Who provided the best performance as 007? Richard picks his favourite cinematic turns for Ian Fleming’s superspy.
In this editorial, I have decided to pick my top four favourite James Bond performances. These are what I consider to be the all-time best turns from four of the actors who have played “The Worlds Greatest Secret Agent.”
George Lazenby and Roger Moore won’t be appearing in this list as I’m not a huge fan of either of them, but I do recommend Lazenby’s one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as its pretty good for what it is despite George’s lacking and somewhat unengaging performance. Also, Moore’s films The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only are both solid Bond films, but I don’t rate the Moore era too highly as I felt his films were a bit too campy and took the series too far from its gritty roots.
But you want to know what I consider to be the best Bond performances, don’t you? Well, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my top choices in chronological order.
1. Sean Connery in From Russia With Love
In only his second Bond film, Sean Connery completely relaxes into his signature role. Most people’s favourite Connery performance is from Goldfinger, but I prefer his performance in From Russia With Love. At this point in the film series, the character was still somewhat vulnerable, but also a coldblooded spy and, from what I can gather based on what I’ve read about the character in Ian Fleming’s novels, this was the first real glimpse into his personality.
Connery brought his dry wit and physicality to the role, whilst at the same time showing why he will always be the definitive Bond. It’s a great performance and my personal favourite from the first era of the franchise.
2. Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill
That’s right… the actor who played Simon Skinner in Hot Fuzz was James Bond.
When Dalton was originally cast in the role, it marked a change in direction for the series. By this point, most people associated the character of 007 with the silliness and campiness of the later Connery films and the Roger Moore era. Dalton was more of a darker screen presence, bringing his Shakespearean background to the role. In fact, right before he started filming, he read all of the original Fleming novels and kept referring back to them on set. He was determined to do the best job possible and bring the character back to his hard-edged, gritty roots. He was actually offered the role as far back as the 1960s to replace Connery, but turned it down as he felt he was too young. But, in 1987, he finally made his debut in the twenty-fifth Bond film, The Living Daylights.
He brought a certain physicality and grit which had been missing from the series for a long time, but we only get a hint of Bond’s dangerous side in The Living Daylights. But it’s in Licence to Kill, Dalton’s second and (unfortunately) final film where we see Bond’s take-no-prisoners attitude. Dalton gets completely into character and displays a side to 007 that we had rarely seen before; going rogue and quitting the Secret Service to find the drug lord who had brutally maimed his friend Felix Leiter and his wife, Della. It was a radical departure from what audiences had seen before, which is probably why they didn’t fully take to Dalton, but nowadays, ask any hardcore fan who they think one of the best Bond actors is and they will likely say Timothy Dalton.
3. Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye
GoldenEye was the first film to feature Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as 007, but he approaches the role as though he was born to play it. His take on the character has all of the best elements of his predecessors; the rugged handsomeness and grit of Sean Connery, the comic timing of Roger Moore, the physicality and hard edge of George Lazenby, and the dark side of Timothy Dalton. But that’s not why I think Brosnan’s performance is one of the best.
When he first appears in the film, you think to yourself “THAT’S James Bond.” Some have complained that Brosnan is too lighthearted and didn’t make the cut, but to those people, I say watch GoldenEye again and you will see that Pierce was more than just lighthearted. Sure, he had a few cheesy one-liners and maybe Dalton was a better actor, but we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the franchise to this day if Brosnan hadn’t came along and breathed new life into it. GoldenEye was an explosive, action-packed return for the series after a six year-long hiatus, and there was Brosnan at the centre of it all, bringing a certain athleticism, confidence and seriousness to the table.
This was mixed with Bond’s vulnerability and cavalier attitude towards life, which makes him feel like a complete character. He even goes through a bit of an arc over the course of GoldenEye. Brosnan gets a bit of shit from fans now because of the way his later films turned out, but he will always be one of my favourites for his great performance as 007 here.
4. Daniel Craig in Casino Royale
When Daniel Craig was first announced as 007, everybody just said “Nope.” Mainly because he just didn’t fit the requirements of what most people thought of as Bond. In fact, people went so far as to declare him the worst Bond ever before cameras even started rolling. The poor guy had to put up with a lot of hate and negative press, and we hadn’t even seen a teaser trailer yet.
For me personally, I knew I would miss Pierce Brosnan, but at the same time, I was open to a new actor taking on the role. As I didn’t know anything about Craig or hadn’t even seen him in any films apart from Tomb Raider (yeah, yeah, I know), I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and went to see Casino Royale on my sixteenth birthday. How did Craig do? Well, bearing in mind I didn’t really have any expectations, Craig completely surpassed them. In Casino Royale, he recalls the grit and edginess of Connery whilst making the role completely his own. We see him start as a “blunt instrument” as M calls him, but he slowly shows various sides from his cold, distant approach to the job to caring for Vesper Lynd after she watches him brutally kill two people. He eventually morphs into a wounded individual who no longer trusts anyone after Vesper betrays him. I would even go as far to say this is the best deconstruction of Bond onscreen I have ever seen.
Casino Royale is a complete reboot to the series with a separate timeline to all the films which came before, but since we know this character, the filmmakers decided to give us an almost psychological look behind his steely veneer. It’s also one of the few films in the series where Bond gets pretty messed up for once, both emotionally and physically, thus making Royale not just a great Bond film but a compelling drama and a cracking movie as a whole. It’s only Craig’s first film as the character, but he felt to me as though he had been playing the role for years. We see his violence and darkness, his vulnerability and emotions, and even his dry and humorous side. Craig quite rightly won an Empire Award for Best Actor, and I consider him to be one of the best actors to have ever put on the tuxedo and received the keys to the Aston Martin. Casino Royale is just an excellent film and Craig’s performance is the main reason why for me.