When it comes to boxed sets, the James Bond franchise faces a fascinating dilemma. Unlike Star Wars or Harry Potter, which have viable endings – or even Star Trek, which can be broken down into identifiable “phases” – Bond lacks any sense of closure. You could divide it up by actors, but that leaves some sets with up to seven movies and others with only one or two. You could go by era, but that, too, proves rather messy. And as for completion… this franchise can (and probably will) bury us all. So how do you pick up a “complete” set, knowing that you’ll just have to add to it in a couple of years?
The 50th anniversary of the franchise provides as good an opportunity as any to pick up a “definitive” collection, and the studio makes sure that the effort is worth it. Little about the set is new or different, but the simple fact of holding all 22 Bond films in Blu-ray form is enough to make most film geeks cackle with glee. Hit the jump for my full review of Bond 50: The Complete 22-Film Collection on Blu-ray.
If you aren’t familiar with Bond, at least in passing, then I commend you for finally escaping whatever remote cave in which you were held prisoner. With the possible exception of Indiana Jones, no cinematic figure remains more iconic – or enduring – than he. Through good movies and bad, through popcorn fun and serious meditation, his appeal has never diminished. The new Blu-rays are as polished and professional as one would expect. They arrive in two thick books, the first covering Dr. No through For Your Eyes Only, and the second covering Octopussy through the as-yet unreleased Skyfall. (The book contains an extra slot for that last, as-yet unreleased film – a classy move that will likely prove futile once the follow-up to Skyfall hits Blu-ray.)
But no matter. The set looks terrific and the 22 movies are ever better – beautifully rendered in the new format and a sensual joy to behold. Looking at them all back-to-back gives one a terrific sense of the evolving style of the last 50 years, from the go-go Sixties to the harsh intensity of a post-9/11 world. Every disc holds a thick helping of extras… most of them ported over from earlier editions, but no less welcome for their presence. The topper is an incredibly insightful series of “making of” docs – one per films – that originally appeared on the “Ultimate Edition” DVDs. They go into marvelous detail about the production of each movie, including extensive interviews with all of the principle players and terrific anecdotes from the days on the set.
Other features include a recurring series of location tours, hosted by Bond girl Maud Adams and pinpointing the exact spot for the given film’s locations. In addition, each disc carries vintage footage of interviews and promo spots made at the time of production, as well as audio commentaries and trailers for each film. Again, all of these appeared on the Bond Ultimate Edition DVDs, so double-dipping is a concern for this set.
The only new material appears on a much-vaunted “Bonus Disc,” and frankly proves a bit disappointing. A “World of Bond” series of featurettes cover Bond girls, bad guys, cars and gadgets… which would be awesome except for the fact that they run a mere 5 minutes apiece. (On the plus side, however, each featurette also includes a shot-by-shot list, allowing to you go right to the moment where that particular car, gadget, villain or sexy girl shows up.) Another quick compilation, called “Being Bond,” is equally short: consisting of brief clips from the various actors describing how they played the character. A style retrospective and blog from the Skyfall set prove similarly disappointing, while a title compilation – gathering all the famous opening sequences into one long feature – is a great way to get all of the theme songs, but didn’t take much effort to put together. Considering the price tag involved, the bonus disc could have done a lot better.
That isn’t the purpose of the exercise of course. The films themselves remain the real draw, and they don’t disappoint. Presentation is top-notch, and with a number of films arriving on Blu-ray for the first time, hard-core collectors will never have a better chance to gather them all in one place. If you can forgive the double-dipping – and the awkward carrying slots that force you to slide the discs against their cardboard holders – it can prove tough to resist.
Normally, I talk briefly about each film at this point, but the sheer number of them prevents such analysis. (Otherwise we’ll be here all week.) Instead, I’ll break down the films by performer; each actor brought a different vibe to the series, and the films ultimately reflected their particular persona. We’ll start at the top…
Connery is to Bond what Bela Lugosi is to Dracula or Christopher Reeve is to Superman: others may play the role, and play it well, but it ultimately belongs to him. He best embodied the rough-and-tumble qualities of the books: the sense of danger and fatalism that Ian Fleming wrote about with such brilliance. He knew his way around a quip as well, but he ultimately struck us as a serious man in a serious business… punctuated by his exquisite physical presence. It’s a little sad, then, watching his wonderful persona slowly succumb to the series’ growing number of gadgets, and to the one-liners that eventually replaced an actual personality. The first three of his films – Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger – rank among the best in the series. From there, however, it gradually went downhill until – when they finally coaxed him back to do Diamonds Are Forever – he was clearly too old to keep it up. Nevertheless, he set the standard that the other five men had to match, and his witty comeback in Never Say Never Again (the “unofficial” Bond flick that will likely never appear in a set like this) reminds us why we tuned into the character in the first place.
