Photo: James Bond 007/YouTube
2022 marks 60 years of James Bond on film, with Dr. No hitting theaters in the U.K. way back on October 5, 1962. Over the course of that run, it’s become one of moviegoing’s most reliable consistencies. Star Wars comes and goes, and the MCU is still in its tween years. Bond is constant.
As the decades have passed, the franchise has changed shape to fit the times, from the Roger Moore era aiming to adhere to the theme of successful genre films of the moment to the Daniel Craig years starting as a response to the post-9/11 rigidity of the Jason Bourne movies. Even the last year alone has seen the world of Bond rocked by monumental change. Amazon’s acquisition of MGM has made Prime Video the new home of all things Bond moving forward (as of this writing, most of the catalogue is licensed out to Paramount+, but it will default back to Amazon soon), and Craig made as graceful an exit as we’ve ever seen from the role. The future of Bond is in flux, though no matter what form it takes from here or has taken in the past, there are certain tenets that have remained steadfast: vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred), stellar tailoring, exotic locales (filmed on location), and, of course, high-speed chases in the coolest cars you’ve ever laid eyes on (plus the odd helicopter or two). In 60 years of Bond, we’ve seen some great vehicle chases. Here, what we’d call the cream of the crop.
It’s not like Dr. No and From Russia With Love are devoid of pursuits, but Goldfinger is, in so many ways, the origin of not only the Bond vehicle chase but of the Bond movie as a whole. Watching the first two installments of the franchise is watching it find its footing in real time; Goldfinger is when the formula is cracked, when the idea of a James Bond film as it exists in the cultural consciousness is formed.
As such, the tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 (complete with a veritable Mario Kart loadout of gadgets and weaponry) exists to this day as the de facto Bond car with its signature car-chase set piece standing out as one of the franchise’s best. It’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all peak of the franchise, but it’s hard to argue with the classics.
You Only Live Twice features an all-time-greatest gadget from Q Branch, a pocket-size helicopter (specifically a Wallis WA-116) lovingly dubbed Little Nellie. Bond takes Nellie to the skies as part of a thrilling chase featuring a bevy of full-size choppers. It’s a bit like seeing a gang of Harley-Davidsons take on a moped and the moped coming out on top. Shot across Japan and Spain (the move to the latter due to restrictions on explosions being filmed in the Japanese national park where the shoot was taking place), it’s a feat of camerawork that’ll have you wondering how the hell they pulled it off way back in 1967. Even the rear projection for Sean Connery’s close-ups is pretty seamless, a cut above other films of the era utilizing the same technology.
Maligned upon its initial release, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has taken on the Real Ones Know reputation of the Bond films. It features the only one-off Bond performance, with Australian model George Lazenby taking over for Connery after his first split from the series. Director Peter R. Hunt took the opportunity to craft a Bond film unlike any to have come before it, centering the film’s narrative on the romance between Bond and Tracy di Vicenzo, the daughter of a crime lord. Where other Bond films are loud, fast, and fun, OHMSS is quiet, cerebral, and hypermodern for the time, utilizing mod styling, stunning cinematography, and a gonzo supervillain plot from Telly Savalas’s Blofeld.
The film is anchored by its action centerpiece toward the end of the second act, a car chase across snow and icy roads featuring Tracy’s gorgeous Mercury Cougar bookended by breathtaking alpine-skiing sequences. It’s an opus of a set piece that has transcended the franchise, its most prominent influence being the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. If you’ve never seen the original, it’s not too late to remedy that.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Live and Let Die boat chase introduces a genuine contender for all-time-worst James Bond character in Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a Louisiana cop who inexplicably gets brought back (in Thailand no less!) in Moore’s follow-up, The Man With the Golden Gun. He tanks that film and nearly does irreparable damage to Live and Let Die, which manages instead to escape with the reputation as one of Moore’s best outings as 007.
Setting aside the borderline war crime that is J.W. Pepper, the speedboat bayou chase is everything great about the Roger Moore era condensed into a single set piece. Moore’s films are marked by a reliance on comic relief and plots that tend to skew a bit gonzo. The stuntwork and set pieces throughout his run are less concerned with playing it safe or being taken seriously. It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, with the speedboat chase paying off in spades. Boats career across the Louisiana bayou, smashing into one another and catching air that would leave Tony Hawk jealous. The crew used a total of 26 boats during the shooting of the scene; by the end of it, 17 of them were completely destroyed. Like I said, high risk, high reward.
Did you ever play with Hot Wheels in the bathtub and decide mid-drive that some of them were also secretly submarines capable of naval travel and/or combat? No? Just me? In any case, The Spy Who Loved Me carries this premise to screen with its bonkers Lotus Esprit chase. The car on its own is a particularly memorable one before it hits the water thanks to Lotus’s hypermodern (at the time) design principles. Today, it comes off almost as minimalist with its sleek, angular frame. A less generous writer might say it looks like a car rendered through PS1 graphics. This writer would also say that, but he would say it in a complimentary tone.
