New year, new Bond! Pierce Brosnan has shaken the world, but is it a stirring performance? Today we:
- Look at what changed in the six year hiatus and how producers caught up.
- Look at how important a villain is to a Bond movie.
- See how immortal Bond can truly be.
Let’s set our time machine for the nineties and get ready, because it’s:
Bond was always tied to the idea of Cold War espionage, even when the villains had giant lasers or volcano lairs. That idea was starting to get antiquated, and the image of the British gentleman enforcing Britain’s interests and consuming countless martinis whilst sexually assaulting beautiful maidens was starting to fall apart to the scrutiny of time regardless of such a conflict anyhow. So, when Licence to Kill (1989) commercially and critically underperformed and a growing disappointment and dissent removed talents like Dalton and Glen, Bond went into hibernation. The world changed drastically going into the nineties.
First, one of the later principles of women’s liberation truly hit. In the sixties there was a sexual revolution for women, but it still functioned within conventional male fantasy. Women could control their sexuality, but men were still in charge and as long as they were okay with sleeping around too. It all seemed like harmless fun, right? The late eighties and nineties brought about a professional revolution for women. Now, women were (ideally) business equals and starting to carve their own slice of the competitive corporate ladder. This aspect challenged the entire idea of Bond’s male fantasy.
Just as important, the Cold War ended with the Berlin Wall crumbling and the Soviet Union falling because their citizens loved the allure and promises western Capitalism offered that Communism refused to supply.
How was Bond to survive this changing tide? How do you not see this fictional character as a quickly fading symbol of an outdated system? Of an outdated action franchise?
With all the context and questions asked, let’s look at the story.
During the Cold War, Bond and fellow MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan (006) team up to set explosives in a Soviet base. Alec tells Bond to set the timer for six minutes, but in the middle of setting the charges Alec is captured by Colonel Ourumov and his soldiers. A standoff happens, Bond sets the last timer for three minutes. Alec is shot dead and Bond escapes while the facility explodes.
Nine years later, Bond is tracking a woman named Xenia Onatopp who is rumored to be a psychotic terrorist working for a hidden organization called Janus. Onatopp steals a new prototype helicopter, but the new M (played by Judi Dench for the first time) is a ball-busting accountant type and refuses to let MI6 investigate.
Onatopp takes the copter and Ourumov (remember him?) to a secret facility pretending to be a radar station in Siberia. They steal the real weapon in the facility: GoldenEye, a satellite that has the ability to send an electromagnetic pulse anywhere. They send the pulse to the facility, and murder everyone there. Two computer experts survive separately, Boris and Natalya.
MI6 sees the whole thing and they realize Janus and GoldenEye is real. They see a survivor on the thermal image (Nat) and Bond is assigned to investigate.
Bond tracks down the leader of Janus with help from an old Soviet foe named Zukovsky. Turns out, the leader of Janus is Alec Trevelyan! Alec reveals the truth: MI6 adopted the orphan after sending his parents to die to Stalin and MI6 hoped he wouldn’t remember. Bond and Alec share respect and hostility before Bond is stuck in a death trap with Nat by his side to die too. She was betrayed by Boris, who also works for Janus.
Bond and Nat continuously escape scenarios until the final trap in the train gives Bond three minutes to escape (“the same six minutes you gave me.”) and Natalya discovers where Boris and Janus are hiding with a second GoldenEye.
They go to Cuba to save the world from the global destabilization, and one by one the villains are dispatched. Alec’s grand plan was to steal money and records from Britain and use GoldenEye to wipe out every trace of him. When Alec is defeated, hanging from a height by the grace of Bond’s mercy, he asks “For England, James?”. In contrast to every other time, Bond replies “For me.” Then he lets go and Alec becomes a pavement pancake.
A Closer Look
There is a lot to love about this film. It is one of the greatest Bond films ever. It tackles the questions presented in the introduction about the end of the Cold War and feminism by making them as core aspects of the reinvented approach. The narrative is the same formula as always, but it seeks to give depth to everyone in the supporting cast to examine Bond’s own static and unmoving character.
A great example can be found in Judi Dench’s M. M was always a character that challenged Bond. M sees through the gentleman facade and criticizes Bond’s childish behaviors, making M a woman adds a maternal element (that isn’t too present here but shows promise and will appear in later entries) and is the ultimate reminder James isn’t in control of his world. M’s dialogue in the film is almost an explicit antithesis for Bond in the film, and Dench delivers it well.
The villains are more explicit in their thematic presence. Alec presents the sins of Western Imperialism and Bond’s own character flaws in sharp focus. It helps that Sean Bean plays the role well and you can feel the chemistry between him and Brosnan. This makes for an amazing antagonist.
