Film Discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Nineteen: GoldenEye (1995)

Six years is always a long time in the film industry.  In 2013, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was seven films into its shared continuity; 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home was their 23rd entry.  Six years on from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, another Batman incarnation had been and gone, with a fresh reboot announced.  Never has six years felt so long, however, as it did between 1989’s Licence to Kill, and the return of Bond in 1995’s GoldenEye.  Much of this was due to the gap being unprecedented.  The longest break between entries before this came with 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me arriving a full three years after 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  In that case, the same man (Roger Moore) would occupy the role of Bond either side of the break, and the world was still recognisably similar to the one into which EON had released the previous entry.  Although 1977 became an important year for the Bond franchise, 1995 was of a different level of risk altogether.

Although often fighting the likes of SPECTRE, James Bond was a Cold War hero; the series defined by an unreconstructed lead character – a character with a love of nicotine, alcohol and women.  In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev was President of the Soviet Union, and Germany was two countries, with Berlin divided by a wall.  By 1995, the Soviet Union no longer existed, the wall had fallen, the Cold War was over, and smoking was becoming a frowned upon activity on screen (if not in life).  As the cinematic incarnation of James Bond had only ever existed in a time of severe East-West tensions – and with Bond’s attitude to women starting to look passé – it was a fair to question whether the character and series should be left in the past.

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1989’s Licence to Kill remains the weakest performer of the series, when adjusted for inflation.  Although an entry to which time has been kind, it retained many facets that were starting to look tired: Maurice Binder’s title sequences had failed to evolve since the mid-1970s; Richard Maibaum had been writing for the series for decades; and John Glen had directed five films in a row.  Although Timothy Dalton – and the 1989 film in general – was tarred, unfairly, with the malaise affecting the series; it was clear that Bond would need to be refreshed for any return.  Although Dalton could have returned, had he committed to do four or five, his reticence to sign for more than one – coupled with studio pressure for a change – led to the perfectly understandable desire that if the behind camera personnel were to be changed, then the leading man should be too.

Pierce Brosnan is currently (largely) out of vogue, in terms of his reputation as James Bond – something we’ll revisit at the end of his tenure.  Reputations in the Bond series, however, always wax and wane with the times, and the most immediate ex-Bond is usually the most harshly treated.  Whatever his merits (and he is not a personal favourite, to say the least), it is probably fair to say that his biggest failing was also his biggest strength: he didn’t really have a well-defined personal take on the role of James Bond.  This is a weakness, in so far as his era – popular at the time – now looks very bland.  His Bond lacks defining characteristics, and is accompanied by a couple of wildly overused expressions (the pain face; the narrow-the-eyes-and-purse-the-lips): a real shame when we consider how wildly charismatic this man was in the likes of 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, and the outstanding 2001 John Boorman film The Tailor of Panama.  Brosnan remains capable of so much more than he ever got to demonstrate in his time as Bond.  This reassuring, somewhat familiar package is exactly what the series needed in 1995, however.

Bond fans needed reassuring that the series would be, recognisably, the one with which they fell in love; more casual viewers had made it clear that they were not ready for the harder edges of Timothy Dalton, and general cinemagoers needed a series that could compete with the action cinema of the day.  A Bond from central casting, who could combine elements of what had come before – the feline movement of Connery, the humour of Moore (in theory, anyhow), was exactly what was required.  Hence, Pierce Brosnan makes his debut as a greatest hits Bond, in a greatest hits Bond film.  This ensures GoldenEye is always very well-regarded, but is very much safety-first: the series would have died, however, without safety-first.

GoldenEye begins in 1986 (we find out later), as James Bond and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean, as agent 006 – a marmite villain: a physical match for Bond, but Bean is not suited to the ridiculous posh voice, plus he’s really obviously a bad guy, even when in the 006 guise) are infiltrating the Arkangel chemical weapons facility in the then-Soviet Union.  In the midst of the mission, 006 is captured and killed by General Ourumov (Gottfried John).  Nine years later, Bond is in Monaco to observe Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen as a greatest hits villainess – fortunately a truly terrific one), a member of the Janus crime syndicate.  While there, Bond attempts, but fails, to prevent the theft (masterminded by Xenia) of a Eurocopter Tiger helicopter.  When the helicopter appears in satellite imagery of an electromagnetic pulse attack on a Russian bunker in Severnaya, Siberia, it becomes clear to British Intelligence that the long-fabled GoldenEye – an electromagnetic weapon (EMP) in orbit over Earth – exists, with the Eurocopter being able to withstand EMP devices.

