The years following Licence to Kill were depressing for James Bond fans. Legal wrangling surrounding the ownership of parent studio MGM/UA, rumours that the rights were being sold to insert-hack-Hollywood-producer’s-name-here, and a general ebbing of talk of James Bond from the zeitgeist seemed to indicate that 007 was finished, finally gone the way of Derek Flint, Matt Helm and all the second-rate imitators he’d managed to spawn in his nearly 30-year screen career. But then, as the tide of the recession of the early 1990’s receded, promising hints began to spring up like the fabled green shoots from the blanket of winter snow. The lawsuits were settled, and Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions remained firmly in charge. A screenwriter, Michael France, had been hired to write a new Bond movie. Questions then naturally arose about Timothy Dalton. It had been five years since Licence to Kill – would audiences still want to see him as Bond? Dalton ended the discussion by announcing in April of 1994 that he would not be coming back, and informal polls suggested there was one actor at the top of every fan’s list to take his place. On June 7, 1994, eight years after his first brush with 007, the world’s press was introduced to the new James Bond: Pierce Brosnan.
With their new star locked, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers was how to re-introduce James Bond to a world that had seen tumultuous changes since his last outing. The Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War that had birthed Bond in the first place were all gone, and some critics were suggesting that 007 should disappear with them. But rather than making a period piece, or wallowing in anachronistic nostalgia, it was decided to embrace this new climate with the following mantra: “The world has changed; James Bond has not.” Bond would always be Bond, but now this “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” would find himself confronting the new world with its new threats. To that end a complete creative shakeup was required, both in front of and behind the camera – director John Glen, who had handled the previous five films, was not asked to return, and the reins were instead handed to Martin Campbell, the first real “outsider” Bond director who hadn’t come up through the Eon system. And the story would see Bond’s world turned completely on its head, thrust into a realm of shadows as old adversaries became awkward allies and trusted friends, bitter enemies.
In the prologue, set during the height of the Cold War, Bond and Alec Trevelyan, 006 (Sean Bean) are assigned to infiltrate and destroy a Soviet chemical weapons facility. The mission goes awry, 006 is killed and Bond makes a spectacular if implausible escape by diving after a falling plane, climbing on board and pulling it out of its dive. Following the stylish opening credits in which silhouetted beauties smash apart Communist iconography (a sequence which apparently greatly upset several still-active Communist parties throughout the world) the story picks up nine years later where Russia is a shambles struggling to adopt capitalism and Bond is considered a relic by the new, female M (Judi Dench). But he’s thrust back into the fray when an experimental helicopter that can withstand electromagnetic pulse damage is stolen and used to facilitate the theft of an old Soviet space-based weapon called Goldeneye, which, when detonated, will destroy everything that contains an electronic circuit. Bond travels to Russia, where retired KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) points him in the direction of the mysterious arms dealer known as Janus, who turns out to be none other than Bond’s old friend Trevelyan, who faked his death in order to abscond to the other side and carry out a long-simmering scheme of revenge against the United Kingdom for its betrayal of his family. With the help of Goldeneye computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), and while dodging the lethal advances of femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), Bond must chase down his former ally and stop him from unleashing the Goldeneye against London and igniting a worldwide financial collapse.
The filmmakers knew they were down to their last chance, that failure would mean the end of James Bond as a viable cinematic property. With the screenplay they smartly chose to add depth to the basic machinations of the plot, pulling apart Bond’s character and using the movie itself to ask if Bond was still relevant in the modern world, as well as confronting some of the more absurd elements of Bond’s character directly. Bond is belittled, first by his immediate superior, and ultimately by Trevelyan, who chastises him with the screenplay’s finest lines: “One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” Is being James Bond good for the soul? Alec Trevelyan by contrast, is James Bond pushed over the narrow divide, and the inspired casting of Sean Bean, who at one point was rumoured as a potential Bond himself, gives us an example of how destructive Bond’s lifestyle can be to a man’s moral center. The rich cinematography by Phil Meheux provides a striking palette of shadows and darkness, in contrast to the brightly and somewhat flat-lit adventures of Bond’s past, to emphasize this murky uncertainty lingering over every action that Bond takes.
