Like Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan apparently decided to get his best Bond movie out of the way first. But while the Moore years would be filled with ups and downs, Brosnan’s tenure as 007 can only be described as a shame spiral.
It’s easy to hate on Brosnan as James Bond now, because his last two outings in the tuxedo left a truly terrible taste in the mouths of audiences and critics–prompting the Bond series to undergo a near-total reboot with Daniel Craig. To be fair, though, Brosnan wasn’t a terrible Bond in the beginning. He devolved into a camp version of 007 by The World is Not Enough, spouting execrable one-liners right and left, but in his debut he hit a lot of good notes. Like Sean Connery, he understood that James Bond is basically a dick–and that somehow that’s part of Bond’s appeal. Like Moore, he could let a joke land and wasn’t afraid to wink knowingly at the audience. Unlike Dalton, he didn’t try to turn James Bond into a romantic figure.
The fact that things will end so badly with Brosnan is almost a shame when you go back to watch Goldeneye, because it all started with so much promise.
The first half hour of Goldeneye hits on every awful 007 cliche in existence. 007 assaults a Soviet in the men’s room of a Soviet base, then narrowly escapes after 006, Alec Trevelyan, is killed. Nine years later (after the opening credits, that is), the Soviet Union has collapsed off-screen and Bond is having a very inappropriate high-speed flirtation with a Russian woman on narrow, twisty roads even as he seduces a terrified woman sent to evaluate him. Then he plays that Russian woman, Xenia Onatopp, in a high-stakes game of cards before ordering his signature martini.
It reeks of desperation to please audiences by giving them all the Bond producers think they want, but there’s just enough cheek to make you realize that producers are actually having a bit of fun toying with your expectations. You see, there was a lot of speculation in 1995 as to whether or not there was a place for James Bond in the modern world. The Soviet Union was gone and the franchise’s rampant misogyny was under heavy fire. The first half hour seems to be knowingly poking fun at the perception of James Bond. Sure enough, after that the rug starts to get pulled out from under you.
First, Onatopp turns out to have some seriously kinky tastes when it comes to murder after she squeezes a man to death during sex and still finishes. Then Moneypenny winkingly accuses 007 of sexual harassment, and it turns out that the new M is a woman. An authoritative woman who doesn’t appreciate the way 007 treats her like an accountant with no understanding of his work. As a bonus wink, M also accuses James Bond of being a relic from the Cold War (which he literally is). Oh, and the scene in which James visits Q to pick up some gadgets is so full of parody it could almost be lifted right from a comedy.
Meanwhile, Onatopp is revealed as part of the Janus Crime Syndicate and uses a stolen helicopter to destroy an isolated Russian research center in order to take control of the GoldenEye satellite weapon system. M sends 007 to find out what they’re up to. Which, of course, means weird fight/sex with Onatopp–after which, he convinces her to take him to her boss.
Turns out Alec Trevelyan is very much alive and up to absolutely no good (with a burn scar on his face from when 007 blew up the Soviet base in the opening scene). He’s the head of the Janus syndicate and a descendant of the Cossack clans that collaborated with Nazis during World War II. Trevelyan infiltrated British intelligence to get revenge for its role in the death of his parents. Don’t think too hard about that, though, because having him so thoroughly work his way into British intelligence only to fake his death and disappear for nine years, then reappear as the head of a crime syndicate… it just doesn’t make sense. Not even a little bit.
If you can get beyond the overly-complicated, nonsensical back-story, the idea is actually solid. Trevelyan is basically an evil version of Bond himself. He knows Bond’s tricks, his gadgets, his ghosts. And while the series had toyed with sexually dangerous women before, Xenia Onatopp is quite literally dangerous sexually.
GoldenEye manages the mean feat of embodying the classic James Bond movie while subversively making fun of everything that stands for. It’s like the Scream of the James Bond franchise: totally aware of all its foibles and cliches, even as it unapologetically indulges in every single one of them. It’s meta-Bond. They even have the classic reveal where the bad guy’s hidden base turns out to be hidden underneath a lake, for crying out loud. It only works because the movie fires on all cylinders–particularly the cast, which somehow manages to be subtly jokey even as they play their parts seriously.
GoldenEye promised a postmodern James Bond. It’s a terrible shame that Brosnan’s subsequent movies failed to deliver on that promise.
Notable Moments: In addition to Brosnan making his series debut, Judi Dench makes her first of seven appearances as M. How good is she in the role? So good that she’ll manage to survive the Brosnan years to carry over to the promised land with Daniel Craig, when the series will finally be able to use her to her full abilities. Previous Ms were cyphers–leaving no real impression at all. Dench made M a dimensional figure whose relationship with 007 has depth and impact. We also get a new Moneypenny in Samantha Bond. She makes a wonderful first impression in her single scene here, carrying the torch for Lois Maxwell’s playful, smart Moneypenny. Unfortunately, producers will reduce her to such a sad state of lusting for 007’s penis by the end of Brosnan’s run that the character would be left out completely when Casino Royale rebooted the series.
A sponsorship deal with BMW gave 007 a ride other than an Aston Martin for the first time. BMW’s deal would last throughout the Brosnan era.
Producers rearranged the classic 007 theme to make it sound more modern, and the result was pretty universally hated. They returned to the traditional sound in the next movie.
In addition, GoldenEye is the first wholly original James Bond movie. It takes its name from the estate in Jamaica where Ian Fleming wrote the 007 novels, but is not based on a story or part of any story.
