The six-year gap between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye is the longest gap in the James Bond series to date. And in the gap between the two films, the world changed: the Soviet Union collapsed, the geopolitical landscape was transformed, and the Bond franchise itself underwent a legal battle over what its future would be. Whether Bond would ever return to the big screen was by no means certain. The only guarantee was that if he did return it wouldn’t be the same Bond that came before.
GoldenEye, therefore, was a game changer in the series, and not just in casting, which I’ll get to in a minute. In my review of Licence to KIll I suggested that that film was a more significant alteration to the Bond series than its predecessor, The Living Daylights. GoldenEye proved not to be just one more tweak to the series, but a complete refreshing and updating that carried the weight of proving that James Bond had a place in the post-Cold War world and in a Hollywood that was becoming increasingly sophisticated in both its filmmaking and marketing strategies. It was in many ways a reboot before the term became the rule of the day. If Licence to Kill had to contend with a slew of violent eighties action films for competition, GoldenEye had to stand out against a Hollywood that had in the interim seen such films as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park redefine what audiences expected of an action-adventure film. Not only were the standards for special effects greatly upped, but these films were expected to serve as “tent-poles,” supporting the studio box office and making a real splash in the cultural conversation.
The pressure was also on GoldenEye to bring James Bond into the new reality of post-Soviet geopolitics and nineties “P.C.” behaviour. Rather than leaving it to the critics to level such criticism or merely ignore those elements, GoldenEye smartly makes the changing world, and Bond’s place in it, part of the thematic conversation. The film has no connection to either the title or any other elements of the established Bond novels—the title of the film comes from the name of Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home where he wrote the Bond novels—marking a thoroughly post-Cold War plot. When the new M—played by the severe and matronly Judi Dench who would occupy the role for more than 17 years—firsts meets Bond, she declares 007 a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” and a “relic” of Cold War politics with no further purpose in the contemporaneous reality. Such a frank appraisal could be directed at the Bond series itself, but GoldenEye makes a good effort at ensuring that such a criticism wouldn’t stick.
In fact, GoldenEye revitalized the series, rather than let it be consigned to obsolescence. GoldenEye created a whole new generation of Bond fans, preparing the character and franchise for the twenty-first century. As a young teenager at the time, GoldenEye was the first Bond film that I really took notice of. Unlike the stogy, goofy painted covers that adorned the cassettes of the Roger Moore films at the video store or the dated eighties trappings of the Dalton era, this Bond film looked slick. I couldn’t wait to see this film. Even the trailer was a breakthrough in movie marketing. As Scott Mendelson pointed out in a Forbes article earlier this year, GoldenEye was marketed as both a comeback for Bond and sold as a non-stop action extravaganza in its trailers. Bond would go head to head with his imitators, such as Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker in James Cameron’s True Lies the previous year, and remind people why he was the original and best. This new film would not only embrace the history of Bond, but would out do the competition.
Back to that first game changer: re-casting Bond. The delay and uncertainties surrounding the series between 1989 and 1995 had resulted in the exit of actor Timothy Dalton from the role, despite an attempt to get a Bond film into production in 1990-91. Dalton’s three-picture deal with Broccoli’s production company expired while Broccoli battled MGM/UA for the future of the franchise and Dalton decided to walk rather than wait around. While other actors were rumoured at the time—everyone from popular British actors like Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson, and Hugh Grant to the Australian-American Mel Gibson were offered the role—instead Bond was recast with an actor who had very nearly become James Bond in Dalton’s stead a decade earlier: Northern Irish actor Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan and the producers were both interested in the role, but in the mid-eighties Brosnan was still under television contract doing the show Remington Steele.
For all his shortcomings, I will say that Brosnan is in many ways a very good Bond for the nineties. On the surface, he radiates charm; he’s affable and believable in the role. While his Northern Irish accent is far more detectable to me now, at the time I found him perfectly convincing as a suave British secret agent. Brosnan can wear the tuxedo, order the martini, deliver the dry one-liners, and gun down enemies as well as anyone. In fact, in keeping with the cinematic arms race that GoldenEye had to contend with, Brosnan’s Bond kills far more enemies than any of his predecessors. To an inexperienced, budding Bond fan like my 13-year-old self, Brosnan fit the popular imagination of what James Bond should be like.
