By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 8, 2012 at 3:03PM
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969)
The wisdom has always been that George Lazenby's sole outing as 007 was a misfire; a poorly cast Bond in a film that deserved to be swept under the carpet. But it seems that, over the last couple of decades, the film's been critically reappraised, and rightly so. Maybe Lazenby's not quite up there with Connery, but he's less thuggish and more likable than his predecessor, and arguably handles the physical side of things better. But crucially, the film around him is top-notch. The plot -- which sees Blofeld out to use brainwashed allergy-sufferers to destory the world's crops -- is a little silly (though more so than in practice than in theory), but this time it's essentially background to the central romance, between Bond and mobster's daughter Tracy di Vicenzo, played by "The Avengers" star Diana Rigg. Tracy is a far more complex and nuanced love interest than the franchise tackled before, and serves as a true match for Bond. Their affair, marriage and her murder at the finale makes it the first film in the series with real emotional backbone, as well as provide a stunningly downbeat cliffhanger of an ending. It means that for all the brainwashing absurdity, it's one of the more absorbing and engaging Bond films in the series. It helps that former Bond editor Peter R. Hunt (who never got another stab at helming the franchise after his directorial debut here) shoots the hell out of it, and it has perhaps the series' finest score from John Barry. A smaller scale, more personal Bond, but one which undoubtedly set something of a precedent for "Casino Royale" and "Skyfall."
Returning to the screen after a six year absence, there was some question if Bond's time had passed. "Licence To Kill" had shown a franchise struggling to catch up to the 1980s era of actioners, and only the year before, James Cameron had made his own Bond homage with "True Lies," which had proven to be a massive success. But "Goldeneye" -- directed by New Zealander Martin Campbell, who made his name with '80s BBC miniseries "Edge of Darkness," and penned by a quartet of experienced action scribes -- turned out to be a canny reinvention of the series for the 1990s, embracing most of the old staples, while upping the action, and acknowledging Bond's place in a changing world (he's a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War," according to Judi Dench's M), all adding up to the best Bond movie in a quarter of a century. After a great opening scene that introduces us to, and seemingly kills off 006 (Sean Bean), it picks up with the mysterious Janus crime syndicate stealing a prototype helicopter, and the controls to the GoldenEye satellite weapon. Campbell and co. keep the tone fun without creeping into the absurdity of the later installments, and it's clear from the off that Brosnan was an inspired choice; he already feels like he's been playing the character for years (indeed, he was the first choice when Moore left, but couldn't get out of his "Remington Steele" contract). Beyond Izabella Scorupco's bland love interest and Alan Cumming's infuriatingly annoying hacker, the supporting cast are strong too, with Dench showing immediately why she's become the seminal M for this generation, Bean and Famke Janssen making great villains, and Robbie Coltrane having fun as a Russian mob boss. It's the rare Bond to keep the spectacle up throughout, from that stunning opening dam bungee jump through the tank chase to the final confrontation on the enormous satellite dish in the Cuban jungle.
For the 21st film in the series, and the introduction of sixth Bond Daniel Craig (and with the poisonous response to "Die Another Day" still echoing), EON decided to go back to the beginning, adapting officially for the first time Ian Fleming's first novel, "Casino Royale" (which rights issues had seen turned into a disastrous parody back in the 1960s), and showing 007's first kill, and seemingly his first mission. The new 00 agent just happens to be MI6's best poker player, and he's sent to try and bankrupt terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) at a high-stakes game in Montenegro, with the aid of treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). After an action-packed first half that shows a muscular, blunt, take-no-shit Bond from Craig, things calm down a notch once the card playing begins, but thanks to strong performances from Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright (as long-time Bond ally Felix Leiter) and Green, it's the rare Bond film where the talky scenes are as good as the action (which is, when it comes, mostly exceptional). Indeed, like 'OHMSS,' the romance is genuinely affecting, Craig and Green sharing all kinds of chemistry, and the ending (while tainted a little by a muddy and ill-conceived Venetian action sequence) is genuinely affecting. As with "Skyfall," there are moments of imperfection that make us think, or at least hope, that Craig's best film in the role is still to come. Still, between this and "GoldenEye," director Martin Campbell makes a strong argument that he should be given another entry to helm.