Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein,
from a story by Michael France
Premiered 13 November, 1995
Pierce Brosnan's four-film, seven-year residency in the tux of Britain's greatest spy, James Bond, started off at its very peak, with what I believe to be the longest of all pre-credit sequences at that point in the Bond franchise, and my own personal pick for the single best pre-credit sequence; it is not merely the pinnacle of Brosnan era Bond pictures, but among the best extended moments in the entire history of the character.
Back in the '80s, during the Cold War, Bond sneaks into a Soviet chemical research facility, where he meets up with fellow MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), code name 006; they sneak through the building and banter with the easy familiarity of old friends, preparing to blow the place to hell. They're caught, though, by Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John), who callously puts a bullet in 006's brain, and is about to do the same to 007, though by hiding behind a cart of highly inflammable gas tanks, the spy is able to sneak out, and run like hell to an airplane about to take off; chasing it off a cliff on a motorcycle, he's able to fly away from the facility as it explodes.
If the absolutely tremendous opening to Octopussy can be called the definitive short film guide to the Roger Moore Bond, this GoldenEye opener is even better: it's the definitive guide to all things Bond, past, present, and future. It's bookended by two of the best stunts in the franchise - a bungee jump down the sever concrete face of a gigantic dam, and Bond's dive off a cliff on a motorcycle to catch a plane (the visual effects let this second one down a bit - there is some sneaking about and spying, there's oodles of flippant banter between 006 and 007, a nice vigorous dose of casual brutality for the people still smarting that Timothy Dalton only got two movies, a big fireball for the mindless popcorn action fan, and Brosnan is at his absolute best, cool and witty under fire.
Plus, it's the basis for my favorite level in the N64 game GoldenEye 007, which isn't worth points per se, but I figured we might as well start to the references to The Best First-Person Shooter Ever early, the better to squeeze in as many as I conceivably can.
Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes
I take this one to be divisive; I can recall, certainly when a much younger version of myself had no use for this song at all. But the song "GoldenEye", written by Bono and The Edge and sung by Tina Turner, but it has since grown into one of my very favorites. This has much less to do with the at times nonsensical lyrics (they are high on imagery and finagling the word "GoldenEye" into the line, but low on any sustained emotional message), than with Turner's absolutely perfect performance, low and purring, with a measure of cruelty, and it drips sex. Take note, Gladys Knight and your vanilla "Licence to Kill" - this is how you sing a Bond theme: like one hand is down your pants and the other is on the trigger of a gun. If the word "smokey" has ever been accurately applicable to any song, than it surely applies to this one.
Rating: 4.5 Shirley Basseys
Say what you will about Brosnan's tenure as Bond - and I will join you in much of it - but it was Golden Age for credits sequences. Which I say with all apologies and respect to Maurice Binder, whose work with silhouetted naked women and solid-color backdrops defined so much of the mood of Bond for three decades. But Daniel Kleinman's experiments with computer animation really do take the cake - and we get off to an astoundingly good start with a sequence in which partially clothed or entirely naked (and tastefully shadowed) women stand in a flaming landscape of orange explosions, littered with relics of the USSR; positioned in the film's narrative between 1986 and 1995, this sequence effectively dramatises the downfall of the Soviet empire, with the requisite sexy girls hammering and chipping away, and otherwise dealing with the violence of post-communist, free-for-all Russia. Virtually perfect; my single complaint is the image of a two-faced woman (this ties into the plot), who ejects a gun barrel out of one of her mouths; the design needed at least one more go-round to make her neck not quite so skinny and deformed, and the gun itself protruding from her wide-open jaw is sort of gross. A distasteful, even upsetting image that shaves off that critical half-point.
Rating: 4.5 Silhouetted Women
Fun fact: in my ranking, the top three categories for this movie combine for a higher score than in any Bond film we have looked at, and, unless I have forgotten something significant, than any Bond film yet to come. So, in effect, GoldenEye has the strongest start, visually and aurally, of any Bond movie, though I could certainly do without the horrifying synth-driven remix of Monty Norman's 007 theme that accompanies the spiffy new CGI gun barrel in the opening logo.
That delicious feeling we thus get comes to an abrupt, violent halt, as Bond speeds down a highway with a woman, Caroline (Serena Gordon), assigned by the new head of MI6 to evaluate his skills. It's a desperately perfunctory sequence that becomes even more desperately perfunctory when a woman in a bright red sports car pulls up alongside, challenging Bond to a race; if what follows can be accurately described as a "car chase", then it is among the lamest in English-language cinema.
