The 25 greatest set-pieces from James Bond films

The 25 greatest set-pieces from James Bond films

The James Bond franchise will turn sixty next year, and, for the first time since 2002, it will be in search of a new lead. We've offered up numerous suggestions, but Eon Productions is known for its unpredictability. Casting-wise. When it comes to the 007 formula, there's one thing you can count on: spectacle. Big, exciting action set pieces with jaw-dropping stunts and endlessly inventive gadgetry. This is why the series has survived twelve presidencies. Times change, people evolve, but spectacle endures. With the release of the latest Bond film, "No Time to Die", here are twenty-five sequences we'll never forget.

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25. Bond v. Bambi (and Thumper) - "Diamonds Are Forever"

Bond v. Bambi (and Thumper) - "Diamonds Are Forever"

This bizarro sequence perfectly captures the tackiness of ‘70s era Bond, and thus deserves a sheepish salute. Someone had to whet viewers’ appetites for the hardball likes of Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, and you won’t find a more hilariously dated set piece than Sean Connery getting knocked around by a pair of lovely, kung-fu-trained assassins named Bambi and Thumper. The ladies knock Bond around the space-age living room (Bambi nearly strangles Bond with her thighs) and eventually end up in the pool, where henchmen break up the almost deadly festivities. This is the less problematic version of the fight in “From Russia with Love”.

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24. The Corkscrew - "The Man with the Golden Gun"

The Corkscrew - "The Man with the Golden Gun"

This is a fairly standard car chase at first, and a highly annoying one at that given the presence of Clifton James’s J.W. Pepper. Why the redneck Louisiana sheriff from “Live and Let Die” would be vacationing in Thailand is a mystery for the ages; all that matters is that he’s along for the ride when Bond improvises a jump across a collapsed bridge with two spiraling ends. The “corkscrew jump” made the Guinness Book of World Records, but plays rather underwhelmingly in the movie thanks to composer John Barry’s baffling decision to score the stunt to a slide whistle.

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23. The Centrifuge - "Moonraker"

The Centrifuge - "Moonraker"

Roger Moore’s fourth Bond movie is often singled out as the cartoonish nadir of his run, but it’s got a go-for-broke silliness that proves infectious. And yet its best scene is one of genuine peril: while touring the manufacturing facilities of the film’s villain, Hugo Drax, Bond gets trapped in a centrifuge controlled by the baddie’s henchman. This is easily the most low-key entry on this list, but, among Bond fans, it’s a memorably tense sequence. We’ve never seen a man centrifuged to death, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be a fate Bond has considered. Six years later, John Landis gave Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd a comedic whirl in “Spies Like Us”.

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22. Remote Control BMW - "Tomorrow Never Dies"

Remote Control BMW - "Tomorrow Never Dies"

Bond driving a snazzy new BMW via remote control whilst crouched in the vehicle’s back seat may not be terribly impressive in the self-driving car age, but pulling this amid a flurry of bullets and missiles in a parking garage deserves a tip of the Walther P99. It would’ve been nice to pull this set-piece out into the open, but the final, three-story leap into an Avis storefront is one heckuva capper.

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21. Sea Lotus - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

Sea Lotus - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

This sequence caused a splash in 1977 with its Lotus Esprit that converts into a submarine, and, well, it’s a pretty impressive piece of gadget showmanship. The car has to do more than simply drive underwater, so a submersible appears out of nowhere to fire off a torpedo or two. Once the sub is neutralized, we get the money shot: Bond driving ashore on a crowded beach where onlookers gawk at the automotive marvel. You expect a bit more from the sequence, but Moore’s Bond movies weren’t big on setup/payoff.

