A world without a Soviet Union, the economic boom, the personal computer and the introduction of the internet! It’s the 1990s, baby, and Bond is back with a new actor, a female boss, and questionable relevance. Oh boy, does GoldenEye manage to juggle a lot.
(With 7 weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with GoldenEye at number 7.)
GoldenEye is the 17th official Bond film, released in 1995 into a world unlike Bond had ever seen before. The name “GoldenEye” comes from Ian Fleming’s retirement estate in Jamaica, where he wrote his Bond novels. In the film it’s a satellite code-name, but how else would you fit that into the plot? It works well enough, and maintains the Fleming-derived nature of the sixteen prior film titles.
The movie follows a six year hiatus between Timothy Dalton’s last film as Bond, License To Kill, and pretty much everything that could have changed in that time frame, did.
The reason for the hiatus was a legal dispute between a change in ownership with the distribution right to the series of films. Dalton’s untitled third Bond project was well into production when everything was halted pending a settlement from the lawsuit resulting from the dispute. By the time the settlement came through, four years had passed, the script was no longer relevant and Dalton had resigned and moved on.
Enter Pierce Brosnan, a long-time favorite actor to fill the iconic shoes of James Bond. As I mentioned in my review of The Living Daylights a few weeks back, Brosnan was originally signed to play 007 in that film, but a last minute extension of his binding contract to the hit television series Remington Steele voided his deal. Dalton was brought in instead. Luckily, Brosnan was finally available come time for GoldenEye, making him the obvious choice for a new Bond without question.
This new Bond also went into battle in a world more high-tech and more connected than ever. The plot centered around wireless money transfers and EMP attacks, and the nascent internet, computers on every desk, communicating and tracking via email and more had a heaving bearing on Bond’s post-Cold War adventure. The superspy went from chasing drug lords on foot to playing cyber espionage in GoldenEye with one big chronological leap for the franchise.
Brosnan is introduced as Bond in what is by far one of the most memorable first impressions of any of the six actors to play Bond. The movie opens with an ultra-wide shot of a Soviet facility tucked away in a mountainside dam. We see a man in the now cliché all-black jumpsuit run across the top, hook up a cord, and freaking jump off the side of the dam in a scene that takes your breath away every time. It’s frequently credited as being one of the best movie stunts, ever.
For the first time in the franchise, Bond teams up with a fellow double-o agent to infiltrate the dam — secretly a chemical weapons factory — and blow it up. Agent 006, real name Alec Trevelyan, is played by Sean Bean, who was actually screen tested for the role of Bond (I think he should have gotten it, but I digress).
The two reveal themselves to Russian commander Arkady Ourumov and his troop of Soviet soldiers, with 006 seemingly dying in the firefight and Bond barely managing to get away... by freefalling into a crashing airplane. So that’s two major stunts and we haven’t even gotten to the naked dancing ladies and sexy ‘90s synth yet.
After the BEST title-sequence for any Bond film, or film in general, we learn that nine years have passed since that fateful mission. The position of M. is now a woman, played brilliantly by Judi Dench, who lectures Bond on his post-Cold War relevance in the greatest bit of dialogue Brosnan has ever had the courtesy of being a part of.
There’s also a new Moneypenny in the office who now snaps back just as witty as James himself, and we still have the same-old Q. played by Desmond Llewelyn, because as the quartermaster himself would say, you don’t fix what isn’t broken.
By this point Bond has already met three of the four villains of the film, and we’re only about twenty minutes deep. He crosses paths with Ourumov in the beginning, who is later a General in the new Russian military, and plays Xenia Onatopp at cards, which initially gets Bond onto the villains’ plot.
Oh, and it turns out 006 wasn’t dead after all. He’s back, and he’s pissed. We meet the last quarter of the best villainous ensemble of any film I can remember with Alan Cumming’s Boris, who works with the film’s Bond girl, Natalya.
