Before “reboot” entered the pop culture lexicon, there was “GoldenEye.”
The movie is one of the absolute best of the entire James Bond series, due in no small part to a terrific character-heavy script from Michael France, Jeffrey Caine, and Bruce Feirstein.
Brosnan, Pierce Brosnan
Brosnan finally got his crack at Bond, and he does a solid job in this first outing. He was in a pickle because he had to interpret Bond on the heels of four previous incarnations. The choice to make him more steely than Dalton, and with the edge of Connery, comes off very well.
His movements are precise and calculated. He takes a firm hand, so to speak, with the ladies. He’s smart. He’s strong. He has no compunction about shooting anyone he needs to. I can see why some might feel his interpretation is a bit cold, but various sources indicate the script was written with Connery in mind. While Connery had a warmth and charm, Brosnan dispenses with that. Instead he captures the more ice-veined killer we saw flashes of in the early Bond movies. Even 006 needles him, asking him about the “screams from all the women he failed to save.”
Brosnan totally delivers here, and if you’ve seen him in his non-Bond films, such as “The Tailor of Panama,” you realize he’s a terrific actor who elevates the series in this outing.
Story and Characters
GoldenEye has a tight script and a solid theme running through it for the first time in ages. The seven-year interval since “Licence to Kill” meant the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the idea of Bond becoming obsolete is echoed repeatedly through the film. Even the opening credits, with its haunting Soviet imagery, works well. The best scene in this regard takes place in the crumbling cemetery of Soviet statues where 006 mocks Bond.
Indeed, there are many jokes made at the expense of Bond traditions – a dicey maneuver when dealing with an icon – but if there was a time to do it, it was now. You have to like the idea, and the irony, of Bond being crushed between Xenia Onnatopp’s thighs. And he gets a literal bitchsmacking from the new M, played by Judi Dench. It’s a great scene where he enters her office to find that M has changed, along with where the spirits are kept, and that M tells him both what he’s thinking and what she’s thinking. Ouch.
Speaking of which, this has the best dialogue of any Bond film to date. It’s written just as it should be – intelligent, never condescending to the audience, not overdone with one-liners, and the scenes have substance and subtext to them.
The supporting characters are all terrific. We get a Russian general who not only boldly executes Trevelyan’s plan, but actually shoots the Russian Defense Minister to do it! Alec Cumming’s bratty computer geek makes the most of his screen time. Famke Janssen’s Xenia is both smoking hot and lethal, like all great Bond femme fatales. The bath scene/attack is terrific, with a great line from Bond (“That depends on your definition of safe sex”), and her murder of the Tiger pilot is classic Bond.
The scene where she kills everyone in the Siberian GoldenEye station is great, but that the filmmakers add a shot where the Russian General gives her a look of shocked puzzlement at her obvious sexual glee is a great touch.
And how could I have forgotten about the stunningly beautiful Izabella Scorupco as Natalya? This woman is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and a good actress to boot. She’s certainly worth chasing, and when Bond does so in a tank, the wide smile on her face in the back of the Russian General’s car, watching James Bond demolish everything in his path to get to her is priceless. It’s every girl’s dream.
And of course we get Joe Don Baker as CIA agent Jack Wade, replacing Felix Leiter (having a leg chewed off by a shark isn’t good for one’s career). Baker, who played the villain in “The Living Daylights,” offers a nice change of pace for the depiction of Americans in the Bond films. Yes, he’s loud and boisterous, but we know that Bond can count on him.
The story is believable. No more cackling villains. The story is grounded in reality, with a then-original idea of an EMP as a weapon of mass destruction. There isn’t too much that strains credibility. There’s a solid backstory given to 006/Trevelyan, he of Cossack descent, and his grudge against the UK for abandoning his people. It’s a great concept to think that a guy would be so consumed by revenge that he would join the elite spy agency of his enemy, work his way patiently to the height of power, and then pull off his coup. That’s the kind of villain the Bond series needed again, and the confrontation in the cemetery is richly detailed.
There are echoes of Dr. No – a man without a country – and even a bit of Telly Savalas’ Blofeld here. It’s welcome, because it’s about character.
The opening scene in the Soviet chemical weapons facility is nifty for all the right reasons. It starts with a great stunt dive off the dam, gives us pieces of Brosnan before offering us the full reveal, has a terrific shootout with an unexpected (though fake) death of a fellow double-0 (which we’d never seen), and ends with a bang. It never lets up from there, and every action scene is explosive, exciting, and suspenseful.
There are great lessons here in screenwriting. The movie unfolds nicely from scene to scene. There are no logic bumps. Everything happens for a reason. The theme reappears consistently throughout the movie.
Everything is done with precision and flair. There are no clumsy stunts, cheap sets or muddy visuals. I want to call particular attention to the outstanding cinematography and production design. In this scene with M, for example, note the sharp outlines and edges. This is both an effect of lighting and of contemporary choices in décor. Also note the lighting sources in the wider shots. This is very creative use of light, very unusual compared to all previous Bond films. Note the dramatic lighting in this scene. It’s very unusual for a Bond film. All the same apply in this scene, but this scene also shows how crisply directed and edited the film is. Note how the camera is always positioned to pick up every piece of action. Simple close-ups or over-the-shoulders are either shot from a more interesting angle or have some movement associated with them.
Indeed, director Martin Campbell keeps his camera moving throughout the film. In the linked scene, this moving camera keeps the energy and tension of the scene alive. The editing makes a big difference, too. There are no wasted shots. It’s very reminiscent of director John Glen’s best Bond work, such as “For Your Eyes Only.”
The only thing that really didn’t play for me was Eric Serra’s score. It didn’t feel at all like a Bond film. His best work is from Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” but the score is just too conventional and feels out of place here.
Although my memory tells me that Brosnan’s films decline in quality from here, I was totally satisfied by this entry, and even surprised at how good it was.
FOUR STARS for “GoldenEye.”
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
“The Living Daylights”
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"Never Say Never Again"
“Licence to Kill”
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"
James Bond will return in “Tomorrow Never Dies”