Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Top 5 Bond Villains

Look, the Bond franchise has provided us with one of the most beloved series of films ever, and the villains have always been an integral part of the brand's success.  There are so many wonderful performances in this vein that tailoring a Top 5 has been quite a chore.  Narrowing my list down to 10 was challenging enough, and now I have to cut that list in half.  I can't fit all of my favorites into a Top 5, so I'm going to miss some of yours as well.  With that said, I have done my best, and it's time to break it down.

Top 5 Bond Villains

#1) Jaws - Richard Kiel - The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker (1977 / 1979)

I'm going to be completely honest with you: Jaws is the reason I initially fell in love with the James Bond franchise.  I've been a fan of Peter Benchley's novel and Spielberg's film version of Jaws for about as long as I can remember, so it's probably not all that surprising that this obvious tie-in (loosely based on a hoodlum with steel teeth named Horror who appeared in Ian Fleming's novel The Spy Who Loved Me) captured my imagination.  I'm not sure what age I was, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 to 8 when a Bond marathon running on some channel (maybe it was TBS?) pinned my father to the couch.  I was curious, but I probably wasn't quite old enough to fall in love with the material.  Then Jaws hit the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me, and there were sharks and an underwater lair in that one to boot.  Boom!  Another Bond fan joined the team.  It was really that simple, and the presence of this zany henchman spawned a lifelong love for a classic film franchise. 

It's tempting to think of Jaws merely in terms of stature as Richard Kiel's height and size instantly provided Bond with a frightening opponent.  He's big and strong and that along with his terrible bite are staples of the character, but Kiel's performance is why this massive henchman remains endearing to fans.  There's something charming about this brute who does his very best to kill 007 in several big action sequences.  In fact, Kiel died during his confrontation with the shark during an initial cut of the picture, only for test audiences to inspire the filmmakers to reshoot that bit and keep Jaws around for an encore.  In Moonraker the big lug morphs from Bond's nemesis to an unlikely ally, helping him defeat Hugo Drax and providing a lot of comic relief in the process.

Jaws is a different kind of henchmen, a unique physical specimen with a wealth of mights and a ferocious appetite who somehow wins our hearts.  His verbal exchanges with Bond produce a number of zingers, the various fights--to include punch-ups taking place on planes, trains, and cable cars are first-rate entertainment.  His presence is directly responsible for a number of explosive setpieces the likes of which this franchise is famous for.  Richard Kiel went through a lot of pain to deliver this extremely enjoyable performance and I have to award him with the top spot on my list.

#2) 006/Alec Trevelyan - Sean Bean - Goldeneye (1995)

Look, every Bond film featuring Pierce Brosnan (who was a terrific fit for the role) is average at best aside from one, but Goldeneye (his first attempt) is an epic entry in the series.  Easily a Top 5 outing for 007, Goldeneye takes viewers on a thrilling ride wherein Sean Bean shines as a fellow agent who becomes one of Bond's most dangerous enemies.  A spectacular opening sequence that features 006 (Bean) and 007 working together establishes Trevelyan as an equal; unfortunately, it isn't long before Bond is shaken by his comrade's apparent death.  It's only a ruse, however, and as the film unfolds, a one-time ally emerges as a calculating villain who has no fear of 007.

As Trevelyan, who adopts the name "Janus" during his criminal exploits, Bean offers up a fantastic performance.  Of course, that should come as no surprise.  Bean is a guy who may not get the acclaim he truly deserves, yet he seldom misfires in any part and he has his fair share of fans.  Anyone who digs memes can attest to that.  He clearly relishes the opportunity to play a villain in such a beloved series, though his performance is grounded enough that he doesn't chew as much scenery as many actors would.  The end result is a potent dose of realism in a film that might become cartoonish under different circumstances.  Some Bond films feel a bit like pageantry, and while they're lavish enough to be wildly entertaining, that can diminish the tension.  That isn't the case here; 006 never becomes a caricature, and in Bean's capable hands, he is an intriguing character who represents a legitimate threat to Bond.  