While I’ve cooled on aspects of his performances as Bond over the years, there is still a lot to like about him in the role. Brosnan brings a fair bit of acting nuance to the role, adding a vulnerable, wounded psyche to the character, which he covers with a glib charm. In some respects the portrayal of Bond in this film develops the more grounded, realistic portrayal of the character from Licence to Kill. Like that film, GoldenEye’s plot hinges on a personal betrayal, but it makes a greater effort to tie the personal betrayal to both the larger plot and the geopolitical fallout of the post-Soviet era. GoldenEye does a good job of combining a more psychological take on Bond with an exploration of the potential toll that such a job might take on a person, something director Martin Campbell would explore to even greater depths in Casino Royale a decade later.
GoldenEye’s poignancy hinges on the relationship between James Bond and his former friend and colleague, Alec Trevelyan (Agent 006) played by Sean Bean. The film’s pre-credits sequence opens with Bond and Trevelyan infiltrating a Soviet weapons facility in 1986. After a grand opening stunt in which Bond bungee-jumps from the Archangel dam (voted the best movie stunt of all-time in a 2002 poll, and at the time the highest fixed-base jump at 750 feet), the sequence climaxes with Trevelyan’s apparent death at the hands of Russian General Ouromov (Gottfried John) and Bond escaping by riding a motorcycle off a cliff and freefalling into a diving airplane. The airplane special effects haven’t aged well, but the scene certainly starts this Bond film off on a grand scale. It also sets up a central theme of betrayal and loyalty to one’s nation-state, as Trevelyan urges Bond not to surrender to save him in the name of nationalistic revenge. Rather he exhorts him: “Finish the job, James! Blow them all to hell!” The personal and political become intertwined.
GoldenEye’s credits feature Tina Turner’s titular theme song, written by Bono and the Edge, and overlayed an opening that features the famous female silhouettes of the Bond titles tearing down Soviet icons, hammers and sickles and statues of Lenin and Stalin. The song itself has a driving, electronic beat; it’s aged fairly well, but definitely has a mid-nineties feel to it. In this way the titles serve to bridge the eighties-set prologue into the contemporaneous world of the nineties in its visuals, while the music also suggests that this Bond film is going to bring 007 into the contemporary era.
Post-credits,GoldenEye jumps forward to 1995. The film intercuts these sequences of Bond dealing with his role as an agent in post-Cold War Europe, following the Russian Janus crime syndicate, with the introduction of the Bond girl, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), a Russian computer programer. The main plot involves General Ouromov and Janus operative, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), stealing a top secret EMP-based space weapon, codename “GoldenEye,” to destroy a Russian satellite facility, an incident Natalya narrowly survives. The film brings Bond and Natalya together in St. Petersburg, where Bond meets his CIA contact, Jack Wade (Don Joe Baker), a kind of replacement for the character of Felix Leiter. Perhaps they felt that after Felix’s injuries in Licence to Kill it wouldn’t make sense to bring him back, but it’s all part of the loose continuity that the Bond series plays with. Wade gives Bond a lead on the Janus syndicate through an ex-KGB agent, Valentin (Robbie Coltrane), and Valentin arranges a meeting with Janus himself.
As you can see, GoldenEye has a wealth of film talent in its cast. But none comport themselves to the level of Sean Bean. Midway through the film Bond discovers that Janus is none other than his old partner, Trevelyan, who faked his death in the Archangel facility. Trevelyan himself is a descendant of Anti-Soviet Russian Cossacks and holds a vendetta against Britain for their treatment upon leaving the Soviet Union as refugees. The reversal comes as a shock to Bond and to the audience—an emotional reveal that works particularly well. It’s one of the film’s best moments, as are many of the scenes with Bean, who builds his reputation by bringing class and pathos to genre fare here as he later would in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
Bond and Natalya narrowly escape from Trevelyan and discover the existence of a second “GoldenEye” satellite. Natalya then traces her former hacker colleague, Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming), to Cuba where the satellite’s control facility lies. The finale of the film sees Bond and Natalya travelling to Cuba where they face off against each of their enemies who has betrayed them, Bond against Trevelyan, and Natalya against Boris.
