Casino Royale appears to have been crowned the once and future king of the Bond reboot, and it is the better movie, but the decisions made during the extended hiatus leading to Goldeneye proved far more decisive and crucial to the continued relevance of the series as a viable box office franchise. As with the Craig films (thus far), Brosnan’s era failed to make good on its initial promise, but it had all the tools to do so if it had elected to pick the wheat from the chafe. Goldeneye revitalises and reenergises Bond in a manner still palpable two decades on. It fails in two significant areas, one of which is by no means singular to this picture, but disappointing nonetheless. The other is more of a concern in how it has influenced the Bond to come, a seed that had been planted in the brief Dalton tenure but which would become increasingly pervasive and ill-fitting in a series that had hitherto made a virtue of its shallowness.
Dealing with the second of these first, the biggest bind in revisiting Goldeneye is the incessant need of screenwriters Bruce Feirstein and Jeffrey Caine (from a story by Michael France; only Feirstein would contribute to further outings, both the next two) to address Bond’s waywardness in moving with the times (his sexism) and his tortured inner life. The former has become less of an obsession since, but here it’s really quite tiresome. Bond’s receiving a psych evaluation from Serena Gordon (whose comic timing is great) the first time we see him (in the present); it’s a very contrary sequence, on the one hand recognising Bond as the thoroughbred womaniser, on the other suggesting any career-minded woman (and this extends through to M, to an extent, despite the producers offering an olive branch to gender equality by casting pre-Oscar winner Judi Dench in the role) will inevitably be gagging for it from 007. “As you can see, I have no problem with female authority” announces Bond, amid innuendo about the size of his engine (the sequence includes Bond racing Famke Janssen’s Onatopp).
The gags are very much of a Roger Moore order and, while Brosnan can do the smut better than most, he can’t make a bad joke good by virtue of just being his inimitable self (as Moore always could). The result, accompanied by Eric Serra’s “idiosyncratic” score, is the sequence is both entertaining and enormously cheesy. The conquest at the end of the scene emphasises that the changing times have to come to Bond, not the other way round. If it was just to suggest Bond is “incorrigible” that would be one thing, but the constant referencing to his workplace attitudes grows increasingly banal (“I like a woman who enjoys pulling rank” he says to Onnatop).
When we meet Moneypenny (Samantha Bond, for my money, penny, by far the best actress to take the role, even if the material didn’t always do her justice), she’s at it too (“You know, this sort of behaviour could qualify as sexual harassment” she flirts with Bond). Meanwhile, Q, “the evil queen of numbers” (Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner, another strongly cast addition to the series regulars, but again sadly underused) is perversely positioned as the traditionally male logician butting heads with Bond’s female intuitive.
Post-Oscar, Dench’s role as M expanded to ridiculous levels, such that they could almost became Bond’s sidekick at times. It’s easy to forget that here she does what M should do; set things up, make the introductions and let Bond get on with it (after establishing her expertise; she’s also not been in the job long). Her raining on Bond here is one of the signature clips from this instalment (you know, the sexist, misogynist dinosaur and relic of the Cold War with a cavalier attitude to life).
It was too much even then, as if the makers think they are issuing a scolded mission statement where as they’re aware of it they can ignore it. How else to explain her “Bond – come back alive”? This M can’t resist Bond’s lure. The last M was happy to shoot 007 when he went rogue.
This half-arsed tipping of the hat continues with Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya, ostensibly exactly the same damsel in distress the series usually features but with a few instances of wilfulness grafted on (not-a) top. Scorupco’s highly personable, although even more than usual her lust for Bond seems out of place since she’s been set up as a very normal, “good” girl. During the course of being captured and rescued, she’s offered a few weak attempts to imbue her with mettle; shouting at Bond and Tchekyu Karyo’s Russian Defence Minister “Oh stop, it both of you! Boys with toys!” is excruciatingly movie-ish, even for a series with as thin a veneer of realism as this, and her later “Well don’t just stand there, get us out of here!” is another sop.
If proof was needed that Bond does better by showing not telling (because what is there to tell rather than the bleeding obvious; the problem you get when you bring in someone as character-focussed as Sam Mendes is that he tries digging up the pavement for what’s beneath, only to discover it’s solid concrete, so he then has to pour a load of soil on top and try to use that), you need only look at Onatopp. There are several great supporting roles in Goldeneye (and several not so great ones) but Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp is by far the best conceived. Hypersexual, she derives her pleasure from killing and the general infliction and receipt of pain (so not merely an erotophonophiliac). Just the presence of a female character who can out-lust and -screw Bond is a far more effective slap in the face to his Neanderthal impulses than being talked at.