The car’s transformation into a submarine is when the chase is truly elevated in the Bond pantheon, though. As the wheels turn to their sides and the dashboard switches to a nautical control panel, it feels like pure wish fulfillment. The underwater skirmish that follows is thrilling, but it’s the moment of the vehicle’s transformation that cements it as one of the best James Bond vehicle chases.
Timothy Dalton’s short tenure as Bond stood underappreciated for some time, but fans have mostly come around to his take on the character. Dalton’s two-film run saw an approach to Bond that served as a polar opposite to Moore’s, a brooding, intense performance light on jokes and heavy on glowering. At times, it plays almost parodic, with Licence to Kill featuring some of the more senselessly brutal moments in the entire Bond catalogue. Still, it’s at its best in moments like the tanker chase in the same film.
We’re so used to associating Bond with sleek performance vehicles like Aston Martin, Lotus, and BMW. This set piece puts Bond behind the wheel of a gas tanker far less wieldy than the sports cars he’s used to as he charges down a gang of bad guys and tries not to crash into a rival 18-wheeler. If either of them screws up, they both get blown to the sky. It’s a thrilling, grounded chase that still manages unintentional comic relief in the form of the rival tanker being driven by a guy who already constitutes the second-best onscreen depiction of Mario (below Bob Hoskins and above Chris Pratt).
Oftentimes, a Bond car chase is driven (sorry) by simple goals: Bond is trying to catch someone or someone is trying to catch Bond. Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye, which introduced Pierce Brosnan to the role of 007, posits that a car chase can serve grander means, namely providing a space in which two extremely hot people can drive their cars about how much they want to bone each other.
The two extremely hot people in question are Brosnan’s Bond and Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, a femme fatale who kills men by crushing them to death between her thighs (I hope whoever wrote her into the script is a billionaire). Bond is behind the wheel of his classic DB5 while Onatopp is manning a Ferrari F355. They speed through a winding mountain road with the utmost hornt, frequently letting their focus drift from the road (irresponsible!) to make goo-goo eyes at each other. As Xenia finally drives off, Bond is so (again, sorry) revved up that he has to go have sex with a different woman.
The Daniel Craig era is feast or famine, featuring some of the highest highs of Bond and a couple cavernous lows. If there’s a unifying factor throughout the five-film run, it’s the opening set pieces, all of which rank among the best the franchise has seen to date. No Time to Die offers a real contender (more on that later), but in terms of the best of them, it’s hard to argue with Skyfall. Spanning cars, motorbikes, construction vehicles, and a moving train, it’s a propulsive tour de force of action that features comprehensible stakes (the bad guys have a hard drive with all of MI6’s undercover agents’ identities; Bond must get it or their covers are blown) and taut storytelling holding the action together. It also features his first meeting with Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny, and despite the dire circumstances, their chemistry sizzles. Perhaps most notably, it ends on a memorable bit of storytelling rather than fading into the next set piece, with M ordering Moneypenny to take the shot that misses its target and takes down Bond instead. There’s a real argument to be made that Skyfall is the best James Bond movie of all time. It remains up for debate, but it’s tough to dispute its opening’s claim as the franchise’s best vehicle chase (and one of its standout action sequences — period).
Craig’s penultimate outing as Bond is the weakest of his run, but boy, does it open with a banger. Set amid a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico (and perhaps serving as a callback to the opening of Live and Let Die), it follows Bond through a single take as he pursues a mark through the crowd. Eventually the pursuit takes flight — literally — as Bond forces himself aboard the helicopter his mark is using to escape. The two fight for their lives as the chopper careers through the sky, tilting back and forth and going fully upside down for a spell.
It’s technically a bit of a cheat to put this entry on here, given there’s only one helicopter involved in the “vehicle chase,” but it’s a chase and there is a vehicle, so, you know. It counts.
The Craig years were defined by a grounded, real-world take on Bond that largely served as a response to the Brosnan films’ jumping the shark. It’s funny, then, to consider that his run ends on the most Metal Gear Solid–ass Bond film possible, from the deranged nanobot-plague plot to the video-game logic of some of the action set pieces. Mind you, these are pros, not cons. No Time to Die rules and finally gives Craig a chance to have some fun after a run of outings that skewed grim.
The film kicks off with a vehicle chase for the ages with Bond either in pursuit of or being pursued by a gang of SPECTRE agents. This chase has everything: cars (including one last appearance by the DB5!), motorcycles, and a large herd of sheep. It’s a weird, wonderful note to kick off a weird, wonderful ending for a guy who has defined Bond for multiple generations of fans.