Not to mention Onatopp, who isn’t subtle in name or personality. Like Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (1985), we have seen female henchman before. Unlike Jones’s Mayday, Onatopp is unapologetically a villain. She is a psychopath that derives sexual pleasure from the pain and death of men. She and the other villains believe Russia is becoming a land of opportunity, and indeed Alec’s plan isn’t one of global domination but of economic gain. Russia is becoming a Capitalist threat in lieu of Communism’s failure. In every aspect they challenge Bond’s character and heroism.
Other characters like Zukovsky and Natalya also highlight such details. The CIA agent in the film urges Bond to drop the stupid pretenses for the sake of efficiency. Whether its Bond’s immaturity or Britain’s lack of honor, our hero faces constant thematic scrutiny.
So how does it all tie together? In a worse film, these would go nowhere and Bond would remain as mediocre and generic as ever. With the quality of the film, however, it justifies Bond in the new world. Bond is more than the car or gadget or girl, he is a character. The film elevates the character and the franchise beyond its dated elements and its contemporaries. Bond is more than a normal spy stereotype. He made the mold others follow, and as long as the stories he is in understand and adapt to the changing world, Bond will always be the best damn spy in the movies.
After seeing sixteen of these films, I started to lose sight of why I liked these in the first place. GoldenEye reminded me.
Pierce Brosnan gives his best performance in his first appearance. He does a marvelous job resembling the icons that came before but also having those moments of grounded emotion that defined the more nuanced roles like Dalton. He’s not as good as Dalton in acting skill, but this film doesn’t demand much from him.
Visually the film is a treat. The look and feel is way more modern and forward thinking than the later Glen films that held Bond back visually. Color in particular is utilized with deep blues for the Russian winter and the orange of fire for contrast. Other sets like the one where Bond meets Alec in the statue ruins create visual iconography that is instantly more compelling than previous films even if it isn’t subtle or relevant to modern tastes.
One of my favorite ways to create an action scene in a film is to approach the scene with character in mind. While this isn’t the best Bond film for this, it is probably the second best in using the scenes to show Bond’s own character.
First, setting the timer to three at the start of the film shows Bond’s ruthlessness and dedication to the mission. It also creates added tension TWICE and is a comeuppance for Bond when Alec does it. Bond escaping the fortress while hiding behind the barrels of explosives also shows the improvisation and recklessness.
More concrete examples include the completely unnecessary high-speed car flirting with Onatopp at the start. Bond opting for the tank to tear down the streets of St. Petersburg is topped thematically by having the tank be the immovable object to Alec’s unstoppable train. Even for characters other than Bond, look at the scene and notice what it shows for the character. Boris is a great example of this, his cockiness and obsession with pen twirling properly sets up an otherwise generic spy tool pay-off.
Also, the introductory theme is awesome and the title sequence is visually strong. Going in order of the films makes it clear how needed the update was. I like the Dalton films, but watch the intros to those and watch the intro to this and you’ll immediately understand what GoldenEye did. The visuals have a bold impact and still evoke an essential Bond feeling. The song itself is great too, it’s sang by Tina Turner and made by Bono and the Edge. I don’t even like Bono, and the Edge is, I think, a bowel sickness my doctor is trying to treat.
The one-liners are back in full force. This isn’t entirely a problem yet, but it will absolutely RUIN later Brosnan entries. Here, it’s just occasionally distracting. The movie gets worse when it reminds you of the dumber Bond tropes instead of addressing them or updating them.
Speaking of that, the only secondary character still remaining untouched from the older films is Desmond’s Q. I love Q, but his function here is a reminder of Bond at his worst. Goofy jokes, goofy plot contrivances, it doesn’t feel modern or forward thinking. I’m glad these later films show a more relaxed Q, Desmond just wants to have fun in these scenes and I’m glad he’s not held back by the original uptight characterization.
Also, the nineties was a simpler time for computers and computer hacking. At least in movies. Hacking in this film looks like if Windows 10 came out twenty years ago. The film also acts as if the internet is some mysterious magical computer force instead of a more realistic plot idea. The whole thing is silly, and Natalya and Boris are way too essential to not have needed a bit more nuance to them.
I just hope the next film is smarter about this whole internet thing… Wait!
This was Brosnan’s best. Secretly I think these producers know they can get away with like three bad movies before they need to make a really good one again. His other films will still explore modern elements and experiment with the formula, but quality will greatly decline, as will Brosnan’s own performance.
The next is Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), an innovative Bond film that is way worse in what it tries to do. Tomorrow might totally die.
What I Drank
To recognize Alec’s resurrection and one of my favorite films I pulled out my favorite cocktail: The Corpse-Reviver #2. It’s all equal parts (1oz) of Gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, and the previously mentioned in this retrospective Lillet Blanc. Historically the closest to original recipe is actually Cocchi Americano, but that’s hard to get. Oh, and the most important part: add a drop of absinthe. A rinse at the start instead is fine too.
The drink is meant as a hangover drink. Despite it being almost entirely strong alcohol, the flavors wake you up. Raise a toast, and if anyone asks what it’s for, say it’s “for me.” You’ve earned it.