Gadgets: Curiously, even though there’s an entire scene in which Q and 007 play with gadgets, only one actually gets put to use–and not even by Bond himself. The grenade pen, activated (and de-activated) with three clicks, ends up falling into the hands of the henchman Boris, who accidentally activates it when he nervously toys with it while trying to hack some codes, allowing Bond to escape Trevelyan’s clutches.
Ally: Bond ever-so-briefly teams up with Robbie Coltrane‘s Russian criminal Valentin Dmitrov, but nothing comes of it at all except for a return engagement in The World is Not Enough. Joe Don Baker also returns to the franchise after playing a villain in The Living Daylights, this time as a sort of surrogate Felix Leiter named Jack Wade. Snooze. But he’ll be back in Tomorrow Never Dies. Forget them. The real ally is actually our Bond Girl.
Bond Girl: Bond producers had been attempting to create a modern Bond Girl for some time at this point with a pretty grim success rate. Stacy Sutton was a laughably inept geologist. Pam Bouvier swanned around like the star of a romantic comedy. Natalya Simonova is written the same basic way, but escapes the trap because she’s basically a nod to how ridiculous and half-assed those previous attempts were. Yes, she’s a computer genius and a beautiful woman who gets caught up in one of Bond’s adventures (succumbing to his charms along the way). But Izabella Scorupco really got what producers were going for here, which makes Simonova really work in the meta-Bond context. It helps that Scorupco actually embodies a credible computer genius. They aren’t reaching too far and trying to make her a geologist, an astronaut, or a nuclear physicist (shudder), but if any actress could have lent an air of authority to those fields, it may have been Scorupco. Yes, her Russian accent is over the top, but so are all of them in this movie. It’s just nice to see a Bond girl who can act the part in addition to looking drop-dead gorgeous.
In true meta-Bond style, Simonova even calls James out for being who he is–which is to say, a cold, unfeeling man who goes from mission to mission without a thought for the messes or emotions he stirs up. “It’s what keeps me alive,” he responds. “No,” she says. “It’s what keeps you alone.”
Yes, that doesn’t stop her from getting all smoochy-face with James (repeatedly). But that very self awareness separates Simonova from the pack.
Even better: Simonova provides a necessary bridge to the Bond franchise’s first-ever truly kick-ass Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Supporting Bond Girl: when it comes to Bond Girls in a supporting role, Xenia Onatopp is legendary. We have a solid Bond Girl for the first time in a decade, and let’s be honest for a second: no one remembers her. At least, they don’t remember that Onatopp wasn’t the star attraction. In fact, Onatopp frequently comes up in best-of lists for Bond Girls. Talk about stealing the spotlight.
Things could have gone horribly wrong had producers not had Famke Janssen to bring Onatopp to life. She goes high-drag (which is to say, camptastic), which is exactly what the role needed. There’s no call for subtlety when you’re squeezing a man to death with your thighs and simultaneously having a violent orgasm. Suddenly, Fiona Volpe isn’t the most dangerous female henchman the series has ever had. I mean, this is a woman who gets a sexual charge when she realizes the train she’s on is about to be derailed. It’s delicious to watch. You can tell Janssen had a blast with the role.
Not only is Onatopp one of the most popular Bond Girls of all time, she also has to factor in with the best Henchman as well. Any top five would have to include her alongside Oddjob, Jaws, and Nick Nack.
Villain: Smartly, when producers were casting a villain who is essentially an evil version of James Bond, they cast him with an actor who was once considered for the role of James Bond himself. Sean Bean‘s name was tossed around when it looked like both Brosnan and Timothy Dalton would be unavailable for The Living Daylights (Dalton’s schedule ultimately cleared up in time). Like Natalya Simonova, Alec Trevelyan suffers the ignominous fate of being almost utterly forgotten in Bond lore in favor of Onatopp. But that isn’t quite fair: as a twisted 007, Bean was actually very good. He made Trevelyan suave and handsome as any 00 would have to be, but gave him the cold, unflinching menace any Bond villain worth his salt needs. If his only flaw is that he lacks nervous tics, eccentric fetishes, or bizarre deformities, I’ll take him. There have been too many Bond villains that focused so hard on the bizarre that they forgot to flesh them out at all and the actors got lost. Even with his confusing backstory, Trevelyan deserved better.
Henchman: Like I said, Xenia Onatopp wins this one, hands down. But let’s use this space to recognize yet another solid character she crowded out of the spotlight: Boris Grishenko, a brilliant Russian computer hacker with Harry Potter glasses before they were even officially a thing. Alan Cumming approaches the role from the Famke Janssen school of thought: squeeze everything you can out of every line, every gesture, and every expression. He also brings a more literal sense of comic relief to the movie beyond the one-liners and the more subtle parody. He deserves to be remembered for the “I am invincible!” moment alone.
Theme Song: I really don’t have to tell you much more than that it’s Tina Turner, do I? I know. ‘Nuff said. Seriously, though, “Goldeneye” is a great song that doesn’t get nearly enough credit in the Bond canon. Like any great Bond song should, it has a great hook and a brassy singer dripping with talent and Divatude. I love it. But then, I adore me some of Miss Tina. It’s on my personal top 5 list for the best Bond songs.
Iconic Moment: the tank chase scene was a fun new twist on the classic 007 car chase. OK, fine, there’s really no ignoring the moment Onatopp kills a dude with her thighs.
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 4.5/5; Villain: 4.5/5; Henchman: 5/5; Theme Song: 5/5
You can find links to all the Bond movie reviews as well as ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists on my Bond Project page. Up next: Tomorrow Never Dies.