What follows is one hell of a good time. I love this film so much because of how efficient it is - a lot of space is saved for the fun stuff and the movie doesn’t hurt for it.
Bond happily gets to play with a ton of goodies in this film. Timed charges, a transmitting camera, a grappling belt, a laser watch that acts as a detonator for explosives, a pen that doubles as a grenade (I don’t click a pen three times to this day), remote mines, and the shiny new BMW Z3 roadster fitted with stinger missiles, radar, ejector seat, and parachute-aided braking.
The BMW Z3 was a big deal. It was one of the first major product placement deals for the franchise, and for films in general between an automaker and a movie series. While the new car was only featured in the film for a few moments, BMW saw an exponential increase in pre-orders over expectations. GoldenEye helped put the Z3 on the map in a huge way.
The deal lead to BMW featuring in the next two consecutive franchise films, before Aston Martin returned in Die Another Day. BMW went on to take over another spy franchise with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol in 2011.
The best car scene in the film is hands-down the friendly chase between Xenia in a Ferrari 355 GTS and Bond in his DB5. Just a great scene, and the first appearance of the DB5 since 1965’s Thunderball.
One of the major action sequences in the film has Bond chasing down Ourumov and his hostage, Natalya, in the streets of St. Petersburg in a Russian tank. Surprisingly, this scene seems to divide opinions, but I personally think it’s a fantastic take on the sort of preposterous stunts we’re used to with the franchise. Brosnan seems to enjoy playing the scene just as much as I enjoy watching it. A huge set was constructed on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, home of the production for all Bond films, with blocks of streetways mimicking St. Petersburg just for Bond to tear up.
Overall GoldenEye is one of the rare Bond flicks that manages to blend the slightly over-the-top gadgets and scenes perfectly into an exciting and relatively realistic and relevant plot. This is one of the most balanced Bond films in my eyes, and really leaves me scratching my head as to why it’s so difficult for the franchise to steadily repeat what is accomplished here.
Where to begin? There is so much!
Unquestionably, this is the best Bond movie of the Brosnan era. The ones that followed never quite matched GoldenEye’s quality. While this film deals with Bond’s (and the franchise’s) attempts to stay relevant, its sequels drove that spy car straight off a cliff until we had rockets flying out of invisible Aston Martins on ice in Die Another Day.
GoldenEye’s villains are extremely on point. The combination of strongly written characters with some of the best character-acting I’ve ever seen give Bond a great set of adversaries to play with.
Ourumov is a loony but menacing old warrior with dreams of renewed Soviet grandeur. Trevelyan, formerly 006, is hell bent on attacking England to get revenge on their betrayal of the Cossacks during World War II, and Bond blowing him up in that Soviet dam didn’t help things much. Boris is the arrogant hacker (one of the first on film!) who will take any opportunity to inflate his ego and flex his computer smarts. And then Xenia Onatopp, whose libido drives her to kill men for pleasure. There’s a sex scene with her early on that I’m sure would wake the dead. I mean, damn.
Speaking of Xenia, the four Bond girls introduced in this film are absolutely fantastic. Onatopp was the first major role for Famke Janssen. Samantha Bond (yes that is her real name) steps in to the role of Moneypenny, and she’s a tough, smart, modern woman who hits Bond with the sexual harassment threat before he’s hardly through the door. Between her and M. taking exactly none of his shit, there really is no doubt this is a new age for the Bond franchise.
The main Bond girl Natalya Simonova, played by Swedish actress Izabella Scorupco, was only brought on to the film a few days before production kicked off. With her knowledge of computer science and her rational critiquing of Bond’s morals, she’s easily one of the most intelligent and capable Bond girls ever written. By the end of the film she’s kicking ass too, making her one the best, if not the best all around Bond girl in the franchise.
GoldenEye is also Martin Campbell’s first Bond film as director (he came back to introduce another Bond with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, eleven years later) and he pumps out the freshest-feeling Bond movie in decades. GoldenEye is the first Bond film to really have a modern aesthetic, with Dalton’s outings being very committed to the style of the classic Bond films or ‘80s action shows.
