Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, Pierce Brosnan steps into the Bond mould to clash with an old friend.
Legal wranglings between studios kept Bond off screens for years following Licence to Kill, during which time Timothy Dalton quietly vacated the iconic tuxedo. This left the door wide open for Pierce Brosnan, who was now free of the Remington Steele commitments that had kept him away from the part in 1987. Brosnan had always been within a whisker of Bond, but now he was finally getting his chance in the spotlight.
The six year production hiatus also forced the Broccoli family to recast several of the key MI6 roles, with Judi Dench becoming M and Samantha Bond taking over as Moneypenny. There was also a change in the director’s chair for the first time since 1979, with Martin Campbell replacing John Glen.
The major changes across the board positioned GoldenEye as something of a reboot for the Bond franchise. With the Cold War in the past and a new roster in front of the cameras and behind them, this was a Bond for the 1990s and it arrived with a hell of a bang.
Keep your friends close…
Nine years after the death of 006 (Sean Bean), Bond is on the case of Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) – a member of a crime syndicate. After the syndicate destroys a bunker in Russia with an EMP device, surviving programmer Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) crosses paths with Bond soon after he finds out that 006 faked his death and now leads the crime syndicate, with a plot to destabilise the world’s financial markets.
From its opening few minutes to its final frame, GoldenEye feels like a defiantly new James Bond franchise. The gun barrel music has changed and the first thing we see is a remarkable stunt in which Bond bungee jumps down the Contra Dam in Switzerland, doubling for a Soviet weapons facility. GoldenEye immediately marks itself out as something different and impressive, before Tina Turner’s title song even starts.
"I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War."
GoldenEye self-consciously throws off the shackles of Bond’s past. The script is littered with quips about the franchise’s history and the shortcomings of the Bond character, including his rampant sexism. Even the East vs. West themes come in for a skewering, with the plot initially adhering to that formula before the twist that the central villain is actually a figure from Bond’s past rather than a generic Soviet menace. This is a new Bond and a new ethos.
Sean Bean does a tremendous job as Alec Trevelyan (006), proving one of the most memorable villains in Bond history. He is driven more by hatred than greed and proves an intellectual match for Bond alongside being an arguably more talented physical presence. Their final face-off is perhaps the most even, impressive contest Bond has faced since Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. When they go mano a mano, there’s a genuine sense that Bond might not be able to win.
The action scenes in GoldenEye are tremendous across the board. Campbell proves to be a very capable helmer of action and there are some genuinely thrilling effects sequences. Brosnan’s charisma clearly helps. Whether he’s straightening his tie whilst barrelling down streets in a tank or inclining his head out of the way of bullets hitting a nearby wall, Brosnan adds a touch of subtle comedy to the action beats. He’s less serious than Dalton, but never invokes the goofy spirit of Roger Moore.
The female characters in GoldenEye are far better than in previous Bond instalments. Despite the rather unpleasant sex murders and Moore era puntastic name of Famke Janssen’s Onatopp, she at least emerges as a character who poses a genuine danger to Bond. Meanwhile, Izabella Scorupco brings a fierce intelligence and a notable lack of awe towards Bond as computer programmer Natalya. It’s particularly satisfying to watch her repeatedly get one over on Alan Cumming’s misogynistic slimeball Boris.
It isn’t just the traditional “Bond girls” who fare better than usual. The women of MI6 are also treated remarkably well. Samantha Bond is a Moneypenny who doesn’t moon over Bond, but takes him to task and actually refers to a date with another man, showing signs of an independence from 007 that no one else has ever brought to the role. Lois Maxwell certainly had a playful chemistry with Connery and Moore, but Bond seems like she could actually live without him.
"No one takes the time to do a really sinister interrogation anymore. It’s a lost art."
Better still is Judi Dench as the new M, becoming the first woman to take on the part and arguably the best performer of all time in the role. Dench plays M as a hardened woman with a mind for logic rather than macho impulse. Her initial conversation with Bond, in which she dubs him a “relic of the Cold War” serves as a perfect mission statement for GoldenEye and Brosnan’s era as a whole. This Bond is a spy struggling to find his identity in a world that doesn’t really seem to need people like him any more.
This is a film in which Bond is determined to find his place. With Brosnan’s gags, impressive action and a slightly toned down take on the character’s anachronistic womanising, GoldenEye remains an impressive entry in the franchise canon, only bested by a handful of the earlier movies.
An eye for success?
Released in the November of 1995, GoldenEye went on to become the most financially successful Bond film since Moonraker, when figures are adjusted for inflation. It did run into some troubles with classification bodies, thanks to the increased violence and some of the sexuality around the character of Xenia Onatopp. After some brief cuts, subsequently restored on DVD, the film managed to secure the commercially desirable 12 certificate here in the UK and equivalent PG-13 Stateside.
Reviews of GoldenEye were broadly positive, with Brosnan coming in for plenty of praise. Roger Ebert described Brosnan’s Bond as “psychologically complete” when compared to previous versions of the character and called the film itself “satisfactorily spectacular”. Kim Newman, writing in Empire Magazine, lauded GoldenEye as the best film in the Bond franchise since 1969 outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In Variety, the film was praised as a “dynamic entry” in the franchise that “pushed a bit further” in every aspect of its product.
Not every critic loved GoldenEye, though, Time noting that the conventions of the franchise were on “wobbly knees” after more than 30 years. Entertainment Weekly were equally negative, pointing out that the franchise had entered a “near-terminal state of exhaustion” in its advancing years.
"This time, Mr Bond, the pleasure will be all mine."
Twenty years on from its release, GoldenEye stands up as one of the most compelling Bond movies of the 50 year canon. Brosnan arrived on the scene with a potent and original take on Ian Fleming’s creation and the revitalised team across the entire production gave the series a new feel. GoldenEye got a new era of Bond started and it did so with a terrific action movie.
Next time, Bond clashes with a Murdoch-esque media mogul in Tomorrow Never Dies.
What do you think of GoldenEye? How does Brosnan compare to his predecessors in the role? Let me know in the comments section.