Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Bond, James Bond

Dossier: The James Bond Series

No one knew—nobody, not the stars, not the producers—that when Dr. No hit theater screens in 1962, there would still be an audience for James Bond films fifty years later—and that they would be making more money than ever. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were in it for the short term windfall—they were in the movie business, after all—and never expected the series to last more than ten years.

But the series endured, outlasting the stars, the producers (and distributing movie studios!), the Cold War around which they were based, and every journalist-naysayer who thought it was long since time for the series to cash in its chips and retire for the evening. The only thing that's stayed the same—The Queen and Country.
James Bond must be doing something right.

So did the series creators. They took Fleming's sado-mysoginist bulldog and wrapped him in mink and precious metals. Initial director
Terence Young brought the style, and first "official" Bond, Sean Connery, and he conspired to give Bond his flip humor, something the whole team began utilizing in the second film, From Russia With Love. By the third film, they were trading buzz-saws for laser-beams and the films left the novels' grit behind for immaculate stainless steel villainy. Fleming's "blunt instrument" was all but forgotten in the stunts and vast expanses of chrome.

It only took forty years but somehow the producers and the audience have come together to bring Fleming's Bond to the silver-screen and see it succeed. Dr. No changed Fleming to increase the laughs and entertainment quotient and as long as the movies were in the Swingin' 60's it seemed to work. But once the '60's and the series' Rosetta Stone--Connery--passed, the movies and Fleming parted company to provide audiences with bread, circuses and gadgets-up-the-tailpipe jalopies. When attempts were made to take Bond back to his graying roots--with OHMSS and Licence To Kill--the poor box-office had the producers fleeing back to their bullet-proof tuxedos. But, finally, with an official adaptation of the very first novel, everyone seems to be on the same page...and fortunately it's one written by Ian Fleming.

We look back (in a terse writing short-hand and multi-"0" ratings) at the series, it's fore-bearers, pretenders and cousins, and rate just how many zeroes each has earned. They are grouped by who's in the barrel at the time.
*

Casino Royale (William H. Brown Jr., 1954) This one-hour adaptation for live-television's "Climax!" series starred Barry Nelson as "card-sharp" "Jimmy" Bond (American) taking on LeChiffre played by Peter Lorre. Primitive, a bit ill-timed in execution, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Fleming's story although some liberties had to be taken (Bond's torture: tied up in a bathtub, his toes crushed by pliers (Ah, The Golden Age of Television), Bond never questions his assignment, Vesper lives). A not bad first attempt, but not great, either.
00



Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962) Sean Connery plays James Bond, Joseph Wiseman is Dr. No, Ursula Andress is...impressive. Dubbed, but impressive. Armed with a $1 million budget, Bond comes to the big-screen with a heavy injection of humor, a lot more implied sexual activity than in the novel, and a genuinely nasty streak in violence. Bernard Lee plays Bond boss "M" with a heavy layer of crust. Bond gets his Walther PPK and ends up in a boat with the girl at the end. Connery's rough around the edges with a soft purr to his voice. Director Terence Young has put a lot of grit into the movie, and Peter Hunt's slash-and-burn editing keeps things moving faster than your normal adventure flick. It's also a bit of a send-up of your normal adventure flick--Ken Adam's flamboyant sets being the most obvious evidence of so many tongues in cheeks. The music is laughable except for John Barry's arrangement of "The James Bond Theme" which is used so much it nearly out-wears its welcome. Introduces S.P.E.C.T.R.E., a world-wide terrorism outfit as a stand-in for the Soviet Union (the producers wanted to court it as a market).
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From Russia With Love (Young, 1963) What is Fleming's best novel is given a couple extra surprises mostly in Soviet spies working as double-agents for SPECTRE-chief Blofeld (whose face is not revealed). Casting is top-notch: Lotte Lenya as spy-chief Rosa Klebb, Pedro Armedariz as Our Man in Instanbul, but best of all is Robert Shaw as Grant, assigned to assassinate Bond and discredit him after 007 has been lured to snatch a decoding machine from the Russian embassy. The Shaw/Connery scenes are genuinely tense culminating in a no-holds-barred fight in the close-quarters of a railroad car. Some spectacular stunt work--and a scene where Bond is pursued amidst hill-tops by a grenade-launching helicopter becomes iconic, which is a nod and a wink to Hitchcock. "Q" is introduced. Bond ends up with girl in boat.
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Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) There are still thrills, but an extra coat of polish and humor is given this one, which also improves on Fleming, ditching his caper for one that's a bit more practical and scarier. Connery throws in more comic bits of business and plays it a bit more detached, probably because his Bond is a bit passive in the detecting department. Screenplay carefully sets up bits early on so that no one has to stop for explanations during the later action.  Lots more gadgets. That car. That laser. Oddjob and his lethal derby. That little old lady with the machine-gun. Pussy Galore starts the trend towards eye-rolling names, but its Shirley Eaton who becomes iconic by becoming gilded. Extended battle sequence at Fort Knox is the first extended battle sequence to climax the movies.  Bond ends up with girl under a parachute.
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Thunderball (Young, 1965) Gadgets and locales start to crowd out Connery and for the first time, the movie seems like a let-down from Fleming. Starts with a jet-pack escape and ends with an underwater battle sequence that seems to go on forever--underwater ballet with spear-guns. So does the central atom-bomb hijacking that sets up the plot...well, one is tempted to say "in motion" but it stops the movie cold. SPECTRE and the man with the cat is back (face unseen again). Connery appears irritated at times. But it is the all-time Bond box-office champ (adjusted for inflation). Bond ends up with girl in boat (until they're whisked away by an air-sea rescue Skyhook—see what I mean about the gadgets?)
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Casino Royale (Ken Hughes, et al., 1967) Tiresome spoof with an all-star cast (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles—he's LeChiffre this time—Ursula Andress, Deborah KerrWoody Allen...Woody Allen?) "Hellzapoppin'" Bond. If only it were funnier. The story of the film's making is one of excess and no discipline, with bickering stars, a script in perpetual transition depending on who was on camera that day, and next to no relation to Fleming's book—there is a casino scene, though. Burt Bacharach score is sprightly and the best thing about it is the song "The Look of Love." Story-wise, everyone ends up in Hell (deservedly, I thought) Audience only feels like it.
0

You Only Live Twice ( Lewis Gilbert, 1967) Bond goes to Japan to stop the hi-jacking of American and Russian space capsules. SPECTRE's secret HQ is in a big hollowed-out volcano that regularly launches rockets and helicopters. 

Right. No one'll notice. 

We finally see Blofeld and it's Donald Pleasance with one nasty scar—one critic said he had a head that looked like an egg that cracked on the boil—and the voice of a braying chihuahua. Script logic and any resemblance to the Fleming story goes down the ol' lava-tube. Connery hits his marks professionally, but that's about it. Big ninja attack in the volcano!! Goes...on...forever. Bond ends up with girl in a raft.
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On Her Majesty's Secret Service ( Peter Hunt, 1969) Connery's gone, but not for good. George Lazenby is Bond...only semi-good. He looks fine in stunts but so does a 2 by 4 when used right, although he is effective in two scenes (where he actually isn't dubbed by another actor!) Editor Peter Hunt directs with an eye towards more color and a pell-mell style that looks distinctly different. Bond goes undercover to track down Blofeld who's now Telly Savalas. Bond falls in love with Diana Rigg who's groovy, baby. Lots of good skiing action. Dialogue has some pop to it. One bad love-montage with music (although that music is Louis Armstrong's last recorded song, and John Barry's score may be his best). No gadgets to be seen. Nice crisp attack on mountain-top HQ, then a big wedding. Bond ends up with dead wife in his car.
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Diamonds Are Forever (Hamilton, 1971) Connery's back, jowlier and with a slightly grayer toupee. Camp abounds. Effete Blofeld (played now by Charles Gray) has taken over a billionaire recluse's tech empire. Big diamond laser thingy in sky. Gay hoodlums. Played for laffs (what else can you do with Jill St. John as the Bond-girl and the gaudy excesses of Las Vegas as a location?), but some good jokey dialog (by Tom Mankiewicz) still manages to surface. A none-too-impressive final battle on an offshore oil rig. Bond ends up on ocean liner with girl.
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Live and Let Die (Hamilton, 1973) Roger Moore is Bond, and kinda "mannequins" his way through it. Racist little plot ("Blaxploitation movies" were "in" at the time), but the adaptation is a bit more hip than the racistlittle book it was based on (the series will be using bits and set-pieces from it in later movies...like For Your Eyes Only and Licence To Kill). Yaphet Kotto is not sure what movie he's in, as he can't maintain a consistent attitude (let's see—malice or bon homie?). Jane Seymour's not sure what movie she's in, as she feels she has to act. More chases, less material stringing the movie together making it feel a little threadbare. Bond ends up with girl on train.
0000