As well as Bean’s compelling “anti-Bond,” the cast boasts a solid bench of supporting performers who round out this new world with a wealth of memorable characters – the singular Dench, although underused here with only two brief scenes, establishes a new kind of relationship between Bond and his hitherto remote boss that hints at a deeper exploration to come. Robbie Coltrane is an energetic delight, Boris Badenov accent and all, channelling Sydney Greenstreet as Valentin Zukovsky. Joe Don Baker gets to have much more fun here as the nickname-happy Jack Wade than he did as his previous character Whitaker in The Living Daylights. Izabella Scorupco is a perfect companion for Bond – she is spirited, competent, brave and unafraid to challenge Bond on his failings. Famke Janssen has her over-the-top moments as the assassin who kills men by crushing them with her thighs, but she is clearly enjoying the hell out of her part. Even Alan Cumming makes an impression as hapless wannabe supervillain computer nerd Boris. Filling the roles with strong actors, rather than the cheaper bit players one would have seen in previous films, forces the lead to up his game.
Pierce Brosnan has since admitted that he thought he probably would have been too young in 1987 to play James Bond convincingly. The years between then and this movie have filled in his face with more character, that slight world-weariness that 007 should always possess, even in his lighter moments. His Bond is less outwardly morose than Dalton’s, but one gets the sense that the veneer of playfulness radiating from him is just that, and it is only skin deep. But no one really wants to follow a sad sack around for two hours, and Brosnan gives Bond more than enough charm to endear him to us again, even with subtle, very Bond-ian touches like patting his face with a towel after tossing a thug down a set of stairs. If there is a single reservation about his Bond it’s that in this movie he seems a bit physically slight, which was noted by more than a few critics and seemed to inspire him to bulk up significantly for his next go-around.
How fares Goldeneye where action is concerned? Exceptionally well given the benchmark set by movies like James Cameron’s Bond pastiche True Lies, which came out the previous year. The movie opens with a visually stunning bungee-jump leap from a dam and only gets better. Apart from a couple of inoffensive gags in the tank chase in the middle of the film, mercifully abandoned is the tendency of the 80’s Bonds to stage action as slapstick, replaced with true suspense and the need for Bond to be inventive in how he extricates himself from danger, rather than just relying on whatever Q has given him (a missile-equipped car presented to Bond at the beginning of the movie goes almost entirely unused). The final fight scene atop the Arecibo telescope, doubling for Trevelyan’s Cuban satellite base, is brutal, raw and the most even-handed matchup Bond has ever had to face, made all the more emotionally consequential since this isn’t just some random evil billionaire he’s tangling with, but a man he once called friend – and Bond must decide if it’s truly “for England, James.”
Peter Lamont, the series’ regular production designer since Ken Adam’s departure, does a remarkable job here with a bigger budget – until now his sets had always looked somewhat artificial, as though the paint had just dried seconds before the director called action. Goldeneye is a “used universe” where even the walls have earned their history. And creative use of London locations and outdoor soundstages makes for a believable St. Petersburg, Russia setting despite the actors and first unit never setting foot there during filming. Daniel Kleinman, taking over for the late Maurice Binder as main titles designer, pays homage to Binder’s traditions while incorporating the themes of the story into his canvas of beautiful naked women swirling through a surreal landscape, accompanied by Tina Turner as a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey singing the theme song penned by U2’s Bono and The Edge. One area where Goldeneye receives a lot of criticism, however, is in its musical score. French composer Eric Serra, who works largely with synthesizers, was hired to bring a 90’s take on the usual John Barry bombast. It was certainly different, although not, it seems, in a positive way. After a test audience bemoaned the lack of the Bond theme, a different composer was brought in to re-score the tank chase, and this would be Serra’s only kick at Bond’s can. The electronic sound is somewhat jarring, particularly if you’re watching Goldeneye as part of a Bond marathon, but it works in context, particularly when conveying the coldness of the Russian setting. At least, it was better than Michel Legrand.
Goldeneye was a huge international smash, bringing James Bond back to the forefront of the public consciousness and proving that there would always be an appetite for more, so long as it was done right. In addition, it showed that 007 could compete against the Die Hards and the Speeds of the world that had attempted to fill the gap he’d left open for six long years. As Goldeneye’s end credits rolled and “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” drifted by, fans could catch their breath and be assured this time that he would, in increasingly spectacular style.