After sexing up Caroline, Bond follows the sports car woman to a casino in nearby Monte Carlo, learning that she is a certain Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), member of the legendarily secretive Janus syndicate, and she is a poor loser at baccarat. She's also hooked up with a Candian admiral, whom she proceeds to kill during sex by crushing his abdomen between her legs, and from there goes on steal a brand new experimental helicopter along with the now-General Ourumov.
A couple of weeks later, this helicopter is used during an attack on a remote Russian satellite lab, in which Ourumov steals the keys to a device called GoldenEye, an orbiting nuke, essentially, that can generate a big enough electromagnetic pulse to destroy every electronic device in a city. Why a Soviet program would be called - and themed! - GoldenEye is anyone's guess, but "because that was the name of Ian Fleming's home in Jamaica" is a likely candidate. Making this, incidentally, the second Bond film with a title derived from Fleming, but not shared by any of his written works.
Such a big explosion does not go unnoticed, and in London, Bond is assigned to follow up with this matter, having previously been told that tracking the stolen helicopter was not a high priority; and in this he takes some private satisfaction, that he has been able to score a point against the new M (Judi Dench), whom he regards as a statistics-driven prig with no real sense for the spy game.
In Moscow, Bond meets up with CIA operative Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), who puts him in touch with Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a Russian mafioso with some knowledge of Janus; this goes nowhere, but it sets enough of an alarm that Onatopp shows up to kill Bond; he overpowers her and she leads him to Janus, who turns out to be none other than a very much not dead Alec Trevelyan, who nurses a grudge against Great Britain for killing his people (he is descended from a Nazi-aiding anti-communist population of Cossacks), and an even more specific grudge against Bond for letting him die in that explosion, failing to note that Bond already took him for dead, and if you can't count on a Bond villain for being rational, who can you count on?
Bond is captured and set in a death trap with Natlya Fyodorovna Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), the only survivor of the attack on the GoldenEye facility; they're able to escape at the very last second and track Trevelyan to his armored train (after a spectacular escape from Russian police), where they fail to stop him, but do figure out that his ultimate base of operations is in Cuba - a giant satellite facility (played by the truly spectacular radio telescope dish at Arecibo, Puerto Rico) where he plans to deploy the second GoldenEye satellite to wipe out London, triggering a worldwide financial collapse, and much more importantly, get his revenge on the country towards which he has been nursing such a fanatical hatred for his whole life.
It's all a bit more convoluted than it needs to be, but there's stuff in here that works awfully well: everything up until Bond encounters Trevelyan is some of the best spying-as-spying in the series, not quite up to the level set by Dalton's films, but surely better than the Moore and Connery eras, in which the plots mostly consisted of "find the villain's splashy base, and engage in taunting mind games with him". And once it kicks into the more conventionally Bondish world-threatening plot, it continues to go well, with the plot being sufficiently elaborate and sci-fi inflected to seem melodramatic, but not so crazy that it tips into rancid "let's set off earthquakes and flood California!" awfulness.
On the other hand, there is so much extraneous material: the whole Monte Carlo sequence and the stolen helicopter that ends up being just a tertiary part of the villainous plot; the tour of post-communist Moscow, which is mired in the film's general scheme of trying way too hard to be self-consciously post- Cold War. And why the film has to grind to a complete stop between Monte Carlo and Moscow, I cannot say, unless it's to give Bond and M a chance to snarl at each other for a bit. Generally strong, and miles better than anything else in Brosnan's career, but there are clumsy patches. It's not a tremendously good sign that the plot flows much better, has swifter momentum, and generally makes more sense, when it's being used in a damn video game.
Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes
If anything in this review goes strongly against what I perceive to be the conventional wisdom, it's this: Alec Trevelyan is a great villain. Just plain great. Setting aside how unbelievably shocking it is for Sean Bean to play a character who starts off as a good guy but turns out to be a villain, it's a top-notch performance: a variant on Bond's own persona that gives us a good sense of the kind of person apt to seek employ in MI6, while also suggesting what Bond himself might look like if he was broken in some important way. I adore Trevelyan's backstory: simultaneously grandiose and petty, and unlike the more common Bond villain, whose world-dominating plots often seem like something hatched up during a post-lunch nap ("Man, I'm tired of simply being rich - maybe I'll build a fleet of space shuttles to help create a race of eugenically pure superpeople"), there's enough actual, recognisable human emotion involved that the shape, if not the scale, of his rage is easy to comprehend. He also gets a fuckton of amazing bad guy one-liners, of which I will share only my favorite: "Mr Bond here will have a small memorial service with only Moneypenny and a few tearful restaurateurs in attendance."