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20. Opening Scene - "The Living Daylights"

Opening Scene - "The Living Daylights"

Bond badly needed a shot of adrenaline after two too many sluggish installments with an aging Roger Moore, so watching Timothy Dalton (and his stunt double) sprint across the elevated side of a mountain road and fight his way into a truck with a rogue double-0 agent with the two-fisted grit of Indiana Jones was a welcome change of pace (that probably saved the franchise). The parachute stunt out the back of a plummeting vehicle is terrific, and it’s nice to see our new Bond alleviate the boredom of a rich woman drifting aimlessly on her yacht. There should’ve been more Dalton Bonds.

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19. Tanker Shootout - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

Tanker Shootout - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

This is a pretty standard-issue gunfight save for the location: a massive tanker that can dock multiple submarines. It’s an outsized finale in a set so massive that Stanley Kubrick was consulted as to its lighting. Director John Glen orchestrates the mayhem skillfully enough, but the real fun is in watching loads of extras run around and fall off this gargantuan, waterlogged set.

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18. Tank Chase - "GoldenEye"

Tank Chase - "GoldenEye"

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut was six years in the making, so the producers were keen to remind audiences that nobody does it bigger or better than 007. There are several rip-roaring set pieces in “Goldeneye”, but it’s hard to top the sight of Bond piloting a tank through the streets of St. Petersberg (Russia, not Florida, though that’d certainly spice up Spring Training) in pursuit of a rogue commander. There’s nowhere the bad guys can go that Bond can’t literally barrel through, and Brosnan looks predictably dashing at the controls as he lays waste to everything in his path. The chase hits its absurd peak when a bronze statue of a soldier on horseback alights atop the tank. It's Bond meets the best of ‘90s action excess.

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17. Opening Ski Chase - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

Opening Ski Chase - "The Spy Who Loved Me"

“But James, I need you.” “So does England.” A more brightly lit, less frenetic variation on the ski chase from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, does feature some nifty, ski-bound shots through tight, icy corridors, and concludes with Bond sailing off the end of a cliff. As his skis fall away and he plummets to his seeming death, a Union Jack parachute flutters out of his backpack. Cue Carly Simon with the best Bond theme of ‘em all!

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16. Return of the Aston Martin - "The Living Daylights"

Return of the Aston Martin - "The Living Daylights"

The Aston Martin makes its triumphant return to the Bond franchise with this highly modified V8 Vantage, which gets shown off in all its lethal glory during this snowbound car chase in Bratislava. Bond uses a laser to slice off the undercarriage of a police car, breaks up a roadblock with grille-mounted missiles, drives around in a barn (!?!), saws a circle in an iced-over river with an exposed rim, convert the auto into a ski-borne vehicle and rocket-launches his way into non-communist Austria. This is the platonic ideal of a Bond car chase.

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15. Underwater Combat - "Thunderball"

Underwater Combat - "Thunderball"

The Bond series went gadget crazy with this dull installment, but there’s no denying the underwater battle between the U.S. Navy and SPECTRE. It kicks off with a volley of spears fired from divers and submersibles; then Bond, outfitted with a missile-firing air tank, swims into the fray. Random sea creatures drift through the battle, including a shark, which gets speared multiple times for no discernable reason. Though impressively staged, the film failed to usher in a new era of underwater hand-to-hand combat.

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14. Bond v. Oddjob - "Goldfinger"

Bond v. Oddjob - "Goldfinger"

From the moment Auric Goldfinger’s thick-as-a-tank henchman decapitates a stone statue with his razor-rimmed bowler hat, we know poor James Bond will be tangling with this formidable fella before the film is through. With time ticking down to a nuclear explosion at Fort Knox, Bond tries everything to incapacitate the burly Oddjob; he throws a gold bar at him, bashes him across the face with one, and even tries to use his bowler against him. That last gambit turns out to be a ruse; when Oddjob tries to dislodge his hat from a steel bar, Bond plunges a live electrical wire into the metal, killing him.