The Man with the Golden Gun (Hamilton, 1974) Moore's back and is a little meaner, which is hard to believe—and doesn't really set well. Villain Cristopher Lee would have been a terrific Scaramanga in another movie--here he's a bit too cheery. Britt Ekland is the bottom of the barrel for Bond-girls. But is better than Herve Vellechaize as Scaramanga's hench-thing. Exotic locales. Energy "crisis" plot (it was, after all, 1975!) High-point is a barrel-rolling car stunt across river. Still looks amazing. Bond ends up with girl in junk. Precisely!
000

The Spy Who Loved Me (Gilbert, 1977) Moore at his best, relaxed and amused, but the movie is Bond-by-formula (the novel by Fleming which reads as a Bond-girl confessional, was no help). Lazy writing. Too-easy seductions. Bond has it too easy all the way. Jaws--"Nuff said." Chase after chase with a plot spray-painted from the "You Only Live Twice" stencil—also directed by Gilbert. Marvin Hamlisch score feels like "James Bond! The Musical!" Barbara Bach is plastic-pretty, but her acting is a little one-note. But, blimey, that's a great stunt before the credits. Good will of that can't sustain the movie, though. Bond "ends up" with girl in bath-o-sub-escape-thing.
000

Moonraker (Gilbert, 1979) Moore is less. Very lazy writing. Venice sequence with hover-craft gondola and double-taking pigeons. The Bond movies seem to be running out of locations, so the only direction to go is up. Space movie with ray-gun shoot-out, ala Thunderball's underwater battle. Michael Lonsdale is a fine actor, but here he's very non-committal. "Jaws" falls in love with Pippi Longstocking. Bond-girl's name is Holly Goodhead (and she's supposed to be taken seriously?). Last performance of Bernard Lee as "M." Bond ends up with girl in orbit. Shoulda stayed there.
00

For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981) More plot. Less stunts. Moore's starting to show age. Broccoli's step-son, Michael Wilson, starts to actively participate in the series, resulting in an opening sequence that acknowledges Bond's marriage from OHMSS, then throws "Blofeld" down the chute. Great climbing sequence, though. Borrowed boat-dragging torture from Fleming's "Live and Let Die" works well. Major ick factor as under-age gymnast Lynn-Holly Johnson hits on grand-dad Moore. Topol makes a good ally though he chews a lot of scenery. Bond ends up with girl on boat, then jumps overboard.
0000 

Octopussy (Glen, 1983) A lot of plot partly written by George MacDonald Fraser. Some good moments, especially those involving a radical Russian General (Steven Berkoff). Moore dressed as clown disarming nuclear bomb feels...natural. Maud Adams, a bit stiff. Louis Jordan, a bit ripe. Fight outside a plane in flight a bit preposterous. Bond ends up with girl on boat.
000







Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983) Non-EON production that brought Connery back. Writer Lorenzo Semple (Batman television series) briefly uses the "age" thing but then returns to Bond as elder stunts-man. Great cast with Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer (superb!), Max Von Sydow, Edward Fox and an over the top Barbara Carrera (never better). Even Rowan Atkinson. Borrowed "Thunderball" plot with some 80's relics (Bond and villain "duel" over a video game?). Last third of the movie is slipshod and rushed. Time to say "Never Again." Bond ends up with girl in a therapeutic hot-tub. Good choice, that.
000