Lazenby never had a chance to grow into the role, and his stiff, wooden appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service aptly demonstrates why. It’s a sad development, because the film itself ranks as one of the better entries in the saga. It focuses on the character rather than the hardware, and many of its action sequences – including a spectacular series of alpine ski chases – continue to impress. It also contains perhaps the most important part of the Bond mythos: his marriage to Diana Rigg’s Tracy and her eventual murder. It lends Bond a real sense of tragedy, as well as helping to explain his ongoing misogyny. Had Lazenby been given another opportunity, he may have been able to make the role his own. Sadly, they passed him over in favor of another… and frankly, he wasn’t much missed.
Moore gets a lot of flak for edging the series into self-parody: drawing heavily on his Simon Templar persona to transform Bond into a gentleman adventurer. That actually forms a big part of his appeal. He gleefully embraced the more outrageous elements of the series and in the process allowed us to fully enjoy the fantasy of being a spy. His arch sense of humor always reminded us to lighten up: a much-needed quality amid the more serious attitude of the other Bonds. He also played the role more than any other thus far – seven times against Connery’s six – and while his films had their share of dips, even the worst ones hold a certain camp pleasure. (Moonraker is legitimately awful, but great to get drunk to, and while Moore had clearly passed his prime with A View to a Kill, it still featured the great Christopher Walken as the villain.) The high points – Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only – gave him a chance to show his serious side, and the franchise benefitted from his long tenure. Like Adam West’s Batman, he understood how to have fun; the party wouldn’t have been as much of a blast without him.
Like Moore, Dalton gets a bad rap: brought in as a last-minute replacement for Pierce Brosnan and widely condemned for his cold fish delivery. License to Kill doesn’t help his case much – an admirably serious effort that suffered from undue tinkering – but his opening gambit proved to be a marvelous bit of fun. The Living Daylights gives him suitable gravitas without detracting from an upbeat energy, and his quietly, steely turn helped make a clean break from Moore. Without Dalton, Craig might have had a tougher time… and as we eventually saw, the guy he supposedly supplanted suffered from more than his share of problems.
Brosnan became a living paradox: a pretty great Bond whose Bond movies weren’t all that great. Everyone applauded Goldeneye as a return to form for the series, but subsequent entries struggled to find the right tone for the character in an era that didn’t have much room for superspies. With the Soviet Union gone and 9/11 not yet shaking our collective subconscious, Bond’s adventures felt out of step with the times. They reached for the outrageousness of the past while trying to establish a long-absent grit, and while Brosnan should be applauded for examining the characters’ psychological side, but he never quite found the substance to make it work. The magic invisible car in Die Another Day became endemic of his dilemma: a charming, empty figure vainly searching for some substance to back him up.
(As a side note, however, the Brosnan films first introduced us to Judi Dench’s M… an addition that now feels indispensible.)
And we come at last to Craig… signed on to three upcoming films and whose legacy remains a work in progress. With the exception of Goldfinger, Casino Royale may be the best of the entire series, as Craig finally shook off the franchise’s knowing campiness in favor of stone-cold gravitas. It aptly captured the essence of Fleming’s novel, while putting Bond firmly in step with the existential terrors of the new millennium. Quantum of Solace squandered some of that goodwill: well-meaning, but spastic and ultimately missing the purpose of the exercise. Craig remained in excellent form, however, and unless any future entries prove us wrong, general consensus places the series in very capable hands.
And if a comprehensive set appeals to you, this is certainly the set to buy. Like the films themselves, it contains its share of flaws, but the sexy presentation and copious bonus features prove awfully hard to resist. Casual viewers can sample its delights at leisure, while more serious fans can analyze and compare the various eras with a minimum of fuss. Owners of the Ultimate Edition DVD should beware – we’re double-dipping here and the improved visual quality may not be enough to justify the very high sticker price – but the set still does honor to the character at its core. I have no doubt that Bond will still be with us in another 50 years. Until then, this set will do nicely.