The battle between Bond and Trevelyan that brings the action to a close is a worthy finale, a riveting fight that finds the two men grappling on an antenna platform situated hundreds of feet above a satellite dish.  They have a personal exchange before Trevelyan is dispatched, once again providing the film with a dash of levity that serves to elevate the picture.  Yes, Goldeneye offers up many of the franchise's trademark flourishes, to include massive action scenes, unbelievable stunts, sexy Bond girls, and even a henchwoman who is more than a match for most of the henchmen the series has provided us with.  Yet I think it's the relationship between 006 and 007 and the performances of Bean and Brosnan that put this one over the top.  He may not be as flamboyant as many of the villains of this list, but Bean's Alec Trevelyan is a well-rounded character who gives Bond a run for his money in one of the best films in a massive series.

#3) Red Grant - Robert Shaw - From Russia with Love (1963)

Another henchman makes the cut . . .

In the second Bond film, 007 is hunted by a ruthless assassin who has been given the task of eliminating our hero by the nefarious SPECTRE organization.  This assassin is Red Grant, a homicidal maniac who escaped from prison and was subsequently recruited by SPECTRE.  He is a violent madman who provides Bond with a most fearsome adversary.   When the two finally come to blows, Sean Connery and Robert Shaw stage one of the cinema's best fight scenes on the Orient Express.  In many ways, despite the success of Dr. No, From Russia with Love is hailed as the prototypical Bond film.  This smash hit yielded a formula that has produced a multitude of hits, so perhaps we should look to Shaw and Red Grant as the inspiration for all of the memorable henchmen who would later provide the franchise with such excitement and grandeur.   

Robert Shaw was a terrific actor, and I've always been a big fan of his work.  He belongs on this list because in his capable hands the character of Red Grant becomes a frightening vessel of carnage who seems totally capable of disposing of 007.  In fact, he does just that in a misleading opening sequence that is guaranteed to hook the viewer.  Grant is sly, deliberate, and physically imposing.  Shaw provides this killer with a cold and ruthless demeanor that underscores his terrible potential.  From Russia with Love is one of the strongest entries in the bond series, and I think Red Grant is a huge part of the picture's enduring success.  The battle aboard the Orient Express remains one of the most gripping fight scenes Bond has ever engaged in, and it could be the best of the lot.

It was about time that a villain from one of fan favorite Sean Connery's 007 films made the cut, right?  Unfortunately, Red Grant will be the only fiend who tangled with Connery to make my Top 5, but that shouldn't diminish Shaw's contribution to the Bond legacy.  The lengthy game of cat-and-mouse pitting Grant and Bond against one another and their epic showdown combine to cement From Russia with Love as one of the best films in the series.  Robert Shaw was surely one of the cinema's greatest performers, and while he will forever be remembered and loved as Quint from Jaws, his other roles ought not be overlooked.  This would include two villainous performances of note, those being his role in this film and his equally memorable performance in The Sting.  

#4) Scaramanga - Christopher Lee - The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

This is a no-brainer, isn't it?  I mean, since Christopher Lee played a Bond villain, he has to make the cut, right?  I think so, but The Man with the Golden Gun has a lot of haters.  I'm not one of them, but I wouldn't feel bad about including him here even if I was.  Most of the people who don't like Moore's second Bond picture readily acknowledge that Christopher Lee did a fantastic job as the heavy.  In fact, I think most of the people who despise the film are basing their opinions more on the presence of Clifton James as J. W. Pepper, who has to be the most-hated character in the entire series.  Forgive me, but I actually enjoy his antics.  No, I'm not bothered by Pepper's presence at all, but let's get back to Scaramanga, a wonderful presence in an underrated entry in the Bond series.  I think this is a great example of a film that is owned by the villain.  Hell, Francisco Scaramanga is The Man with the Golden Gun, so his dominant performance shouldn't catch anyone off-guard.

Christopher Lee's ability to play a villain to stunning effect need not be documented.  Seriously, the guy has played Dracula and Saruman, and he has terrified audiences the world over in countless horror films of merit.  I will only note that he was at the top of his game here, and as an actor, Lee was every bit as cunning and adept as the character he portrayed.  He rules this picture, and while Moore is my favorite Bond, he should have received second billing this time out.  Scaramanga is a master assassin, a feared killer who needs only a singe shot to eliminate his prey and charges one million dollars per kill.  As a result, he has amassed great wealth, and his island lair is a visual treat.  He has a henchman named Nick Nack, and this charming little underling routinely hires assassins to kill his boss.  Scaramanga doesn't mind; in fact, he encourages this practice as it keeps him at the top of his game.  He even goes so far as to wish Nick Nack better luck next time after dispatching one of the hired killers.  Scaramanga also has a third nipple, and since Nick Nack represents him in his dealings, allowing his boss to remain anonymous, this little tidbit is key to Bond's pursuit of the infamous assassin.  