This is one of the Bond movies I grew up with, and it’s the first with stuff I recognize as part of current times. MI6 looks like a modern office building - gone are the days of leather-topped desks and dark, wood panelled walls with thick pipe smoke filling M.’s office. There are computers literally everywhere, and they are one of the main features of the plot. I recognize the cars on the streets for the first time in a Bond film as cars I see in my everyday.
The cinematography and editing of the film also are extremely modern compared to what came directly before GoldenEye. Campbell and his crew make great use of a mobile camera, something new to the franchise. There is a lot of shifted focus in the scenes to add drama. The cuts are quicker, the shots are shorter, and the camera doesn’t shy away from closeup.
The stunts are far more elaborate, and they’re shot with an easy to follow sequence. The movement of the characters and objects in the scenes feel extremely kinetic through the editing of the film, and it makes the plot and story elements easy to follow through all the excitement and rampage.
Something that was relatively new for the franchise as well were the extensive use of computer effects. The pre-titles sequence and any scene involving the GoldenEye satellite in space are all computer generated. Other scenes are enhanced, like the elctro-magnetic-pulse strike effect, some of the explosions, and the big finale with the “satellite” dish the hidden under a lake. For the most part, the effects hold up well, and blended with the amazing miniature work done, this is still one of the smoothest Bond films to date.
The soundtrack, which is highly controversial, is full of this echoing synth that constantly gives you the impression the composer was recording in a gutter. I love the cold, moody sound of the film, as it fits the colder, technological vibe of the plot.
Every new element the production team brought into GoldenEye works so well, whether it’s modern cinematography, a technological plot, a larger ensemble of villains, a female M., a snappier Moneypenny, a risky soundtrack, expanded use of computer effects — all of it just works, offering the most effectively modern take on the Bond formula in decades.
Actor Joe Don Baker returns to the Bond franchise after playing a villain in The Living Daylights. In GoldenEye, he is James Bond’s CIA contact Jack Wade, replacing Felix Leiter. Leiter was a repeat character in many of the films and novels, but was nearly killed (badly maimed) in the movie License To Kill. Even though there was a new Bond actor, it seems the creative team wanted to explore the creation of a new character. They shouldn’t have.
Wade is a worse character to play for Baker over his previous role. He’s a painfully stereotypical American who’s sole purpose is to give Bond a plan and call him a “stiff ass Brit.” There’s even a scene where he shows his ass to Bond to prove he does indeed have a rose tattoo with the name “Muffy” spelled out. To be clear, I hate that scene and I hate his character, all the way through Tomorrow Never Dies too.
I know I said I liked the soundtrack, but there are a number of moments where it is just simply out of place. The awkward tugging noises used for the friendly car chase inter-cut with sharp pinging noises is the only detractor of cinematic perfection. Almost nothing could take away from a DB5 and Ferrari F355 GTS chase. Almost. When the score goes for a more traditional sound, but using the echoing instruments, it’s at peak potential and mostly enjoyable. Luckily that is most of the movie.
Based on the rest of Brosnan’s films, I can’t help but feel that GoldenEye was just a lucky alignment of the stars for the actor’s tenure as Bond. I’m of the opinion that Sean Bean would have ultimately led to a stronger deliverance of the Bond character. While I like Brosnan in this film, I imagine it’s only by the fortune of a great script, great characters to play off of, and a great director. Brosnan is ultimately just all-right for me.
With not too much bad baggage weighing the film down, and an overload of new elements to take in, GoldenEye manages with an easy spot at number seven on my top ten list.
Brosnan is handed a new take on the Bond franchise, and managed to prove its relevance to a world questioning it up until 1995. It is thanks to this film that the franchise is alive today.
Stay tuned for next week, and until then, check out the rest of the list.