Two potentially damaging developments occurred between the release of Licence to Kill (1989), the sixteenth James Bond movie and GoldenEye (1995), the seventeenth. First, a legal dispute over the control of the series forced out a number of collaborators and designers of the previous few pictures, including star Timothy Dalton and director John Glen. Second, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the durable and reliable foil for many a Bond adventure, was dissolved and turned into a democracy. Remarkably, after the longest sabbatical in the series’ history, the filmmakers were able to turn both threats into positives, taking the hammy bloat of the final Roger Moore pictures and pairing it with the gritty determination of the Dalton oeuvre, all while satisfying all the established Bond requirements and using the real-world political transformation as a backdrop for a story about betrayal and duplicity. Considering the title is arbitrary and meaningless, the movie could just as well have been called Phoenix for all it did to restore a vulnerable franchise at one of its lowest moments.
The fifth man picked to play James Bond is Pierce Brosnan, whose no-nonsense demeanor is coupled with a dry, restrained sense of humor, which makes him an ideal candidate, the first since Connery to master that balance between light and dark. It doesn’t hurt that he finds himself in an excellent potboiler about double-crossings, deep-felt dishonesty and technology being the new world order. James Bond’s world is upside down, his old enemies have found democracy, his old friends have become his enemies, Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) doesn’t find him all that charming anymore and, good God, even his boss is a woman. That would be M (Judi Dench), the new head at MI6, who has Bond fairly well pegged. “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” she tells him. Then she sends him on a mission where he is the only thing between the world and a global financial meltdown, and where, all the while, he is seducing an intelligence evaluator, the bad guy’s hench-mistress and the pretty systems programmer who holds the key to averting the crisis. Well, two out of three, M.
See, even though their political ideologies have changed, Bond is still facing a familiar foe. Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), formerly 006 and Bond’s friend in the Service, is revealed as a master criminal who has stolen the controls to a Russian satellite that can target a city with an electromagnetic pulse that effectively resets all the city’s electronics—the municipal and financial equivalent of when you wake up after a storm to find your alarm clock flashing 12:00. Trevelyan plans to take all the money out of the Bank of England then fry all the evidence that he was ever there, simultaneously making his money that much more valuable after all bank records are set back to zero. Bond’s pursuit has his path cross with Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) who, in spite of her chaste name (ahem), is quite the demon in the sack. She’s also working for Trevelyan and is a force to be reckoned with. In Bond’s camp is Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), the unassuming computer programmer who was left for dead when Trevelyan and his gang stole the access to the satellite. Together with a CIA operative played by Joe Don Baker (who was trying to kill Bond while playing a different, villainous character just two movies ago), the trio discover an underwater satellite dish in Cuba that has the ability to destroy the world’s wealth, unless a certain British agent has anything to say about it.
Like many Bond pictures, the plot is more dubious when written down than when watched on a screen, and it works because it includes well-paced layers of mysteries, each step revealing another clue. What really works about the movie, though, is that it’s nothing more than an updating of the Bond formula, cleverly hidden behind a veneer of new world cosmetics. Except for the technological stuff, GoldenEye could easily have been made thirty years earlier, and it certainly shares more of its DNA with Goldfinger (1965) than with its immediate predecessor. There’s Bond in a casino playing baccarat with a woman with a suggestive name. He says both “Shaken, not stirred” and “Bond, James Bond” within thirty seconds just to make sure you know where you are. Bond must use everything at his disposal from cars, planes, trains, and tanks to gadgets to get the madman, and it all ends on a secret remote location, the impenetrable fortress that can all be brought down by one man.
GoldenEye represents a return to basics, but it does it with such sly and clever updating that you barely notice. Here we have the first psychological probing of James Bond, what motivates him and why. All of these questions are about as deep as a wading pool, but the fact that they are being brought up at all gives the movie a nice, if superficial, self-awareness. It also has rip-roaring sequences, interestingly photographed by Phil Meheux and assembled by Terry Rawlings. The action can be followed, particularly during a pursuit through the streets of St. Petersburg, but what makes the movie shine is that it’s just as alive during the quieter moments, buoyed by Brosnan but helped in no small part by Bean and Janssen and smaller supporting parts like a mob boss played by Robbie Coltrane.
The real welcome return is the competent balance of tone between the two disparate (but essential) elements of James Bond: the need to take him seriously when it’s business time and allowing him to poke fun at himself when it’s not. Not since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and some of the early Roger Moore pictures had this balance been so delicately struck. Credit Brosnan, who has Connery’s ability to oscillate quickly from one to the other while having us buy both. He’s likable and charming but purposeful and business-like. His pursuit of Trevelyan on the top of a satellite dish has a tactile resolve, but he is also able to make the love scenes with Natalya (which are the most underwritten aspect of the movie) feel organic. Further, the obligatory scene between Bond and gadget master Q (Desmond Llewelyn) is subtly the funniest in the movie. Watch Brosnan deftly goof off while Q shows him the latest toys. These scenes often produce laughs but rarely because of the understatement of the performers but because of the sight gags of the gadgets themselves (and there are some good ones here as well), but Brosnan and Llewelyn have a rapport that steals the scene away from broad physical stuff, until it’s all undone, gloriously appropriately, by the broadest of all. “Don’t touch that!” Q warns as the scene closes to a startled Bond holding a sandwich. “That’s my lunch.”
More than anything, GoldenEye has a confidence to be what it is. It easily owns up to being a Bond movie. The irony is that the movie is all about how the world around 007 is changing while the unfazed superspy coolly accepts it but refuses to change too much of who he is. In Bond’s case, who is a sexist misogynist dinosaur, that might be too bad, but in the movie’s case it’s to be applauded. It saw all the snares around it and realized the smartest way to survive is to be itself, but slightly different.