I’m not a fan of the Daniel Craig run as James Bond. Craig himself is great, and I enjoy watching him. It’s the writing and general handling of the franchise I don’t care for: using ear bleach for each movie theme while rejecting obviously superior songs, making Bond super-serious and dark to “Christopher Nolan” levels of pretension, entirely lacking the “adventure strip” elements of the series that made it distinct (whether the films were played straight or played for laughs), and worst of all insisting on featuring the most boring villains possible. The only interesting bad guy they’ve had since Craig took over is Le Chiffre, expertly portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, and even then he’s basically a background character (much like in the novel).
Since I’ve been on a Bond kick lately, I’ve been thinking about all this stuff non-stop, so I thought I’d write about the best Bond villains, and why they stand out as examples of what a Bond villain should be: more than memorable, definitely not boring, and not so cartoonish that they belong in an episode of Inspector Gadget.
This mysterious half-Chinese, half-German fiend is more than just a villain in the original Sean Connery adventure: he’s a presence that’s felt throughout the film. He has eyes and ears all over the Caribbean. No one has seen him, but everyone fears him — superstitious natives, spying femme fatales, and level-headed professors alike. All of them would rather swallow cyanide or die fighting than cross Dr. No. Throughout the movie, every reference to Dr. No is ominous: people practically mention his name in whispers, and no one dares go to Crab Key for fear that they’ll disappear into thin air like so many others have in the recent past. Legends abound that his island is inhabited by fire-breathing dragons that scare the pants off the natives; even Honey Rider, who frequents the island and easily eludes the guards, fears the dragon despite never having seen it before.
Most of the film is shot on location, or on natural-looking sets. It’s only when we enter the lair of Dr. No that the film becomes otherworldly: his personal rec room is massive and lavishly furnished and decorated. His prison is a gauntlet of pain and horror. His underground reactor room is like something out of a 1940’s adventure serial, with abstract architecture reminiscent of German Impressionist films of the silent era. When we finally meet Dr. No himself — in the last 25 minutes of the movie — he lives up to his foreboding reputation, carrying himself with an almost deathly calm, his hands replaced with fearsome metal prosthetics that can crush a man’s skull with little effort. His soft, eerie voice remains calm and collected at all times, even when he’s annoyed, making you dread to see what he’s like when he’s angry. And of course, Bond finds out the hard way why everyone was so afraid to anger this guy: when his nuclear reactor goes into meltdown courtesy of Bond, and everyone else starts running for the exits, Dr. No’s only concern is murdering Bond with his bare hands before the reactor has the chance to steal his kill.
Dr. No set the standard for the James Bond villain: cold, cunning, irrevocably evil, and perversely megalomaniacal in a certain special way. He alone brings the fantastical element to the original Bond film, before Bond was known for using gadgets and supercars. It’s almost impossible to top this magnificent bastard and his god-like presence.
In stark contrast to Dr. No, who exists mostly through cult of personality and doesn’t appear in the flesh until the end of the film, Goldfinger is introduced right from the start, and is virtually omnipresent: he’s in almost every scene from intro to credits, and he’s delightfully fun for the entire ride. Gert Frobe does a wonderful job giving the character a villainous magnetism without delivering an over-the-top performance, playing him as something of a prep school bully who is dangerous to cross. Michael Collins, who dubbed the character’s voice (since Gert was impossible to understand when he spoke English), is equally wonderful, matching Gert’s physical performance with a perfect smug bravado.
Goldfinger’s obsession with gold is a major part of what makes him iconic. He’s a golden-haired tycoon who always dresses in shades of yellow and gold, whether he’s in vest and sports coat, tuxedo, or golf duds. He rides around in a yellow Rolls-Royce Phantom III, which he uses to smuggle gold overseas. He’s a legitimate gold dealer and jeweler. And of course, he smothers Jill Masterson in gold paint for betraying him, in one of many iconic scenes he contributes to the James Bond canon.
In many cases, the films were much better than the source material, and this is especially the case with Goldfinger. The villain’s plot to break into Fort Knox but not steal a dime is far more interesting and diabolical than the preposterous heist from the book, which the film goes out of its way to ridicule. Trying to contaminate the US gold supply in order to skyrocket the value of his own gold makes Goldfinger a more credible bad guy, at least in the realm of pulp fiction.
There have been a lot of memorable villains since Goldfinger — Kamal Khan, Le Chiffre, Fiona Volpe, and even General Ourumov — but none have been nearly as great or iconic. The laser scene speaks for itself as one of the most memorable moments in cinema history. At the rate the franchise is going, they never will be this great again.
