GoldenEye is notable for many ‘firsts’ within the Bond franchise: it was the first movie to be a wholly original story by taking nothing from the original source novels (though the title is a homage to where they were written), it was the first movie to have a female ‘M’, it was the first in the franchise not be produced by Cubby Broccoli, it was the first Bond film to take place after the fall of the USSR and it was Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as the nation's favourite super spy. By this time, Brosnan had been in line for the Bond job for many years, losing out due to his age or existing contracts so when he finally donned the tux and Walther he was ready for the part.
Of the many ‘firsts’ listed above, apart from the lead change, the most significant was that of the Fall of Soviet Russia – for years Bond had been pitted against the Russians in the cold war and the makers cleverly reference this in the screenplay in what is one of the better scenes, that pits the new M against Bond, the new against the old. In many ways it is fortuitous that this was a completely original story, as Fleming’s writing could never have anticipated such a shift in world politics. And after Tim Dalton’s excellent, but commercial fail, in Licence to Kill, the makers were determined to go ‘back to basics’ and make a Bond in the old fashioned mould; something that was held in check for over six years due to film rights and litigation. It was during this hiatus that so much changed. The script written for Dalton, but smoothed over to accommodate Brosnan, took elements of revenge, power and thievery on a scale not seen since Goldfinger. And a main villain that knew Bond personally, whose own power-play and motives for revenge stretch beyond that of personal relationships; so whilst he may not be the most memorable of opponents his goals were pure Bond. Let us suit up and take a look at tonight’s feature, GoldenEye.
The pre-credits gambit opens in typically spectacular style, not least because some madman actually took the seven hundred and twenty two foot bungee jump off that dam for real, but it also serves to introduce us to the new Bond. When we first meet him, excluding the insane jump, Bond is a consummate professional; dispatching his enemies with a quick one-liner but with his eye firmly on the job in hand. 007 and 006 have infiltrated a Russian chemical plant with the express intention of blowing it up and it is a refreshing change to see two MI6 agents work in tandem together. Their banter and professionalism show that they are firm friends, able to get the job done but on their own terms, only this time things don’t quite go according to plan. 006, or Alec Trevelyan to give him his actual name, is played by previous Bond contender Sean Bean. Best known, at the time, as paragon of virtue Major Sharp it was no surprise to see him opposite Bond fighting the good fight – and this was what the makers were counting on, for the twist in his character was meant to be very shocking. Seeming killed by Ourumov, the Russian commander of the base, 006’s death spurs Bond’s character into a vendetta that leaks into his working life, even years later. Indeed it is his intimate knowledge of how the Cold War operated and his contacts behind the Iron Curtain that enable him to discover much of deceit behind the devastation that the fabled ‘GoldenEye’ causes. However, that is to come, for now he uses a motorcycle to leap off a cliff to catch a plane in freefall to exact his escape to the riotous fanfare of the Bond Theme.
Except that it doesn’t.
And here we come to one of the biggest flaws of the entire film. I know it's a bit early in the review to be discussing flaws, but this is such a clanger that it has come early: The Music. I’d go so far as to say that half of the enjoyment of a Bond film is the music and with sixteen previous outings faithfully sticking to the tried and tested plan when one comes along that buck the tread it stand out, and not in a good way. Score duties fell to French composer and long time Besson collaborator Eric Serra; whose previous outing Leon, was simply excellent. However, Leon is not Bond and to produce a score that is very similar in nature, moody sure, but nothing like a typical Bond film, was a step in the wrong direction – I’d go even further and say the film felt almost bleak without it. And when we do finally get to hear the Bond Theme, in the tank chase scene, it was only because the makers rejected Serra’s effort and opted for a far more traditional take by Leon conductor John Altman – thank god for small mercies, though it's far too little and far, far too late. Things were off to a shaky start with Serra’s synthesised update for the ‘gun barrel’ opening and it was downhill from there. I should point out that there is nothing wrong with the score, it works for the action film ‘GoldenEye’, but it’s totally out of place in the Bond film ‘GoldenEye’ and that is where the problem lies. Having said all that I actually quite like the title song by Bono and The Edge, and sung by Tina Turner, while the title credits are a suitable nod to Maurice Binder.