A View to a Kill (Glen, 1985) Speaking of not coming back. Roger Moore's last outing and its irritating. It's fun to have Christopher Walken (as the villain) and Patrick MacNee (as a disposable field operative), but not to have Grace Jones and Tanya Roberts (who's particularly grating). Oddly unexciting film about a plot to cause The Big California Earthquake. Villain's a genius who produces computer chips, but doesn't seem to realize he's trying to kill a sizable chunk of his customer base. Hmmm. Starts with a chase at the Eiffel Tower. Ends with a fight at the Golden Gate Bridge. After all that, Bond ends up with girl in a shower. Moore leaves, all washed up.
00



The Living Daylights (Glen, 1987) Timothy Dalton is Bond and a good one. Harkening back to Fleming, this 007 takes the job VERY seriously and not liking it much. Though Dalton is king of romantic mini-series, he tones it down here. Bit of a cad, in fact. And sometimes barely in control. Great pre-credit sequence on Gibraltar. Possibly best fight in series and Bond's not in it. Good cast with Jeroen Crabbe as The Villain, and Joe Don Baker as the literal heavy (subsisting on scenery, I think) Long three-way battle in desert in Afghanistan, and one could make a case he might be on the wrong side, despite the Cold War. Bond ends up with girl...in dressing room.
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Licence To Kill (Glen, 1989) Borrowed bits from Fleming in a story about a drug king-pin who maims Felix Leiter, Bond's pal in the CIA. Bond quits MI6 and goes rogue for revenge. Feels like Fleming, but doesn't feel like Bond. Bond-girls are a bit token-tough. Villain has best lines. A very young Benecio Del Toro shows up as villain's creepy, weasely assistant. Sub-plot of a televangelist as a drug marketer is mean-spirited/funny, but ruined by the casting of Wayne Newton. A guy gets exploded in a pressure chamber but Newton is ickier. Extended action sequence with 18-wheelers goes on far too long. Bond ends up with girl in a swimming pool.
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Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995) After a seven year hiatus where most of the old Bond production team die, Bond returns. Pierce Brosnan makes a dapper, very crisp Bond and his introduction in the pre-credits is terrific. Casting of unfamiliar names (except for Sean Bean and Famke Janssen as the villains) with fine acting chops helps push Brosnan to the forefront. Bond-girl can ACT!! And she's the one who saves the day! Dame Judi Dench is the female "M" (she's squinty-eyed/prickly), Allan Cumming is a Russian computer-nerd, Joe Don Baker is back as an ally, Michael Kitchen as M's Chief of Staff and Robbie Coltrane and Minnie Driver show up in cameos. Another too-long finale. Great CGI credit sequence. Horrible score by Eric Serra that electronically pulses with sampled clanking between "oohs" and "aahs." Bond ends up with girl...in a military helicopter.
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Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997) Brosnan again, but a slightly devalued Bond. Plot's about a media mogul who makes his own conflict-headlines. A bit over-written in places. Too many worthless chases. Jonathan Pryce makes an ineffectual villain. Teri Hatcher shows up briefly and is killed. Michelle Yeoh kicks things up as Chinese agent. Odd little sequence with Vincent Schiavelli as assassination specialist Dr. Kaufmann. As soon as garage-chase ends, it all goes downhill. Final battle on "stealth-boat" is interminable. Bond ends up with girl...on pieces of a boat.
000

The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999) Longest pre-credits sequence in Bond history makes a slight kerfluffle of the story, but Bond has to protect an oil heiress from an international terrorist who had previously kidnapped her. Robert Carlyle is largely wasted but Sophie Marceau makes the best of a confusedly-written part. Denise Richards is a nuclear physicist named "Christmas" (oh, the possibilities are endless) Old "Q" leaves, and new "Q" is John Cleese and hardly a "harrumph" is skipped. Dramatically a bit inert. Bond ends up with girl in Turkey... after exiting a too-long submarine sequence. Brosnan-Richards romance feels a bit icky.
0000

Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002) Starts out promisingly: Bond is captured by North Korea and held prisoner and tortured while 9-11 happens. Traded and discredited but escapes own services' captivity to start an investigation in Cuba. Then Halle Berry shows up and it all goes horribly...horribly wrong. Bond's Greatest Hits Done Poorly. Laser satellite. Car chase on ice. The thing is like a steroid-pumped video game (which probably was the idea). Snarky villain. Madonna title-song and..urk..cameo. Awful. Bond ends up with girl in Korean prayer temple. Protests ensue. Wanted to grab a sign and join them.
00


Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006) Deliberate official reboot of the series: Brosnan out/Daniel Craig in in the first EON version of Fleming's first Bond book. Maybe it was because of the howls of protest at his casting, but it seems like everyone involved in this one was determined to make it one of the best of the series. Great script (by Brosnan-Bond scripters Purvis and Wade and a high-gloss polish by Oscar winner Paul Haggis). Campbell, who essayed Brosnan into the role for Goldeneye, re-invents and re-invigorates Bond for Craig, whose Bond is as no-nonsense as his performance. Great action (the parkour chase, an airport marathon) sets up the longest poker tournament on film (with diversions for sex and violence). Out-Fleming's Fleming. And, somehow makes Bond work for post-9-11 world in the same way he worked for the Cold War. Terrific cast. Eva Green shines as love-interest, Mads Mikkelson is LeChiffre this time (but he won't remind you of Peter Lorre or Orson Welles), plus nice work by Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter and Giancarlo Gianini as Our Man in Montenegro, and Dame Judi Dench returns as a slightly more feisty "M." No gadgets. One explosion. Bond ends up with-OUT girl...on a boat.
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Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) Settles into the same formula, though there are bright spots, good cast of actors who all try to do their best with the material. However, the emotions are dictated in short-hand, the script scrimps on the dialogue, and the plot pin-balls from action sequence to action sequence, ala the tepid Live and Let Die. While those action sequences are spectacularly conceived, they're filmed obliquely and edited horribly—almost incompetently, without a sense of context. Blink and you'll miss three shots. If Marc Foster's attempt was to make an "art-house" Bond film, he failed miserably, because first, you have to make a good Bond film before you start experimenting. More Fleming, and less frenzy, please. Bond ends up alone.

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Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2011) Sam Mendes is a good director, but would he do to Bond what Forster did? Short answer: "no." Despite his first Bond-viewing  being Live and Let Die, Mendes gets a fair to middling script out of Purvis and Wade and John Logan that lightens things up in the short term while simultaneously being the darkest Bond plot to date. Then he gets a cracker-jack cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, and Albert Finney. The whole movie is full of holes that are huge, and one never really figures out "was Bond shot once at the beginning, or twice?" But, he ends up "dying," coming back and returning to his roots before the end of the movie. Bond ends up back at headquarters with a new "M," a new Miss Moneypenny, and a new "Q." Happy 50th birthday, James. You look just the same as when you started.
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SPECTRE (Sam Mendes, 2015) The gunbarrel sequence is back in its traditional place (indicating that Daniel Craig's Bond has finally settled in) and the franchise is comfortable enough to play around a bit and lighten up—things are a bit less angst-ridden, and Bond can find himself crash-landing on convenient couches, playing an Aston Martin chase scene for laughs, and plotting the return of an old traditional enemy. Nostalgia seems to be the order of the day. But, one of the strengths of the recent Bond's has been the toughness that moved beyond the self-satisfied smirkiness of the Moore/Brosnan Bonds and made things matter. Here, they really don't. Oh, it's nice to see Bond finally "get" the girl at the end again—Bond drives off with girl Lea Seydoux in his restored Aston Martin—and the film has its moments now and again. But, the winking at the audience is back, and that undercuts the tension at every turn. If Craig's Bond has learned anything over the last few movies, it's that one should throw away the past. Now, the movie-makers have to learn it.