This theme of personal and political betrayal lends the film a neat thematic organization. In a climactic sequence, Bond accuses Trevelyan of destroying Britain only to get even for his parents and asks Trevelyan if it’s worth it. Trevelyan’s response neatly sums up the film’s take on both the notion of betrayal and of Bond’s role in the perpetuation of British imperialism; “I might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of 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. England is about to learn the cost of betrayal, inflation adjusted for 1945.” For Bond, the loyalty has always been to the mission. But Bean’s Trevelyan, as brutally self-serving as he is, earns a kind of sympathy that few other Bond villains do. Each man was used by their country as a weapon. Trevelyan questions the purpose of their work as Cold War agents, when England was only too happy to betray his parents who had defected from the Soviet Union, and wanted British support to fight the communists. Trevelyan’s revenge is directed against a country that he sees as personally betraying his family. And that betrayal by England when the political tides turned mirrors what Trevelyan sees as the subsequent meaninglessness the missions he and Bond carried out have acquired in a post-Soviet era when England and Russia’s hostilities have ceased.
The film is at its best in these moments, when the personal-political questions Trevelyan asks force Bond to clarify his own position vis-à-vis his friend and his nation. Before Trevelyan falls to his death on the satellite antenna, he asks, “For England, James?,” and Bond replies, “No. For me.” The film begins by challenging Bond’s purpose and whether he can still be the same James Bond in a post-Cold War world. By the end of the film 007 has re-embraced his role and purpose as England’s guardian, not just out of blind duty but for personal reasons. The film hints at the fact that he needs the meaning his role at M16 gives him, lest he become an empty shell of a person, which is something the Craig film’s would explore to a greater extent.
In this sense GoldenEye is a thematic extension of Licence to Kill. But rather than have Bond become just another action movie vigilante, GoldenEye posits Bond as both a political weapon and personalizes it through his embrace of his identity as 007. The film both deconstructs the role of Bond in the post-Cold War era, and then answers the question of why he keeps going. This time the personal is political, and thus the film is able to end with a kind of closure with Bond reestablished as his iconic self.
It’s too bad that the whole film doesn’t live up to the thematic depths that the Bond-Trevelyan relationship does. While GoldenEye certainly looks fantastic, as the new Blu-ray release confirms, it is still slightly dated. Boris and Natalya come across as comically cartoonish Russian characters. Janssen’s Xenia is a memorable Bond henchwoman with her sado-sexual killings and striking appearance, but there’s not much depth to her either. The last half of the film drags in comparison to the fantastic first half leading to Trevelyan’s “resurrection”; but it still has a few good action sequences, such as a tank chase through St. Petersburg.
GoldenEye is certainly more dated than I remember it being. There was a time when it seemed positively cutting edge compared with the eighties feel of the Dalton films. But that time has passed, and the nineties elements of the film have now entered definite “period” marker phase.
GoldenEye is by far Brosnan’s best Bond film, and one of the series’ high marks as well. It brought Bond into the post-Cold War era and was the series biggest hit since Moonraker. Without GoldenEye and its take on a deconstructed Bond, it’s doubtful we’d have subsequent films like Casino Royale or Skyfall. Still, because it both takes Bond apart and then puts him together so quickly, the subsequent Brosnan entries had to either carve their own path to lesser success or run on GoldenEye’s fumes. Fortunately, GoldenEye is both a good enough Bond film and a significant enough cultural touchstone—some consideration might be given to the N64 video game, GoldenEye 007, as well for cementing it as a genre classic of the era—that it kept James Bond running for a good while longer. And for that alone it’s worth celebrating.
8 out of 10
GoldenEye (UK, 1995)
Directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein based on a story by Michael France; Starring PIerce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Gottfried John, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Joe Don Baker, Alan Cumming, Desmond Llewelyn.