Our next encounter with Bond is some nine years later and he is racing down a mountainous road trying to best a Ferrari Spider F355 GTS while driving his silver birch Aston Martin DB5 not seen since Thunderball. Not sure of the physics of how a thirty year old (at the time) car would fare against the pinnacle of sports engineering (at the time), but for the sake of the film we can put it down to Bond’s skilful driving that he is able to keep up with, and even beat, the modern day equivalent. The driver of the Ferrari is our main femme fatale, the utterly gorgeous Famke Janssen (who for me will forever be Kamala the Perfect Mate in ST:TNG), as Xenia Onatopp who will become a thorn in Bond’s side, as well as his neck. Her modus operandi to strangle men using her thighs, usually in the throes of sex, is an unusual one and harks back to a throwaway line in The Living Daylights, though her orgasmic cries as she kills are quite uncomfortable and indeed marked the first explicit sex scene in any Bond film. As a character she is cold and calculating, see her decimate the computer staff, her own countrymen, with near delight in her eyes. A truly sickening character and one that is significantly more disturbed than any previous outing, missing all the pantomime villainy normally associated with a Bond antagonist.
As for Bond himself, in this opening scene we are privy to another side of his nature, his ruthless determination to win and his uncompromising attitude towards women, using everything in his arsenal, including masculine wiles, to get his desired outcome. In this instance using the exhilarating car ride, natural charm and Champagne to woo the girl assigned to ascertain his suitability in his role, just so he can pass. Such antics, combined with his professionalism seen in the opening gambit round out the character of Bond for this film – he has the sophistication and wit of Moore, the ruthlessness of Connery and the seriousness of Dalton; nothing really like the Bond of the books, indeed this filmic persona is probably the best incarnation of overall ‘Bondness’ that there ever was, especially for a debut feature and while Danny Craig would come to embody a far closer representation, for the mid-nineties this was pretty darn good. And there was better to come. Following his instincts about Onatopp and rightfully guessing her plans, Bond was just too late to prevent the theft of an electronically shielded French super helicopter and is recalled to MI6 headquarters in London (the actual building in Vauxhall no less) for debriefing. While there he is witness to an assault on a former Soviet satellite tracking station, and from it deduce the existence of a hitherto secret Soviet weapon the GoldenEye; a satellite able to produce an electromagnetic pulse powerful enough to wipe out any non-hardened (or unshielded) electrical devices, essentially laying waste to all electronics, communication or otherwise, in a selected region – and thus extrapolate back to the theft of the helicopter in the first place, leading to a wonderful line from operative Bill Tanner “Seems your hunch was right, 007. It's too bad the Evil Queen of Numbers wouldn't let you play it...” that serves as our introduction of the new M played by Judi Dench, at the time extremely well known as a consummate professional actress with wonderful comic timing – and her casting as M, based on a real life precedent, proved to be an inspired choice. Indeed the very next scene between Bond and M conveys a huge amount of weight and information is just a few lines:
M “You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.”
Bond “The thought had occurred to me.”
M “Good, because I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.”
Bond “Point taken.”
Due to the huge change in the political climate there were very real fears that Bond was becoming outdated and this scene confronts that head on. There was a lot ‘new’ about this film, changing the character of M to a female was in fact small potatoes – what is more interesting is the fact that she is now more driven by intelligence and statistical analysis rather than information gathered by agents. The world was changing to one of digital communication, computer analysts and data manipulation: a place where cyber terrorism was a very real fear (another aspect that the film showcases) and secret agents were becoming a very rare commodity. This clashing of the old and the new in M’s office graphically and neatly provides an opportunity for the film to continue, since it is Bond’s old school knowledge and contacts that are needed to move the investigation forward and M, with the absence of any further data, agrees on this course of action. And in a delicious piece of mirror imaging the Soviet Cabinet discussing the attack and how the ‘old school’ General tenders his resignation to the ‘new guard’ politics – and then, in a later scene, the ‘old school’ shoots back literally!