Rating: 4.5 Evil Cats
Credit must go to Scorupco in one regard: in a film with more terrible Rooshin accents even than most actual Cold War-era thrillers, she has, by far, the least odious one, though to compensate, she occasionally drops it (I imagine that being Polish helped out with this considerably).
I guess that's kind of a meanish way to start. She's actually pretty good, given the script, and the character as written isn't dreadful: the biggest problem with her is that she's part of the film's desperate "update Bond to the 1990s" program, which in this case consists of Natalya glaring at Bond and fuming about the senseless violence of it all. And calling him on being a chauvinist. Which is fine - I enjoy it throughly when Bond Girls call Bond on his shit - but it's sort of the only personality she has, even as she manages to be something of an action heroine (unlike many Bond Girls, she has a vital role to play in the solving of the plot, and gets the "tied up damsel" routine taken care of long before the climax). The distinct impression I get is that the screenwriters wanted very much to avoid the classic Bond Girl cooing and sex object-ness, but didn't quite know what else to do, and so she never really emerges as anything more than a plot point that Bond has sex with - an essential plot point, but it's not the same as being a person.
Better, though, than in the GoldenEye game, where she's part of one of those hellish "keep the NPC character alive" quests, made several times more obnoxious because of the unseemly glee with which she keeps walking in front of your fucking gun, and just lets you fucking shoot her, because AI was not at its peak in the mid-'90s on 64-bit machines.
Also, she has unfortunate hair, which doesn't actually mean anything, but it kept distracting me.
Rating: 3 White Bikinis
We got a proper little army going, and all of them kind of suck: the low-hanging fruit is Ourumov, a vacant military suit played and written without distinction, who exists just to move the plot forward.
Then comes Xenia Onatopp, who is the first woman with a lurid sexual pun for a name in quite a long time; and man, how lurid it is! Particularly coupled with the gaudy gimmick of killing people with her thighs, and reaching orgasm at the moment she kills. I do not, necessarily, mean "gaudy" and "lurid" in a bad sense, particularly since GoldenEye is, overall, so nervous about being seen as sexist and old-fashioned, and having such a ripe, misogynist character as this is kind of a relief from too much respectability. It helps that Famke Janssen is particularly hot, and a fairly decent actress - though her attempt at a Georgian accent is hilariously atrocious, the worst accent in the movie just as surely as Scorupco's is the best - but the character is still awfully silly, the most Roger Moore-ish element in a film that evades them.
Last up is Boris Grishenko, a smutty computer programmer played with intense self-amusement by Alan Cumming, whose accent is pretty bad itself - his catchphrase, "I am invincible!" is just begging to have that "v" replaced with an Ensign Chekov "w" - and whose characterisation is far too smug and slimy to allow for the comic relief that he is nominally there to provide. Even Trevelyan looks happy when he gets smacked at one point.
Rating: 2 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL
Xenia Onatopp is frequently cited as the adjunct Bond Girl, including on the poster and video covers, but that's plainly not right; she's a villain, and Bond never sleeps with her. I very nearly checked this one off as a missing category for the film, but then there's Caroline, the flighty MI6 observer from that tepid car chase at the start of the movie: Bond's only other sex partner in a movie that clearly wants to roll back on the "Bond has all the sex" shenanigans that the series was known for. Because we don't do that in the '90s.
And having made that choice, I'm stuck with her, one of the most disposable iterations of a character designed from the ground up to be disposable. She does nothing but act nervous and say banal things, and stare like a nervous bunny rabbit, and by the time her scene is over, you've already started to forget she exists.
Rating: 1.5 Golden Corpses
Let us imagine that you are 12-year-old boy tasked with putting the MOST AWESOME thing into a Bond movie. Do you put in a tank chase through the streets of Moscow? Because that is exactly what GoldenEye comes up with, and it is the MOST AWESOME, so if you didn't say that, you were wrong. Seriously, to the degree that these films are, ultimately, fantasy movies and lifestyle porn for adolescents, the tank chase through Moscow is the franchise's crowning achievement; and, blessedly, since it was shot in 1995, director Martin Campbell makes damn sure that the action is physically continuous, and easy to follow, and it goes on for a long time without losing its energy, so we have plenty of time to enjoy just how delightfully big and dumb and fun the whole thing is. Add the terrific opening sequence, and we have us one hell of a great action movie, right?
Well, not as much as all that. To balance things out, there's also some dreadful material: Bond's fight with Onatopp in a sauna is a humiliation, and his chase with Trevelyan on top of the satellite rig, while better, is marred by clumsy editing and effects and weak fight choreography. The initial car chase, I have already alluded to as being unspeakably lame.
A mix of supremely high highs and supremely low lows, then; make no mistake, the highs linger more than the lows do. But the lows exist, and that's all it takes to cost a perfect score.
