Pierce Brosnan finally got to be James Bond in 1995’s GoldenEye, a film which has its cake and eats it too when it comes to the series’ checklist of tropes.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for GoldenEye.
“What, no small talk? No chit-chat? That’s the trouble with the world today. No one takes the time to do a really sinister interrogation anymore.”
In the first teaser trailer for GoldenEye, the captions tell us “It’s a new world, with new enemies and new threats. But you can still depend on one man”. Then Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond does the gun-barrel walk and shoots off the letters until they spell 007. “You were expecting someone else?”, he asks, direct to camera.
In the longest gap between outings to date, there was a lot of turnover behind the scenes of the Bond franchise. It had taken quite a while for the series to get used to the 1980s and by the time GoldenEye came out, it was already past the halfway point of the 1990s. But with MGM and United Artists in charge, the creative brief here is less to reinvent James Bond than to revive him.
Indeed, the film’s official synopsis states that the plot “returns 007 to the forefront of international intrigue”. After a prologue that finds Bond on one last Cold War-era mission with fellow 00 agent Alec Trevelyan, (Sean Bean) it directly shows how much the world has changed by centring the globetrotting plot around post-Soviet Russia.
Led by a new M (Dame Judi Dench), MI6 assigns Bond to investigate the theft of an attack helicopter by hired killer Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) and the subsequent destruction of a Russian radar facility in Siberia. Two computer programmers survive the attack – one of them, Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming) is working with Onatopp and the Janus crime syndicate to secure control of a Soviet-era satellite weapon called GoldenEye, while the other, Natalya Simonova, (Izabella Scorupco) joins Bond as he races around the world to prevent Janus from causing global chaos.
Initially developed for Timothy Dalton’s 007 to return before he stepped down in 1994, the film doesn’t throw out the previous era with the bathwater, but it’s also more focused on firming up the franchise’s legacy credentials for a 1990s audience than it is on changing things up.
Naturally, the film has about as firm a grip on computers and the newly emerging internet as A View To A Kill did on microchips, but that’s part and parcel of a film that’s something of a Greatest Hits package after a long break. Or to paraphrase another long-running series from around the same time – it’s a “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” movie.
Oh, and if for some reason you’re reading this without having seen GoldenEye, this is your last warning for SPOILERS after that trailer we mentioned…
New world order
While GoldenEye was in development, the world changed. On the global stage, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended. Meanwhile, on Bond’s home turf, Margaret Thatcher was ousted as UK Prime Minister and, more significantly to the casting of the next film, Stella Rimington became the first female head of MI5.
It was all change behind the scenes on the films too. John Glen moved on after five films in the director’s chair, and long-time writer Richard Maibaum and titles designer Maurice Binder both passed away after their final work on Licence To Kill. They’d also fully run out of Ian Fleming stories and titles to adapt (for the time being, anyway) so a wholly original story was required for a film that eventually took its name from Fleming’s Jamaican estate.
Biggest of all, despite spending a lot of time in the early Bond 17 development meetings, even producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli stepped back and took a consulting role on GoldenEye. From this point on, Eon Productions and its longest-running franchise were led by producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson.
MGM and UA were eager to bring Bond back from the cold, but after the long break, they were keen for Eon to make it as cheaply as possible, and they also had reservations about casting.
As detailed in last week’s Licence To Kill feature, Dalton was up for a third and final Bond film and the Broccolis and Wilson prepared to stand by him, but when they requested he sign up for a multi-picture deal to ramp up the franchise again, he announced his retirement from the role. We’ve previously covered the development of this unmade third film in Film Stories magazine, which you can also read online here.
Pierce Brosnan first came to Eon’s attention when he visited the set of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which co-starred his late wife Cassandra Harris. Later, he almost got the lead role in 1987’s The Living Daylights but was taken out of the running by NBC renewing his contract for a further season of Remington Steele at the last possible moment.
The studio had other casting ideas ranging from Liam Neeson to Mel Gibson (both were reportedly offered the role and declined it) but Eon kept Brosnan in mind. Had he said no this time around, the next choice was Paul McGann, whose near-miss here left him free to take another very changeable role in British pop culture as the Eighth Doctor in the Doctor Who TV movie the year after GoldenEye. Similarly, Brosnan seems born to this.
(Some of the Dalton era’s detractors observe that the film’s nine-years-earlier prologue sets the start of the story in 1986, slap-bang between the release dates of A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights, and somehow “overwrites” it – all I can say to that is that if you’re following strict continuity in the James Bond films, I’m not sure how you’ve made it this far.)
In any case, this new Bond gets something of everyone who’s gone before, be it the script that was originally developed for Dalton, the same first-act routine of firming up George Lazenby with familiar Bond scrapes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the debonair cheesiness of the Roger Moore films, or the incorrigible furry-chested horniness of the Sean Connery years.
He’s backed up by what may be the best all-round casting in any Bond film – a stacked ensemble of actors who went on to become huge stars but were nice and affordable on a $60m budget in 1995. You’ve got UK TV stars Sean Bean and Robbie Coltrane before they went onto bigger things; Alan Cumming and Famke Janssen having a ball before they joined the X-Men; and Dame Judi Dench, already well known but right before her movie career took off. Watch closely, you’ll even catch Minnie Driver in there, “strangling the cat” with her performance of “Stand By Your Man” at a Russian club.
Having made 16 films with only five directors to date, the producers cast a wider net for GoldenEye. John Woo, Michael Caton-Jones, and Peter Medak all declined, but New Zealand director Martin Campbell took on the directing job. Together with regular cinematographer Phil Méheux, Campbell aspired to freshen up the look of the movies after Glen spent a decade in his post.