The plot revolves around solar power and an energy crisis, and there's a doomsday device of sorts lurking in the wings, yet those elements are secondary.  Scaramanga is truly more interested in a duel with Bond (who he sees as an equal) than his larger schemes.  In many ways, he does what he does just to lure 007 into a confrontation.  Not only that, but Scaramanga is eager to challenge Bond despite the fact that his golden gun only holds a single bullet.  Bond has eight shots in his .32 Walther PPK, but our villain is supremely confident and he hosts the challenge on his turf.  Part of Scaramanga's sprawling estate includes a combination of a funhouse and a maze, and this is where his duel with Bond will conclude.  Part of what makes this dapper villain so memorable is his desire to go toe to toe with 007, particularly since it isn't an integral part of his master plan or a quest for revenge.  No, it's merely a matter of wanting to see who the better man is.  That's essentially what The Man with the Golden Gun boils down to, and that puts Christopher Lee on center stage, earning him the #4 spot on my list of the Top 5 Bond Villains.

#5) Baron Samedi - Geoffrey Holder - Live and Let Die (1973)

And another Henchman makes the cut!

Live and Let Die is notable for being Roger Moore's first Bond film, but there are many reasons to cherish this one.  I would argue that Paul McCartney provided the best song the Bond films have produced for this movie, and characters like Baron Samedi give the picture a sinister vibe that I greatly enjoy.  Based upon one of the Loa of the dead in Haitian Voodoo (learn more here) and sporting that figure's trademark top hat and jacket, Samedi is a menacing figure with a mischievous spirit.  The movie uses the supernatural aspects of the character's heritage to great effect, and this is a singular occurrence in the franchise's storied history.

Geoffrey Holder was born to play this part.  His height, his deep voice, that spooky laugh he mastered, and his abilities as a dancer and choreographer lift this diabolical henchman into the upper echelon of Bond foes.  Yes, Samedi is a henchman, but he overshadows Yaphet Kotto (who does a fine job, truth be told) as the lead villain.  It's also worth noting that Samedi is not your typical henchman, as he aids the film's villains without ever truly being one of them.  In some ways, this mysterious figure with the ability to cheat death is at odds with the Bond legacy, but in a plot with a heavy dose of tarot cards and cult rituals, he manages to fit in nicely.

In closing, I should admit that I feel that Live and Let Die is one of the most entertaining and unique chapters in the Bond series, and it owes a tremendous debt to Geoffrey Holder and Baron Samedi.  What makes him worthy of a spot in this Top 5?  He's everything you could ask for in a villain and more.  He's physically imposing, he's creepy, and he provides 007 with a different breed of foe, a supernatural menace.  This is the only time Bond would square off with such a fiend, and the results are thrilling.  Baron Samedi is everything I look for in a Bond villain.  He's bold, he has a significant presence, he makes life hard for our hero, and he does so in entertaining fashion. 

. . . 

There are a few things that stand out about this list.  First, my love for Roger Moore (and his early Bond films, in particular) is on clear display here.  He's my favorite Bond, and that obviously had a significant impact on this list.  Second, I too shook my head at Blofield's absence.  Here's the problem: as much as I liked Donald Pleasance and Telly Savales and the films they were in, none of the individual performances warranted a spot here.  Additionally, as diverse and sporadic as Blofield's appearances were, I didn't feel there was enough unity amongst them to combine them into a singular entry.  Finally, I showed the henchmen a lot of love, to be sure.  That aspect of this Top 5 may inspire some discussion.

What do you think?  Did I do a good job?

Who did I miss?

Was I wrong to include so many henchmen?

Do you strenuously object to any of these choices?  Do you strenuously object to all of them?  Do tell.
And hey, you know what?  Go ahead and hit me with the Connery arguments if you like, I'm game.  Hell, I'll dare to defend The Man with the Golden Gun and J. W. Pepper both if I have to.

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