Rating: 4 Walther PPKs
Not just my all-time favorite gadget in the franchise: my two all-time favorite gadgets, though in one case, it's for a really bad reason: in this movie, Bond's watch (an Omega, owing to a new product placement deal) has a laser in it, and at one point the spy has to carve away a hole in the bottom of an armor-plated train car while a clock is ticking, and the equivalent moment in the video game is my very favorite part of the whole thing. Which tells you all you could ever need to know about my personality as a video game player.
The other is a little pen grenade: click it three times to arm it with a four-second fuse, click it three more times to turn it off. It occurs to me that I don't know what the name of the clicker-button is called. The bit that you click to make the writing tip come out or recede. I have literally no idea why I love this thing so much, but even today, 17 whole years after the movie came out, I will still sometimes, when I am bored, click a pen three times, and pretend that I have just armed a bomb, and throw it. Which tells you all you could ever need to know about my personality as a 30-year-old human being.
Incidentally, both of these devices are used in scenes constructed according to thriller rules, not action rules; and in both of them, Campbell further distinguishes himself as a rather nice director of tightly-paced thrillers.
There are other toys: a grappling-hook belt, and a fancy new weapon-ready BMW Z3 that we never see do anything, and shows up onscreen just long enough for the producers to receive what I imagine was an offensively large check from BMW.
By the way, you know who gets to do any say absolutely nothing that is even a little bit amusing or useful? Desmond Llewelyn. But still, grenade pen, so I don't care.
Rating: 5 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Production designer Peter Lamont remains hamstrung by scripts that don't let him go nuts with big sprawling nightmares of sets, but at least we're back to "impossibly large object rising out of a watery hidey-hole" territory, and the inside of Trevelyan's secret base at the end is a sleek, shiny control room with a great big glowing board. Not imaginative - it looks kind of like NASA mission control on speed - but impressive for what it is. There is, however, one truly magnificent location: the misty graveyard of broken Soviet statues where Bond meets the still-living Trevelyan for the first time, a location that deserved a more Expressionist, moody film than a spy thriller.
Also, I have to say this part: the sets are re-created in some startlingly exact detail in the video game, and they are really goddamn cool there - I mean, generationally-defining video game level cool, sort of cool. I won't let that be a reason to add points, but don't think I wasn't tempted.
Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Anything would have been a step in the right direction after the pointedly inelegant Licence to Kill, and GoldenEye gets off to a promising start by showing Bond driving an Aston Martin DB5 - the lifestyle porn Bond car to rule them all - in that same crappy car chase. And while there's something pandering about it, the fact that it had been, at this point, fully thirty years since Bond's last DB5 makes the pandering okay. And then Bond immediately heads to Monte Carlo and plays baccarat, which is also pandering, and also the sort of pandering that works.
And while that gets us off to a good start, it's not sustained: GoldenEye is so anxious to deprive Bond of any fun that the rest of the movie stops even trying. Brosnan would prove multiple times during his tenure that he could be a damn classy man, but it doesn't quite show up all the way here.
Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Immediately after ordering a vodka martini and winning at baccarat, the spy introduces himself to Onatopp.
Forced or Badass? Though it is no fault of Brosnan, who undersells it as much as he can, the whole moment is so "look at the Bond tropes! Bond is back!" that it's very forced.
ONATOPP: "You don't need the gun, Commander."
BOND: "Well, that depends on your definition of safe sex."
Licence to Kill promised, in 1989, that "James Bond Will Return", but he very nearly did not: the whole story is told elsewhere, but basically between the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a legal dispute between Danjaq (the holding company of Eon Productions) and MGM, the series was in mortal jeopardy, with a six-year gap that remains, at this writing, the longest break in the series by some two and a half years, that threatened to destroy whatever popular interest in the character that remained.. Timothy Dalton either grew bored of waiting or was asked to leave so that there could be a fresh start, depending on which version of the story you like; so when all the wrangling was done and a script had been written that addressed the seismic political changes of the early 1990s, a new Bond was needed.
Albert R. Broccoli found one in the form of Pierce Brosnan, who was the next option after Dalton when Roger Moore left; and when Bond returned in 1995, the meaner, darker, crueler version of the character that had informed The Living Daylights and dominated Licence to Kill was replaced with, effectively Roger Moore mk. 2 - it being the ossified wisdom already that it was precisely that same meanness and darkness that had led to the '89 film being one of the lowest-performing movies in the franchise's history. But not a flop; that is entirely an exaggeration.