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13. Ninjas in a Volcano - "You Only Live Twice"

Ninjas in a Volcano - "You Only Live Twice"

It ain’t Snakes on a Plane. It’s better! Blofeld’s volcanic lair (some of production designer Ken Adam’s finest work) gets breached by ninja troops, which leads to a combination gun-and-sword fight that surely holds the cinematic record for most rappelling in a single frame. This isn’t “Seven Samurai” or “13 Assassins”; it’s Hollywood cultural appropriation run amok that muddled American kids’ understanding of ninjas for a solid decade. But that curiosity helped lead to a deeper appreciation for martial arts, which, on balance, has been beneficial. It also encouraged every juvenile delinquent in your neighborhood to stock up on throwing stars.

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12. Climb to Kristatos's Stronghold - "For Your Eyes Only"

Climb to Kristatos's Stronghold - "For Your Eyes Only"

A true white-knuckler. Bond attempts to infiltrate opium-smuggler Kristatos’s mountain lair by climbing up the ninety-degree vertical face of a cliff. One of Kristatos’s henchmen is alerted to Bond’s attempt, and he begins dislodging 007’s piton’s one by one. Stuntman Rick Sylvester performed the freefall that ends with Bond jerking back toward the mountain. Our hero’s down to his last piton when he gets close enough to hit the saboteur with a throwing knife. If you’re not a fan of heights, you might do well to look at anything other than the screen during this sequence.

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11. Cargo Jet - "The Living Daylights"

Cargo Jet - "The Living Daylights"

Yes, you’re really watching two stuntmen (B.J. Worth and Jake Lombard) hanging from a cargo net over the Mojave Desert outside of a cargo jet in this thrilling sequence from the most underrated of Bond movies. The John Barry score (his 007 swan song) heightens the tension as Maryam d’Abo hopes to hell the right guy winds up plummeting to his death. Oh, and there’s a timebomb in the mix.

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10. Speedboat Chase - "Live and Let Die"

Speedboat Chase - "Live and Let Die"

Director Guy Hamilton makes ample, inventive use of his Louisiana locations with this wild speedboat chase that finds Bond evading Kananga’s henchmen by hopping, skipping, and jumping every obstacle in his way. This sequence introduces redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who single-handedly sets the cartoonish tone for Roger Moore’s 007 run going forward. It’s funny, thrilling, and far more entertaining than anything in its wretched predecessor, “Diamonds Are Forever”.

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9. Ski Chase - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

Ski Chase - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

Shot in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, this is the first and still, the finest skiing set piece of the Bond franchise. 007’s escape Blofeld’s Piz Gloria lair draws the attention of the evil mastermind and his henchmen, who illuminate his night flight with flares. When Bond gets a ski shot off, he makes do with one, evading his pursuers as they wipe out into trees or take a very long, quite deadly plummet off the side of a cliff. There’s some rear projection f/x, but it’s mostly practical stunt work shot and edited to perfection by the great Peter Hunt. Steven Soderbergh wrote a paean to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” years ago, calling it “the best Bond film” in terms of pure cinema.

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8. Opening - "GoldenEye"

Opening - "GoldenEye"

When James Bond returned after a six-year absence in 1995, the character found himself thrust into a transitional period, where the indestructible musclemen of the 1980s were being replaced by vulnerable everymen. Where did Bond, a wisecracking Cold War relic, fit in the midst of the Clinton Era? Director Martin Campbell and star Pierce Brosnan came in cool with a world-class bungee-jumping stunt that held on its performer until he unholstered his gun. It’s one of the most expertly executed stunt sequences you’ll ever see, and, for one brief second, it signaled a stylistic harmony between filmmaker and actor. This was going to be a smart, precise spectacle. Seven years later, Brosnan’s Bond was driving an invisible car.

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7. Havana - "No Time to Die"

Havana - "No Time to Die"

The centerpiece of Daniel Craig’s emotionally charged farewell to the Bond franchise finds 007 teaming up with CIA operative Paloma (Ana de Armas) and the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). It’s the flip side of the Bambi/Thumper sequence in “Diamonds Are Forever”; they’re as tough and sexy as Bond, but they’ve complete agency. They’re determined to capture Obruchev and could accomplish this task with or without Bond. In one thrilling set-piece, you get to see Bond once again prove his mettle while coming off as a total relic. We’re obviously not rooting for it, but at some point, we do expect you to die, Mr. Bond.

