Few movie franchises are as enduring and influential as the James Bond films. From the early days of Dr. No and From Russia with Love to the modern incarnations including Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, James Bond has been a fixture in worldwide cinema for almost 50 years. But in 1995, things were looking rather uncertain for the storied franchise. The previous film, License to Kill, bombed at the box office and audiences and critics were leery of Timothy Dalton’s uncharismatic portrayal of the iconic secret agent. Meanwhile MGM studios, who owned the rights to the films, was in the middle of financial turmoil and legal disputes. Soon Dalton, who was originally cast to play Bond once again, resigned and was replaced by Pierce Brosnan–a British actor who was virtually unknown to American audiences. The original story for the film was scrapped and instead an original plot was written–the first time a Bond movie had been filmed which was not based on one of Ian Fleming’s novels. The resulting film was widely seen as a successful reboot of the franchise in decline, and Brosnan went on to star in three subsequent Bond films as the titular character.
I must admit my knowledge of James Bond movies is somewhat limited, having seen all the recent incarnations since Goldeneye, but only brief snippets of the classic Sean Connery and Roger Moore films. Even so, I know a good action movie when I see one, and on all accounts Goldeneye does not disappoint. From the opening 750-foot bungee jump to the climactic battle on the largest radio telescope in the world, the film is brimming with high-intensity setpieces and explosive conflicts. The storyline is as convoluted as ever–something about a magical satellite that fries computers that has been hijacked by Russians, then re-hijacked by a rogue MI6 agent who wants to take down the city of London for some reason. Halfway through the film you will want to just stop thinking entirely and enjoy the ride, which is probably the best way to enjoy most films like this. There’s also a checklist of Bond prerequisites like a gadget exposition scene with Q, heady personality conflicts between Bond and his boss M (played for the first time by a woman, the classy British dame Judy Dench), car chases, and double-crossing women. But director Martin Campbell (who would later helm Casino Royale with Daniel Craig) goes entirely for broke with a few over-the-top scenes like a blistering tank chase through St. Petersburg and a stunt near the beginning involving a motorcycle and a runaway Cessena airplane that is so ridiculous, yet strangely compelling, that you can’t help but enjoy it.
Much of the success of Goldeneye rests on the shoulders of Brosnan, who handles his leading man duties with aplomb and is nearly dripping with panache in the classic Bond tuxedo. He fills the shoes left by his predecessors quite well, and brings his own winking charm and charisma to the role as well. But the character of James Bond wears somewhat thin by the end of the film, and comes across as more of a cartoon than a character with whom we can relate. He flies planes, drives tanks, and handles all manner of weaponry so smoothly it’s almost annoying, as if this super-spy can do absolutely no wrong. Between that and his ability to woo any woman he chooses, Goldeneye is a prime example of escapist male fantasy. But faulting a James Bond film for being over-the-top is like faulting a Toyota Prius for being too fuel-efficient.
Aside from Brosnan, the supporting cast does an admirable job of portraying their one-dimensional characters. Sean Bean plays the same character as in most of his movies: The Bad Guy Who Sneers. In this case it’s the sinister Alec Trevelyan, a former MI6 agent gone sour with some post-teenage angst issues that call for some serious counseling. Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco have the thankless task of portraying this film’s female window dressing, and Robbie Coltrane steals every scene he’s in as the mafia boss Valentin Zukovsky. And while the storyline is convoluted and, at times, undecipherable, it walks a fine line between realistic and outlandish–no heroes dangling over pits of alligators, or megalomaniacal monologuing from the villain, but plenty of unbelievable scenarios peppered by self-deprecating winks that ensure the film resides firmly within the James Bond universe.
Goldeneye essentially accomplished what it set out to do: reinvent the Bond franchise for a new generation, with a slick new star, witty script, and dazzling effects (the St. Petersburg chase is all the more remarkable given that this was filmed before the advent of computer graphics. Everything in the film really is blown up or destroyed, even if it’s just a model). It became the highest-grossing Bond film up to that point, and set the tone for the franchise for the next decade. And after seeing Daniel Craig’s moody, boorish portrayal of the spy with a license to kill, watching Goldeneye makes me hope Mr. Craig is out there somewhere taking notes.
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