The defining scene is her encounter with Bond in the steam baths; it looks as if it will be yet another 007 conquest until she draws blood when they kiss and then begins crushing him between her thighs. Sure, he knocks her out, but it’s quite clear who the stronger personality is. In fact, the only minus one can give her character is that when Bond dispatches her (“She always did enjoy a good squeeze”), she isn’t allowed ecstasy at her own demise, since it would be the warped cherry on a particularly disturbed cake. Janssen’s absolute perfection in the role, and delivers some great little moments, such as the disturbed expression on Zukovsky’s (Gottfried John) face when he observes her moaning in delight after massacring a room full of people.
Unfortunately, the approach of over-exposition is also applied to Bond’s interior life. It’s surely no coincidence that the most resonant Bond moment comes not after he’s been indulging in some deep and meaningfuls with someone, but after something actually happens that affects him deeply (see: the last scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Anything else is reductive raking over coals that serves to expose only what an essentially shallow character he is, rather than furnishing him with untold depths (see also nu-Doctor Who). Here M does it, Natalya does it, even Bond’s nemesis does it (the most). There’s a tepid beach scene that doesn’t work because Bond has no relationship with Natalya (he has more of a frisson connection with Natalya) but the writers need to have someone to express to Bond that he has a deep and hurting soul somewhere (“How can you be so cold?”; “It’s what keeps me alive”).
Almost as overplayed, and just as underwritten, as M’s sexist-misogynist speech is Alec Trevelyan’s (Sean Bean) where he talks of “all the vodka martinis silencing those men you kill or all the dead ones you fail to protect”. You can see why the makers went this route, but they’ve fundamentally misjudged how to extract some substance from the character (if they really feel the need to do that), and it’s a mistake they’re still making (Skyfall gave Bond an injury, which is just what they did with Brosnan in The World is Not Enough; when an injury or being old is a character beat well you need to return to, you know you’re in trouble… like investigating a one-note character’s origins).
Part of this is surely servicing the lead actor. Post-Moore, Bond actors appear to have a perverse desire to invest depths in someone without any. It may be passive-aggressive knowledge that this is the highest-profile role they will ever have as much as the actor’s challenge, but neither Brosnan nor Craig have managed to make such grafting feel anything other than intrusive and perfunctory.
Bond’s given feelings of guilt (“Avenging Alec Trevelyan will not bring him back” M advises), undermined for no longer having noble job (“Her Majesty’s loyal terrier”; still, it’s a step above him going rogue each time in the Craig era, an embarrassingly embarrassed acknowledgement of the present era’s dubious regard for the intelligence services), such that his punchline kill is a “No, for me” in response to Alec’s “For England, James?” (this is crudely foreshadowed in the opening sequence with similar dialogue).
There’s some ripe material to reap here in terms of familiar national identities and loyalties amid the backdrop of the changing Cold War foe, and Goldeneye handles parts of this reasonably well; there’s a sense of an indomitable Bond enduring while his foes perish that might have been made more of (although perhaps not, as it would probably have been clumsy or steered dangerously close to the metatextual), but the actual interrogation of his character in terms of his identified double, the villain 006, is a damp squib.
The Bond films have encountered increasing difficulties in coming up with one of their paramount elements, the bad guy, and Goldeneye’s is easily one of the weakest in the pantheon. On paper the sound of Bond’s mirror twin is solid enough (albeit previously explored with Scaramanga), but Sean Bean is horribly miscast, and asked to deliver reams clunky exposition that never take on relishable, let alone resonant, substance.
Alec’s revenge isn’t really believable either, even if the scheme itself has a vague plausibility (as Bond movies go) and we see the germ here of the uneasy push-pull that would give rise to Bourne and hence the rebooted Bond. His big reveal (that he’s still alive) is a shrug, because Bean is unable make him formidable or memorable enough in the first scene (I maintain Bean only really hit his stride post-The Lord of the Rings). While he’s given some rote backstory about his poor parents, mostly Bean is prevailed upon to deliver stock lines such as “Why can’t you just be a good boy and die?” and “James, what an unpleasant surprise”.
This is a shame, as most of the rest of the supporting cast are perfectly judged. I’ve mentioned John, and Zukovsky’s a rare great sketch of a character, the minor touches informing him economically and precisely; he is constantly taking a snifter from his hip flask, and best of all he’s not operating in any kind of false belief that he’s on a home stretch. It always adds a dimension when the villain is under pressure too, and Zukovsky has the dilemma of deceiving his Defence Minister (until he shoots him, in a marvellous switch-around scene), trying to cover his screw ups (learning Natalya has escaped) while hatching his plan to be the next “Iron Man of Russia” (a nascent Putin?) It’s a shame then that he’s killed off rather wastefully when he is.
