In which I destroy any remaining goodwill people harbor towards me.
The character of James Bond has been around, in movie format, for almost 50 years. Commander Bond, agent 007 of MI6, made his film debut in 1962's Dr. No and has been, minus a six-year hiatus (1989-1995), a steady presence in theaters ever since (the character had previous TV and radio representation, but we won't concern ourselves with those). The 23rd "official" film -- official meaning produced by EON Productions -- comes out in November 2012. It's the second highest grossing film franchise of all time (behind Harry Potter, though don't be surprised if Captain Jack Sparrow knocks it off in the next few years as well).
Given all that, it's high time we named the best Bond.
In This Corner...and This Other Corner: I'm not doing six of these. Sean Connery is the first, and many consider the best, 007. He was followed by George Lazenby, who quit after one film, after which EON brought back Connery. Roger Moore remains the actor with the most "official" Bond movies with seven (Connery returned for the seventh time in the non-EON Never Say Never Again), and was also the oldest actor to portray 007 (58 years old when A View to a Kill came out in 1985...Connery was 53 in NSNA).
Moore was followed by Timothy Dalton, who actually turned the role down in 1968 because he felt he was too young. Dalton hung on for two movies, resigning before his contractually agreed-upon third film due to legal issues surrounding MGM/UA's sale and the licensing of the back Bond catalog. He was replaced by Pierce Brosnan, who only failed to take the role earlier because he was still starring in Remington Steele. Brosnan's tenure started out strong with the superior Goldeneye, but soon lapsed into Moore-levels of camp. The jury's still out on current 007 Daniel Craig, though his movies are both in the upper ranks of the franchise's box office.
One of 007's trademarks, at least until recent years, is his gift for zingers. People think the offhand one-liner after killing a bad guy came into being during the '80s action era, but has been dropping verbal science (Bond mots?) since the Kennedy administration.
Without weighing this category to account for the Roger Moore One-Liner Era, Moore wins in a walk. Connery probably comes in second, no one else even comes close.
Best Bond? Really, Who Cares About James Bond? This is movies, man. Who cares if Greedo shot first? Or if Ted Turner colorized Casablanca? Of if they remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
James Bond may be, as M refers to him in Goldeneye, "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur," and "a relic of the Cold War." Or he might be that last shout-out to a bygone era, a mythologically simpler time, when your enemies were either monolithically evil (the U.S.S.R.) or superlatively deranged (Max Zorin). He's cinematic comfort food; probably not for everyday consumption, but perfectly fine -- and enjoyable -- in moderation.
What cares about Bond? I do. And so (probably) do you, if you're wasting time reading this.
The Movies: Whatever your opinions of each particular Bond, each has made at least (and, in some cases, only) one better-than-average flick.
Connery -- Arguably the strongest catalog, with Goldfinger (popularly regarded as the best of the bunch), Thunderball (my favorite of his) and Dr. No. NSNA was pretty damn good, too.
Lazenby -- For all the breaking of the 4th wall and Austin Powers-esque costumes, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a superior film. Poor George quit on his contract because, in the words of his agent, no one would care about spies in the '70s. Hope he fired that dude.
Moore -- A long track record as 007 that produced three legitimately good entries (Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) and three of the worst (Moonraker, Octopussy and A View To a Kill). Still, to my generation, he was Bond for most of our formative years.
Dalton -- His movies represent a transition between the goofball antics of Moore's stuff and the bigger budget, semi-serious Brosnan era. The Living Daylights is the best example, as it also had Bond dealing with more down-to-earth problems than cartoon supervillains.
Brosnan -- The former Remington Steele was tasked with bringing Bond out of the Cold War, which he did by...taking on a former Soviet general (and his old colleague, 006). Goldeneye is damn good, everything else...not so much.
Craig -- I'll point out I was one of the only people optimistic about Craig's version of 007, and Casino Royale is legitimately one of the top films in the franchise. I've warmed up to Quantum of Solace, but will reserve overall judgment until "Bond 23" comes out next year.
Character Counts: When giving final consideration to the question at hand, I place a great deal of weight on what author Ian Fleming initially intended for the character. The James Bond of Fleming's books is cold, ruthless and efficient at his job, which -- not to put too fine a point on it -- is to kill people. He has government sanction to murder in the name of national security, and questions of good or evil are ultimately ephemeral. All dependent on, in the words of Dr. No, "points on a compass."
I think Craig, Connery and Dalton all understood this. In a world where The Dark Knight grosses $1 billion, gritty trumps goofy, which has made it easy for Craig to be the darkest Bond to date. Dalton's a close second, though we'll never know how his interpretation might have evolved. Connery gets points for the early movies, but certainly not for Diamonds Are Forever (in spite of the presence of Plenty O'Toole).
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The Verdict; Ordinarily, I'd do something ca-razy here and declare Timothy Dalton the winner. And in some respects, he is. He's a better mix of 007's dark and light sides, but without veering too far either way, unlike, respectively, Craig and Moore. Problem is, we never got a good sense of where his character was going. The latest efforts with Daniel Craig have a defined arc that carries across multiple films, which is unique to the franchise (not counting using Blofeld as a repeat villain or successive appearances by "Jaws") and interesting to watch. If Craig can recover from the (minor) stumble of Quantum of Solace, I may be prepared to crown him in a few years.
Still, it's really hard to look past Connery's body of work. Hell, he made one of the best Bond movies (even if it wasn't "official") 15 years after his preceding one. Jetpacks and Japanese ninja schoolgirls aside, he's still what many people consider the archetypal 007.
But you know what? Given time, I think Dalton could've taken him. Because he was truest to the literary character, because he was seasoned without being ridiculously old, because I'm taking future potential into consideration, and because this is an arbitrary and capricious process. I'm calling it for Dalton. Hate on, haters.