Viking Night: GoldenEye
By Bruce Hall
January 10, 2018
You have no idea how excited I was for GoldenEye. The early Nineties were what we in the James Bond Historical Society call “The Dark Times”. From this period I can recall only a couple of weird-ass video games and a vomitous cartoon called James Bond Junior. I might not have the details right, but I believe it involved said character in high school, along with several famous henchmen from the film series - all in teenage form.
Anyone who wants to tell me God never takes a day off needs to watch a few minutes of James Bond Junior.
And then, a miracle. A new film was announced, a new Bond was named, and the lawyers scurried back underneath whichever appliance they live underneath during the day. Like everyone, I was probably a little too excited to see Pierce Brosnan inherit the role we’d all assumed by then was his birthright. Surely he’d been born with a tiny 007-shaped birthmark on his head, and would now reinvigorate this dusty, moribund franchise. It was a foregone conclusion that Bond would be reborn. But would he be reborn successfully?
Oh, God yes. Today we’ve come to expect a more “grounded” approach to our action heroes. But at the time of GoldenEye, James Bond was still the smirking, sociopathic lothario I’d fallen in love with in grade school. This version of the character is not that hard to play. Dalton might have pulled it off, and in retrospect Brosnan may have seemed almost too comfortable for his first time out.
No, what GoldenEye needed to get right more than anything was just where the hell James Bond was going to fit into this new world. It might help you to think of 1995 as a toddler version of 2018. Computers were already everywhere. The Internet was definitely (hey kids!) a thing. Spoiled teenagers were starting to get cell phones on their birthdays. I don’t know about you, but I was already sick of the 24-hour news cycle.
And in a strange twist of fate the President of the United States was, even then, a smirking, sociopathic lothario with weird hair.
But that’s not all. This was the first of these films to seriously wonder whether the character himself was even still relevant. And I’m not just talking about whether or not Bond should still be hitting women, because he totally does that in GoldenEye. I’m talking about what to do with a character as inherently implausible as James Bond in a world where everyone has email, supervillain-class lasers actually exist, and women are allowed to be your boss?
The correct answer is of course, “a little bit of everything”. That’s a lot of plates to spin, and not only does GoldenEye still spin them well, it still looks good doing it. Brosnan is introduced in arguably the franchise’s best opening to date. The film boasts one of my favorite of all the series’ opening title sequences. And while she’s not entirely in vintage form, Tina Turner’s theme song is loads better than anything ten years on either side of it.
Better still, there’s still room for Bond to be himself in the grungy Nineties. The legendary dressing down he receives upon meeting his new boss (Judi Dench) is one of the best things ever filmed. It’s also the closest we’re ever going to see 007 come to getting in trouble with Human Resources. There’s a new Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) who isn’t afraid to remind him of this, and Desmond Llewelyn reprises his role as Q, dispenser of gadgets.
Thankfully although the plot leans heavily on technology, it also relies more on Bond’s ingenuity and luck than it does on gadgets. Oddly enough, to get too much into it would spoil it, but if I did you probably wouldn’t remember it anyway. It has to do with an old friend of Bond’s, fellow agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) and his apparent death during the spectacular mission that starts the film. Alec is shot by a corrupt Russian Colonel named Ourumov (Gottfried John).
Bond of course blames himself. But because post traumatic stress doesn’t exist in this world, it merely manifests itself as a bit of surliness when (now General) Ourumov’s name comes up years later in connection with a new case. While investigating a mysterious new crime syndicate, Bond encounters the General’s deadly henchwoman Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), as well as a plot to steal a top secret stealth helicopter from the French Navy (I’ll let you make your own jokes).
There’s more, but it amounts to “something something computers jet planes fistfight”. What’s more important is that you’re never bored with Goldeneye. Whether or not the plot machinations make sense to you, it’s hard not to enjoy what is a very good cast in an occasionally silly movie that takes itself much more seriously than I remembered. GoldenEye addresses the issue of Bond’s professional relationships early and head on - and earns a great deal of credibility in the process. Bond is still a prick, but he now keeps his hands to himself in the workplace and saves the bulk of his misogyny for the girls who are trying to kill him.
Building on this foundation, 007’s primary “love” interest (Izabella Scorupco) does have a brain and does play a critical role in the story. In fact she’s a computer programmer and the film makes a sincere effort for this to appear plausible. Scorupco and Alan Cumming (X-Men, Spy Kids) are clearly meant to appeal to a young (hey kids!), tech-savvy demographic and since I was personally a part of that demographic I can report to you that it totally worked.
What works less well is Joe Don Baker as bond’s goofball counterpart in the CIA. If you’ll recall, Baker also played the (worst) villain in The Living Daylights, a role for which he was badly miscast. There’s nothing wrong with him this time around except that wait wasn’t he the main villain just two movies ago? Okay, maybe it doesn’t mean anything a quarter century later. But to put it in context, tt would be like casting Javier Bardem as a wacky cab driver in Spectre.
Which, now that I think about it, might have improved things considerably.
Finally, I should point out how impressed I was with the visual effects. GoldenEye lives in that period where CGI best used as garnish to a main dish of practical effects and miniatures. So yes, they really did drive a tank through St. Petersburg. And yes, the jet fighters that appear during a critical action sequence look just a wee bit digital (by that I mean “totally and in every way”). And yes, there is a lot of miniature work and it’s obvious, but it’s also obviously good. If there are seams showing today I can’t blame the quality of the work, which is all top notch for the time.
Simply put, I still have a lot of love for GoldenEye. And it’s not just because I know that the three films after it get worse, before culminating in an abomination that makes Moonraker look like an act of restraint. It’s because it’s a genuinely good action movie with a genuinely good cast and a slick, contemporary story.
But mainly it’s because GoldenEye gets being a Bond film very right - while taking much needed steps to move past some things that were very wrong.