As mentioned briefly above, computerisation was becoming highly prevalent in the nineties with a fledgling internet and ‘electronic’ mail. Computer hacking was a new crime and one destined to become even more dangerous and commonplace. The computer analyst and programmer were new jobs and for a time highly specialised and the true experts were highly sought after. Computer hackers were, for a time, unchecked and databases were playgrounds for such nefarious characters. It has always struck me as odd that computer hackers are always portrayed in movies as geeky, over the top and over inflated and GoldenEye, being one of the first, is no exception. Boris Grishenko is a terrible character; one dimensional, trite and incredibly annoying. No disrespect to Alan Cumming who was clearly doing what was asked of him, to be an irritating and obnoxious annoyance – he succeeds on all counts. But I’m not actually sure what his character actually brought to the film – he wasn’t needed to steal the GoldenEye itself, he wasn’t needed to set up and programme the new target – yes he was needed to try and break the encryption added as a safeguard in the climax, but surely such a task didn’t need such a prevalent character?
When we come to the main villain of the piece though and the sharp (see what I did there?) twist (that is now all too obvious), Bean’s turncoat British agent is not up there with the Bond Greats. Whilst I like his overall revenge driven motivation exactly why he turns from British agent into revenge seeking megalomaniac and why it takes nine years to bring that motivation to fruition is never fully explained. Indeed Bond, himself, sums up Trevelyan’s grand plan in a simple sentence, “Nothing but a glorified thief”, which, is pretty much spot on. And whilst Goldfinger had similar intent on Fort Knox (yes I know he was going to irradiate the reserves thus increasing his own worth, but we all know he was ‘stealing’ the gold) this plan simply lacks the grand scale – the price you pay for computerisation; miniaturisation I guess. What was really well seen through was the final face-off between Bond and his nemesis: both ‘00’ agents, both highly trained, both, at one time, friends and it gets really ugly. One of those close quarter fights, with knees and elbows set in a confined area, terrific stuff. Not sure how Trevelyan survived that final fall, but at least his death was assured with the collapse of the antenna.
So what of the Bond girl? Taking a leaf out of Dalton’s era there is only one; Natalya Simonova the only survivor of the attack on the Soviet tracking station. I like this character, when introduced she is intelligent and resourceful and she doesn’t really have much time for Boris, which only gets less as the film progresses – much like my own. Her encounter with Bond is one of inopportune timing – both of them are tied in the cockpit of the French helicopter that is set to blow up by launching missiles at itself. Izabella Scorupco puts real vigour into this scene, as she screams at Bond to wake up. And what is nice is there relationship takes time to blossom, initially distrustful but forced to work together for the common good they gradually begin to form more than a working relationship and for once, it's pretty believable. She is in stark contrast to Janssen who she has to share the poster with.
What of the other Bond staple: the gadgets? We do get a visit to Q Branch with the testing of the latest gadgets, but Bond himself uses very few in the film, a laser watch and a grappling belt being just about it. But what I still lament is Q Branch using BMW as their car of choice for Bond. Irks me no end, not least because of its obvious and clear product placement, but more than that Bond looks so much better in an Aston Martin.
In the end I am still undecided on GoldenEye. There is much to like, Brosnan’s interpretation of Bond was terrific, there is plenty of action, the film is set up and plays like a Bond film. But, on the other hand, it lacks the music and the overall feel of a great Bond film. It hasn’t aged particularly well, I remember being very excited up its initial release – and the Nintendo shooter based on the film was a worldwide phenomenon – but looking back at it now it just seems to lack that sparkle. I don’t mind admitting that I felt very little in the way of engagement on this viewing. I love what the film makers did with the franchise in this film, and I like the direction they were taking, but for me, right now, GoldenEye simply doesn’t have what it takes to be counted among the best.