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6. Parkour! - "Casino Royale"

Parkour! - "Casino Royale"

After the cult success of Pierre Morel’s “District B13” in the mid-2000s, everyone was doing the parkour. Kids parkoured to school, mail carriers parkoured the mail, Tom Brokaw parkoured the news… we were a planet of parkourin’ fools. So when EON relaunched the James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig, they kicked off the movie with 007 parkouring his way through a construction site in one of the series most grueling foot chases. In all seriousness, this gritty new Bond drew accusations of Bourne envy, but Bond, as he always does, persevered.

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5. Millenium Dome - "The World Is Not Enough"

Millenium Dome - "The World Is Not Enough"

Before it turns into the most average of Brosnan’s Bond flicks, “The World Is Not Enough” delivers arguably the finest opening action sequence in the franchise’s history. An assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) has just cut out of MI6 headquarters on a speedboat, forcing Bond to commandeer a prototype watercraft out of Q’s workshop and chase the fleeing killer all over the Thames. Bond’s diminutive, rocket-propelled vessel allows him to snake through tight waterways and skid across cement surfaces. He finally bursts through a seafood restaurant and hurtles toward his target in front of the newly built Millenium Dome. We even get some hot-air balloon action before this all comes to an explosive head. The stunts are sensational, the action is gasp-inducing… shame about the rest of the movie.

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4. Opening - "Skyfall"

Opening - "Skyfall"

The rooftop motorcycle chase would’ve been more than sufficient to land this Istanbul opener in the top ten, but then we land on a speeding train where an unarmed Bond is forced to use an excavator to fend off a machine gun-wielding heavy. The construction vehicle also allows Bond to form a makeshift bridge, which gets him onto the next carriage where he is accidentally shot by Moneypenny. Capping this sequence off with Adele’s superb “Skyfall” knocks it into the 007 stratosphere.

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3. Piz Gloria Finale - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

Piz Gloria Finale - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

Again, listen to Soderbergh. This is an exquisitely shot and edited set-piece that kicks off with three helicopters assaulting Blofeld’s Piz Gloria stronghold, proceeds to crosscut between a tightly staged firefight and Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) holding her own (and eventually killing) one of Blofeld’s thugs, then concludes with a (literally) breakneck bobsled chase. Director Peter Hunt’s aerial, exterior and interior photography matches perfectly; you’re always aware of where the characters are (including Bond as he belly-slides down an icy slope, machine gun blazing), and what they’re trying to achieve. This is how it’s done.

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2. Shanghai - "Skyfall"

Shanghai - "Skyfall"

Sam Mendes is thus far the first and only Best Director Oscar winner to play in the Bond sandbox, and he brought along one of the world’s best cinematographers, Roger Deakins, with him. In this brilliantly staged sequence, 007 has finally caught up to the assassin, Patrice, who nearly got him killed in the aforementioned opening scene. He tracks him to a skyscraper and fights him in a darkened interior illuminated solely by the garish exterior lighting of the neighboring building. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful dance of violence, easily the most artful passage in any James Bond movie.

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1. Fisticuffs on the Orient Express - "From Russia with Love"

Fisticuffs on the Orient Express - "From Russia with Love"

Robert Shaw gave away four inches to Sean Connery in this classic train compartment brawl, but you’d never guess it from Terence Young’s masterful staging. This isn’t just the best action sequence in a Bond movie, it’s one of the most brutally realistic punch-ups in film history. Bond relies on his wits to get the early upper hand over Red, but over the ensuing two minutes, it feels like it’s anyone’s fight. The sequence took three weeks to shoot, with the actors performing most of their own stunts. Given the tight quarters, there’s no shortage of props and objects to bang up against. You feel this one when it’s over.

Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.

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