. Who doesn’t love to hate a rich man with ill-gotten gains?

Failing that, let’s get back to some intrigue. I know that we no longer have Soviet spies as an easy adversary, but there are plenty of intelligence agencies to partner up with or go up against. We want to see into the world of spies as much as anything else. Agents, or corrupt agents, of (ideally) foreign powers typically provide a potent threat while allowing the audience into a hidden world, a world that usually stays in the shadows.

Get rid of M

007’s management never really play any part in the early films, save for giving him the mission or reprimanding him (thereby upping the stakes) when something goes wrong. Q always had a point in the plot: to tell you about the gadgets. M served a similar function: get the story rolling. Do it and get them out of it, don’t make them a star.

Dial down the cliches, comedy and double entendres

Frankly, Pussy Galore as a name was pushing it in Goldfinger, but some of the ones since have been pathetically over the top. They may raise a smirk and lighten the mood, but they only serve to break the suspension of disbelief.

The inclusion of only one Roger Moore film in the top 10 speaks volumes, his were well-known for their comedy (and he should feel hard done by, Live and Let Die should be in there and I’d certainly rank many of them above more recent films). Only GoldenEye, the least schlocky of the Brosnan films, makes it in, which also says much.

Stop looking back

Certainly when it comes to gadgets and cars, Bond has been at the forefront. This eye on the future adds to the sexiness inherent in the locations and wealthy patrons. Goldfinger’s DB5 was part of that, but we must never hark back to it again (one of the good things in Skyfall was its destruction, hopefully finishing it off). Let’s move on and create new motifs, not rely on old ones.

What that means

I’d conclude that great Bond films rely on the relationships. Primarily the one between Bond and the lead villain, with a Bond girl and a henchmen to add some spice. Any future film, like the great ones of the past, needs to focus on this above all else.

We also want the glamorous scenery, the expensive dressing, the beautiful people, but that’s simply garnish to the core: Bond putting his life on the line to thwart an overly confident and dastardly villain.

Let’s get back to basics on the next one and maybe we’ll end up with a film worthy of carrying the Bond moniker.