In the five decades since James Bond first hit movie screens in 1962, 11 different directors have had the honor of stepping behind the camera for his adventures. Some of them only directed one film, while the most prolific managed to do five. Each brought something distinctive to the 007 table, however, and in ranking them in order we do so with the proviso that even the lowest-placed have something to recommend in their work. But with that in mind, here’s how we think the men behind Bond, from Dr No‘s Terence Young all the way through to Spectre‘s Sam Mendes, stack up against one another:
11. Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day)
Poor Tamahori. There’s nothing especially wrong with his work, which is tight and competent enough—it’s just that he happens to have helmed perhaps the most forgettable Bond film in the franchise’s entire history. Die Another Day is flat and uninspired from start to finish, expending the last of the momentum that the revived Pierce Brosnan series had kicked off back with Goldeneye and essentially killing the franchise until the 2006 reboot. Little that’s wrong with the film can be put down to the director, but nor does he do much to lift it above mediocrity.
10. Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies)
With the pressure on after the success of Goldeneye, it’s fair to say that the follow-up dropped the ball—even though it made more money domestically than its predecessor (unfortunately, it did so while opening on the same weekend as Titanic). Tomorrow Never Dies was beset with problems from the outset, and Spottiswoode—at this point probably best known for Turner & Hooch and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot—was never able to get them under control. There’s at least a certain amount of style to the film, but the fact that shooting began without a finalized script, and heavy edits were done after the fact, shows in a messy and uninspiring story.
9. Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace)
Forster is perhaps destined to be known as the man behind the weak link of the Daniel Craig series, the film that even subsequent movies have essentially written out of history: Quantum of Solace. Actually, the second Craig outing contains some superb action sequences and has a distinct visual style and setting unlike almost any other Bond film. Forster was also in the difficult position of having to essentially “write” significant parts of the script with Craig during shooting, due to the interruption of the 2008 Writers’ Strike. The movie that resulted isn’t ideal, but perhaps better than its reputation suggests.
8. Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough)
A respected director in his homeland of the U.K. thanks to his hugely influential Up series of television documentaries, Apted was also known for Gorillas in the Mist and Gorky Park before becoming a slightly surprising choice to direct the third Brosnan film. The World is Not Enough doesn’t reach the heights of Goldeneye, but it’s a marked improvement upon Tomorrow Never Dies. There’s a sense of nuclear paranoia that feels like a slight throwback to Bond of yore and effective use of claustrophobia in the submarine sequences, as well as a tremendous boat chase along the River Thames.
7. Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun)
Hamilton is, of course, the director of what is still the most quintessential Bond film: Goldfinger. But while it’s a terrific film, it doesn’t quite have the visual flair or action sensibilities of many of the other 1960s entries. Hamilton’s 1970s films saw the series go ever further into outlandish comedy, and although they do get better (Live and Let Die, despite some uncomfortable moments of political incorrectness, is probably the most stylish of the ’70s films; while The Man With The Golden Gun harnesses the power of the great Christopher Lee), they start on a particularly poor footing with Diamonds are Forever. He may have defined 007 for a decade, but it’s a decade in which 007 wasn’t very strong.
6. Terence Young (Dr No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball)
Young’s importance in setting the template for the Bond films can’t be understated, of course—but it’s arguable that the groundwork he laid with Dr No and From Russia With Love was improved on by later Sean Connery entries. Returning for Thunderball, Young coped well with the increased budget and sense of spectacle, but could perhaps be criticized for not getting the bloated running time under control.
5. John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill)
When directing Roger Moore, Glen was responsible for some of the least fondly-regarded movies in the entire series. There’s very little to recommend in any of Moore’s 1980s efforts, although For Your Eyes Only was at least an attempt to curb the excesses of the ’70s. But when Timothy Dalton came along, Glen upped his game significantly, bringing a harder edge to the series—and, more notably, some absolutely spectacular and high-octane action sequences, particularly in Licence to Kill.
4. Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker)
Following on from Young and Hamilton, Gilbert immediately set about making one of the best of the Sean Connery films, in the shape of the excellent You Only Live Twice (even if modern sensibilities have to cringe slightly at the idea of Bond masquerading as Asian). He then returned in the 1970s and promptly did the same for Roger Moore, retaining the better comic sensibilities of the previous films but restoring some much-needed cool and class to the character in The Spy Who Loved Me. He can even be forgiven for Moonraker as a result.
3. Peter R. Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)
Hunt only directed one Bond film, but what a film it was. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service spent years as the ugly stepchild of the franchise thanks to the underwhelming presence of George Lazenby as Bond. But he’s the weak link in what is otherwise a genuine high point in the series. Hunt had served as either an editor or second unit director on all of the previous films, and he takes the template established by Young and Gilbert and improves it even further. It’s arguable that the films have never looked quite as good—and certainly, never as effortlessly 1960s cool and stylish—as in this one. And that stark, stunning, shocking ending will surely never be topped.
2. Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Spectre)
Perhaps the director with the biggest existing reputation coming into the franchise, Mendes was under a lot of pressure to deliver with Skyfall, as the film had to re-ignite a series stalled by Quantum of Solace‘s middling reception and MGM’s financial collapse, as well as serving as an effective celebration of the series’ fiftieth anniversary. And, well, you all know what happened next: the most commercially successful Bond film of all time, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed, Skyfall established 007 once again as one of the biggest names in all of cinema. Spectre, meanwhile, may not quite live up to its predecessor, but that Mendes delivered the goods at all a second time was almost as impressive an achievement. It’s arguably the first time back-to-back Bond films have hit the mark since the 1970s.
1. Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale)
Outside of Bond, Campbell has a CV that could charitably be described as “mixed”: sure, there’s a Mark of Zorro here, but there’s also a Green Lantern there. But to fans of the 007 franchise, Campbell is a bona fide hero. To successfully modernize and revitalize the series once, bringing Bond into a 1990s that looked to have left his distinct sensibilities far behind, was impressive enough. And Goldeneye still stands up well today, the strongest of the Brosnan films by a comfortable margin. But to do it a second time, after the run he’d started had stalled and the series looked to have been buried for good, was the more remarkable achievement. Casino Royale was just as a dramatic a new template for Bond as Dr No had been all the way back in 1962, and it’s likely that its effect on the genre will still be felt for several films down the line.
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