SPECTRE does something I never thought possible—it makes Quantum of Solace look like a better film in comparison.

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Hopefully, Bond has finally run out of history to recycle—like, there isn't a bitter second-cousin out there somewhere (although remember the line Bernard Lee's 'M" gave when Bond wondered who could possibly want to kill him in The Man with the Golden Gun: "Jealous husbands! Outraged chefs! Humiliated tailors! The list is endless!"), but one is hard-pressed to think where they can go to keep the franchise fresh (there were rumors—vehemently denied—that Christoph Waltz's Blofeld would come back in a two-parter, and even though Craig joked he'd rather slit his wrists than take on another exhausting Bond shoot, one thing is certain: "James Bond Will Return..."

2018 Update: Bond 25 is now in pre-production with Daniel Craig back as Bond and Danny Boyle (who directed Craig as Bond for that amusing Olympics Opening film) directing and co-writing the screenplay with John Hodge (who wrote a few of his films, including both Trainspotting films). New blood either invigorates or sinks a Bond film, but it shouldn't be too much a shift as the Broccoli kids will still maintain control. M-G-M is still producing partner, but Universal is the foreign distributor instead of Columbia Pictures.
2018 Update (Updated): On 08/22/2018, EON announced that Danny Boyle will no longer be directing the next Bond film, due to the grab-bag excuse "creative differences." What this will do to the script by Boyle collaborator John Hodge—if it it'll even be used, or whether Boyle's production designer Mark Tildesley will be retained, are up in the air at this point. With only 14 weeks before the start of principal photography, this will necessitate a lot of juggling and, more than likely, will delay production of Bond 25. The Broccoli kids are very protective of the Bond series and have fended off studio interference and ideas that might be too far afield of the Fleming canon, using as their mantra their father Albert R. Broccoli's dictum "Don't let them screw it up." Speculations about what the "creative differences" might entail are useless, as it could be anything from budget constraints to scheduling conflicts to (I dunno), maybe Boyle wanted him to become Catholic. Whatever. The Aston Martin has hit a speed bump...but, as any car expert will tell you, it takes a LOT to make an Aston Martin flip.

No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021) After production delays, then delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Daniel Craig's James Bond finally returned...for the last time. Lots of firsts in this one: first American director (exceptional work, too!), first returning Bond girl (Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann), a new 007 (a very snappy Lashana Lynch) after Bond's retirement, Bond's retirement, youngest Bond singer Billie Eilish, Bond dies, longest length of pre-title sequence and movie...Wait, what'd you say?

Yeah. Given the tenuousness of Bond actor contracts, the producers have never had an opportunity like this. But, Craig has left—of his own accord—because he's too old and too broken to keep doing it, so...why not pull a Fleming and kill him off? The circumstances are that Bond sacrifices himself to destroy a DNA-targeted virus that every government wants and Ralph Fiennes' "M" has secretly financed. And Bond gets infected with a virus targeted for Madeleine and her daughter, Mathilde—James Bond's child. It's a no-win scenario for Bond, so he stays behind to make sure the stuff gets destroyed, and him along with it. It also gives a chance for another Bond romance equal to the one from OHMSS—they even recycle Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time in the World" just to get you all misty...and make you miss composer John Barry. Almost makes it worthwhile to revisit SPECTRE.

Oh...and "James Bond Will Return"

James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.



* The gunbarrel-walk has been a consistent part of the Bond series, usually introducing the films (although the Daniel Craig films have mixed it up a bit). All the actors now do it, although the man firing in the first three "official" films is stunt-man Robert Simmons. Sean Connery did his first gunbarrel with Thunderball. Roger Moore did two—he wore a suit in his first two movies, then a bell-bottomed tuxedo (it was the fashioned-challenged 70's, after all, poor Roger). George Lazenby, as he was the Bond who got married in his one Bond film, goes down on one knee to fire—and disappears in the blood-wash. 

A rather spectacularly edited summation of all the Bond's from Dr. No to SPECTRE

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