Then there’s Joe Don Baker as CIA man Jack Wade, instantly dismissive of Bond as “a stiff-assed Brit”, but someone we’ve grown to like in just a couple of scenes once he’s taking Bond’s product placement BMW for a spin. Baker, who played a bounder arms dealer in The Living Daylights, was an indelible presence in director Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness a decade earlier, and it’s easy to see why he was brought back in the next movie. More’s the pity; he’s not used as well as he might be (see also Moneypenny).
Also an instant hit is Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zukovsky, ex-KGB rival arms trader to Yannis (Trevelyan). Coltrane’s having great fun, and it should be noted that one of the much-maligned Brosnan’s best qualities is generosity to others with screen time. He knows a good co-star makes him look good too, and his tête-à-tête with Zukovsky is one of the most sheerly enjoyable scenes in the picture, from their dispute over wounding (and nearly shooting Bond’s balls off) to 007 insulting Valentin’s mistress (Minnie Driver knocking out a hilariously tuneless cameo).
It helps that Coltrane’s the kind of actor who can turn clunky dialogue into a badge of honour (“This free market economy will be the end of me, I swear”). It’s no wonder he was brought back in The World is Not Enough (and a foolish move to kill him off, at least he was the only character there who elicited sympathy).
Then you’ve got Alan Cumming, making irksome computer geek Boris Grishenko his own (both Cumming and Janssen would go on to star in the X-Men series, of course). Some of the computer techie stuff with Boris shows its age (posting pictures of Natalya on the Internet, though, maybe not so much), but Cumming makes what has since become a standard character type highly memorably annoying in the right kind of way (“I am invincible!”).
And the plot? Well, visiting the former Soviet Union was probably inevitable, but for the most part, despite typically ungainly over-emphasis (ungainly, but still effective; the arty opening titles, the junkyard full of old statues), it’s an effective backdrop for a Bond adventure (one that even exerts itself to reference the Gulf War I and points the way with “Maybe you two would like to finish debriefing each other at Guantanamo?”) Sure, there are no oligarchs here, who ought to be the ones wresting control, but the presence of former KGB and military guys staking out their next play is effective enough.
Certainly, this broad depiction is more immersive than the Afghanistan of The Living Daylights. It’s a sign of the more “realistic” sights of the series that the villain has to fall short of a world dominating scheme, but still wants to wreak mass destruction, and it might have been better to emphasise the “worldwide financial meltdown” in more than a sentence, but the actual beats and connectivity of the plot have more care taken over them than the majority Bond movies.
The theft of the helicopter is crucial to the subsequent theft of Goldeneye, and the EM pulse is crucial to the end game; as such this is quite satisfyingly devised. More than that, the plot moves incrementally, such that we don’t get the villain reveal until an hour in, and there’s room for dramatic surprises that actually work. Ourumov bursting in and shooting Mishkin when it looks as if Bond and Natalya have reached (relatively) safe harbour is a strong development.
Throughout, there is shrewd placement of scenes that contrasts with the more linear progression usually seen. Natalya and the space weapons control centre doesn’t arrive until thirty minutes into the picture. Like many scenes in the movie, and in stark contrast to the Moore era (whatever its merits), there’s palpable tension to its unfolding. And effective visual touches; after Natalya escapes the destroyed base, MI6 follow the heat signature of her fleeing into the freezing outland (albeit the monitoring plunders the previous year’s Clear and Present Danger).
This is the kind of picture that knows a simple and effective gadget well used (the explosive pen) is worth a thousand showy ideas if employed in the aid of tension (Boris repeatedly pressing its lid, and Bond attempting to keep a track of the potential detonation). Campbell delivers fine set pieces repeatedly. These vary from classic “beat the clock” (locked in a helicopter or a train carriage with an imminent explosion; the former is particularly notable for the way the pace is announced by Bond waking up to Natalya screaming for him to do something).
The signature set piece involving Bond in a tank is justifiable renowned, for the sheer gumption of having Bond at the controls in his incongruous suit and tie (including adjusting the latter, repeated to lesser sub-Moore effect underwater in The World is Not Enough) and going on a giddy destruction derby that involves a statue being deposited atop the tank.
Campbell is a godsend to Bond, after almost a decade of the determinably unadorned approach of former second unit director John Glen. He introduces dynamism, pace, all the kind of things the series should have been plunging into soon after Spielberg and Lucas changed the cinematic landscape (again, I’m not complaining about Moore per se, his remains my favourite era). He’d pull an unlikely repeat performance introducing Craig.