Brosnan's Bond, to me, is the hardest to get a handle on, especially because of the gulf separating his first movie from the others. GoldenEye is a fantastic Bond movie, a damn good action movie, and a virtually perfect mixture of the fluffy esapism of the early Moore films and the grounded spy action of the Dalton films; the next three range from draggy mediocrity to outright putridity. That's not necessarily a reflection on the actor's performance; a similarly epic drop in quality occurred between the first and second Daniel Craig Bond pictures, but Craig himself remained very nearly at the same level of accomplishment. Brosnan did not: more than any other actor to portray Bond in multiple films, he never settled on one interpretation. If every other Bond is a "type" - Connery the Gentleman Bastard; Lazenby the Sensitive Warrior; Moore the Jolly Government Employee; Dalton the Cold Killer; Craig the Soulful Thug - Brosnan never breaks down into something so basic. The impression I always got was of an actor who wanted to play a more elegant version of the Dalton Bond, but kept getting saddled with Roger Moore scripts that he didn't particularly enjoy.
We'll get there soon enough: as it happens, GoldenEye is enough closer to the Dalton model than the Moore model that it's the one and only film where Brosnan's indecisive borrowing from Dalton actually works to its overall benefit. The lingering stench of his last two movies had made me forget just how much I actually do love this film: it is broad enough to be fun, serious enough to have real dramatic stakes, and Martin Campbell, as was confirmed eleven years later with the even better Casino Royale, is an absolutely brilliant James Bond director, maybe even the best since Terence Young himself. When the time comes to foreground the over-the-top action, Campbell (or, anyway, his second unit) present it with enough stripped-down focus that it never seems ridiculous, the bane of Lewis Gilbert, but he's willing to slow the movie down to let the puns and witticisms blossom, something that John Glen was only able to do intermittently. He's a whiz at ticking-clock scenarios, and for all that the films are often described as "James Bond thrillers", not a single one of them prior to 1995 was as effectively or consistently suspenseful as GoldenEye, maybe the only Bond film for which the word "thriller" honestly deserves to apply.
It helps that he has a nifty script: though padded (the last Bond movie without any lard being well back into the '60s), there's enough incident that it movies quickly. And the attempts to justify Bond for the 1990s, though frequently much too on-the-nose, set it apart from the movies that failed to justify him for the 1970s, or didn't attempt to justify him for the 1980s. It helps that the film's most overt scene, the famous "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" encounter with M, is anchored by Judi Dench's scorching, wildly effective take on the character; while no-one will ever replace Bernard Lee in my affection, Dench comes extremely close, getting just one scene to be at once savage and competent, a firm, unyielding wall for Bond to run up against, and her hesitant delivery of the character's last line - hoping that Bond does not die on his mission - is perfection itself, in one short sentence revealing that underneath this harsh, commanding persona as the boss, there is a feeling person. She's so perfect that the slighting of Q, and the underwhelming new Moneypenny, Samantha Bond - she'd grow into the character, but here cannot find any balance between powerful '90s woman and flirtatious co-worker - don't even register as problems.
Yes, the constant "post-fall Russia" plot points do get a bit thick, but not beyond the limits of what a popcorn movie for the broadest possible audience can support; and it reveals an intelligence about the sociopolitical state of the modern world that I would never expect a movie of its scale and market quadrant to attempt today.
The one significant, unanswerable problem - the same one that nearly torpedoed For Your Eyes Only - is the score. Beginning with the grisly re-orchestration of the Bond theme at the very start, Eric Serra's attempt at setting Bond's adventures to music runs into problems from the very first, and never lets up. The GoldenEye game used the same cues to terrific effect; but for the most part, they sound exactly the same there as in the movie proper, and what works for a 64-bit video game in 1997 is of a considerably more synthetic nature than you could possibly get away with in a movie in 1995. Certain passages are so electronic, so plonking, so insubstantial, that I cannot imagine what, other than rock-solid release date obligations, could have permitted the producers to allow the thing into theaters without a massive overhaul. Tellingly, one piece was composed by John Altman: a rollicking, driving arrangement of the Bond theme used during the tank chase, sonically assuring us that this is Bond as his most quintessential, and doing all in its power to combat the anonymous, grating noise on display everywhere else in the movie.
Unsurprisingly, Serra was not invited back; the one way in which all of GoldenEye's successors significantly and objectively improved upon it. For, frustratingly, while this film was a smash hit that brought Bond back to life in a great big enjoyable way, none of its promises paid off: the series immediately lurched towards disastrous plots, increasingly ludicrous fantasy elements, and the appealing mixture of intensity and flippancy that made Brosnan work well in this case collapsed. GoldenEye might have resuscitated 007 at his most dangerous low, but none of the lessons it taught were properly appreciated for a long time.