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Assigned by the new M (Judi Dench) to investigate, Bond locates the (thought to be) sole survivor of the Severnaya attack, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco).  Through CIA operative Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker, in a second role, after portraying Brad Whitaker in The Living Daylights), Bond is granted time with Russian mobster Valentin Zukovsky (an underused Robbie Coltrane).  Zukovsky arranges a meeting with Janus, head of the crime syndicate to which Xenia is attached.  Upon meeting Janus, in an atmospheric night scene set in a graveyard, he discovers the crime boss to be Alec Trevelyan.  With the help of Ourumov, 006 had faked his death at Arkhangel.  Trevelyan is revealed as a descendent of Lienz Cossacks, who had collaborated with the Axis powers in World War II.  With his parents committing suicide in shame, Trevelyan was raised in the UK, with the British Government assuming he would not remember or understand what had happened.  Escaping an attempt on his life, Bond works with Natalya to prevent the facially scarred Alec (the two-faced Janus of his alter ego) launching a second GoldenEye blast at London.  With London hit, the former-006 would be able to cripple all electronic systems, steal an unlimited amount of money, then erase all evidence of the crime; thus leaving Britain smashed (“inflation adjusted for 1945”).  Facing a man every bit his equal, James Bond must act fast to prevent worldwide economic meltdown.

Let’s get an uncomfortable truth out of the way: more even than most Bond films, GoldenEye falls apart the moment you think about it.  From a pre-title that is remembered for the outstanding bungie jump stunt, this film is full of momentum, clouding plot holes and logical fallacies.  Take that sequence: Bond bungies off a dam in good weather, breaks into a building, and when he emerges is on a snowy cliff-top.  006 is shot with what later proves to be a blank from the same gun as a real bullet that killed someone else.  Plus, if Trevelyan’s death is staged, then someone needs to get away to tell that story.  If so, why are they trying so hard to kill Bond?  Seriously, not one lick of the pre-title sequence makes any sense whatsoever.

After the titles, if Bond is requiring of being evaluated psychologically (possibly for a return to service, if this is following the previous film), why is he already in Monaco on a mission?  Equally, how is 36 year-old Sean Bean a child of World War II, a full 50 years after that conflict ended?  (In this case, it was because it was originally written for then-57 year-old Anthony Hopkins.)  Also his final plan is about revenge – until it is about money.  The script is wildly inconsistent.  This film came after a period of building pent-up demand for the character, and we’re now at a point in time where film critics are predominantly from a generation for whom nostalgia for this film is very strong.  Whisper it though – GoldenEye isn’t quite as good as you remember (it is, however, really fun – not the same thing). It hits the fan base right in their nostalgia, as it feels like a classic Bond film, and was fresh, new and attractive, after a long-gap and following a film that damaged – and could have killed – the franchise.

The key, though, is not to think too hard.  Although visibly stiffer and more nervous than he will become as he relaxes into the part (see the Q scene – and, literally, just watch Bond – for a man trying a little too hard), Pierce Brosnan brings a lightness and a joy to proceedings.  Bond is suddenly fun – for the first time in over a decade.  Janssen is one of the great villainous sidekicks of the series.  Martin Campbell, best known at this point for TV’s Edge of Darkness and the Ray Liotta Film No Escape, makes an assured first entry as director.  Judi Dench proves, finally, that Bernard Lee could have an equal as M.  The new design for M’s office is a classy part of a visual language for the series freshened-up for this film.  Most notably, for this entry Daniel Kleinman designed his first title sequence – set to a Tina Turner song (written by U2’s Bono and The Edge) – and immediately blew away anything created by Maurice Binder in the latter’s 27 years with the series.

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GoldenEye benefits more from rose coloured spectacles than any other film in the series, but conversely, it is perfect in terms of being 100% what EON needed to put out in 1995.  It needed to look and to sound refreshed: it does.  It needed a Bond with wide appeal and fewer rough edges, that could deliver a lighter experience than Timothy Dalton: he did.  It needed to be relevant in a World where the Cold War was over, and address the fact that Bond was seen, by many, as an anachronism: it did; with Dench’s M referring to Bond as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War”.  Finally, for the many who had skipped Dalton, it needed to prove that times had moved on from Roger Moore, and that the man playing Bond could make a decent fist of the action, in a competitive, action-heavy era: it did – with the Bond-Trevelyan final fight being a crunching highlight of the series.

James Bond was back.  There were lessons to learn: Eric Serra’s awful score, commissioned off the back of his work on Nikita and Léon: The Professional, would need to be followed by something more traditional.  Budget would need to be increased, with GoldenEye having some obvious corner cutting, particularly in some of the model work (not to disrespect the career achievements of the late-Derek Meddings).  At $60 million, the budget here simply reflects the level of risk in bringing back a series that was no longer a sure bet.  With a return of $355 million (a series high, unadjusted), the shackles could come off.  Two years later Bond would be back, inhabited by a more confident lead, in a series ready to move on from nostalgia, and looking to the contemporary, media-driven age for inspiration.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

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