There, the twist was by way of character, here (again, for Bond) he benefits from a relatively tricksy plot, one that isn’t laid out on a plate and has enough colour from scene to scene (be it Coltrane, or Baker, or Cumming) that it never really succumbs to a dry patch. Serra provides a dynamic but oft-loathed score (tellingly, he was never asked back; the series usually falls straight back into a lot of playing it safe after a moderate amount of daring) and, aided by Campbell regular cinematographer Phil Meheux’s lensing, this is considerably more polished than anything we’ve seen since the ’60s.
So what of Brosnan? It seems like no one has a good word to say about him now Craig has purportedly reinvented the Bond wheel. He probably should have actively resisted trying to deepen his character (he’s better trying to pull off a sexier Moore than attempting at stricken post-Lazenby), and like Dalton he’s done well since riffing on his 007 persona (most notably in The Matador). But I like him, I think he’s decent actor, one who can handle humour (but shouldn’t be given Moore gags) and probably moves better than anyone else who’s been given the part. The problem he has is there’s always an air of Bond-lite about him.
Perhaps because he’s the guy everyone thought about a decade earlier (bizarrely, they even nod to this by effectively wiping out the Dalton era through having the opening Brosnan Bond sequence set in 1986), there’s something a little too comfortable and effortless about his persona. That’s not so much a problem here, although as noted they’re struggling to make him distinct through encumbering him with a post-sexist world. But in the later pictures, even with the reluctance to find a decent director, there’s a real sense of formula pre-packaging courtesy of Wade (who performed an uncredited polish on Goldeneye) and Purvis and an aversion to anyone who might push the boat out.
Rather than making a meal of it, they should have concentrated on subverting Brosnan’s Bond with moments rather than speeches. There are bits here (knocking Onattop out coldly, for example, the kind of action repeated when he takes decisive action against Sophie Marceau in the mostly disappointing The World is Not Enough) where there’s an intimation of his effectiveness and potential in the role, and he has instantly great rapport with Lewellyn’s Q (“Don’t touch that! That’s my sandwich!”)
But he’s almost too easy a choice. Craig has since come in and he’s absolutely useless at doing the trad-Bond quipster stuff; the trick with Brosnan might have been to surprise the viewer each time with something that went beyond his deceptive ease in the role. That would have entailed better writers and directors, though, and more autonomy than the producers were willing to surrender.
It’s easy to see some of things here that gave rise to his later complaints; Bond uses a machine gun so liberally, he might as well be John McClane, and with superhuman feats like leaping onto the helicopter at the end, it’s no wonder he requested a shoulder injury for his third outing.
The Tina Turnip song? It’s okay. It still sounds decent enough, in an unexceptional way, but is helped along in context by the best opening titles since the series’ heyday (Maurice Binder’s 1980s contributions became increasingly uninspired). Going back to the whole sexual dynamo Bond thing, its notable that he doesn’t actually shag nasty in the final scene, interrupted by a crowd of camo’d marines; in that sense, he mirrors the Dalton Bond through being more “responsible”, if only by virtue of not getting the chance to get his leg over.
But the reason Goldeneye was the best Bond movie since the ’70s was that they finally understood they needed to move the production with the times. Where it came up short was feeling it needed to reference that it had moved with the times in the body of the script. But it’s easily the best Brosnan Bond, and for the most part it has aged pretty well. The opening jump still hits the stunt spot, and Brosnan is fresh and dynamic 42-year-old (four years on Craig; provided he makes his last Bond for 2017, he’ll be the same age Pierce was when he finishes but with a movie extra for his pains). Where the Brosnan era missed the trick subsequently was employing malleable journeymen (or even those with no action track record at all, like Michael Apted, a case where the first- and second-unit joins are straight back to the ’70s).
Goldeneye was a massive hit. Far and away more than it would have been, I feel, if Dalton, who dropped out during the six-year delay due to legal battles between pictures, had remained on board. It put the series firmly back in the top tier of franchises (fourth globally for the year, sixth in the US). In terms of inflation adjusted (US) grosses, it’s the least bar Quantum of Solace of the post-Dalton era, but its yearly rank is the highest bar Skyfall both stateside (Skyfall was fourth) and globally (Skyfall was second). In that sense, it’s probably an accurate arbiter of the series’ impact (only Tomorrow Never Dies and Casino Royale can equally it globally).
It’s probably true that the series cannot succumb to coasting on its perceived charms any more, as it did with Moore, as when it attempts to do this it’s invariably in a forced way that doesn’t ring true (the comedy in Skyfall). What it really suggests is that the series needs to make it its mission to come up with strong plots, and it’s only actually done this twice in the last two decades: with Goldeneye and Casino Royale. It helps too of course that Martin Campbell’s sure-handed, unshowy direction anchors both of these. Some of the slights at the Brosnan era are undoubtedly deserved, and some of the slights at Goldeneye are too, but this more than tips the balance in favour of being a great Bond movie rather than a disappointing one.