Red Grant (From Russia With Love)
A more down-to-earth Bond villain, but still one of the most fearsome. Grant is a cold, methodical, and terrifying professional killer: from the opening scene, where we see how quickly and effortlessly he kills his victims, we know that he’s one of the baddest dudes around, and that he’s being trained specifically to kill James Bond. From then on, everywhere Bond goes, Grant shadows him, killing anyone who threatens the spy’s life or tries to prevent him from accomplishing his mission. For most of the film, he never says a word, until near the very end when Bond has the girl and the Lektor on the Orient Express; then the killer finally makes his move and reveals himself, expertly catching Bond off-guard and taking him hostage. Had he not been such a greedy sadist, the Bond series would have ended on the train with the superspy’s gruesome death. Instead, he lets his guard down, leading to an awesomely brutal close-quarters brawl where he is eventually killed with the weapon he intended for Bond.
From Russia With Love does a great job using Chekhov’s Gun: it establishes how tough and deadly Grant is, and establishes his watch-garrotte weapon, but teases the viewer for the next hour and a half before finally bringing Bond and Grant together in a confrontation that’s definitely worth the wait. It does this just as well with Bond’s first gadget of the series: the spy briefcase with the tear gas trap and hidden combat knife. Again, once this gadget is introduced not fifteen minutes into the film, we’re reminded of it again and again, until the end when it becomes the means of defeating Grant.
Red Grant is a great cinematic bad guy who doesn’t need any quips or one-liners to be memorable or terrifying: he manages it through his physical presence and the cold, hateful gleam in his eyes courtesy of Robert Shaw. It takes talent to be that memorable without saying a word.
Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin steals every single shot he’s in. A tall, handsome, nearly albino computer chip tycoon, what makes Zorin stand out (besides being the only positive in an otherwise terrible film) is his boyish psychosis: his power completely unchecked, he’s a rich, spoiled kid running amok on the playground, taking and doing whatever he wants while the teachers are helpless to stop him. Along comes Bond to spoil his games, and he doesn’t like it one bit; he enjoys every chance he gets to make life miserable for Bond, and the look on his face when he gets a wonderfully grinchy idea — like dragging Bond across the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, hopefully sending him to his messy death on the street below — is nothing short of magical. He even gives Bond a bullyish grin and a “goodbye” wave just before he hits the bridge.
Even Zorin’s scheme shows what a bored, spoiled playboy he is: after starting his own commercial ventures against the wishes of his KGB masters — essentially rebelling against his parents — he decides it would be fun to level Silicon Valley in order to monopolize the microchip industry. He’s certainly ruthless enough to corner the market through legitimate means, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as causing an earthquake and wiping the Valley from the face of the earth.
Zorin, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is the last great Bond villain: a handsome albino problem-child who uses people like action figures, and discards them just as carelessly. A View to a Kill is worth watching for him alone.
Franz Sanchez (License to Kill)
I was on the fence about Sanchez as a great, iconic Bond villain, but I recently decided he belongs on the list after all. He lives in grotesque luxury and is obsessive over loyalty, to the point where Bond easily tricks him into murdering all his lieutenants. He has a fearsome reputation as a pre-Noriega drug baron. His fortune is so vast, he owns banks, casinos, politicians, and armed forces, and strongly influences many south american countries. And he always kills his enemies in the most brutal and vengeful ways possible. When he catches his girlfriend Lupe in bed with another man, he asks “What did he promise you? His heart?” and then promptly orders his pet killer Dario to cut out the man’s heart while he’s still alive. Later he throws henchman Milton Krest into a pressure chamber and pops him like a rotten tomato for his perceived treachery. He feeds Felix Leiter to a shark, costing him one of his legs; and when he finds out Bond is a double-agent, he tries to feed him feet-first into his cocaine shredder. It’s only fitting that he meet an equally gruesome fate: burned alive with his drug shipment.
Sanchez is a bad guy straight from the headlines of the 1980’s, so at first he seems more at home in an action movie from that era. His wealth, sadism, and self-destructive obsession with loyalty definitely make him stand out as a fearsome cinema baddie. What really earns him a place among the Bond villain greats is the fact that he would be right at home in the Eon films and the original Ian Fleming novels, and not just because elements from Flemings’ books were used in License to Kill: he’s reminiscent of the bad guys Fleming used in many of his books, who had subtle obsessive quirks but were otherwise believable as real-world villains. It’s easily Robert Davi’s best role.