On the writing side of things, France’s draft was rewritten by an assortment of writers, including Jeffrey Caine, Bruce Feirstein (whose contribution was crucial, and the pair take screenplay credit), and Kevin Wade. Across all versions of GoldenEye, a common theme was that the world had changed but Bond hadn’t, which works as both a narrative driver and a bit of franchise housekeeping for a more conservative reboot.
A big change was that 006, originally named Augustus Trevelyan, was originally conceived as a mentor figure to Bond rather than his peer – early on, once-and-future Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins was mooted to play opposite Dalton’s Bond. Sure enough, there are still signs of Alec being written for an older actor in the shooting script, such as Bean calling Natalya “my dear” like he’s Roger Delgado in a 1970s Doctor Who serial, but the filmmakers reconfigured the role to give the new Bond an adversary he could go toe-to-toe with.
There are some big glow-ups among the returning characters too. Dench’s M isn’t quite in the same motherly mould as her suspiciously similar counterpart in the next era, but she shakes things up nicely. Meanwhile, Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny reacts as any woman might to a fanciable male colleague flirting with her for years on end and never actually doing anything – she flirts right back, instead of pining like office furniture.
On the other hand, Desmond Llewelyn’s Q both symbolically and literally (keep your hands off his lunch!) reassures us that not everything has been reconfigured for the 1990s, though it continues in the vein of Dalton’s more amiable relationship with the quartermaster. It’s a paradox that Q’s seemingly grown out of being grumpy with 007, and Brosnan and Llewelyn make a marvellous double act.
Reflections in a James Bond film
Not to put too fine a point on the series reassuring older male fans that Bond wasn’t purely a reconstructed 1990s man, but other than the aforementioned trailer line and the customary “Bond, James Bond” introduction, the only other dialogue we get in our first glimpse of Brosnan is “No more foreplay”, so take from that what you will.
And for the first half-hour of the film, that formula comes roaring back. After the title song by Tina Turner, (a Bond-tastic melody with absolutely nonsensical lyrics – tell me songwriters Bono and The Edge didn’t read the script without telling me they didn’t read the script) we get Bond in an Aston Martin doing the Spy Who Loved Me dance in a car chase with Janssen standing in for Caroline Munro and a load of cyclists who hilariously fall over as they speed past.
All that sequence is really missing is the return of Victor Tourjansky’s double-taking alcoholic from the Moore films, but hey ho, it’s on to the casino from there.
In the background of that early set-piece though, on our first sight of James Bond in the 1990s, he’s undergoing a workplace evaluation, as is any employer’s prerogative when their best man is a gambling, hard-drinking sex maniac. Bond passes the evaluation, with the minor caveat that he shags the examiner, but that also sets up a major theme.
The theme of what makes Bond tick gives the film a bit of structure beyond the expected beats, right up to the pay-off and call-back to his friendship with Alec at the end. It needn’t come down to Natalya baldly recapping Bond and Trevelyan’s history to him and the audience on the beach before the third act kicks off but leave it to a more switched-on female character to observe that the genre Bond is acting out (“It’s what keeps me alive.”) is exactly why she’s not going to be around in the next film. (“No. It’s what keeps you alone.”)
This one exchange is more economical than at least three of the Daniel Craig Bond films, but it’s the most effective prong of an approach that forks between bedding some self-awareness into the new Bond and enthusiastically doing all of the hoary old tropes in turn. Again, Bean’s dialogue is the most obvious symptom of these cross-purposes, though as he puts it, it’s “no pithy comeback” and more a self-reflexive lurch forward.
Even in the world of the film, Bond is more ineffectual as a secret agent than ever because most of the operatives he meets in this seem to know his name, number, and favourite drink order on sight, not to mention his personal vices and weaknesses.
Scripting aside, the film is a spectacularly entertaining complement of old tropes and new tricks. Using a leftover plot devised for the previous Bond actor, Campbell doesn’t quite transform the series as much as he would the next time he was called upon to reboot it, but the film stakes its territory in 1990s action cinema well.
In short, GoldenEye has its cake and eats it too – the movie was a huge critical and commercial success, making $356.4m worldwide and placing sixth in the top 10 worldwide box-office hits of 1995. Absence seemingly did the series plenty of favours, and years before the #Gentleminions trend came along, there were even reports of fans going to the cinema to see the next Bond in formal wear especially.
If the film itself didn’t do enough to re-establish Bond with younger audiences, the celebrated Nintendo 64 video-game tie-in certainly did, when it hit shelves in August 1997. By that time, Brosnan was already well into making his second Bond film, but we’ll come to that soon enough.
While Bond was back on the traditional two-year cycle of production in the wake of this success, the gap between Licence To Kill and GoldenEye would become more like the norm as time went on, most recently with the break between Spectre and No Time To Die, which was going on five years even before its many delays. That shift to Bond movies as event films rather than quick-turnaround adventures doesn’t fully kick in with GoldenEye or the Brosnan era in general, but it sets a useful precedent.
However, it is the first time a James Bond film feels nostalgic – it’s based on the existing films rather than drawing from Fleming. From this foundation, the next two instalments grow beyond nostalgia, until Brosnan’s last outing catastrophically relapses. If Die Another Day marks the illogical extreme of a “Greatest Hits” Bond, GoldenEye is ideally placed at the opposite end of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure – one of the series’ various peaks in popularity, balancing several steps forward with some crowd-pleasing steps back in time.
GoldenEye is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 5th August. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 6th August at 8:00 p.m.
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